Christ’s Harrowing of Hell in “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”

Tom Bombadil’s rescue of the hobbits from the Barrow-wights contains a great image (and somewhat humorous interpretation) of a classic scene in Christian history and theology, Christ’s “harrowing of hell” of his saints (as well as of the future resurrection of the dead):

There was a loud rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, and suddenly light streamed in, real light, the plain light of day. A low door-like opening appeared at the end of the chamber beyond Frodo’s feet; and there was Tom’s head (hat, feather, and all) framed against the light of the sun rising red behind him. The light fell upon the floor, and upon the faces of the three hobbits lying beside Frodo. They did not stir, but the sickly hue had left them. They looked now as if they were only very deeply asleep.

Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!

Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,

Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!

Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!

Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,

Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.

At these words there was a cry and part of the inner end of the chamber fell in with a crash. Then there was a long trailing shriek, fading away into an unguessable distance; and after that silence.

‘Come, friend Frodo!’ said Tom. ‘Let us get out on to clean grass! You must help me bear them.’

The Kenosis of Aragorn

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 6

In the Appendix A account of Thorongil/Aragorn, the statement that the latter was not “holding himself higher than the servant of his [Denethor’s] father” is evocative of the Apostle Paul’s discussion of the kenosis (“self-emptying”) of Christ in Philippians 2:5-11:

“Let this mind be be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

We’ve already noted Aragorn’s kenosis in The Lord of the Rings in his being the suffering servant, “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53), in Bree, but we might also mention here his entering his kingdom (Gondor) through his own act of “obedience unto death” (following the Paths of the Dead), as well as his camping outside Minas Tirith as a stranger even after bringing victory and healing to the city (cp. Hebrews 13:12). Like Christ, Aragorn becomes a king only after first becoming an obedient and dying servant.

“A Disciple is Not Greater than His Master”: Frodo and Aragorn

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 4

Some more observations on Appendix A’s account of “Thorongil.” Thorongil’s departure from both his friends and from Gondor on the shores of Anduin while he set “his face towards the Mountains of Shadow” adds some additional perspective and pathos to what is essentially Frodo’s recapitulation of that same act at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, as well as to Aragorn’s decision not to follow Frodo (and Sam) but to rescue Merry and Pippin instead. Frodo, as it turns out, is having to do what Aragorn did before him (and Aragorn, accordingly, is having to let Frodo do what he did before him). Observe Sam’s summary of Frodo’s dilemma and Aragorn’s response:

‘Begging your pardon,’ said Sam. ‘I don’t think you understand my master at all. He isn’t hesitating about which way to go. Of course not! What’s the good of Minas Tirith anyway? To him, I mean, begging your pardon, Master Boromir,’ he added, and turned. It was then that they discovered that Boromir, who at first had been sitting silent on the outside of the circle, was no longer there.
`Now where’s he got to? ‘ cried Sam, looking worried. ‘He’s been a bit queer lately, to my mind. But anyway he’s not in this business. He’s off to his home, as he always said; and no blame to him. But Mr. Frodo, he knows he’s got to find the Cracks of Doom, if he can. But he’s afraid. Now it’s come to the point, he’s just plain terrified. That’s what his trouble is. Of course he’s had a bit of schooling, so to speak-we all have-since we left home, or he’d be so terrified he’d just fling the Ring in the River and bolt. But he’s still too frightened to start. And he isn’t worrying about us either: whether we’ll go along with him or no. He knows we mean to. That’s another thing that’s bothering him. If he screws himself up to go, he’ll want to go alone. Mark my words! We’re going to have trouble when he comes back. For he’ll screw himself up all right, as sure as his name’s Baggins.’
‘I believe you speak more wisely than any of us, Sam,’ said Aragorn. `And what shall we do, if you prove right? ‘
‘Stop him! Don’t let him go! ‘ cried Pippin.
‘I wonder? ‘ said Aragorn. `He is the Bearer, and the fate of the Burden is on him. I do not think that it is our part to drive him one way or the other. Nor do I think that we should succeed, if we tried. There are other powers at work far stronger.’ (“Breaking of the Fellowship”)

Frodo, as a kind of disciple of Aragorn, is having to take up Aragorn’s “cross,” as it were, turning his back on his friends (and hence on Gondor) as he turns his face towards Mordor. Later, Aragorn gives this account of Frodo’s purpose which we may presume to give us an insight into what his own thinking was in departing from his companions and from his ministry in Gondor so many years earlier:

I met Sam going up the hill and told him to follow me; but plainly he did not do so. He guessed his master’s mind and came back here before Frodo had gone. He did not find it easy to leave Sam behind!’ ‘But why should he leave us behind, and without a word?’ said Gimli. ‘That was a strange deed!’ ‘And a brave deed,’ said Aragorn. ‘Sam was right, I think. Frodo did not wish to lead any friend to death with him in Mordor. (“The Departure of Boromir”)

Finally, we have Aragorn’s decision not to follow Frodo but to rescue Merry and Pippen. Again, I’m suggesting that, in light of Appendix A, we may read Aragorn’s own personal history and experience as part of the relevant context:

‘Let me think!’ said Aragorn. ‘And now may I make a right choice and change the evil fate of this unhappy day!’ He stood silent for a moment. ‘I will follow the Orcs,’ he said at last. ‘I would have guided Frodo to Mordor and gone with him to the end; but if I seek him now in the wilderness, I must abandon the captives to torment and death. My heart speaks clearly at last: the fate of the Bearer is in my hands no longer. The Company has played its part. Yet we that remain cannot forsake our companions while we have strength left. Come! We will go now. Leave all that can be spared behind! We will press on by day and dark!’ (“The Departure of Boromir”)

When Gandalf Votes

“So you see, Gandalf, that by not voting for me, you’re really just voting for Sauron.”

I posted a few days ago on the subject of “When Elves Flirt.” This and my previous post might be filed under “When Gandalf Votes.” Here’s another passage from The Lord of the Rings remarkably apropos our current election season. The passage is taken from Gandalf’s speech to the traitor Saruman:

“Well, the choices are, it seems, to submit to Sauron, or to yourself. I will take neither. Have you others to offer?”

Aragorn and the Prophet’s Reward

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 2

I began posting a few days ago on Appendix A’s account of Thorongil, Aragorn’s alias in Gondor while in the service of Ecthelion II, father of Denethor. Another somewhat surprising feature of the account is the warm welcome and esteem Thorongil receives from the Gondorians, especially in contrast to the the suspicion and scorn we know Aragorn to have been held in by the Breelanders, and this despite the fact that Aragorn’s Numenorean lineage is of the Northern line of Arnor, and not of the Southern line of Gondor. To quote from the Prologue of John’s Gospel, “he came to his own, but his own received him not.” I’ve already commented on Aragorn’s Melchizedekian union of the offices of king and priest, but it would seem he only assumes these roles after enduring the fate of the prophet, the one Jesus describes as being “not without honour, but in his own country” (Mark 6:4).

“Folly it May Appear to Those Who Cling to False Hope”: Tolkien’s advice on how to vote

Tis an election year here in the USA, and for my American readers who seem to have missed it, I thought I’d take this moment to point out that, among other things, The Lord of the Rings is a 1000-page, devastating and conclusive refutation of the principle of voting for the lesser of two evils.

‘…That is the path of despair. Of folly I would say, if the long wisdom of Elrond did not forbid me.’
‘Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. `It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak…”

One greater than Beowulf: Aragorn and Tolkien’s marginalization of the monstrous

A couple of passages to comment briefly on Aragorn vis-a-vis Beowulf today. The first is Aragorn’s speech to Boromir at the Council of Elrond:

`If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, we have played another part. Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay. You know little of the lands beyond your bounds. Peace and freedom, do you say? The North would have known them little but for us. Fear would have destroyed them. But when dark things come from the houseless hills, or creep from sunless woods, they fly from us. What roads would any dare to tread, what safety would there be in quiet lands, or in the homes of simple men at night, if the Dúnedain were asleep, or were all gone into the grave?
           `And yet less thanks have we than you. Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. “Strider” I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.’

The second is Aragorn’s exchange with Halbarad in the chapter “The Passing of the Grey Company” on the departure of Legolas, Gimli, and Merry:

‘There go three that I love, and the smallest not the least,’ he said. ‘He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he still would go on.’

     ‘A little people, but of great worth are the Shire-folk,’ said Halbarad. ‘Little do they know of our long labour for the safekeeping of their borders, and yet I grudge it not.’

     ‘And now our fates are woven together,’ said Aragorn. 

In his essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien admires the way in which the Beowulf poet, unlike Homer, places the monsters and the hero’s conflict therewith at the center of the work, and yet at the same time he cautions that the “wages” of such “heroism is death.” In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien further has Faramir identify the kind of Northern, “martial heroism” of Beowulf with what he calls the “middle men,” namely the comparatively primitive, less civilized Rohirrim, but also the Gondorians of his day as they have diminished from their former Numenorean ancestry (Two Towers, “Window on the West”). In this context, it is possible to interpret Aragorn’s practice in the North as Tolkien’s own, post-Beowulf-ian, Christian re-marginalization of the monstrous, inasmuch as he has his hero fighting monsters, not for any kind of fame or honor (the lure that brings Beowulf to Denmark to fight Grendel), but in utter anonymity, and solely for the good of those directly benefited by his action. Aragorn is the image of the idealized medieval Christian king, the ruler whose sole purpose is not his own but the good of his subjects.