On the Black Pursuit

A Knife in the Dark & Flight to the Ford


Long is the expanse over which runs the black pursuit (Source)

Throughout the opening pages and first days of our journey they have pursued us: the Nine, the Black Riders, the servants of the Enemy. Their true nature is not yet known to us, but no explanation will truly unveil their forgotten origin and mysterious form. Such things are of little concern right now, for they are tracking us, hunting us across the wilds of the world, seeking to capture us and take us to where we wish not to go. For though not borne by black horses or cloaked in dark garb, the Nine are present in our own world, and we too are their target.

Like Frodo, we never expected to be caught up with them. We believed that we could have peace and quiet without concern for the bigger things; we thought we were too small and insignificant for their eyes. Yet our heritage has left us with both a burden and a treasure: a burden that draws them to us, a treasure they seek to take and use for their own nefarious purposes. We cannot ignore the servants of the Enemy, nor can we hide from them. Instead, we must flee them, we must resist them, until we can gather around us the strength of will and fellowship to drive them off.

Like Frodo, we have been wounded by them. Often we have been pierced by their daggers, and left un-whole. The weapons of the servants of the Enemy are diabolical and laden with foul concoctions, and therefore our wounds seem to not truly heal. The effects linger with us: with guilt and with sorrow, with weakness and with separation, with senses of worthlessness, temptation, obliviousness, self-justification. We carry the scars of our encounters, and the world seems more gray because of them. And while we can try to ease the pain, we seem to know no remedy for them.

Like Frodo, it all seems hopeless with them. The servants of the Enemy are too great for us. They will try to silence us, and we must not let them. They will break our weapons, but we must stand our ground. They will command us to resist no more, and the temptation will be there, at times too strong for our weak wills. In those darkest of hours we must have faith that there are things greater than ourselves, and the beyond our wildest dream will come the floods of the ford to wash the Black Riders away from us once more.

For truly, whether they are of physical or spiritual nature, of lesser or greater power, coming from within or without, they are here: we must not delude ourselves into thinking there are no servants of the Enemy. The burden of sin draws evil to us and into our communities, seeking to take from us our greatest treasure: our souls, our very selves, the gift of the image and likeness of God. Both in our resisting and in our shortcomings we take damage from them, and they shall never stop hunting us. Yet there remains hope, even in the darkest of days. There may yet be ancient healing in the House of Rivendell, in the church confessional. There may yet be fortifying substance in the elven flask, in the eucharist. There may be yet power to resist them ever in those that will not bow to the lord of Mordor.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Name of a Woman
2015’s Reflection: “On the Wilderness


On That Which Looks Foul and Feels Fair

At the Sign of the Prancing Pony & Strider


Strider (Source)

“You have frightened me several times tonight, but never in the way that servants of the Enemy would,” says Frodo. “I think one of his spies would – well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand me.” We pause: do we understand Frodo here? Do we recognize the nature of that which looks foul and feels fair? It is an easy note of observation, but a harder kernel of wisdom.

Appearances deceive: that is common wisdom enough. Sometimes the heart senses better than the head: that too is oft-said, though perhaps with some reservation. Yet appearances are deeper than skin-deep, and the heart must be trained as much as the head. Might not a true servant of the Enemy “play the meta” to deceive us even further, or appear not a fair, but as known, or comfortable, or obvious? Might not the heart, encumbered with fear or discouraged by hardship, find it easy to look past misgivings and unsettled, unexplainable concerns?

Strider, perhaps, is not best understood by first glance or first interaction, but instead by the verses now known to go with his true name:

“All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost;
From the ashes a fire shall be woken, A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken, The crownless again shall be king.”

There is power in these words, and food for mind and soul. Gold can be hidden under grime and muck. Age does not correlate directly with decay. These are verses of promise, of hope that no shadow can ever completely overpower the light, and that the true Eternal Flame remains burning even if only in the potential of the ashy remains. They are lines of confidence in the return of the king, both in the pages of the story and beyond.

As we near approach Lent, they are verses that resonate so well. For we who walk the Lenten road likely will amass little glittering riches in this life, but hope to store up a different kind of gold elsewhere. We who walk the Lenten road are a wandering people, with no true home here to rest our heads, but we are not lost, for we know where we long to go. We that have aged in faith will find little that withers us at our core as time passes on, and we that have put down roots in charity will find succor amidst the stormy blasts that may come our way. Ashes soon will be on our forehead as we walk into a period of shadow, walking to rekindle the flame of Baptism and with an eye on the light of Easter. And though the blades of this world – the powers of politics and government, markets and production, culture and community, justice and peace – are broken all around us, there remains only one true King of all.

Yet, in our present moment, and in our present state, there is much that will look both foul and fair, and our discerning feeling may seem overwhelmed with uncertainty. In the most unexpected places we might find those who frighten us, but not as the Enemy does: instead, they bring forth truth and goodness and a deeper form of beauty, a reality which so starkly strikes us to our core. So let us be not afraid, and welcome in the Striders of our lives, when we are fortunate to find them on our journey ahead.

2016’s Reflection: “On Barliman Butterbur
2015’s Reflection: “On the Problems of the Man in the Moon

On Boundaries

In the House of Tom Bombadil & Fog on the Barrow Downs


A fence for reflection (Source)

The verb “deacon” is one of peculiar history. Though most naturally associated with its noun equivalent that signifies a Christian minister below a priest, the verb also has a seeming contradictory meaning (at least in tone) from the annals of American and English informal slang. To “deacon” was to water down liquor, or to hide a bad crop by putting the few attractive goods on top of the pile. But perhaps most interesting, a final use was “to filch by gradually extending boundaries or territorial lines.” A farmer who went out to plow his land after a long winter and felt that the stone boundaries that demarcated his land from his neighbor were noticeably nearer to his homestead might condemn the greedy man of deaconing. Let us hope to never be accused of such a perfidious deed!

Tom Bombadil, certainly, is one who would never been charged with the act of deaconing. He knows where are his boundaries: “Tom’s country ends here: he will not pass the borders.” Within the bounds that he has set, Tom is the Master; beyond those lines, marked on land or in mind, “my knowledge fails [for] Tom is not Master of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country.” Within his land, Tom’s power is great: he recalls the past ages easily, he commands tree and rock and barrow, and he even negates the cloaking nature of the Ring. Outside his land, Tom shows little interest, seemingly unconcerned about potentially disastrous fate of Middle-earth should the Ring fall into the Dark Lord’s hand. Perhaps once Tom’s borders did change, but in a way quite the opposite of deaconing, for his boundaries have shrunk over the passing years, to a little patch of land in the Old Forest.

It is hard to know what to make of Tom, and what to learn from his brief appearance in our story. Tolkien himself wasn’t sure of who Tom was or how he stumbled into our hobbits’ journey. He is a person so selfless and contented that the Ring holds no tempting sway over him. Yet his boundaries and his limited concerns seem to run up against the wisdom that both Gildor and Gandalf shared, that one cannot fence the world off and ignore the fate of those around you. Should the reader therefore imitate Tom or reject him?

Perhaps, as with many things, the insights of Tom Bombadil are deeper and require reflection. For Tom does not lay down his borders as you or I might try. Tom may be the Master, but he is not the Owner: each thing within his bounds belongs to itself, for (as Goldberry relates) ownership would be a dreadful burden. Nor is Tom ignorant of what happens beyond his borders: he is aware of the hobbits’ families and journey, and whether by message of Farmer Maggot or the elves has been awaiting their coming. Nor is Tom heartless of things beyond himself: for he holds the memories of kingdoms of both nature and men now passed, and in remembering and relaying them, honors them in a mysterious way. “Fair was she who long ago wore this on her shoulder. Goldberry shall wear it now, and we will not forget her!”

Maybe, then, there is wisdom then in the strange resident of the Old Forest: to set out borders and master them instead of seeking ways to deacon more. In both our communities and our souls there is temptation for more, a seduction that must be rejected. Tom’s approach is the far better path: a mastery that brings out our true authentic self and aiding those without hesitation who should stumble within our bounds.

2016’s Reflection: “On Clothing the Naked
2015’s Reflection: “On One Whose Boots Are Yellow

On Songs Which I Have Never Heard

A Conspiracy Unmasked & The Old Forest


Word and note reunited (Source)

A small confession: I have almost always, as a habit, skimmed and skipped over block text. Long quoted sections, those over a couple of sentences and especially in academic works, seem to always explain the context in the preceding sentence and summarize the point in the following line. Only a really engaging book, or a quote from an author I knew well, convinces me to endure the set-aside section. And what is true with blocks is also true with ballads: songs and poetry within fiction infrequently garner my attention, even in books that I love.

It was for that reason that I considered listening to The Lord of the Rings instead of rereading it. And over the days that have followed we have heard quite a few songs and no less poems. And in them, I had a shock: for these were not the melodies I was expecting. Instead of slow, dramatic, and intentional, the cadences were quick, light, and sing-songy. The meters were different, and the tunes just off enough to force me to ponder. Not only was I lingering on the lyrics, but really hearing them for the first time.

Perhaps it was to be expected, given that in Tolkien’s work no musical stanzas appear alongside the words of the poems (and given how little knowledge or experience I have with musicology). Yet the stark difference in tone was startlingly: compare this narrated interpretation by Robert Inglis of “Ah Elbereth Gilthoniel” with the films’ versions of “The Lonely Mountain Song” or “Edge of Night” (which arguably is an interpretation anyway). The films have taken some clear liberties, but it is interesting to reflect on the overall character of the songs: do the darker, more mysterious, more unraveling natures of the modern renditions reflect something of our own contemporary tastes and styles?

Comparisons aside, the kernel remains the same: these poems of Bilbo and Frodo, these songs of Bombadil and River-daughter, were words I had never heard sung before. And truly, because of their lack of melody and tune, I had not really understood or appreciated them. They flowed, as all words due, over the contours of my mind to reveal the narrative’s unfolding picture. As they contributed little to the actual direction of the plot, however, they left little impact. However, taken in with the sense of hearing, not sight, the poems have not coursed over, but instead have sunk deep. They shape not the mind’s riverbed but instead fill the mind’s recesses. They don’t take our boat down to our ultimate conclusion – the Sea, the Sea! – but instead create little ponds and oases for us to savor and enjoy.

Now I am, as Samwise would say, talking poetry. Yet in an era where poems are often political and rarely proletarian, where concerts are common but walking songs are hard to come by, it brings me pause to hear songs which I have never heard sung. I wonder what else has passed without remnant through the passages of my mind.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Inquisitiveness of Friends
2015’s Reflection: “On Fredegar Bolger

On the Hopes of the Passing People

Three’s Company & A Short Cut to Mushrooms


“The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel” by Louis Daguerre (Source)

The Lord of the Rings is a story about the passing of things. Even before we reach the outskirts of the Shire’s borders do we witness the unfolding of that core theme.

Sam is passing: passing through the Shire, passing outside his small known world and into the great unknown. His hope? “What about the Elves? Can’t we go and see them?” Sam obtains his desire and more beyond it: an evening celebration with the Fair Folk, featuring song and food and merriment. Though such a small experience in the grand unraveling of the story, it nevertheless remains a chief event of Sam’s life, one surpassing words and memories to recall.

Frodo too is passing: passing out of the Shire, passing far from comfort and into a dangerous world. His hope? “I should like to save the Shire, if I could.” Frodo must sacrifice almost everything he has – home, material goods, community, even seemingly all his friends but one – to prevent danger from causing those things harm. In this passing, he portends that he may never see those sources of joy again, and it leaves him bittersweet. For though they are his loss, he finds comforting resolve in knowing they remain safe.

And Gildor is passing: passing, as with all the Elves, beyond Middle-earth, passing into legend and story. No one owns the world, and truly all things pass: “others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more.” The Wandering Companies pass in and out of this tale, and linger not long, for they “have their own labours and their own sorrows.” Yet as the Elves prepare to depart these shores, they find surprise delight in the simple ways of these hobbits. Gildor’s unexpected hope? “It is fair to hear words of the Ancient Speech from the lips of other wanderers in the world.” The Elf gains a glimpse of something he loves – the high language that can speak the name of Elbereth – remaining in the minds and hearts of others, even after he has gone.

The Lord of the Rings is a story about the passing of things. It is a chief reason why it resonates so well with us, and why the Lenten season evokes it. For our lives are ones of passing, and in Sam, Frodo, and Gildor, we can uncover some unknown hopes. Though passing, we can hope to experience those great desires we foster, even though they may happen at small, unexpected times that we cannot truly recollect. Though passing, we can hope that our actions help preserve our Shires, whatever they might be, from harm. And though passing, we can hope that some lovely things might long endure to cause delight, even in ways and with those we do not expect. The world’s passing brings all things to ruin, but even in their ruin can they inspire wonder and delight.

Such are the hopes of the passing people. Such are the hopes of all who pass.

2016’s Reflection: “On Mercy
2015’s Reflection: “On Mushrooms

On Conversation and the Fields of Knowledge

A Long-expected Party & The Shadow of the Past


Conversation (Source)

The opening chapters to The Lord of the Rings are long, both in terms of time (each takes over an hour when read aloud) and scale (seventeen years pass over the pages, and even earlier days are referenced throughout). Yet these scenes can also feel long due to seeming lack of activity taking a place during them. Notwithstanding a very detailed birthday party, a very humorous gift distribution, and a very thorough cutting of the grass, there is little action and adventure in our early wanderings through the Shire. Instead, the lot of our time is spent in conversation: the Gaffer and Sandyman, Bilbo and Gandalf, Frodo and his relatives, Sam and Ted, Gandalf and Frodo. You could probably throw in Bilbo’s birthday speech as well, given how clearly it is a witty dialogue between the old hobbit and each of his eccentric relations.

Naturally, there are different types of discourses. The informal banter of older men at the pub; the easy exchange between two old friends; the competitive point-scoring of two public rivals; the exploration of knowledge by teacher and student. Each of these dialogues at its essence has the same components: two individuals, a topic, a sharing of words, a resolution. Yet the context of the setting, the topic, and the relationship shapes the dialogue. This may appear obvious, but its ramifications are profound, for it means that every dialogue is unique: no two sets of speakers can have the same discourse.

The philosopher-economist E.F. Schumacher wrote at length in his book A Guide for the Perplexed about the four fields of knowledge, combinations of relational insights that at their most simplified form appear as 1) I – internally, 2) you – internally, 3) I – externally, and 4) you – externally. The challenge of human conversation is that we do not have direct access to the same fields: I can know what I feel like and you look like, but I cannot directly know what you feel like and what I look like. The importance of dialogue is teasing out these fields of knowledge. As a reader we have an abnormal perspective for the characters of Middle-earth: we know that Gandalf looks externally to be a simple conjurer of fireworks and adventures to the hobbits, but that internally he is weighed by more important charges.

Gandalf has a particular gift of accessing this knowledge in the course of conversation. He draws out Bilbo’s internal feeling – the sense of weariness, of “butter spread over too much bread” – to the external senses of verbal admission because the Ring suppresses Bilbo’s own knowledge of self. Gandalf further advances his external view of Bilbo – a hobbit unlike the one he once knew, not acting like himself – into Bilbo’s internal knowledge to rouse him into letting go of the Ring. Direct action by Gandalf would have done only harm here because, as he notes, it would have broken Bilbo’s will. Instead, it is in conversation that such knowledge can be exchanged.

And so we are left with questions: about who each of us deep down and what we show others, about whether we seek the other’s internal self as much as we wish the other to judge us by the same standard, about the power conversation has at uniquely bringing two persons together. They are questions that will remain with us throughout the chapters ahead.

2016’s Reflection: “On Temporal and Eternal Celebration
2015’s Reflection: “On Sin and Festivity

On the Name of a Woman

A Knife in the Dark & Flight to the Ford

7-The Queen of Heaven

O Elbereth! O Gilthoniel! (Source)

In his desperate hour trapped upon Weathertop, surrounded by the Black Riders of Mordor, Frodo strikes out against their approaching leader with his sword and an arousing cry. Such imagery should not surprise: it is a common literary and cultural trope, the doomed hero fortifying himself (and any others with him or her) through comforting or bold words and then plunging themselves into the enemy. Only when the shadows have been deterred and Frodo awoken from his painful encounter does Aragorn remark on the true nature of the matter: that Frodo’s blade was of little importance, for “more deadly to him was the name of Elbereth.”

O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! Such were the words the sprung forth from Frodo’s mouth in the dire moment. Words of a foreign tongue, of a being unfamiliar to either average hobbits or readers, which will be repeated yet again at the Ford against the Nine in their entirety:

“‘By Elbereth and Lúthien the Fair,’ said Frodo with a last effort, lifting up his sword, ‘you shall have neither the Ring nor me!’”

Who then be Elbereth, and why does such a name possess power against the forces of darkness? Elbereth is an elvish epithet meaning “star-queen,” as is Gilthoniel signifying “star-kindler.” Oh Queen of the Stars, Star-kindler! Such translation suggests a female of great authority. And so she is: for the owner of such attributes is Varda, one of the Valar, who are the angelic spirits who helped to create and govern the powers of Middle-earth. Varda is the wife of Manwë (the king of the Valar), and it was she who created the stars for the sake of their beauty. She is the cosmic counterweight to the darkness embodied by Sauron (and more specifically his predecessor, Melkor), and the elves consider her to be their great intercessor and ally amongst the “gods.”

These qualities, as well as her other elven titles – “Ever-white,” “Lady of the Stars,” “White as Snow” – suggest the wellspring of inspiration from which she sprang in Tolkien’s mind. For the epitome of feminine beauty, intercession, and authority, especially for a Catholic such as Tolkien, is Mary, the mother of Christ. Now Varda is not Mary: for neither Mary is not an angelic being, the creator of light and stars, nor is Varda the mother of the Redeemer, of God Incarnate in the World. Tolkien is well-known for loathing blatant allegory, and so here is a prime example of him “sub-creating” or “rifting” on the idea and person of Mary for his work. This is not the first time Tolkien has created this relationship, and (anticipating Galadriel) it will not be his last.

Nevertheless, understanding the parallels between Varda Elbereth and Mary is essential. The closest thing to a prayer in The Lord of the Rings may very well be an Elven hymn to Elbereth that will appear in a chapter to come, a song with qualities very similar to the Hail Mary:

“O Elbereth Gilthoniel, from heaven gazing afar, to thee I cry now beneath the shadow of death! O look towards me, Everwhite!”

There is value, then, in the name of a woman. Swords cannot pierce the veil of shadows; humble human efforts can seem to pale in comparison to the depths of the darkness. Yet the name of a holy intercessor, the woman of grace, can inflame one’s soul and drive back the demons that haunt, whether one walks the paths of Middle-earth or our own realms.

2015’s Reflection: “On the Wilderness