031 – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

The first of three episodes on The Silmarillion Chapter 19, “Of Beren and Lúthien.” The fugitive son of Barahir comes to Doriath and has a fateful meeting with the daughter of Thingol. Unimpressed with Lúthien’s new boyfriend, Thingol sends Beren on an impossible quest to win her hand. We discuss the personal significance of the story Tolkien called “the kernel of the mythology” and compare excerpts from the epic poem The Lay of Leithian. Plus, what do Thingol and Archie Bunker have in common?

Listen to the episode here or on YouTube

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Comments or questions for Barliman’s Bag:

  • Visit us at Facebook or Twitter
  • Comment on this blog post
  • Email theprancingponypodcast (at) gmail (dot) com.

Recommended Reading:

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion (Mariner Books, paperback) pp. 162-170, “Of Beren and Lúthien”

Tolkien, J. R. R. (Christopher Tolkien, ed.) The Book of Lost Tales Part Two (The History of Middle-earth, Vol. 2) (HarperCollins, paperback)

Tolkien, J. R. R. (Christopher Tolkien, ed.) The Lays of Beleriand (The History of Middle-earth, Vol. 3) (Del Rey, paperback)

Tolkien, J. R. R. (Christopher Tolkien, ed.) Beren and Lúthien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover)


Hope and Despair

By now, you’ve likely noticed that there are certain themes that Tolkien touches on frequently in the Legendarium that I’m quick to notice and talk about during the podcast — or even here in our Ponderings. Not surprisingly, then, this is another one of those moments, as I finally have a chance to write briefly on one of the most recognizable themes in Tolkien’s works: hope and despair, and the choice we have to embrace one or the other. We’ll even touch a little on the fulfillment of hope in the eucatastrophe. Admittedly, we we’ve been spending the last year or so discussing The Silmarillion in the podcast, and there are plenty of moments of hope and despair in this work. But today I want to focus on two characters from The Lord of the Rings — Denethor and Théoden.

First, I want to start by defining our terms. We use ‘hope’ in the following ways:

  • As a verb to express a desire for something good in the future. For example, “I hope we win this battle against our foe.”
  • Similarly, as a noun to express the thing in the future that we desire. Or, “Our hope is to defeat the foe in battle this day.”
  • Finally, another noun that describes the basis or reason for thinking that our desire might be fulfilled: “A strong cavalry charge is our best hope of defeating the enemy today.”

When we choose to hope, we decide and act — we use it as a verb. This is why I believe that the absence of hope — hopelessness — is not the opposite of hope. Hopelessness is circumstantial and external — while hope is volitional and internal. No, the opposite of hope is despair — a willing embrace of a hopeless situation, perhaps, but it is a decision we make in contrast to the decision to hope.

Even if it might not achieve final victory,
hope is a purpose unto itself,
a thing of worth in comparison to despair.

As we observe Denethor’s tragic end in the Hallows on Rath Dínen, the Silent Street, I see the worst possible outcome from his loss of hope: not mere hopelessness, but complete despair. This takes me back to Gandalf’s words in The Council of Elrond. In talking of the goal of destroying the One Ring, Erestor asks:

‘What strength have we for the finding of the Fire in which it was made? 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.’

Did you catch that? Despair is only for those who see the end beyond. all. doubt. In other words, hope remains — or should remain — if the end is even the least bit uncertain. Is death 99.99% likely to occur? Then have hope! Since we are not omniscient, we must admit that there are none of us who can truly “see the end beyond all doubt.” Well, then we should all have hope — all the time. Then again, there’s Denethor — who thinks he sees the end beyond all doubt:

‘Pride and despair!’ he cried. ‘Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour in healing! Go forth and fight! Vanity. For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed.’

First, note that Denethor insults Gandalf for daring to have hope in such dire circumstances — in fact, he says that Gandalf’s “hope is but ignorance”. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge — and Denethor believes he has knowledge. Now let’s be clear: “The Stones of Seeing do not lie, and not even the Lord of Barad-dûr can make them do so”, but we know also that those who use the palantíri often draw the wrong conclusions from the things that they see, as did Denethor here. He saw only what Sauron allowed him to see: though the facts were true (massing armies; innumerable foes; and, yes, a fleet with black sails coming up the Anduin), these facts were entirely lacking context and Denethor became the willing victim of Sauron’s ‘spin’ on the facts. Here, I am reminded of Melian’s wisdom that “he that seeth through [evil] eyes, willing or unwilling, seeth all things crooked.” Yes, the analogy between what Húrin endured, seeing truth through the eyes of Morgoth, and what Denethor witnessed, seeing truth through the eyes of Sauron, is strong.

Here, then, hope becomes more than mere hopelessness… Denethor chooses to allow that hopelessness to become despair. But that transition — from hope through hopelessness to despair — is, thankfully, not universal.

Let’s go to back to the battle on the Pelennor Fields:

It was even as the day thus began to turn against Gondor and their hope wavered that a new cry went up in the City, it being then mid-morning, and a great wind blowing, and the rain flying north, and the sun shining. In that clear air watchmen on the walls saw afar a new sight of fear, and their last hope left them.

“Their last hope left them”. The Corsairs of Umbar appear to have arrived: which means that all the support in the south of Gondor — Belfalas, Lebennin, etc. — is gone. ‘It is the last stroke of doom!’

Even Éomer, the new King of the Mark, “looked to the River, and hope died in his heart”. However, even in his hopelessness, unlike Denethor, he did not despair. Instead, he sought a valiant end, hopeless though it may have been.

His uncle, Théoden, had taken the reverse journey back in Meduseld: from despair — under the influence of Saruman via Gríma Wormtongue — into hope. There, after Wormtongue had “sprawled on his face”, Gandalf offered the king his counsel — but look very carefully:

[Gandalf] lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. There the darkness seemed to clear, and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky. ‘Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them?’

Gandalf could give no counsel to those that despair. Why not? Because those who despair desire no counsel — they have taken the volitional step beyond a mere absence of hope. Nothing more can be done for one in that frame of mind. But let’s see what happens with Théoden later in the chapter when he has decided to follow Gandalf’s counsel, and is encouraged to take his people to the Hold of Dunharrow:

‘Nay, Gandalf!’ said the king. ‘You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’

Hope has been restored. And though this hope does, in fact, lead Théoden to his death, it is a worthy death, an honorable death that served others. (Recall my last essay on the death of Boromir for a similar fate.)

Théoden opened his eyes, and they were clear, and he spoke in a quiet voice though laboured.

‘Farewell, Master Holbytla!’ he said. ‘My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!

Compare this to Denethor’s refusal to follow Gandalf’s counsel:

‘Whereas your part is to go out to the battle of your City, where maybe death awaits you. This you know in your heart.’

‘He will not wake again,’ said Denethor. ‘Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer?’

This is the second time Denethor calls fighting “vain” or “vanity”. He doesn’t mean ‘prideful’ or ‘conceited’ as the word is most often used today, but ‘fruitless’ or ‘without purpose’. And yet, he’s still wrong: even if it might not achieve final victory, hope is a purpose unto itself, a thing of worth in comparison to despair.

But Gandalf reminds him:

‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,’ answered Gandalf. ‘And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.’

It’s certainly worth noting that pride and despair go together here — especially after having written about humility last time. Since hope necessarily relies on something (or someone) beyond yourself, it requires a certain amount of humility.

Both Théoden and Denethor perish — but one dies honorably in battle, holding on to hope, sacrificing for his own people and for all the free peoples of Middle-earth… while the other embraces despair and takes his own life, a decision which, as Gandalf says, he lacked the moral authority to make.

But I don’t want to end on this note. I want to follow the story a bit longer so that we can see why we should always hope — to go back to Gandalf’s words at the beginning, it’s because we cannot see the end beyond all doubt.

‘[U]pon the foremost ship a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as she turned towards the Harlond. There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it, the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count. And the stars flamed in the sunlight, for they were wrought of gems by Arwen daughter of Elrond; and the crown was bright in the morning, for it was wrought of mithril and gold.

Thus came Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elessar, Isildur’s heir, out of the Paths of the Dead, borne upon a wind from the Sea to the kingdom of Gondor; and the mirth of the Rohirrim was a torrent of laughter and a flashing of swords, and the joy and wonder of the City was a music of trumpets and a ringing of bells. But the hosts of Mordor were seized with bewilderment, and a great wizardry it seemed to them that their own ships should be filled with their foes; and a black dread fell on them, knowing that the tides of fate had turned against them and their doom was at hand.’

This incredible turn brings to mind one of the most important bits from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” He says:

But the ‘consolation’ of fairy-stories has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite – I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium [good news], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

I’ll likely do a lengthy post on eucatastrophe someday — but that’s a Pondering for another time. For now, it suffices to say that the concept of a eucatastrophe — that is, a sudden and joyous turn, a miraculous grace that cannot be counted on, and can certainly never be counted on to recur — is something we see throughout the Legendarium. But, arguably, it reaches its pinnacle here: the arrival of Aragorn, the titular Return of the King. The ultimate eucatastrophe, the denial of universal defeat, the fleeting glimpse of Joy beyond the walls of the world. More than that, it is the reason for hope, even in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances.

Through he originally wrote “On Fairy Stories” for a presentation in 1939, it is clear that the importance of this element had remained central to his thought when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. If you’ve never read “On Fairy Stories” and do not know about Tolkien’s “eucatastrophe”, read it and listen to our very first episode. Then take a look at Tolkien’s works again after reading it. I promise you’ll see something just a bit different this time: a reason to always have hope.

030 – Another One Bites the Dust

In Chapter 18 of The Silmarillion, Morgoth breaks the Siege of Angband with a sneak attack, beginning the Battle of Sudden Flame. As the fires die down, Fingolfin responds by challenging the Dark Lord to single combat. Meanwhile, displaced survivors of the Edain start down paths that will forever intertwine the fates of Men and Elves. Plus, Tolkien’s best-known villain moves into the fortress next door with his annoying pets.

For an image of Fingolfin’s Challenge by John Howe, visit the artist’s home page here: http://www.john-howe.com/portfolio/gallery/details.php?image_id=964

Listen to the episode here or on YouTube

Subscribe to the podcast via:

Comments or questions for Barliman’s Bag:

  • Visit us at Facebook or Twitter
  • Comment on this blog post
  • Email theprancingponypodcast (at) gmail (dot) com.

Recommended Reading:

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion (Mariner Books, paperback) pp. 150-161, “Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin”

Tolkien, J. R. R. (Christopher Tolkien, ed.) The War of the Jewels (The History of Middle-earth, Vol. 11) (HarperCollins, paperback)

Fimi, Dimitra. Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan, paperback)

The Moment (or, What’s in a Blade?)

I like to think of myself as well rounded, and I try not to have a single “favorite” anything. I love most flavors of ice cream, I look forward equally to Halloween and Christmas, and depending on my mood I can listen to anything from classical to classic rock. But as much as I try to be above the concept of favorites, I have to admit that I have a favorite passage in The Lord of the Rings. I call it “the Moment.”

Every time I read The Lord of the Rings, I start counting pages to the Moment as soon as I pick up my well-worn paperback of The Return of the King. Each time the Rohirrim appear, my heart races faster because I know the Moment is getting closer. By the time the Riders reach the Pelennor Fields, my heart is pounding. I can’t put the book down. The Moment is coming. I’ve stayed up hours past bedtime to get to the Moment, then fallen asleep with the book next to me and read the Moment again first thing in the morning.

Here’s the Moment:

‘Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!’

A cold voice answered: ‘Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.’

A sword rang as it was drawn. ‘Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.’

‘Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!’

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.’
     (The Return of the King, pp. 822-823)

I don’t think I’m alone in my love for the Moment. Even those who don’t share my opinion about this moment being the Moment probably still rank it in their top five. Admit it, you do.

The Moment — and, of course, the following page or so of text in which the Witch-king is actually killed — is also surprisingly (to me, at least) one of the most controversial moments in the book as well. Readers are divided on exactly who deserves credit for dispatching the Nazgûl Lord. Does Éowyn get the credit for the final sword-thrust to the face? Or does Merry deserve the credit for rendering the Ringwraith vulnerable with his Barrow-blade, allowing Éowyn’s mundane sword to finish the Witch-king off?

I’ve seen this question hotly debated on message boards and social media with more fervor than Legolas and Gimli arguing about orc body counts. I’ve even seen the assertion that Merry’s attack had already mortally wounded the Ringwraith and that he died immediately before Éowyn struck (which I find unnecessarily complicated and slightly offensive). And don’t get people started on Glorfindel’s prophecy: whether “not by the hand of man will he fall” really meant that the Witch-king magically could not be killed by a man, or just that he would not fall until someone other than a man faced him.

It is always hearts, not swords,
that defeat evil in Middle-earth.

I realize I’m taking my reputation into my hands by opening up this topic, but before you immediately scroll down to the comments section to offer your opinion, hear me out. My goal today is not to debate these questions (though there is text from a fair copy printed in The History of Middle-earth, Volume VIII: The War of the Ring that, I believe, answers the question quite definitively). No, instead of starting a great big fight on the Internet and alienating four of the eight people who listen to the Prancing Pony Podcast, my goal today is to convince you that it doesn’t matter.

Not one bit.

Why? Because it wasn’t a sword that killed the Witch-king.

The Witch-king’s primary weapon was fear. When speaking of the Black Riders to Radagast, Gandalf spoke of the “deadly fear” their captain wielded (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 250), not his enormous mace. When the Witch-king stormed the gates of Minas Tirith, we are told that “all fled before his face” (The Return of the King, p. 811). Poor Théoden didn’t even get a chance to be tested against that fear, as Snowmane succumbed to it first, pinning the King to the ground in death. All those who faced the Nazgûl Lord (except Gandalf) in his full terrifying form that day fled before him. Only Éowyn daughter of Éomund and Meriadoc Brandybuck had the courage to stand and fight.

Not surprisingly, it was love for her uncle that gave Éowyn, still disguised as Dernhelm, the courage to stand firm:

But Théoden was not utterly forsaken. The knights of his house lay slain about him, or else mastered by the madness of their steeds were borne far away. Yet one stood there still: Dernhelm the young, faithful beyond fear; and he wept, for he had loved his lord as a father.
     (The Return of the King, p. 822)

Merry, for his part, had to overcome a lot of obstacles to be at the Pelennor Fields on that fateful morning. “Where will wants not, a way opens,” Dernhelm said to him as the Riders left Edoras (p.787), and it was Merry’s love for Frodo, Sam, and his other friends that gave him the will and the courage to take the spot offered to him on Dernhelm’s saddle. And on the morning of the battle, his love for Théoden urged him to stand firm, though ultimately it was not enough:

Merry crawled on all fours like a dazed beast, and such a horror was on him that he was blind and sick.

‘King’s man! King’s man!’ his heart cried within him. ‘You must stay by him. As a father you shall be to me, you said.’ But his will made no answer, and his body shook. He dared not open his eyes or look up.
     (The Return of the King, p. 822)

In the end, though, it was love that gave Merry the courage he needed. Not for Théoden his King, but for his mysterious companion on the road, the one who helped him find the way:

The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt. Very amazement for a moment conquered Merry’s fear. He opened his eyes and the blackness was lifted from them. There some paces from him sat the great beast, and all seemed dark about it, and above it loomed the Nazgûl Lord like a shadow of despair. A little to the left facing them stood she whom he had called Dernhelm. But the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy’s eyes.

Éowyn it was, and Dernhelm also. For into Merry’s mind flashed the memory of the face that he saw at the riding from Dunharrow: the face of one that goes seeking death, having no hope. Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his hand. She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided.
     (The Return of the King, p. 823)

It is at this moment, the moment when they stood firm in the face of terror, that Éowyn and Merry together truly defeated their enemy. As soon as they stood courageous against the Witch-king on the battlefield, their enemy was (as we used to say back in school) “a dead man.” And while it certainly seems that Éowyn would not have been able to kill the Witch-king if Merry had not struck it first, Éowyn’s courage gave Merry the courage he needed to strike in the first place. Without Éowyn, Merry would not have been able to attack the Witch-king, Barrow-blade or not. Each needed the other to be there.

Am I avoiding the real question? I don’t think so. It’s worth noting that in Tolkien’s writings, weapons — even ancient, magical ones — are only as good as the people who wield them. Consider the One Ring: its power and malice are greater or lesser depending on who wears it. Narsil was a sword of great renown, but its value was primarily as a token of the house of Elendil, and it was not reforged until one arose worthy to bear that token. Anglachel was said by Thingol to have Eöl’s “dark heart”, but Beleg seemed able to keep its malice in check until that walking disaster Túrin came along. I believe that Tolkien himself would tell us that even a weapon as virtuous as Merry’s Barrow-blade wouldn’t do much good if it wasn’t wielded by one with the courage to use it against a foe too terrifying for most. It is always hearts, not swords, that defeat evil in Middle-earth.

I wrote in my last Prancing Pony Pondering that The Lord of the Rings takes place at a turning point in the history of Arda, from the mythic past to the historical present of the Earth we know today. Tolkien himself observed in letter 131 to Milton Waldman that The Silmarillion itself becomes “less mythical, and more like stories and romances” as time goes on (and notably as Men enter the picture), and so the shift can be seen as much more gradual than my “turning point” term implies. In truth, it’s a steady progression throughout the legendarium — not a sudden turn. From timeless gods, to immortal Elves, to heroic and legendary Edain … from long-lived and mighty Númenóreans to “lesser men” and Hobbits, the protagonists of the tales are more “ordinary” as the tales go on. The world of the supernatural gradually becomes the world of the natural.

And by the end of the Third Age, it is the ordinary courage of the unexpected heroes among us that wins wars. So it is very fitting to me that the terrifying, supernatural captain of Sauron’s host was felled by the two unlikeliest warriors on that battlefield: the woman and the halfling, both of whom were told by “better” soldiers that they didn’t belong there. Both played their part, and neither could do it without the other; but together they did what no one else could.

029 – Tolkien’s 125th Birthday Special

We celebrate the twelfty-fifth birthday of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien with tributes from our listeners and our own thoughts on what Tolkien has meant to us. We also give the traditional birthday toast to the Professor, and we announce the winners of our giveaway drawings for The Art of the Lord of the Rings and the Facsimile First Edition of The Hobbit.

Listen to the episode here or on YouTube

Subscribe to the podcast via:

Comments or questions for Barliman’s Bag:

  • Visit us at Facebook or Twitter
  • Comment on this blog post
  • Email theprancingponypodcast (at) gmail (dot) com.

Recommended Reading:

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit Facsimile First Edition (HarperCollins, hardcover)

Scull, Christina, and Wayne G. Hammond. The Art of the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover)