The Last Debate
“Alas for the wailing of the gulls!” The white sea-birds evoke something in Legolas that is perhaps foreign to land-locked landlubbers while familiar to shore-dwelling sea-dogs. “A wonder they are to me and a trouble to my heart,” muses the woodland elf, for their cries stirs deep within a longing, a memory of something unseen. So often a role the birds of Middle-earth plays in the tales of the War of the Ring: a power far off and unexpected, a reminder of things that lay beyond the knowledge and concern of mortal beings. While on occasion they are used for nefarious purposes (the spying carrion of Isengard) or come to the aid of righteous figures (Gandalf’s rescue for Orthanc by a great Eagle), more normal for the birds is neutrality and aloofness: the world looks different when gazed at from above.
In the gull is the spirit of the sea. A widespread family of birds gulls are well-known for their intelligence, resourcefulness, and their capacity to work as a community. Once known as mews, these birds have been documented harassing would-be predators and possessing a lifespan nearing five decades. As scavenging carnivores, they adapted well to human society, eating scraps and other remnants on the beaches and boardwalks of sea-side settlements. Though diverse in coloring and breed, nevertheless their call is distinct and memorable: the wail, the cry, the squall of the seagull. Such a sound harkens the mind to the endless ocean as readily as the smell of salt in the air and the reverberating crash of waves. Like the sea, they are mysterious, countless in the multitude of their flocks, and residing just beyond the grasp of earth-dwellers.
The gull, like other birds, embodies the capacity of nature. The natural world does not concern itself in the moral struggle of mortals and the battles between good and evil: the gulls travel where the sea beckons, and the vultures come where the dead are strewn. Yet, nevertheless, nature is charged with the grandeur of God, made as a creation of beauty, and nature yearns for its own fulfillment. Hence why so frequently in Christian lore plants and animals recognize the presence of Christ or a holy Saint; hence why the great eagles have no love for Sauron and his orcs, and will intervene against wanton destruction in times of dire circumstance. Like Tom Bombadil, like the Ents, so too the birds are not directly burdened by the choices of the Children of Ilúvatar; yet their continued existence is tied to the fate of the Ring, and so in their own ways they must respond to it.
We glean inspiration and insight from the gulls (and other birds). They kindle up in us emotion without explanation: the majesty of the eagle, the longing of the seagull. They become associated with the symbolic depths and desires of the world, whether as the peaceful dove, the self-sacrificing pelican, or the moving swan-song. The spirit of God often takes the form of a bird in human comprehension. And we too at times take the guise of birds in the realm of human activity, for far-off and inconsequential can seem the affairs of other women and men. In those times we must arouse ourselves to action, to recognize the threads that tie our fates together, to see our movement as a source of goodness and hope, as Bilbo once held: “The Eagles are coming!”
Ultimately though, it is the cry of the seagull that lingers with us: the inescapable reverberation of a longing for something we have not seen. Such moments and matters are both wonders and troubles of the human heart. While nature showcases beauty and awe present before our eyes, it nevertheless points to something that is beyond our mortal grasp: grandeur, creation, and the spirit of the sea.
2015’s Reflection: “On the Promise of Men”