On What Ifs

The Pyre of Denethor

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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

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“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

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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

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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

On the Dull Grey Sky

The Muster of Rohan

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The grey sky reaches aproaches our strongholds (Source)

It spans the horizon, encompassing everything, engulfing all before it. Its heights are menacing in their expanse; its consistency incredible in its uniformity. As it comes it obscures all lights, darkening sight and heart. It is the cloud sent before the forces of Mordor, the ashes of Mt. Doom, and it is the harkener of war.

It is hard to imagine what such an image would look like, for as described this cloud of ash and dust of grey is darker than any weather of the world, more menacing in its lack of activity than any storm. Hard, but not impossible: for in its speed and its intensity it probably most mimics the soot cloud of a volcano seen from far-away: overwhelming in its own capacity, but even more so for what it symbolizes. Here is the equalizing of all things for the worse, the greying out of all color, the dulling out of all details, the covering of the world in a second darkness. No wonder the hearts of the men of Rohan are so demoralized in its presence.

The wise note that this cloud has been stirred up so that the forces of Mordor might walk during the day, not disrupted by the radiant light of the sun. Yet this dull grey sky is also propaganda, a demoralizing agent, meant to blunt the horns of the warriors that stand in opposition to the Dark Lord and place doubt into their hearts. Can such a force truly be resisted? Can an Enemy that can seemingly put the power of nature into his hands be stopped? What hope do any of us have?

The grey sky of the spirit, of the soul, of the person, is equally disheartening, and can come in differing forms: depression and sorrow, hopelessness and fear, opposition and doubt both internal and external. When the Enemy comes to us, tempting us to succumb, to abandon our posts and our promises, such an ashy and sooty cloud often will come in advance. This dull and oppressive mood is meant to weaken our resolve and instill doubt into us, dividing us from both self and community. If that pallor is allowed to take hold of us, then the forces of the Evil One will have an easier time marching upon our own citadels, our own heads and hearts.

And so, we must resist: we must muster our remaining strength and ride against the darkness. The grey sky might cause dissonant in our horns and dullness upon our spears: or, instead, it may cause them to appear as such. Yet, like Theoden king, we set off, even if the ash didn’t seem to threaten us directly, even if the hour seems late already. For the grey sky cannot harm us directly; the spiritual shadow can only impact us if we let it disturb our souls. Light will once more shine forth through the darkness, and with friend and companion, we set off not alone.


2016’s Reflection: “On the Works of Long-forgotten Men
2015’s Reflection: “On the Red Arrows and the White Horse

On Help Unlooked For

The Passing of the Grey Company

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Help unlooked for (Source)

How often – this Lent, this year, throughout our lives – has assistance come to each of us unlooked for, unasked for, or unsought? People stumble into our lives, and we into theirs. Those individuals may provide us with insight, or perspective, or reflection, or support, or even activity: but for every time we ask for this help, there are many more times it comes unexpectedly. Like the Rangers of the North, this help comes upon us suddenly, often at crucial times even when we don’t know it.

What does this unlooked for help look like? Three layers exist.

The first layer is the most basic: the physical assets, the people themselves. The Rangers come to Aragorn, and they bring arms, and horses, and experienced soldiers. They ride to war on behalf of their leader, having prepared long in defense of their lands in the North. Their presence and their talents are extremely valuable, but always limited. A handful of soldiers will not be enough to turn the tide, though it may be enough to traverse the Paths of the Dead.

The second layer is that of identity: these are Aragorn’s kinsmen, his family, his friends, his community. In their coming and their presence they kindle passion and shore up resolve. The Grey Company has come to their leader, and will travel with him: they are a new iteration of the Fellowship, different in their immediate purpose but similar in their ultimate end. It is, in short, more than just their numbers that causes Aragorn to cry out in joy at their arrival: it is the relationships he shares with them as well.

And there is a final layer, one that is even more subtle: that unknown factor, that mysterious and hard to pinpoint component of unlooked for help. We may, like Aragorn, know to some extent what rests upon the well-crafted banner even if we don’t reveal it to the world; or we may, like Gimli and Legolas, be startled by the power such hidden craft can have, to even bring about the allegiance of the dead. Nevertheless, all such assistance has buried within it some active ingredient, some unforeseen and unexpected power that, when reveal in due time and in the right context, has unimaginable impact.

And so, we do not look for such help, and we do not ask for it. Yet we hope for it, deep in the longings of our heart, because we know its value. There are other powers in the world other than our own, with observation, wisdom, and authority. At the most unexpected moments they, like Galadriel, will send forth the Grey Company to us. We must be ready to embrace such aid with open arms and joy, for many miles do we have yet to tread.


2016’s Reflection: “On Duty
2015’s Reflection: “On Being Where We are Meant to Be

On Majesty and Sharpness

Ainulindalë

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“Amid all the splendors of the World, its vast halls and spaces, and its wheeling fires, Iluvatar chose a place.” (Source)

One of the most beneficial results of the study of science is an appreciation for the details and nuances of things. One can look outwards and consider the infinite number of stars, worlds, and galaxies in their incredible diversity, and such a sense of majestic creation can leave one overwhelmed and breathless. Yet one can also look inwards and consider the impressive complexity and finesse of a single cell, compound, or even atom, and such a sense of majestic intentionality can leave one dazed and humbled.

And yet, as the Christian faith (and many other religions) teaches, amidst all the majesty of the universe large and small, this particular world of Earth, and this particular species of man, holds a particular focus of the Creator. For some, this is irrational and unnerving: why should we consider ourselves so important in the grand scheme of the universe?

Tolkien addresses this understanding in his creation myth, the Ainulindalë, in a line which my eyes ever before this most recent read had glazed over:

“This habitation might seem a little thing to those who consider only the majesty of the Ainur, and not their terrible sharpness; as who should take the whole field of Arda for the foundation of a pillar and so raise it until the cone of its summit were more bitter than a needle; or who would consider only the immeasurable vastness of the World, which still the Ainur are shaping, and not the minute precision to which they shape all things therein.”

Alongside awe and wonder is sharpness: an appreciation on the particular, the specific, precision. For the incredible beauty of creation lays not only in the large but in the small, not only in the majesty but also in the focus. While a viewer may gaze upon a painting and take in the incredible sum of all the parts, a connoisseur can comprehend each brush stroke, each choice of paint and style, each subtle gesture. Yet the artist carries something more beyond that: a history, a memory, a connection to each of those individual components, drafted over time, that come together into the majesty of the whole. The audacity of Christianity is not that so great a Creator could exist that could bring the world into being, but instead the claim that the Creator could know and love a single part of that world so intimately as to intervene on its behalf, be born into it, die for it.

In that way, it is the sharpness, even more so than the majesty, that leaves us with awe and wonder. Science helps us see the details of the field and the expanses of the immeasurable vastness so that we understand how small and little a thing our world and our people are in the grandeur of God. Faith helps us to then recognize how nevertheless the small and the little is so significant in the eyes of a loving God, shaping still the world we live in.


2016’s Reflection: “On the Splendor of Ilúvatar
2015’s Reflection: “On Music