On Long Descriptions of Nature

Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit


One possibility of Ithilien (Source)

If you thought we had left such long descriptions of nature behind in the Shire, then you were wrong: for here we have perhaps the most detailed and elaborate depiction of nature within The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps it is because the last three chapters have taken us through relative wastelands and deserts when compared to Ithilien; perhaps it is because Frodo and Sam’s story generally moves slower than that of the Three Hunters or the younger hobbits back in Rohan (we literally spent the whole last chapter thinking at the Black Gate). Whatever the reason, this long description of nature stands out to us, and even the skimming reading or uninterested party cannot miss it.

And what a detailing it is, for we see:

Ling and broom, cornel and larch, cedar and cypress, tamarisk and terebinth, olive and bay, juniper and myrtles, thyme and various colored sages, marjoram and parsley, saxifrages and stonecrops, primroses and anemones, filbert-brakes and asphodel, lilies and iris-swords, briar eglantine and clematis.

More than half of these are species or particulars that only the most avid gardener would know; and even those of us familiar with the names likely recall few images, smells, or particulars about the plants that would add to our understanding of Ithilien. So why should we bother in lingering on these plants?

For one, it signals some important information about the world of Middle-earth. According to J.A. Schulp (author of the article “The Flora of Middle-earth”), Tolkien’s maps place Ithilien 600 miles south of the Shire. If the Shire is comparable to mid-England in climate (which Tolkien basically admits in many places), then Ithilien would reside somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean: Greece, Cyprus, or maybe Crete as examples. Though Tolkien at this time had not gone further in his travels in Europe than Switzerland, he does a particularly accurate job of detailing the nature that would be native in such an environment, likely from his reading of texts of antiquity and reports from wars afar. The flora of Ithilien, in all its details, helps us locate this pleasant location in our own world, which can give us clues to better understand it.

Second, the long descriptions of nature here help us appreciate the presence of Ithilien in our narrative. Here is a place very unlike where we have gone and where we must go from here: it is a resting place, a pause in our dark journey, a spot of beauty in an otherwise dreary approach. Here is a place where the joking conversation of Sam and Gollum does not feel out-of-place; here is a place where the notion of hobbits cooking a coney stew does not seem so ridiculous. As Helm’s Deep was a stronghold for a breath against many enemies, Ithilien is a refugee for recovering against many burdens. The long, detailed, winding descriptions of nature augment such a place.

And finally, these plants, these floral species, are details that matter because they are subtle details. For the reader that knows even on of these plants, or feels the urge to look them up following his or her reading of these pages, they provide a moment of joy, of discovery, of appreciation. They help the reader understand why Faramir and his Rangers could love this land so much and desire so wholeheartedly to defend it. They are the types of descriptions we would know about our own land, our own home, our own place that we love so fairly.

So suffer not the flora of Middle-earth: for in both the Shire and Ithilien there is much to muse over nature.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Correspondence of Conflict
2015’s Reflection: “On the Edible Virtue of Coneys


On Finding the Gate Barred Against You

The Black Gate is Closed


What road should we take when both are black? (Source)

Frequently in life we come to a difficult fork in our path.

On the one hand, there is the Black Gate: the path of resistance, the gate barred against us. It may be the shortest path, or the road decided upon when we set out, or the clearest way forward. Sometimes it was a worthy and wholesome path at one point, now corrupted and turned against us; sometimes it was a possibility from afar that upon closer inspection reveals it force against us. Our little hope turns to despair when we witness that road, that possible path.

On the other hand, there is Cirith Ungol: the secret path, the mysterious way. It is the road we did not expect, one unheard of or unimaginable to us until we have reached the path in the road. Compared to the Black Gate, here at least there may be a slim chance of success. Yet there is a danger on this road that is hidden from us, we experience a sinking feeling that we are approaching a trap or an unknown evil.

This is not an easy fork: between the Black Gate and Cirith Ungol there is no clear and obvious way of proceeding. No good option lays before us. How then should we decide which path to take?

We weigh the decision in our minds, combining wisdom with platitudes. We know simplicity is better than complexity: we know that it’s a slippery slope if we start taking detours from the shortest path to our goal. It is why we didn’t seek our Minas Tirith, why we broke the Fellowship in the first place. All the same, we also know that futility and hopelessness are no good to us: we recognize that the former path is the one expected for us to take, and that therefore the later road might give us the cover and time we need. Dangers lay before us each way: some known, some unknown. Courage will be needed on either path.

And so, how should we read this riddle? Perhaps, first, by recognizing the situation for what it is: that there are no good options, and we should not burden ourselves with the weight of making the right decision. No matter which road we take we should be tested, and all we are asked is we give the journey our all. We will make the decision as best we can, with the knowledge that we have: that knowledge may be incomplete, as it was with Frodo and Sam. We should not fault ourselves for choosing one of the dark paths forward, but instead be encouraged that we haven’t turned back from the mission.

Each choice will be different: each fork the road will need a new moment of reflection, of discernment, and of will. We may trust our own hearts or the advice of those that travel with us. Our victory rests not in ourselves but in things greater than ourselves, and when we find the gates of the Black Land barred against us, let us remember that such gates shall not prevail against us.

2016’s Reflection: “On Discernment
2015’s Reflection: “On Oliphaunts

On the Corpse Road

The Passage of the Marshes

32_Corpse Road.jpg

The Old Corpse Road, Lake District, United Kingdom (Source)

The journey of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum through the swamp just outside the lands of the Dark Lord is a haunting and intentionally-uncomfortable experience for the reader, foreshadowing the unpleasant and frightening paths of the Dead and Cirith Ungol that lay before us. Foul water; faces in the water; little corpse candles: all off-putting, all unnatural. And all the more surprising, therefore, that these concepts come not from Tolkien’s imagination entirely, but instead a little forgotten part of history: the corpse road.

A corpse road is a pathway made for the practical movement of the deceased from communities to cemeteries. These final resting places, for sanitary, geographic, and religious reasons, were often some distance from the places where the living resided, and therefore a road connecting them was needed for transporting the body. What’s more, especially in Britain, only certain churches (called “mother churches”) held the right of burial for the parish, and so bodies from the outlying areas would need to be brought in. These paths would travel through uninhabited and difficult terrain, often only marked by a few coffin stones (where the bodies could be lain while the bearers rested) and a name incorporating the phrase “church-way” or “bier road”.

Many of these roads have lost, or are likely now only recognized as normal footpaths. However, in their prime, corpse roads were frequently associated with spirits, ghosts, wraiths, and other spiritual disturbances. The combination of their isolation and their primary use as a funerary conduit brought about the folklore of the paths of the dead, the major roadways of the spirits between our world and theirs. For example, as the corpse roads often took the clearest and straightest path between the community and the cemetery, it came to be understood the spirits could only travel in straight lines (which is one of the assumptions underlying the development of mazes and labyrinths for prayer and all the way to Halloween). Another phenomenon were corpse candles, little specks or balls of eerie light that would appear out of the corner of a traveler’s eye and vanish. While now believed to be some combination of foxfire (bio-luminescent fungi) and methane outputs, in older times these mysterious candles were the signals of the dead passing in and out of the physical world.

It is clear that Tolkien understood these ideas and incorporated them into his grand vision of a larger corpse road than could ever exist in our own world: the Dead Marshes. The features are all enumerated in the pages of the passage of the marshes, but with an addition tinge of darkness and foulness: for these corpse roads near the Enemy, and his corruption lays upon them. But, like corpse roads today, the Dead Marshes are long forgotten, and the details of what happened within them lost to all save for a few vague and simple details. Much knowledge seems only left in lore.

We, like Frodo and Sam, wish not to travel the corpse road; we wish we could avoid the Dead Marshes. Yet such things appear on our path, though we may not realize it until we are upon it. Then we must gird ourselves and traverse it to the best of our ability. As we do, we might consider folklore, and the dead, and the ancient ways of making sense of the world.

2016’s Reflection: “On Dead Grasses and Rotten Reeds
2015’s Reflection: “On the Internal Monologue of Temptation

On Forgetting About One’s Rope Until One’s Master Is Half-way Down a Cliff Side

The Taming of Sméagol


Exhibit A (Source)

Samwise, you had one job: keep your master safe on his journey to Mordor. And here you are, not a few days from breaking off from the Fellowship, in the midst of a storm with Frodo blinded and half-way down a cliff side, and now you remember the rope? It was only a short while ago that, upon leaving Rivendell, you had a premonition of needing such a tool over the course of your journey and rued your own forgetfulness. You were spared further concern when the gracious Elves of the Golden Wood provided you, seemingly at their own initiative, with rope of a magnificent sort. And yet, during an hour of obvious use, your possession of such a thing needs the endangerment of your master to prompt? Get your head in the game, Gamgee.

If you had remember the rope earlier, Sam, perhaps the two of you would have been able to scale the rocky hills sooner. And certainly if you had not remembered the rope at this point, Sam, Frodo would be in quite the pickle, and a dangerous one at that. If your master’s peril hadn’t jogged your memory, Sam, then maybe you would not have had the rope at hand to tame Sméagol and bring him unintentionally in line. A lot of essential things seem to be hanging from this rope, Sam, and it’s a lucky thing you threaded the needle without permanent loss.

Yet, perhaps I shouldn’t be so judgemental on you, dear Sam. After all, how often have we all, dear readers, forgotten about our own rope until our friend was half-way down a cliff side? Never you say? Well, climbers among you aside, I am speaking with an element of allusion and analogy (for I dare not say allegory, lest Tolkien himself expel me from the Kingdom). For we all possess coiled ropes in our belongings that we bring out not frequently enough.

Perhaps it is an unexpected skill or seasoned perception. Perhaps it is an unpleasant experience or trying burden that offers wisdom. Perhaps it is a character trait or way of proceeding with people. Whatever our rope be, it is buried below much in our journey pack, and being out of sight, may be out of mind. And yet, we should not forget it, for nothing we have brought on this pilgrimage serves no purpose. Even the little box of soil given us by Galadriel may find its use if we can overcome the days ahead. When those for whom we care and love find themselves unmoored in the storms or depressed in the crevices of the road we travel with them, we must bring back to mind the rope we have stored away. It may be the difference between the speed we need and unsuitable delay.

So, like Sam, let us take a moment of reflection: like we did before we set out, let us take stock of what we are carrying with us in a period of prayer, meditation, or quiet conversation. Let us recall why we have brought each “thing,” whether material or immaterial, with us on this journey. Let us consider when they might be best to bring out for service. Then, just maybe, when the cries of the Black Riders come upon us unawares, we can have the courage and foresight of Sam, and set our ropes out to lend a hand.

2016’s Reflection: “On Admonishing the Sinner
2015’s Reflection: “On the Book that No One Likes

On the Temptation to Sin

The Palantír


Temptation, consolation, and hope (Source)

In The Lord of the Rings there are perhaps three major arcs of temptation over which the reader may follow. There is the fall and restitution of Boromir, a temptation seen at a distance, in small glances and subtle framing until it explodes upon the final pages of the first volume. There is the slow corruption of Frodo, and his interaction with Gollum, perhaps the most important study of the effect of sin by the allure of the Ring which will form a focus of the book ahead. And then there is the brief but intense occurrence of the temptation of Pippin, of his succumbing, and his narrow escape.

It lasts only for a few pages and for a passing moment in the greater tale of the War of the Ring, but with Pippin and the Palantír we gain an intimate and detailed affair of the temptation to sin and the wrestling of one against it. For any of us (or, perhaps better to say, for all of us) who have ever struggled with a recurring temptation, the picture placed in Pippin before us should come as no surprise. It begins with a subtle desire, a fleeting thought we suppress in the back of our heads: what is the stone, why was it so beautiful, why does Gandalf not want me to see it? Then, in a quiet and unassuming time, it begins to gnaw at us, keeping us from sleep or ease at mind. We make argue with ourselves or internally realize our folly, and yet our will moves without our mind, and we find ourselves approaching the temptation again. We justify it to ourselves – just this one, just a peek, just for a bit – but then we prepare defenses to hide our temptation from those around us. And then, at last, when we have lost all our strength to resist, we fall into temptation, and in that collapse we endanger ourselves.

Our hazard need not be as great as Pippin’s in the Palantír for our folly to be evident. For us, it often takes many a retreat into temptation before we realize our error and our hurt if no person or institution jars us into knowledge. Yet, and especially when we are discovered and held accountable by those who love us, we feel the guilt, the shame, the remorse, and we might not be able to recover as quickly as the young hobbit. And even more so is the risk that the cycle will repeat itself, and the temptation will come again.

The temptation to sin is often great and overwhelming, and in the wisdom of Gandalf we find some hope for our own Lenten shortcomings. First, like Gandalf, we must remove the objects of temptations from the grasps of those most in danger of falling into it, whether it be ourselves or others. Gandalf takes the Palantír from Pippin, but he does not keep it (we even later learn that he himself was tempted to look into it); instead, he hands it over to a rightful keeper, Aragorn, who has the authority and will to look over it. As well, we must balance urgency and healing in response to any temptation. Gandalf rigorously determines what Pippin told the Enemy, and what threat they all might now be in, but at the same time weaves in moments of comfort, consolation, and forgiveness to ensure Pippin recovers from his shortcoming.

As such, Pippin’s dance with the Palantír signals to the reader something about the whole book: this is a story about sin, death, and the choices that really matter. During our Lenten pilgrimage, we would be wise to remember the fall of Boromir, and prepare for the struggle of Frodo, and reflect on the brief but bitter temptation of Pippin Took with both a spirit of humility and of hope.

2016’s Reflection: “On Forgiving Others
2015’s Reflection: “On the Lost Seeing Stones

On Modernity

The Voice of Saruman


The excesses of modernity (Source)

Tolkien’s views on modernity (and those espoused by the characters of The Lord of the Rings) are simultaneously simple and complicated to understand. Certainly, Tolkien is wary of what we today might call economic progress, industrialism, and social modernity, and he places the sources of those movements in the homes of his antagonists, in particular Saruman. Yet Tolkien is no Luddite, nor oblivious to the times: his Elves recognize that times is passing and much of what they thought fair cannot be maintained indefinitely. The men of Rohan, the hobbits, the friendship of Elves and Dwarves – these are all new things in the world for ancient ones like Treebeard, more hasty and modern people and structures than those that lived during the earlier ages of the world.

Nevertheless, it is with Saruman where Tolkien displays most evidently his concern and anxiety about the forces of modernity. Sauron is a primal, aboriginal, pure, and unadulterated evil; Saruman instead is corruption, decay, pettiness, and “best intentions” embodied. He is a man of ambition, but with steps “too big for his boots,” as one might say. He is full of craft and knowledge without wisdom, full of haste and action without reflection, full of change and upheaval without consideration. All others are tools or fleeting allies for his continued track up the ladder of success. In many ways, Saruman is the modern politician, as both Tolkien saw in his own time and we still see: the twisting of words, the manipulation of friends, the betrayal of spoken word. It is an ugly mirror to what we see in our own day.

Within the ring of Isengard are the excesses of modernity. Industry is not in and of itself problematic: the Elves have forges, the Dwarves delve deep, and the men of Gondor have long built cities of great size and scope. At Isengard, however, industry overpowers all else, and it destroys any other objective beauty that could be seen: it tears up the old gardens, burns down the forests, and makes everything dirt and foul. It wastes resources, cutting down trees for sport instead of fuel. Compare the care of the dwarves of Gimli’s mind for the caves near Helm’s Deep versus the way the orcs delved at Isengard.

But modernity is more than just industry for Saruman. It is the way he experiments with the nature of things, combining like and unlike, orc and man, into foul concoctions. It is the way he betrays neighbors and yet speaks sly and slippery words of tempting kindness and needed arrangement. It is the way his speech breeds fear instead of counsel, self-serving instead of oriented to the common good. It is the way in which Saruman is clad in all colors instead of wearing the raiment of one.

We largely abhor Saruman, and we disdain what he has done. Yet we must be careful, for deeper in Saruman is a strain of modernity that we must consider in ourselves: for as Treebeard notes, even he might hide out like Saruman if all that he held were taken from him. The difference, as Gandalf retorts, is that he did not seek to cover the world in his trees, like Saruman in his modernity. Do we seek to impose something on the world around us? Do we place self-interest above the common good? Do we hold all friendships as temporary, and twist words for our own ends, however well-intentioned they might be? Have we lost ourselves, in the quest after something greater?

2016’s Reflection: “On Treachery
2015’s Reflection: “On Speech

On the Holding of Grudges

“The Book of Jonah”


Jonah under the gourd (Source)

Jonah is not a particularly admirable man. He flees from God; he is recklessly sarcastic; he is fairly half-hearted in his work; he is extremely judgement. Towards the end of the short Book of Jonah, however, one of his major character faults make itself quite evidently displayed: his bitter attitude to holding on to grudges.

Jonah is angry with God, resentful that, having made Jonah go through all the troubles of getting to Nineveh and calling down fire and brimstone, instead at the first moment of repentance the Lord would call off his punishment. By the accounts of Jewish history these people are not friends of God, and even the Lord in the wit of this account subtly makes fun of the Ninevites, suggesting they might be less than animals though still worthy of love. Jonah is excited that this proud people are going to get their come-up-ins, and that he is going to tell it to them straight: and then God changes the plan on him, and offers them mercy!

There is a simple and obvious reaction to this moral tale, a reflection on mercy and God’s love and the need for forgiveness. There is perhaps also a more subtle and contextually relevant interpretation, about God’s love for our perceived enemies and the need to announce a message of conversation, not destruction, upon the “others” of our day. But then there is a deeper, more complicated, and less clear lesson that comes forth from the Book of Jonah: about our role to play in the unfolding of God’s plan, and our reaction when we only see part of the whole picture.

For how often do we find ourselves in a similar place as Jonah: committed after long wrestling with God to serve some greater purpose – enter into some community, travel to some distant land, take up some new mission or work – and then, seemingly in the most unexpected moment, the plans change. Perhaps the opportunity is closed off to us; perhaps the sense of consolation and fervor dwindles; however it happens, often times having nothing to do with us at all, God’s purpose seems to change on us, and we feel betrayed and led along. We hold a grudge against the Lord, not for withholding some good from us, but for reorienting some road we thought He had set us down.

Yet, God’s purpose does not change, and God’s plan has been set forth from the beginning of the world. It is our understanding, or misunderstanding, or lack thereof, that drives our sense of resentment and bitterness. We are not privy to the full comprehension of the mind of God, and our curvy path from mission to cause to opportunity, while fruitless from our humble position, reflects the grace and love of God in the world. Had Jonah not come to Nineveh, the people would not have repented, and not have been saved from destruction. God’s plan was not modified; Jonah’s heart was the thing that need a change and renewal.

2016’s Reflection: “On Translations
2015’s Reflection: “On This fish, of which the Author is Fond