On the Eagles’ Coming

The Black Gate Opens

By Greg Fischer


“The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!” (Source)

This is one of my favorite chapters in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The broken, but not yet beaten, fellowship of men, Dwarves, Elves, and hobbits sets off for the final battle, but in this chapter another member of the fellowship is separated from his friends. Merry is not fit enough to continue the journey and can only watch while his friends begin their final foray to an uncertain ending. It is with sadness that we see Merry left behind, while his companion Pippin (the last of our fellowship hobbits) marches off for his own place of honor in the brooding war, as a soldier of Gondor. While the vanguard cannot be certain of their fate, the initial journey seems one of promise with little resistance from the enemy. Nevertheless, Tolkien indicates that the lack of resistance from the enemy does not fool the group. Throughout this chapter, Tolkien provides a sense of foreboding in describing the mood of the land, including such phrases as “… a shadow and a gloom brooded upon the Ephel Duath” and “…the air was heavy with fear and enmity”. Similarly, Tolkien informs us of the disposition of the company with such phrases as “…the hearts of all the army, from highest to lowest, were downcast, and with every mile that they went north foreboding of evil grew heavier on them.”

So too we continue our Lenten journey along a similar path. On Palm Sunday, we hear of the throng who greet Jesus. John (12:12-13) tells us that “… the great crowd that had come for the feast heard that Jesus was to enter Jerusalem, so they got palm branches and came out to meet him.” We rejoice in the acceptance of the Lord with the crowd, but we have a sense of foreboding because we know how the story ends. We are well too aware that there is pain and suffering coming and this momentary exultation and inclusion will not last – and we cannot do anything to stop it. Like Pippin, our faith is tested during this Easter season.

Finally, the Black Gate is opened and, after Gandalf rejects the terms from the Messenger, the final Middle Earth battle of good versus evil begins. This chapter ends not with the outcome of that battle but instead with our hobbit-hero Pippin hearing voices that “…seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far and above: ‘The Eagles are coming!’” The rejection of the Messenger and the coming of the Eagles are a fitting tie to our baptismal promises, which we will renew on Easter Sunday by rejecting the Messenger of Sin – Satan, and accepting God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the resurrection of Christ and life everlasting.

2016’s Reflection: “On Deeds Within Measure
2015’s Reflection: “For Frodo


On the Last Throw of the Dice

The Last Debate


But are the dice loaded in our favor? (Source)

We come to it at last: the final throw, the ultimate risk, the finale par excellence. Everything that has been done up to this point has led to this moment, where one side will be victorious, and the other beaten down into crushing defeat. All the plotting and planning in both camps boil down to this one last hurrah, before the Black Gates, on the fields where once this same battle was engaged before.

Except it is not the same, for the conditions of victory are different this time. For Gandalf, Aragorn, and the forces that they lead, strength of arms will not be enough. It matters not if they triumph against the forces of Mordor; in fact, by their own capacity it is impossible for them to do so. They are instead the bait, the distraction, the feint to draw off the Enemy and fix his eye on them, instead of the Ringbearer. Truly, this gambit is a last throw of the dice, for the outcome on which it rests will be outside their power to control.

They dice may come up sixes, and good things come again. They may live to see the Ring destroyed, Sauron overcome, and realms of men renewed. The dice may instead come up snake eyes, and they witness instead the total victory of darkness. Or, and perhaps most likely of all, they will perish before the dice are fully settled, sacrificing their lives to buy Frodo and Sam the time they need for their own last draw of the deck. Yet, as the counselors of the Last Debate conclude, in this they would rest in peace, knowing that their fall gave every opportunity for those the defend to continue to thrive.

We Lenten pilgrims now set off on our own final march: we have held our Last Debate, and in Holy Week we follow the footsteps of the apostle through Jerusalem, to the end set before us, to whatever end. The victory that we achieved on Palm Sunday – the crowds thronging to welcome us into the holy city – now, like the glory of the Pelennor Fields, seems fleeting. The forces that opposed us are undaunted, and they seek to ensnare us, entrap up, catch us in our words and deeds. And our leader, like Aragorn, seems to willing walk into that trap, heedless of the danger that lurks there. We may, like the disciples, feel uneasy; we may doubt the wisdom of such reckless confrontation. Yet, we place our bets on this one last throw of the dice, this one last chance of the divine to set things aright and renew us with love and grace.

Yet, there is this one difference between the men of Gondor and the Body of Christ: for we have seen the final victory already in faith. The dice are loaded in our favor, and though the roll may not land as we would have desired it, nevertheless, its outcome is all that we truly needed.

2016’s Reflection: “On Gulls and Other Birds
2015’s Reflection: “On the Promise of Men

On the Qualities of a Ruler

The Houses of Healing

49_the king.png

All hail the king! (Source)

Aragorn finally enters his own city, the city has longed to rule, the city of kings. Yet he does not enter as we might expect as the victor of a great battle that has saved his people from death and destruction. What can we learn from Strider about the qualities of a ruler?

A ruler is wise and considerate. We who have traveled with the Ranger from the North all these miles have come to understand and trust in his lineage and his capacity; yet the people of Gondor are less informed, less omniscient in their comprehension. Aragorn knows that he returns as from legend, and that there could be doubt about the authenticity of his claim to the kingship. He also suspects rightly that Denethor might be a jealous ruler, and that entering the city triumphantly now could bring about resistance. Aragorn puts unity against the Enemy before his own status or honor; he sets the common good above his own.

A ruler is humble and hard-working. Aragorn takes not the credit of the victory, even though his timely arrival ultimately pushed the Enemy back. He instead recognizes the valiant efforts of the city, and the essential strength of arms of Rohan, and the leadership of the Prince of Dol Amroth, the King of the Mark, and especially the White Rider in all things. All deserve credit; all receive praise. The struggle against the forces of Mordor is a team effort, one where each must play their own part in the greater movement.

A ruler is caring and merciful. Though Aragorn wishes not to enter Minas Tirith at all, Gandalf’s requests cannot be cast aside easily. People lay dying, and the hands of the king may be the only remedy for the Black Breath. So Aragorn comes to the Houses of Healing in secret, healing those he loves most – the steward, the soldier, the hobbit – but not limited himself there. Instead, he goes to the common people, to the rank and file soldier and civilian, and offers his strength and his cures. In it he fulfills the prophecy of his name and coming, and builds good will among the people he one day hopes to lead, but this was not the motivator of his efforts. It was instead love, and recognition that without his presence many might be lost.

Wise, humble, caring: these are stark differences of character from our own rulers today, even if we have more choice and say over who now takes the reigns of power. Yet the example of Aragorn speaks also to each of us, in the places where we must lead. Where can we better orient the efforts of others to the common good, seeking not our own success and glory? As we enter into Holy Week, as we follow Christ into his own city, this is a question worth our consideration.

2016’s Reflection: “On Visiting the Sick
2015’s Reflection: “On the Longings of the Wounded Heart

On What Ifs

The Pyre of Denethor


The “what ifs” spread out to the horizon – but only one path may we trod at a time (Source)

What if Denethor had not gone mad with grief and pride? What if Gandalf had not been distracted and needed for the rescue of Faramir from untimely death? What if the White Rider had been able to set forth onto the Fields of Pelennor as he must have originally intended?

It’s an interesting thought experiment: if Mithrandir had not be otherwise preoccupied, would he have confronted the Black Captain before death came to Theoden? Perhaps the King of Rohan would now live, and Merry and Eowyn would not now be at death’s door. For the white against the black had long been prepared, and on multiple occasions Gandalf had reference a great test that awaited him. What more appropriate foe for Gandalf that the Witch King, and even greater terror than the Balrog that Gandalf the Grey once met in Moria.

And yet…what if? Would Gandalf have been able to defeat the Enemy’s chief servant? After all, the prophecy foretold that the wraith would not fall to the hand of any man. Gandalf, though certainly something more than mortal man, appears in the form of one: could he have fulfilled the doom set on the Pelennor Fields? Or would his presence instead have actually distracted and delayed the action of Eowyn and the courage of Merry, preventing them from performing their great defiance? In short, was perhaps the work of the Enemy that held Gandalf back necessary for the triumph that came?

It is hard to say: and even Gandalf seems torn and uncertain as he looks out from the walls, seeing great victories but also great sorrows. Yet we can play the same language game out for any of the events at the Pelennor Fields, any of the circumstances throughout The Lord of the Rings: what if Beregond had not stormed through the porter’s office? What if Elrond had prevailed and Merry and Pippin not been sent out with the Fellowship? What if the Ring had come to Minas Tirith? The what ifs rain down upon us, and they drown us in their uncertainty.

And still, they are fleeting: for they are only visions of if, not realities of is. Reflecting on the what ifs of our lives can provide some food for thought, some realizations and comforts. Yet they can also consume us, leading us to inaction and grief. When faced with choices, we must have both the wisdom and will of Gandalf at the gate: to ask the right questions, to mull the right factors, and to make a choice, and then seize that choice without delay. For we can ultimately only choose one thing, rightly or wrong, at any time, and we may not know what prophecies we held aid, or what feats can be accomplished, even if it seems that we have chosen that path that we did not intend.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Work of the Enemy
2015’s Reflection: “On Agony

On Odes, Ballads, and Epics

The Battle of the Pelennor Fields


“The last and lingering trobadour to whom the bird has sung…” (Source)

The great struggle before the walls of Minas Tirith is presented to us by Tolkien in two forms. There is the main narrative, the story and style we have read (or listened to) from the very beginning. Yet there is also the words of the poet of Rohan that Tolkien first introduced back as Theoden left Dunharrow for the great ride but that is expanded upon at length here. This addendum to the main tale, written in the conceit of a later storyteller recalling the feats of the battle, is very typical Tolkien, in the same way that he has woven into the tale of The Lord of the Rings fragments, translations, and referencing to the odes, ballads, and epics of the Middle-earth he has sub-created.

Now, in fairness, each of these terms has a proper definition and form: an ode is not a ballad and neither are officially epics. Nevertheless, I speak of them interchangeably as representatives of the broader tradition of oral tales about great deeds once done. It is a form that is mostly lost to us moderns, studied with misaligned media in schools and looked upon as a feature of less-progressive eras. Even those formats that most readily imitated the oral tradition – the radio, for instance – have lost their sway over our culture.

Yet, how incredible it is to read (and even more incredible to listen) to the ode of Theoden, the ballad of the Pelennor Fields, the epic song of the Ride of the Rohirrim! For its beauty lies in part in the differences and excesses that appear only here, not in the narrative as we expected it. We have the poetic imagery, the repetition, the language of awe and wonder, the respect of the past that can only appear in the form of a song of praise and remembrance. But we also have something more. For in this ode about King Theoden, we have not only him in glory but also him in pain, him in doubt, him in passing. In this ballad of the Pelennor Fields, we have not only victory but also loss, also sorrow, also passing. In the epic of the Ride of the Rohirrim we not only have the collective accomplishment but those individuals of renown, a lasting tribute to those who perished for the worthy cause, names that would otherwise be lost to the ages.

These are fundamental characteristics of the great odes, ballads, and epics. Whether written by our ancestors or on their behalf, they always speak with reverence but without deception, of virtue but also of weakness. Theoden and his riders don’t storm into the song as perfection expounded, but instead as people valiant but flawed. And importantly, the history as passed down from generation to generation, the kernel of the oral tradition, is not just the events but the people themselves, in their agony and in their glory.

There is an unexpected and unfamiliar beauty to odes, ballads, and epics. Take up the book again, and read out loud the words of the poet of Rohan; rewind your audio book and with attention listen to the epithet of Snowmane, or the staves of the Marshall on hill of battle. Feel your heart stir within you; feel an up-swell of tears in your eyes. These are emotions we rarely can access anymore, and we should be thankful for such tales as these.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Rush to Judgement
2015’s Reflection: “On Laughing in Defiance of One’s Certain Demise

On Hidden Ways

The Ride of the Rohirrim


The new map, perhaps not all-encompassing (Source)

I remember, as a child, having a car atlas. This book of maps lived in the automobile that my family most likely would use to take longer trips, such as to Illinois for family reunions. In it were page after page of maps, both broad and detailed, state and county and local level, all laid out. Before a trip my parents would plan out the major route we would take. However, as we neared out destination, or needed to take a detour, or returned from a rest stop, occasionally one of the passengers would take the car atlas out, scour it to determine the right location, and the direct how to return to the highway.

How quaint and charming this history seems in the era of Google Maps and smartphones. I haven’t seen a car atlas in years, and the idea of the inefficiency of trying to locate a position on one of those maps in the stress of being lost, hungry, and tired is quite unappealing. Yet I also feel a level of dependence and ignorance now with a GPS at my fingertips. I hardly travel anywhere new – whether walking or driving – without plugging it into my phone and looking at the route. The idea of “roughing it” in terms of navigation is foreign. Even in a city as simple in layout as my own – alphabet one way, numbers the other – I still easily get lost. Without the mountains to orient me as they did as a child, I am never quite sure where north is.

I sometimes wonder if Google Maps has taken from us more than it has given us. Yes, my travel is more efficient and easier than ever before, but I lack the independence, the skills, and the wonder of travel by physical map or sense. And, perhaps even more so, there are the hidden ways that appear not on the screen of phone or computer: the roads too small to be significant, too old to be remembered. These are the routes like the one that Theoden and his riders travel upon, through the wild men’s forest, that one the men of Gondor made. It is a forgotten road, known only by the “uncivilized” and “unsophisticated”; yet it is an important road, for it leads more quickly to the battle, and avoids the dangers and threats set before the Rohirrim.

And so I wonder: what are the hidden ways of my own town and community? Are there roads that the software knows not, and if so, where do they lead? What wonders lay both in their passage and at their conclusion? Who will I meet upon them?

Recently, a major initiative to digitally map out the hiking trails and wilderness paths of the national parks was announced: this, combined with increasing cell coverage, would mean that any traveler on the forest roads would be as at home as on a city street. It would be an impressive feat, and it was lauded by professional hiker and outdoor companies alike; nevertheless, I was saddened at the news. The wilderness disappears; the hidden ways are lost. The forest no longer belongs to the old uncivilized people, and when that knowledge is needed, where will we go to discover it again?

2016’s Reflection: “On Feeling Fully Alive
2015’s Reflection: “On Uncivilized Peoples

On the Defense of Defenseless Things

The Siege of Gondor


The long defense (Source)

Gondor has long been the defender of the lands behind it, standing against the Mountains of Shadow, keeping vigilance over Mordor. The Stewards know this: Boromir said as much at the Council of Elrond, and Denethor has referenced it on multiple occasions before the presence of Pippin. This long and laborious task has fallen on the men on Minas Tirith, and Denethor muses on what it has been worth:

“We who have lived long under the Shadow may surely listen to echoes from a land untroubled by it? Then we may feel that our vigil was not fruitless, though it may have been thankless.”

There is certainly a strength in these words of Denethor, and most certainly a pride, almost a bitterness. The Stewards have long been focused on the defend of Gondor, assuming that Middle-earth’s fate depended solely on its resistance and its failing. There is no question that the city of kings is a stronghold for good, and that its defense has long kept other lands to the West from terror. Yet Denethor forgets – or more likely discounts – the hard work of others, of Elves, and Dwarves, and other men – to resist the work of the Enemy, wherever it may appear.

How different is Denethor’s perspective on the burden of defending the defenseless when compared to his long sundered kinsmen, Halbarad, ranger of the North:

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

For Aragorn and his kin, the defense of those unable to defend themselves is an inherently good act, not requiring praise or thanks or even acknowledgement. They sacrifice themselves for the sake of the Shire because it is a good and true and beautiful place, full of hobbits and others of great worth. Their flourishing in peace and little fear is in and of itself the choice fruits of the long vigil, worthy of living long under the Shadow.

As such, we should ask ourselves: do we trend more toward Denethor or Halbarad? When we defend defenseless things – by our words, our actions, our service, our care – do we expect the praise and the glory? Do we feel resentful and bitter when thanks is not given? Do we take on the burdens before us frustrated by now experiencing their fruits? Or do we instead find hope and comfort in our sacrifices, appreciating the good, true, and beautiful even when we cannot have them for ourselves.

For the world is full of many Shires worth saving, and many Shadows that would terrorize them. The fruits of our labors are never fairest when they exist only for ourselves, and when the prize is not given to us now, then, according to our Lord, is our reward greatest in the Kingdom to come.

2016’s Reflection: “On Hope
2015’s Reflection: “On War