On Small Mysterious Details

Flotsam and Jetsam

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A barrel of Old Toby (Source)

In the grand scheme of Merry and Pippin’s account of the siege and flooding of Isengard, it’s a small detail: the discovery of Longbottom Leaf (“Old Toby”), the pipeweed of pride of the South Farthing, in the storehouses of Saruman. Compared to the froth of the Ents, the visits of both Gandalf and Wormtongue, and the events at Helm’s Deep, it seems an insignificant addendum, an out-of-place observation. Aragorn adds a couple more layers to the puzzle, and as we learned when we first set out from Rivendell, it is wise to listen to what a Ranger notes. That the trade routes in the Western lands have long been sundered; the some of the half-men at Helm’s Deep looked oddly similar to the Southron spy they first dealt with in Bree; that Saruman would have even knowledge of the best product of such a craft: all hint at something more beyond the small and mysterious details. Aragon muses that he should mention this to Gandalf, however small; yet, at least explicitly, he never does, and so the detail is lost to both the Fellowship and the reader in the passage of time and pages.

The Longbottom Leaf is a small, mysterious detail, one which will have no great significance for many a chapter ahead: in fact, one might argue that the question of the barrels is the last mystery solved in The Lord of the Rings, the last puzzle piece placed in the closing scenes of The Return of the King (which I shall not spoil). As such, the pipeweed of the South Farthing, a seemingly insignificant piece of color added for authenticity and charm, may teach those on the Lenten journey something of great value. Old Toby reminds us of the importance of small, mysterious details.

In our times of distraction and anxiety, when much needs to be accomplished and there is no time for pause or reflection, it is easy for the details – especially those small and obscure ones – to slip through the cracks. It is all too easy for our eyes to brush over the words, to overlook the occurrence, to miss the slight of tongue or the added word. We cannot observe or understanding everything that happens around us: we are not perfect, or robotic. But in the midst of some of those small and mysterious details might be valued clues or hints at what is to come, and might draw our attention to things that need us that may not seem otherwise.

How then can we restore our ability to better discern the small and mysterious details of our lives? First, we can remember to pause, and think, and reflection on occasion. Like our five companions in the storeroom, sometimes haste is not the answer, and especially after many miles travels and many hurdles overcome we often need to recuperate with conversation and musing. Second, we can hone our minds on the details on the things that matter most to us, the things for which we have the comparative advantage in observation. Few others would have recognize the Longbottom Leaf, or known its significance, outside of Merry and Pippin: yet they observed and noted it because it is part of their discipline, their specialty. Aragorn is very keen at observing tracks on the grounds; Legolas’s eyes give him keenness over things far away. Each plays to their strengths.

Finally, there is a place for memory: “she took all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Sometimes the small mysterious details won’t reveal their true natures immediately. Then we must hold on to such things as best we can, and await their fulfillment in true time.


2016’s Reflection: “On the Paying of Debts and the Smoking of Pipes
2015’s Reflection: “On Being Positively Hasty

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On Being Drawn

The Road to Isengard

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Mesmerized, its draws us back to it (Source)

In the title of this short piece, I am not implying any sort of wisdom in the act of drawing with pencil and pen things into life to understand them, even though such an act might parallel well with the method of writing into life such characters. Both, in some manner, might be considered an act of sub-creation, a concept near and dear to Tolkien’s heart. Nor am I suggesting the act of being drawn and quartered, a quite gruesome form of punishment and one upon which I rather not linger.

Instead, I thinking instead of the act of being drawn to something, as Legolas is to the awoken and moving forests. “The trees have eyes,” he says, and they speak a language that the wood elf might learn with time and patience. We do not know exactly why the trees draw Legolas so intensively: perhaps they are so similar and yet so different from his home, or perhaps because they speak to an inner core of his being the led the original Elves to wake the Ents in the beginning. And though Legolas cannot fulfill his desire and spend time in the forest, it is nevertheless clear how much an attraction to his mind it has become by the time he leaves its eaves.

Gimli, on the other hand, is not drawn to the forest: in fact, quite the opposite. He cries aloud and demands to let off the ride before it returns to dwell long among those mysterious trees. Not everything has the same impact on everyone; we are not all drawn to the same wonders. Yet Gimli has his own desire, his own drawing force, in the caves of Aglarond There is something out there that draws us, and in doing so impacts us.

The ac of being drawn is almost a subconscious, irrational experience: it is this sense of both desire and inevitability, this losing control as one slips into awe and wonder. It can serve both masters, both good and evil: the draw of holiness and the draw of sin are both powers in the world, though one is ultimately the great. In this Lenten season, we may find ourselves like Legolas being drawn to some great unknown, some great discovery: or we may find ourselves like Gimli, concerned that we are unwillingly being drawn to a great disaster, a great weakness. The challenge for us is to discern which is which, and how to respond to them.

Sometimes, like Gimli, we may need to rouse ourselves or call for others to bring those we love back from the brink of temptation. Sometimes, like Legolas, we may have to delay embracing what we are being drawn to so that we may fulfill other obligations and responsibilities. But ultimately, like both Elf and Dwarf, we must not forget those things that draw us in, and hold each other accountable to return to them, so that no matter what business or errands are set before us now, we might before the end return to those things that leave us with awe and wonder.


2016’s Reflection: “On the Glittering Caves of Aglarond
2015’s Reflection: “On a Few Well-earned Comforts

On Taking Stock and Making Preparations

Helm’s Deep

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Many provisions stored under ancient stone (Source)

Many miles into Lent have we journeyed. Many days of Middle-earth have passed. Wonders have we seen and companions met. Struggles we have had, and surprises too. Now we come upon a stronghold, Helm’s Deep, where we might weather for a while those things that have pursued us into our pilgrimage: doubts we had thought we cast aside, sins we had set out to rid ourselves us. They have tracked us to the very gates of the Hornburg, and they may seem very strong and very many.

Yet, we are not alone. We can take stock of what we have experienced thus far and where we must go from here in a place of strength, a place that others in their wisdom have long prepared with provisions and supplies. For us, such a place might be a welcomed rest, or a place of defense, or for a regrouping, or for reflection. And very likely it is a place where we can meet others like us, others who are also taking stock and making preparations.

What are the Helm’s Deeps of our lives? They are the institutions built long ago (or perhaps not so long) that have ever been the keeps among challenges. There is the citadel of the Church, built seemingly long ago in the time of legends, ancient and well-designed. We may not often think to come here, or may find ourselves only seeking it when the Enemy is loose upon our lands, but many over the ages have stored up sustenance and supplies in its inner court.

There is also the deep of community – the clubs, the organizations, the formalized networks to which we belong – that at times may seem to blend into the hills themselves. Yet they are a feature distinguished, separate from our normal homesteads and different from where we have come. The horses we have journeyed the miles of road along we can rest here, and share stories with those who have come from west and east, north and south. Brought together by a common purpose, in the deep of community we may find the kindling of companionship.

There are also the caves of family, and deep friendships, hidden in the mountains. Beautiful and yet mysterious, known and yet so much left to discover, the caves are that last refuge, a place where we might hold out long or find some escape. We are wary, because the Enemy that seeks our doom has long scoped out these lands, and knows of these caves, and may know their weaknesses. Yet we nevertheless can take comfort here, in both the light and the darkness, and though we may need the patience of a dwarfs to bring them to their fullest glory, we hold them as a treasure for our protection.

The journey has been long, and many days and miles lay ahead to Mt. Doom, to Calvary. We cannot linger here at Helm’s Deep for much time: just enough to weather one assault, for one night’s rest, to catch one’s breath. But in this stronghold and all the ancient castles that litter the path ahead we may find defense and good provision. From within them, which the wise have kept secure, we may find the needed moments to take stock of what we had already done, and make preparations for the deeds ahead.


2016’s Reflection: “On the Dawn
2015’s Reflection: “On Spiritual Warfare

On Defending the Honor of One’s Lady

The King of the Golden Hall

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The making of a knight (Source)

Oh, that Gimli. We who live so far removed from what might be considered an “honor culture” may find the dwarf to be an endearing, old-fashioned character. Gimli berates Éomer for knowing little of Galadriel; he basically challenges the Third Marshall of the Mark to a duel if he does not name her fairest of all ladies; and the moment Wormtongue speaks ill of the Elven Lady and her land, the dwarf makes moves to defend her honor. There is a charm to this strange sort of chivalry for a much more noble (and already married) woman; yet perhaps in our times this might be deemed unwarranted and unwelcomed by some. Yet it is not so foreign – or so uncommon – as we might first believe.

For chivalry, in its purest and unadulterated form, is exactly what Gimli displays: honor, devotion, and defense of a lady for no ulterior motives than that she deserves it. Whether because of her beauty, her wisdom, her charity, or what she represents, such ladies have been the inspiration for knights and other chivalrous folk down the ages, challenging such men to be better than themselves for their lady’s sake. And such a devotion is all the more worth considering when there is no possibility of amorous passion or unfolding partnership: where a single token – say, three strands of hair – is all the defender has to remember and behold of the lady which he serves. Such a form of chivalry was and remains rare, and even the great bards and storytellers often point to its shortcomings, whether around the tables of Camelot or the halls of other kings. Of course, in our times, such set gender roles may seem frustratingly inflexible: perhaps now a great tale could be told about a marvelous woman who serves nobly for the sake of an unobtainable man.

Yet, there is wisdom to be had in reflecting on Gimli’s chivalry, and the defending of a lady’s honor, that bleeds across sexes and statuses. For one, it is interesting to compare his reaction to Éomer verses that of Wormtongue: where as the former allows for conversation and a future promise, for the other actions must immediately speak louder than words. To me it raises a similar questions to one I have long considered about the deliverance of God’s word: why was it that when Zechariah doubted he was made mute, while when Mary raised a question is was answered? Perhaps it had something to do with the interior considerations of the heart that we are not told; perhaps it relates to the tone of the question that cannot be conveyed via written text. But I also wonder if it had not to do with their relative positions and expectations of what they should know: Zechariah, as a priest and one in the immediate presence of the Lord, should have a better reaction than the poor and humble Mary. Yet their roles are reversed, and God responds in kind!

Similarly, Éomer is young and untested, a soldier who questions but clearly considers women with high regard given his relationship with his sister. Wormtongue, on other hands, as a counselor of kings, should possess greater “wisdom” that he displays, and should not speak ill of things clear to the wise as good, for it betrays his duplicity. We might consider where in our own lives we have the wisdom to speak well and for some reason refrain, or where our learning should raise our capacity to know.

And also, consider this: ultimately it is Gandalf who defends Galadriel’s honor, not Gimli, with those beautiful lines that must have been close to his heart:

In Dwimordene, in Lórien
Seldom have walked the feet of Men,
Few mortal eyes have seen the light
That lies there ever, long and bright.
Galadriel! Galadriel!
Clear is the water of your well;
White is the star in your white hand;
Unmarred, unstained is leaf and land
In Dwimordene, in Lórien
More fair than thoughts of Mortal Men.

We are not alone in our defense of beautiful things: a lady may have multiple knights who serve her. When others step up to the defense of the things we love, we must refrain from the temptation of envy or pride, but instead embrace them as friends and compatriots: as others who see the truth of things, and are willing to sacrifice to defend another’s honor.


2016’s Reflection: “On Counseling the Doubtful
2015’s Reflection: “On Halls, Horsemen, and Horns

On Memory

The White Rider

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Gandalf reborn (Source)

One of the more perplexing scenes in The Lord of the Rings takes place on the outskirts of the forests of Fangorn, when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli meet the mysterious old man and uncover him as – SPOILER ALERT! – Gandalf. Why should Gandalf be so coy and reserved with them? Why let them assume he is their enemy Saruman, and only reveal his true nature after they have made efforts to attack him? And why refrain from telling them more about the fate of the hobbits, or of himself, beyond riddles without much pressing on their parts?

An initial hypothesis might be that Gandalf wants to test them. He has been away from the Company for a long time, and he does not know much of what has passed save that Frodo went his own way. Perhaps he is concerned why they would desert Frodo, or that some other change of heart had come on them. But this does not seem congruent with Gandalf’s character, or with his long relationship with Aragorn and the largely incorruptible nature of the Elves. As well, he has seen Galadriel in recent days, and hear from her all that had happened, so surely he would know that at least these three of the Fellowship had remained true.

Gandalf may instead be seeking to warn them. As he notes later on, he has often counselled his friends “to suspect even their own hands when dealing with the Enemy.” Perhaps this show of Gandalf serves as a reminder that there is much that is dangerous and mysterious that lies on their journey ahead, and they must assume nothing and use wisdom with every interaction. This would foreshadow their coming dealings with both Theoden of Rohan and Denethor of Gondor, and may also link to the fact that Gandalf, since he has become Saruman “as he should have been,” needs people to actively choose him again as opposed to blindly trusting him by name.

Yet, this does not fully feel correct, and I suspect another aspect is at play: Gandalf’s memory. “I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten.” Gandalf struggle with the Balrog, rebirth, and his wrestling with Sauron to save Frodo when he put on the Ring have spent much of Gandalf’s energy, and because he has been sent back, he is no longer “Gandalf” as he once was. The name is a memory to him, because he has been renewed. So too his relationships with each of the Three Hunters: they exist, but they are also memories, memories that must be made real again through interaction, through the speaking of a name, through a moment of recollection. If we accept that when Gandalf says that every day as he lay on the mountain-top was as long as a life-age of the earth, then for Gandalf, eons have seemingly passed. It is not surprising that such an interaction might take place, then.

Such musing do not achieve the full heart of Gandalf’s “transfiguration” before the Three Hunters: there is an element of mystery that defies all explanation. But such a moment speaks to we who live both in time and outside it, who also seek rebirth, transformation, and renewal. Memory is a tricky thing, and we also forget much we learn. We who are baptized in water enter into a new life, one that is both the same and different from the old one. When we are called by our old name, it may take time for us to realize that such a person is still ourselves. And sometimes there are mysteries that defy complete explanations.


2016’s Reflection: “On the Division of Darkness
2015’s Reflection: “On the Turning of the Tide

On Good Judgement

Treebeard

By Thomas Larson

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Last march of the Ents (Source)

Those of us who’ve guzzled the Jesuit Kool-Aid with Merry and Pippin’s thirst for the waters of Entwash often find the themes of Ignatian spirituality reflected throughout our favorite stories. The Ents’ deliberate yet decisive style closely follows the Ignatian practice of Discernment, in which followers are encouraged to make decisions based on reactions to emotions that arise in response to an event or an imagined narrative. We might as well add S.J. to Treebeard’s long Entish name (ok, not really).

Decision-making is beyond difficult, especially as we proceed in the post-college world. No longer presented with clear milestones of progress and a core curriculum, growth becomes hard to measure. Opportunity costs feel almost infinite. Like many my age, I continue to wrestle with broader decisions, including how and when (and if) to pursue graduate studies, what kind of work-life balance I want, and where I want to live. An avalanche of choices assaults me every hour of every day, and I’m usually so tired after figuring out what to prioritize at work and how to approach projects that I can’t even pick a good dinner. At best, I feel like I spend an average of two hours of each waking day unquestionably well (if that). Paralysis begins to set in.  

The War of the Ring presents the Ents with an agonizing decision. They have an easy route and a difficult route, both of which are likely to end in desolation and failure. Rather than trusting in hasty gut calls, they convene and let the narrative unfold over three days, discussing their predicament at length. Two key facts drive their thinking: Saruman’s minions have murdered their flock slowly but surely, and the outside conflict will eventually intrude and destroy everything that grows. The Ents are deeply angry. In the end, they do not hesitate to act (a plot point that the movies should have left unaltered, in my opinion). The Ents know that they must exceed their usual degree of engagement with the outside world (for they dislike getting “roused”) and bring war on Isengard.

The Council of Elrond has a lot in common with the Entmoot. There are plenty of compelling arguments to take the easy path, wait and see, and hope for the best. Wisdom prevailed, and the Council decided to set out to destroy the Ring, rather than defer pain. Frodo makes the same choice in turning east before reaching Rauros, rather than hoping for relief at Minas Tirith. The Ents embark on their last march. (A similar trade-off is still coming in The Last Debate.) Tolkien’s obviously getting at something: “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”

May we all have the bravery and wisdom to choose the harder path when we’re called to it, take ownership of our decisions, and face our greatest challenges head on—albeit without too much haste.    


2016’s Reflection: “On Quenching the Thirsty
2015’s Reflection: “On Not Being Hasty

On Stories Suited for Children

“On Fairy-stories”

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Wisdom and humility, a traditional rendention (Source)

The genre of fantasy has made many strides into the popular culture since the time Tolkien penned his essay, “On Fairy-stories.” Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and the movie adaptations of Tolkien’s work itself have become cultural touchstones; the tabletop gaming renaissance and comic book movie universe juggernauts only aid in making the appreciation of fantasy stories in adulthood no longer a quiet and hidden affair, but a visible and featured phenomenon. After all, for many a year, fantasy was a genre deemed suited for children, a world which provides wonder in childhood and escape during teenage years but that one “grew out of” into more mature forms of media and writing.

This, as a whole, in a welcomed change of perspective, as it has made the joys of experiencing fantasy appropriately accessible to men and women of all ages, and has reopen the paths to kernels of knowledge or discovery hidden in the crafted worlds of the sub-creator to those long passed their youth. Yet, as with much, not all is wholesome and worthy of emulation, for as fantasy has grown popular, it has also lost some of that which makes it fantasy. It has conformed and incorporated new aspects to broaden its appeal or smooth its sharp edges. The counter-reaction by those concerned with the “watering down” of fantasy has been starkly wrapped in social discourse and identity politics. What’s missing is that wondrous place that fantasy began: with fairy-stories, with the tales suited for children.

As Tolkien notes in his essay, the association of fairy-stories with children is not explicit to their content but instead to their context, that is to say, stories vaguely remembered but not considered important for adult affairs: nursery stories for nanny and others of less-educated backgrounds to entertain the minds of little ones. Yet, as many in Middle-earth will note, it is dangerous to disregard the old wives tales and little legends, as what the old women remember and ancient men noted may be truth lost to the complexity and passing of the times. Even though children are not a different class and species and therefore have no greater need for fairy-stories than any other group, there is still a sense that they are suited for children: perhaps because they have a moral situated only somewhat subtly near the surface of the story, or perhaps because they end happily ever after, or perhaps because children’s imaginations are better than their parents.

All are arguments made about fairy-stories, but nevertheless Tolkien rejects each in turn. Only the simplest stories have simple morals: the fairy-stories of epic size and scale may hide little details and nuances that require multiple listenings to discover. And most fairy-stories are both happy and sad: the heroes win, and good things come again, but things are lost, and not everything is the same again. And the things that fairy-stories offers a child – “Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation” – are “all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”

Fairy-stories, in truth, are suited for children because they are suited for all of us. I suspect, however, the reason we maintain this notion about fairy-stories even as fantasy abounds is for the same concern that hinders faith in our times: we who are old are unease at what such things might mean for us, while children can embrace them more willingly. Fairy-stories and faith challenge in strange and uncomfortable ways, suggesting that progress might not be all the good that we think, that the loss and fading of magical things might be a necessity of the world, that the story we are in is larger and more important than we who live in, because there is something greater just around the next page. We cannot pretend to be children, but we must learn from the little ones on this matter, as Christ suggested: to possess the humility set aside the fantasy idols we craft in our image, and return to the fairy-stories that point us to that greater end.


2016’s Reflection: “On the Defense of Fantasy
2015’s Reflection: “On Eucatastrophe