Smells Like Elf Spirit

In an early Prancing Pony Ponderings essay, I made brief mention of the following passage in The Hobbit …

‘Hmmm! it smells like elves!’ thought Bilbo, and he looked up at the stars. They were burning bright and blue.
     (The Hobbit, p. 45)

… and quickly skipped past the questionable implications of “elf-smell.” And they are indeed questionable, in a way I felt completely unprepared to address back in October, when the Prancing Pony Ponderings segment of our website was still so new. It seemed too absurd, too indulgent, to tackle the question all those months ago when I was a younger, less wise man.

Oh, how times have changed.

Alas, dear readers, I can skip past such implications no longer, however questionable they may be. Maybe it’s the effect of far too many hours spent on the tragic story of Túrin Turambar in our recent podcasts that makes me yearn for some light-hearted absurdity. Maybe it’s because spring is in the air; the lightness of the April breeze has inspired me, like Chaucer’s West Wind in the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales: “So priketh hem Nature in hir corages” (“So Nature spurs them in their hearts”). Call it foolish, or even ofermod. But the time has come to examine the question of “elf-smell.”

Lúthien smells like flowers.
But is that really typical of all Elves?

Sadly, there isn’t much to go on. The usual secondary sources for The Hobbit offer little to explain this observation by Bilbo. Douglas A. Anderson refrains from commenting in The Annotated Hobbit, choosing instead to go straight to “tra-la-la-lally” (and who can blame him?). John D. Rateliff, in The History of The Hobbit, acknowledges the comment, but only to point out that an earlier draft by Tolkien had Bilbo saying, “it feels like elves” (p. 113, emphasis mine) and comments that the original line “does raise the question of how Bilbo knows what elves ‘feel’ like,” (Ibid., p. 117) which seems a much more troubling question altogether.

The only commentary I can find on this on my bookshelf is in Corey Olsen’s Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

We do get a hint about the smell of elves, actually, in another of Tolkien’s writings. Right around the time he was writing The Hobbit Tolkien was also writing a long poem called The Lay of Leithian, which wasn’t published until after his death. … In The Lay of Leithian, the elf-maiden Lúthien is described as being accompanied everywhere by a remarkable fragrance, the “odour of immortal flowers / in everlasting spring” (Canto XII. 3794-95). That, I suspect, is more or less what elves smell like, and what Bilbo was getting a whiff of on the breeze near Rivendell.
     (Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, pp. 61-62)

Longtime listeners may remember this passage from The Lay of Leithian from Episode 033 – The Princess Bride. Alan read these very lines to explain Carcharoth “[scenting] something strange in the air about” Beren and Lúthien in The Silmarillion. Despite our heroes being disguised as Draugluin and Thuringwethil, Carcharoth was not fooled; his keen lupine sense of smell was apparently quite able to detect the difference between “immortal flowers” and the rotting carcass of a bat-monster. [That takes a ‘keen’ sense of smell, does it? – Ed.]

So that’s conclusive. Lúthien smells like flowers. But is that really typical of all Elves? Is that really what Bilbo was smelling, thousands of years later in the Third Age, as he rode into Rivendell, lazily looking up at the stars astride a poor, Hobbit-laden pony? I’m not so sure.

We know, of course, that Lúthien was only half Elf. How do we know that the flowery bouquet that followed her didn’t come from her Maia mother? After all, Melian had some history with floriculture. The Valaquenta tells us that she “served both Vána and Estë; she dwelt long in Lórien, tending the trees that flower in the gardens of Irmo, ere she came to Middle-earth.” (The Silmarillion, p. 30) Lest we forget one of the Valier who doesn’t make many appearances after her introduction, Vána was apparently a patroness of flowers, and perhaps of spring: “All flowers spring as she passes and open if she glances upon them,” the Valaquenta tells us. (Ibid., p. 29) It’s worth noting that Lúthien seems to have a similar power to make flowers bloom in her wake:

… there in the forest of Neldoreth Lúthien was born, and the white flowers of niphredil came forth to greet her as stars from the earth.
     (The Silmarillion, p. 91)

… the song of Lúthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed.
     (Ibid., p. 165)

… though the winter came it hurt them not, for flowers lingered where Lúthien went, and the birds sang beneath the snowclad hills.
     (Ibid., p. 176)

This is not an ability we see ordinary Elves display. And given that the flower power of Lúthien seems also to bear a resemblance to the seasonal triumph of spring over winter (see especially the latter two passages above) I am drawn inexorably to a comparison with Vána and the conclusion that these floral qualities are inherited from Melian, who in turn picked them up from her old boss back in Aman.

Which leads me right back to the question: what do Elves (other Elves) smell like?

Going back to the Third Age and Tolkien’s more narratively descriptive works, references to smells abound in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — but nothing explicitly attached to the olfactory properties of the Firstborn. There are references in The Fellowship of the Ring to the smell of the trees and grass of Lothlórien (p. 340), and even “a faint scent of trees and flowers” in Rivendell (p. 220), but these are describing Elvish places, places (I would add) preserved by the power of the Three Rings. There’s no reason to believe that Galadriel or Elrond personally smells so nice.

In The Hobbit we do get this enticing passage:

There was the sound, too, of elven-harps and of sweet music; and as it echoed up towards them it seemed that the chill of the air was warmed, and they caught faintly the fragrance of woodland flowers blossoming in spring.
     (The Hobbit, p. 239)

However, the presence of Elven music suggests to me that this is a kind of musical dreamscape similar to the one Finrod casts over the people of Bëor, and perhaps akin to what Frodo and his companions sense in the company of Gildor Inglorion … and not the heady air of Elf-musk rising from the army laying siege to Erebor.

The only explicit reference to the smell of an Elf in the major works is in The Return of the King, when Arwen is described as “glimmering in the evening, with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her.” (p. 951) But it’s her wedding day, for crying out loud. It’s not impossible that she applied some perfume. I see no reason to assume that this is her natural Elvish redolence.

As noted above, other references to non-Elvish smells abound in The Lord of the Rings. The fragrance of athelas alone is mentioned four times. Treebeard waxes poetic about the smell of Middle-earth when it was young, and even pipe-weed gets plaudits for its aroma. There’s also a beautiful scent-based image given for the recovery of Éowyn in the Houses of Healing, which I will discuss further in a moment. But there is nothing else that explicitly refers to the smell of Elves.

By contrast, there are tons of references to the smell of evil creatures and places. Bilbo’s trolls, the dragons Smaug and Glaurung, the flying steed of the Nazgûl and even the Watcher in the Water are specifically described with reference to their stink or stench. Frodo and Sam seem doomed to foul smells: from their own bodies as they trudge mile after mile away from the warm baths of Crickhollow along the path into Mordor, to the “stink” of Shelob and her lair. Most compellingly, there is the “noisome smell” that rises from the Dead Marshes (The Two Towers, p. 613) and the “sickly odour of decay in the meads of Morgul” (Ibid., p. 701) and the pass of Cirith Ungol.

This concept of an “odour of decay” is very striking. We might in our vernacular English call this the “smell of death” (a search string with over 53 million results on Google), but Tolkien is careful to call it what it is. Death is not a bad thing in Tolkien’s legendarium; it is the Gift of Ilúvatar to Men. So why would death smell foul? The answer is that it doesn’t. What smells foul is not death, but decay. The smell of evil things is not the stench of death itself, but the smell of rotting flesh; of corruption.

And now we’re getting somewhere. Because what does corruption make us think of more than Melkor and the marring of Arda? And what would we consider to be the opposite of corruption? Purity, as in the pure intentions of Ilúvatar in the creation of his Firstborn Children? Preservation, as in the deepest desire of the Eldar, a temptation so rooted in their nature that it was the chief power of the Three Rings?

If “corruption” or “decay” is the smell of the servants of evil, then I’d imagine that Elves have the opposite smell, a smell we might call “pure” or “clean”. Flowers don’t smell “pure;” they smell like flowers. And “clean” is not the smell of soap. It’s actually hard to imagine a smell that’s truly pure, unadulterated by either foul odors or sweet scents. Would it smell like nothing? Perhaps. But then again, what does “nothing” smell like? I imagine most of us have no idea, because we’re too busy constantly smelling everything. We are surrounded by good and bad smells all around us, from the flowers we stroll by every morning walking the dog to the fertilizer the flowers are grown in (and the stuff we pick up that the dog left behind). From every molecule of cleansing agent that lingers in the air after spring cleaning to every bacterium and mold spore that remains. We are so surrounded by such smells that we must not notice them at all anymore. Compared to an onslaught of olfactory stimuli so constant that our noses effectively shut down, what would absolute purity smell like? I think it would smell strangely … blank. Like the taste of distilled water at room temperature.

Going back to Tolkien’s texts (finally, right?), I can actually back up (sort of) my claim that the scent of flowers is not the scent of purity. In the Spring of Arda, the purest state of being known in Tolkien’s legendarium, there were no flowers:

As yet no flower had bloomed nor any bird had sung, for these things waited still their time in the bosom of Yavanna …
     (The Silmarillion, p. 35)

And there’s more. There’s actually a hint in The Lord of the Rings that the Undying Lands still have this smell of purity, unadulterated by even the sweet scent of flowers. I come back now to Éowyn’s recovery in the Houses of Healing. Despite the fact that fragrant athelas is the remedy for her sickness, that is not the ultimate olfactory descriptor of the event:

Then, whether Aragorn had indeed some forgotten power of Westernesse, or whether it was but his words of the Lady Éowyn that wrought on them, as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.
     (The Return of the King, pp. 849-50)

Éowyn seems to be healed of her sickness and her despair by this clean air devoid of any scent. And if the references to “snowy mountains high,” “a dome of stars,” and “shores of silver” with “seas of foam” make you think of Taniquetil and the shores of Aman, then you must be reading Tolkien.

There is, of course, nothing to explicitly connect this scent of purity with Elves, at least not the Elves of the Hither Lands. But as beings made effectively immortal by their nature and yet “made of the flesh or substance of Arda itself” (Morgoth’s Ring, p. 218), but intended by their Creator not to die or decay, is it so hard to believe that the smell of Elves might not be so much a matter of what they smell like, but what they don’t smell like? That creatures so obsessed with preserving the past might actually smell like something out of the past? Younger? Cleaner? Fresher than anything in the world we know?

Of course we’ll never know for sure. This is all pure speculation. Absurd? Quite. Indulgent? Absolutely. “Pretty fair nonsense I daresay you think it,” like the song of the very Elves whose mysterious smell started me down this road. (The Hobbit, p. 46) I’d love to think that this whole journey has given you a few laughs like it has me, like those good people in their trees. But even if you’re grumbling like a Dwarf, thinking me foolish, I’ll take it.

O! Tra-la-la-lally … and a Happy Easter to you and yours from the Prancing Pony Podcast.


The Road

I’ve probably admitted to this on the podcast at some point; if not, let this serve as my confession. Way back when I first started reading Tolkien as a teenager, I… uh… I often used to skip—or, at best, merely skim—the passages of verse.

Maybe this was my instinctual reaction to poetry as an uneducated youth; perhaps it was just my impatient teenage self anxious to just get on with the story. I don’t know; I can hardly remember those years anymore! In point of fact, it probably has something to do with my more prosy nature — though, like Mr. Baggins, I’m not quite as prosy as I like to believe.

As you’ll soon hear in our special Tolkien Reading Day episode next week, I’ve come a long way since then. And so, as we look forward to this year’s Reading Day theme of “Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction,” I thought it would be a good opportunity to take an extended look at one of the repeating verses found in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Let’s start in the final chapter of The Hobbit, “The Last Stage”:

As all things come to an end, even this story, a day came at last when they were in sight of the country where Bilbo had been born and bred, where the shapes of the land and of the trees were as well known to him as his hands and toes. Coming to a rise he could see his own Hill in the distance, and he stopped suddenly and said:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

Gandalf looked at him. “My dear Bilbo!” he said. “Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were.
     (The Hobbit, Ch. XIX, “The Last Stage”)

Indeed, Bilbo most certainly was not the hobbit he once had been. No longer sheltered and naïve, he had discovered in himself more courage and determination than he thought possible. Of course, he’d also come to know more sorrow and grief than he’d likely ever imagined with the loss of Fili, Kili, and most of all, Thorin, giving him a deep sense of sorrow and a genuine appreciation for peace. Oh, and now he possesses a very useful magic ring!

Later it is unknown what the road might
go by. And yet, even with that lack
of certainty, the importance of the goal
is such that it demands “eager feet”.

Before we move on, let’s look at another song from The Hobbit to shed some light on a few phrases of Bilbo’s “Road” song. In Beorn’s hall, the Dwarves sing the following:

The wind was on the withered heath,
but in the forest stirred no leaf:
there shadows lay by night and day,
and dark things silent crept beneath.

The wind came down from mountains cold,
and like a tide it roared and rolled;
the branches groaned, the forest moaned,
and leaves were laid upon the mould.

The wind went on from West to East;
all movement in the forest ceased,
but shrill and harsh across the marsh
its whistling voices were released. 

The grasses hissed, their tassels bent,
the reeds were rattling—on it went
oer shaken pool under heavens cool
where racing clouds were torn and rent.

It passed the lonely Mountain bare
and swept above the dragon’s lair:
there black and dark lay boulders stark
and flying smoke was in the air. 

It left the world and took its flight
over the wide seas of the night.
The moon set sail upon the gale,
and stars were fanned to leaping light.
     (The Hobbit, Ch. VII, “Queer Lodgings”)

Bilbo’s ‘Road’, then, is similar to the dwarves’ ‘wind’. “Over rock and under tree” is rather reminiscent of “down from mountains cold… the branches groaned, the forest moaned” while “Over grass and over stone” reminds the listener of “The grasses hissed, their tassels bent”. We get “Eyes that fire and sword have seen” that reminds us that the wind sweeps “above the dragon’s lair… and flying smoke was in the air.” There is mention in both songs of moon and star, too.

But Bilbo can be forgiven for borrowing a few thoughts. After all, the destination of the dwarven ‘wind’ is radically different from Bilbo’s ‘road’: while the wind “left the world and took its flight”, the Road leads home. And Bilbo was certainly pleased to be home again — to “turn at last to home afar” and “look at last on meadows green and trees and hills” that he has known all his life.

When he sings this song next, it is 60 years later and he sings:

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
     (The Lord of the Rings, Bk. I Ch. I, “A Long-Expected Party”)

Now we see that it has gone from the broad and generic, “Roads go ever ever on” to the very specific and concrete, “The Road goes ever on and on”.

(An aside: that’s rather like The Hill and The Water, as examples of the hobbit tendency to provide very simple names for things. I like this very much. Perhaps we shall rename our podcast to The Podcast. Remind me to ask The Shawn about this.)

And notice also that it is different in other ways — the “feet that wandering have gone” are now the “eager feet” that pursue. The use of the Road is no longer purposeless or aimless — there is a specificity, a desired goal, and it is to be achieved with eagerness. And though it may, in its course, still go by all the places that it did in the first version of the song—over rock, under tree, by caves and streams, over snow, flowers, grass and stone—here it is unknown (“I cannot say”) what the road might, in fact, go by. And yet, even with that lack of certainty, the importance of the goal is such that it demands “eager feet”.

While my point here is to discuss Bilbo’s transformation of this song over a period of 80 years, I should briefly mention Frodo’s singing of it. When he sings Bilbo’s song, barely a day away from home and still (mostly) safely in The Shire, it is identical to the above verse with one exception: Frodo’s “weary feet” replace Bilbo’s “eager feet”. Admittedly, it seems a bit pessimistic of Frodo to think of his “weary feet” after such a short march—especially when we see that Bilbo is the one who should be talking of “weary feet”—but there you have it.

Back to Bilbo, then. He sings it again 20 years after this, saying:

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.
     (The Lord of the Rings, Bk. VI Ch. VI, “Many Partings”)

His journey is over, his ‘paths and errands’ from the previous version have indeed been met, and Bilbo knows it is time to go to his well-deserved rest. His feet were once merely “wandering”, then they were “eager”, now they are “weary”. The destination of The Road now? It’s no longer the geography of the wide, unknown world (rock, tree, caves, streams, snow, flowers, etc.); it’s not even the abstract philosophical concept of a destined fate. It is now simply “the lighted inn”, the place much like home where he can get his evening-rest and sleep. Let others now follow The Road — Bilbo’s time is done, his reward well-earned.

And this brings us back full-circle to the very end of The Last Stage. Here, we return to prose rather than poetry:

“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.

“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.
     (The Hobbit, Ch. XIX, “The Last Stage”)

What Gandalf says is a clear reminder of something we’ve been talking about on the podcast since the very beginning: the concept of SPBMI (or “shall prove but mine instrument”) that we see in the big, world-changing tales of Middle-earth. The hand of Ilúvatar intervenes (seen, in this case, as the fulfillment of prophecy) to accomplish his plans for Arda.

And though I could go astray on that topic for some time, I should return to Bilbo. Even back when Bilbo sang the first version of his Road-song, 80 years before he sang the last version, Bilbo understood—in his own self-deprecating way—that he was indeed “only quite a little fellow in a wide world” and that others would follow him on The Road when he was done, to play their part in bringing about the prophecies.

Doom, doom, doom.

If you’ve listened to the podcast enough, you’ve probably heard Alan and I make the bold claim that J. R. R. Tolkien never, ever made an accidental word choice in his writing.  Every single word was chosen quite deliberately, we like to believe, and so there’s no shame in delving deep into every single word choice to determine exactly what was in the Professor’s head at the moment of writing.  Of course, while we can’t know for sure, this is likely an exaggeration — surely even Tolkien occasionally chose words “just because” — but we’ll never know for sure, and we’ll keep on saying it. One thing that we do know for sure is that Tolkien understood words, and the history of words, well enough to know which one was right for his intended purpose; and that if he wanted to, he could use their histories and multiple shades of meaning to great effect.

One of our favorite words to delve into is doom.  Here’s how the free online Oxford Dictionary defines doom. We’ll call this Sense 1:

Death, destruction, or some other terrible fate.

But a glance at the etymology of the word on that same page reveals that the word comes from Old English dōm, ‘statute, judgment’, and is related to the Modern English word deem which means to judge or decide.  It’s a fact Tolkien knew well, of course, and he wrote of it in a collection of notes for translation of his work that he prepared for his publisher Allen & Unwin after The Lord of the Rings came out (and which is now printed as Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings, in Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull’s The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion:

Doom, Mount Doom.  This word doom, original sense ‘judgement’ (formal and legal, or personal), has in E[nglish], partly owing to its sound, and largely owing to its special use in Doomsday, become a word loaded with senses of death; finality; fate (impending or foretold).
     (The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, p.768)

Tolkien frequently uses the word doom in this original sense as well — ‘judgment’ or ‘decision’, or even simply ‘fate’ in a neutral (not necessarily negative, but unavoidable) sense.  We’ll call this Sense 2.

There is, however, a third way in which Tolkien uses the word doom.  In The Fellowship of the Ring, he uses it in an onomatopoeic sense, that is, to imitate a sound.  Specifically, it imitates the sound of drums in the deep:

Gandalf had hardly spoken these words, when there came a great noise: a rolling Boom that seemed to come from depths far below, and to tremble in the stone at their feet. They sprang towards the door in alarm. Doom, doom it rolled again, as if huge hands were turning the very caverns of Moria into a vast drum. Then there came an echoing blast: a great horn was blown in the hall, and answering horns and harsh cries were heard further off. There was a hurrying sound of many feet.
     (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 315)

It’s a chilling passage, and aside from the way all action seems to stop as the Fellowship begins to hear the orc-drums echoing below the Chamber of Mazarbul, the word choice doom is very evocative.  The drums are not just sounding, they are sounding out doom.

Tolkien is keenly aware of
the ambiguity inherent in the word,
and frequently plays with it.

On the surface, it seems that this could be a case of reading too much into it.  We do that sometimes at the Prancing Pony Podcast.  It’s why you come here, isn’t it!?  After all, how many onomatopoeic words are there to convey the sound of a deep bass drum in a mine far below, anyway?  Dum doesn’t quite cut it.  Tap wouldn’t work, nor rat-a-tat.  What about boom?  It’s got the same vowel, and it’s certainly more established in English idiom as onomatopoeia for the sound of a deep bass drum.  And yet Tolkien only uses the word boom for the sound twice in this entire episode (he uses doom 29 times).

In episode 020 of the podcast, we discussed with Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins the concept of “sound symbolism,” which Drs. Fimi and Higgins define in their Introduction to A Secret Vice as “the idea that there is a direct relationship between the sounds making up a word and its meaning.” (p. li)  So choosing an onomatopoeic representation of the sound of a drum that evokes a little extra meaning seems perfectly in keeping with what we know of Tolkien.

And in fact, we know this was his intent (surprise!).  In the next paragraph of the Nomenclature entry quoted above for “Doom, Mount Doom” (worst Middle-earth spy parody film ever?) Tolkien goes on to note:

The use in the text as a word descriptive of sound (e.g. especially in Book II, Chapter 5) associated with boom is of course primarily descriptive of sound, but is meant (and would by most E[nglish] readers be felt) to recall the noun doom, with its sense of disaster.
     (The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, pp. 768-9)

So there we have it.  But I’m not done yet, because I’ve spent a lot of time looking at dooms to get here!

There are over 130 mentions of the word doom in the narrative of The Lord of the Rings (not counting the Appendices; there are another 40 or so there, but I didn’t get around to analyzing those, so out they go).  Of those, 29 are the onomatopoeic dooms of Book II, Chapter 5, and appear together in pairs or triples.  Another 26 are references to proper names: typically ‘Mount Doom’ or something related (e.g., ‘Cracks of Doom’, ‘Ring of Doom’).  Of the more than 80 that remain in narration or dialogue, it’s often hard to determine whether a truly neutral Sense 2 is meant or whether there is some ambiguity, but truly negative Sense 1s are rare.

Some of the explicit Sense 1s, interestingly, involve Gondor; such as Faramir’s statement to Frodo that “…the journey of Boromir was doomed” (pp. 655-6), or Pippin and Beregond referring to the flying Nazgûl as “the shadow of doom” (p. 749).  By contrast, the Rohirrim almost always seem to use doom in a neutral Sense 2 (as might be expected by the matter-of-fact acceptance of fate one finds in the Anglo-Saxon culture that inspired much of the Rohirrim), such as Théoden’s words to Éowyn upon leaving Edoras for Helm’s Deep: “Not West but East does our doom await us” (p. 512).

An interesting case appears in the speech of the Ents, during the march to Isengard:

To land of gloom with tramp of doom, with roll of drum, we come, we come;
     To Isengard with doom we come!
     With doom we come, with doom we come!
     (The Two Towers, p. 474)

This may be my favorite use in the entire book, because it incorporates every single sense of the word doom we have discussed: it is certainly a terrible fate which the Ents are bringing to Saruman in his stronghold, and yet a long-awaited and inevitable fate.  It is the clearest sense of doom as ‘judgment’ that I can find in The Lord of the Rings: a sentence passed upon Saruman for his crimes against nature.  And it is, at the last, like much of the Ents’ speech and poetry, onomatopoeic as well.

But I digress.

The distinctions I list are by no means comprehensive, or consistent.  Sense 2 doom is also used often by the wise; Frodo begs Faramir to “let me go where my doom takes me” (p. 653) and Gandalf speaks the following to Théoden while passing under the Huorns at Deeping Coomb:

‘The evil of Sauron cannot be wholly cured, nor made as if it had not been. But to such days we are doomed. Let us now go on with the journey we have begun!’
     (The Two Towers, p. 537)

As can be seen from the last two examples, Tolkien is keenly aware of the ambiguity inherent in the word, and frequently plays with it, often making it difficult to determine whether an explicitly negative Sense 1 is meant, or a more open-to-interpretation Sense 2, or a mix of both.

“Mortal Men doomed to die” from the Ring-verse is an excellent example. I can still recall my first time reading the book, and the foreboding of these words. It’s natural for a first-time reader to assume that the mortal men who possessed the nine rings died because they possessed them. Of course, the more I read into Tolkien’s legendarium, the more I realized that assumption was false. Mortal Men die. It’s just what they do. It’s what sets them apart from the Firstborn, and is the key identifying trait of Men in Tolkien’s mythology and the philosophy behind it. None of this is news to anyone who’s heard our podcast or read The Silmarillion, but that is exactly my point: with more knowledge, a usage of the word doom that at first comes across as purely negative can be read as neutral (i.e., matter of fact, a simple statement of what is), or even — with a greater understanding (such as an understanding of death as the gift of the One to Men) — as positive.

Other examples of ambiguity abound.  Occasionally, characters interpret a mention of doom as bad (Sense 1) but soon learn otherwise:

‘Behold Isildur’s Bane!’ said Elrond.

Boromir’s eyes glinted as he gazed at the golden thing. ‘The Halfling!’ he muttered. ‘Is then the doom of Minas Tirith come at last? But why then should we seek a broken sword?’

‘The words were not the doom of Minas Tirith,’ said Aragorn. ‘But doom and great deeds are indeed at hand. For the Sword that was Broken is the Sword of Elendil that broke beneath him when he fell. It has been treasured by his heirs when all other heirlooms were lost; for it was spoken of old among us that it should be made again when the Ring, Isildur’s Bane, was found. Now you have seen the sword that you have sought, what would you ask? Do you wish for the House of Elendil to return to the Land of Gondor?’
     (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 241)

Boromir’s mistake is to assume the doom he’s heard reference to in his dream is bad, but Aragorn corrects him. It is not doom (Sense 1) that Boromir’s dream prophesies, but doom (Sense 2) that is coming: a time long fated, that may yet end for good or for ill. Again, with knowledge provided by Aragorn, we are taught to see a potentially negative Sense 1 doom as something more neutral or even positive.

I’ve come to believe the use of doom in Book II, Chapter 5, for the drums in the deep, is another of these.  Certainly, by Tolkien’s own admission in his notes in the Nomenclature, it is meant to evoke disaster.  But I see something else there as well.  With the first doom of the drums in the deep, we know that the fight between Gandalf and the Balrog is coming.  Certainly, this is something of a disaster for the Fellowship. The great wizard falls, depriving Frodo of his “wise old mentor” figure, and the Fellowship of its leader and chief strategist.  The first-time reader is meant to see this as disastrous, a great blow to the Fellowship and a crucial junction from which they may not emerge victorious on the other side. It’s an emotional blow as well, something I find best exemplified by the words of a family member upon seeing Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time: “I cried when the old dude died.” (She Knows Who She Is, 2001).

But savvy readers know that “wise old mentor” figures often die to allow the younger heroes to come into their own.  And sometimes, they come back “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” (Obi-Wan Kenobi, 1977).  And that’s exactly what happens here.  It is because of Gandalf’s sacrifice at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm that the rest of the Fellowship are able to escape.  More than that, the apparent death of Gandalf the Grey allows him to be reborn as Gandalf the White, a good deal more powerful than Force-ghost Ben Kenobi. We’ll never know exactly what happened to Olórin the Maia after he passed through fire and deep water, but it seems likely that he faced some kind of judgment by the Valar, and was deemed worthy to be returned in corporeal form and granted the additional strength he needed to face the challenges ahead. (EDIT: As pointed out by mithrennaith in the comments below on March 5, Tolkien’s Letter 156 makes it clear that Gandalf was judged and sent back by an “Authority” greater than the Valar, which we can assume to be Eru himself.)

So the doom that Gandalf faces below Moria, the doom that is coming as soon as the Fellowship awakens the ancient evil that sleeps below, is better than neutral. It is positive, necessary even, for the Fellowship to complete their quest. For all we know, it may have been fated to some degree, and inescapable. It’s hard to imagine doddering old Gandalf the Grey healing Théoden or standing up against the Nazgûl Lord, but these things are easy for Gandalf the White, who was born below Moria (or perhaps, more precisely, somewhere in the West) that day when Gandalf the Grey died.

It is eucatastrophe in action, to see a Sense 2 ‘doom’ wrenched from the jaws of a Sense 1 ‘doom’.  And it is a reminder to have hope, for even the very wise cannot see all ends; and sometimes, it is only by passing through that shadow we come to morning.


I Don’t Know Half Of You Half As Well As I Should Like…

I shall not keep you long — I have called you all together for a Purpose. Indeed, for Three Purposes!  First of all, to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all, and that one year is too short a time to podcast among such excellent and admirable listeners!

Secondly, to celebrate OUR birthday.

That’s right, I’m taking a break from my usual in-depth analysis of various themes and topics in Tolkien’s works today because…  well, because we’ve a birthday to celebrate! On February 21, 2016, the first episode of The Prancing Pony Podcast was released and I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has been a part of making the PPP what is is!

Please note: some of this will be a repeat of what Shawn and I talked about during our FB Live appearance today, but I know not everyone follows us on social media (though you should!) and I wanted a more permanent written record of my appreciation to exist here on the interwebs, as they say.

We think you’ll find some of the plans
we have for The Prancing Pony Podcast
as we enter our second year very exciting!


First, I want to thank J.R.R. Tolkien for the incredible world that he created and for sharing it with all of us. He strove to create an ‘inner consistency of reality’ and he achieved it in a way that no other author has since. As I mentioned during our January 3 birthday toast to the Professor, whenever I read about Middle-earth, I am instantly transported to an incredibly-real, truly believable place. My intellect knows no such place exists — or ever existed — but my heart knows otherwise: these characters, cultures, places, languages, and events are as real as anything I have actually experienced.

Second, I want to thank Christopher Tolkien, whose lifetime dedication to his father’s works has given us so much more than we would otherwise have. Without Christopher’s efforts, there would be no Silmarillion, no Unfinished Tales, no History of Middle-earth series, no Children of Húrin, no Beren and Lúthien, no Letters, and more. The world his father created is much richer for us because of his tireless efforts.

Next, I want to thank all the Tolkien biographers and scholars whose incredible works we’ve benefitted from as we study the life of Professor Tolkien and his legendarium. I’m sure I’ll miss mentioning someone, but names like Humphrey Carpenter, John Garth, Tom Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, Douglas A. Anderson, John Rateliff, Wayne Hammond, Christina Scull, Dimitra Fimi, Andrew Higgins and Corey Olsen all come to mind.

And while we don’t often talk about the films, I also want to thank those involved in the making of The Lord of the Rings movies — after all, their efforts have brought countless new readers into Tolkien’s world and revitalized global interest in Middle-earth. Though I sometimes criticize their choices, I’m grateful for the work of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and the incredible cast and crew of those first three movies. And a special thanks to Howard Shore whose beautiful music inspires me nearly every day.

Perhaps most importantly, I also want to express my deepest appreciation to my wife and our children, as they have consistently given me the time and opportunity to pursue this passion. Their encouragement and love are invaluable and I am constantly amazed at how much they sacrifice for me. Without their support, this podcast literally does. not. happen.

And how could this list be complete without the Éomer to my Aragorn, the real-life Lord of the Mark, my friend and co-host, Shawn Marchese. When I first had the idea for this podcast, his was the only name who came to mind — for good reason, too: knowledgeable, clever, insightful and funny. Little did I know that, a year later, we’d not only still be going strong, but we’d be looking forward to many more years of Tolkien podcasting to come! And a special thanks to his family as well — I’m sure I’ve tested their patience with my demands on his time, but I’m grateful they allow him to join me here on The Prancing Pony Podcast.

Last, but most certainly not least, I want to thank each and every one of you — after all, it is you — our listeners — that have made The Prancing Pony Podcast the success that it is. When we first started this endeavor, we were pleased that a few of you listened — One Gross, if I may use the expression. And now so many more have joined us on this journey — thank you very much for coming to our little party.

Thirdly, and finally, I wish to make an ANNOUNCEMENT.

No, we’re not going anywhere. Granted, we may not make it to eleventy-one years (or even thirty-three!), but we’ve got plenty more to talk about! What we do want to announce, though, are some of the plans we have for The Prancing Pony Podcast as we enter our second year — we think you’ll find these very exciting!

First, we are scheduled to finish The Silmarillion in July and we are planning to have a few special episodes immediately following: interviews, hopefully, and some film discussion. We’ve reached out to some reasonably big names in the Tolkien community and we hope to have some good ones set up for you soon!

Second, that means we’ll be starting The Hobbit sometime this fall — in September or October, I’d guess. We’re hoping this means that many more people will be joining us as The Hobbit might be a bit more… accessible… than The Silmarillion. So be sure to share us on social media, in Tolkien forums, Reddit, LotRO, or wherever else you find fellow Tolkien readers! (And don’t forget to give us a review on iTunes, even if you listen to us elsewhere — it really helps us out!)

Third, we’re looking into ways to give listeners a chance to join us more often — more FB Live events (we hope) and also the opportunity to Skype with us during an episode recording or a special event!

Fourth, we promise to bring more Tolkien Fun Facts to you, along with listener-contributed comments like we did for our Tolkien tribute episode. We’re also looking into ways to do more prize giveaways!

Fifth, and finally, we’ve heard from more than a few of you that you might be interested in some Prancing Pony Podcast gear: t-shirts, hats, stickers, mugs, shot glasses, and other ‘good stuff’, as the saying goes. Well, we are looking into that right now and hope to have news for you on that front shortly.

This is the END. I am going. I am leaving NOW. GOOD-BYE!


Anyone who’s read even the first few pages of The Lord of the Rings is familiar with the “found manuscript” concept at the heart of Tolkien’s mythology: the idea that the books of the Middle-earth legendarium were not inventions, but translations of the Red Book of Westmarch, penned by the Hobbits of the stories themselves.  It’s easy to see why this concept would be attractive to Tolkien. The claim, however tongue-in-cheek, that his stories were miraculously preserved firsthand accounts of prehistoric events — not just the flights of fancy of some bloke who taught Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College — lent his work a mysterious air of historicity like that of the most beloved real-world myths, from the Trojan War to the Arthurian cycle. In addition, setting his stories in the distant past of our primary world helped Tolkien in his effort to make “a Secondary World which your mind can enter,” (“On Fairy-Stories,” Tree and Leaf, p. 37) a story which the reader can remain inside as long as they choose to.

But it seems very likely that Tolkien believed his stories truly did come from somewhere beyond himself.  In several of his letters, Tolkien is careful to distinguish his artistic process from mere invention (below are just a few examples):

  • In a 1956 draft letter to an unidentified “Mr Thompson” — “I have long ceased to invent (though even patronizing or sneering critics on the side praise my ‘invention’): I wait till I seem to know what really happened.  Or till it writes itself.” (Letters, p. 231)
  • In the 1951 letter to Milton Waldman (the letter Alan and I have cited on the podcast so often that we’ve both begun to quote it in our sleep, to the chagrin and terror of our wives) — “… always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.”  (Letters, p. 145)
  • In a 1954 letter to Peter Hastings — “… it seems to have grown out of hand, so that parts seem (to me) rather revealed through me than by me …” (Letters, p. 189)

Perhaps it’s essential to Tolkien’s view of his own work as a “sub-creation” — a well-intentioned but imperfect imitation of the creation of the universe by a divine creator — that he considered its ultimate origin to be beyond himself. The idea of a divine inspiration for a literary work is one nearly as old as literature itself (a fact revealed in the word’s etymology, from Latin inspirare, “to breathe into,” as in a story breathed into a poet’s mind from beyond). From Homer to Milton’s Paradise Lost, divine inspiration is held to be the source of many great epics. But much closer to home for Tolkien, though, it is cited by a venerable medieval English historian as the origin of the oldest extant poem in Old English, Cædmon’s Hymn.

At the moment when Frodo and Sam’s
road is darkest, the idea “was put into” Tolkien
to insert a reference to
the earliest inspiration for his mythology.

As recorded by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Cædmon was an illiterate herdsman to whom a hymn of creation was revealed in a dream:

When he there at a suitable time set his limbs at rest and fell asleep, then some man stood by him in his dream and hailed and greeted him and addressed him by his name: ‘Cædmon, sing me something.’ Then he answered and said: ‘I do not know how to sing and for that reason I went out from this feast and went hither, because I did not know how to sing at all.’ Again he said, he who was speaking with him: ‘Nevertheless, you must sing.’ Then he said: ‘What must I sing?’ Said he: ‘Sing to me of the first Creation.’ When he received this answer, then he began immediately to sing in praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard …
     (Eccelesiastical History of the English People, Book IV, Chapter XXIV)

Tolkien’s characters occasionally receive this kind of inspiration in the form of words they’ve never heard before, notably when some kind of divine intervention seems to be at work. In our recent podcast 031 – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Alan and I discuss how “it seemed to [Beren] that words were put into his mouth” (The Silmarillion, p. 166), telling him what to say as he stood before Thingol and Melian. But an even clearer echo of Bede’s story of Cædmon can be found in The Lord of the Rings, in the chapter “Shelob’s Lair”:

Slowly [Frodo’s] hand went to his bosom, and slowly he held aloft the Phial of Galadriel. For a moment it glimmered, faint as a rising star struggling in heavy earthward mists, and then as its power waxed, and hope grew in Frodo’s mind, it began to burn, and kindled to a silver flame, a minute heart of dazzling light, as though Eärendil had himself come down from the high sunset paths with the last Silmaril upon his brow. The darkness receded from it, until it seemed to shine in the centre of a globe of airy crystal, and the hand that held it sparkled with white fire.

Frodo gazed in wonder at this marvellous gift that he had so long carried, not guessing its full worth and potency. Seldom had he remembered it on the road, until they came to Morgul Vale, and never had he used it for fear of its revealing light. Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit.
     (The Two Towers, p. 704)

The Quenya words that Frodo had never heard (before speaking them) translate to “Hail, Eärendil, brightest of stars.” This is a nearly exact translation of “Éalá Éarendel engla beorhtast” (“Hail, Earendel, brightest of angels”), the line of Old English poetry from Cynewulf’s Crist that inspired Tolkien to start writing “The Voyage of Eärendel the Evening Star” in 1914 — by all appearances, the first sub-creation in what would eventually become the Middle-earth legendarium. It seems that here, at the moment when Frodo and Sam’s road is darkest, the idea “was put into” Tolkien to insert a reference to the earliest inspiration for his mythology.

Why here, I wonder? Why such a literal reference to his own sub-creative process, to show Frodo actually inspired by what’s essentially the same line of poetry that inspired Tolkien? Of course, Eärendil stands throughout the legendarium as “a sign of hope to men” (Letters, p. 385), the Gil-Estel (“Star of Hope”) of the Númenóreans; and hope is something Frodo and Sam need right now. This is the darkest their road has been, the most hopeless — in some ways, the most hopeless their quest will ever be, except at the Cracks of Doom — and hope is inspired or “breathed into” Frodo through the invocation to awaken the light, now at this critical point. But I believe there’s another reason as well.

Eärendil is the shining (forgive the pun, but absolutely intended!) example in the Middle-earth legendarium of the traveler to Faërie, that rare individual with the ability to cross over into “the Perilous Realm itself” and transmit some message for mere mortals who cannot: a plea to the Faërie-race (as in Eärendil’s case) for some boon to be brought back to those of us bound to the mortal shores of the middle-earth. The boon brought back is necessarily an imperfect imitation, a poor substitute for the direct experience of the Faërie realm; so the traveler to Faërie is inherently a sub-creator himself. Tolkien’s non-legendarium story Smith of Wootton Major is a wonderful expression of this concept, which I’d love to explore in another Prancing Pony Pondering … someday.

For now, I’ll content myself with the assertion that the role of the sub-creator (Eärendil, Tolkien) is as a messenger, to bring back these imitations, imperfect as they may be. These “glimpses” of Faërie are all that many of us can get (paraphrasing a sentiment in Smith), because the land of Faërie is too perilous for most mortals to tread. The glimpses he brings back to mortals inspire us with tales of hope (see also: recovery, escape, and consolation!) but also point the way back to Faërie: a guiding light for those few who are worthy to follow on that perilous road.

And there will always be others. So while Eärendil may be the best example of the traveler to Faërie in Middle-earth, he is not the only one. Here in Book IV of The Lord of the Rings, we see him light the way for the latest such travelers. Indeed, Frodo and Sam are following in Eärendil’s footsteps, in a way: the sacrifice, the acceptance of the quest no one else will take, the path too perilous for most; even though their path takes them east before it takes them west. So I find it fascinating that the figure of Eärendel lit the way for Tolkien himself to enter into the Faërie world of his own sub-creation in 1914. For all three of them, Eärendil/Eärendel guides them on their way to become part of the same overarching myth.

Where would any of them — Frodo, Sam, Tolkien — be without that light to guide them on their path, without that inspiration?  Sam knows the answer. He’s already figured out what happens to those who don’t follow the light, who turn back from the perilous road:

‘… with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end.’
     (The Two Towers, p. 696)

I don’t believe anyone reading The Lord of the Rings can imagine Frodo or Sam ever turning back and abandoning the quest (except maybe certain scriptwriters), but at the dark point in Shelob’s Lair it certainly seems that they might be defeated and forgotten, with no one ever to tell their story. It is their continuing on, with the aid of the light of Eärendil the Star of Hope, that allows them to go on. To complete their quest. To become part of the story.

But only a part, as Sam well knows:

‘… and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got — you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’
     (The Two Towers, pp. 696-697)

No, Sam. They never do. And that, too, helps us believe.


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.

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.