Initiation and Epiphany
Aragorn and the Grand Monarch
In February’s essay we explored the archetypal and symbolic significance of the Grand Monarch of Catholic prophecy. I want to narrow the lens this month and focus in on how we might experience the advent of such a figure. Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings will be our template and exemplar. A detailed study of the correspondences between Aragorn and the Grand Monarch has already been made by EA Bucchianeri and can be bought or downloaded here. My aim in this essay is much more restricted; to hone in on Aragorn’s passage through the Paths of the Dead (in Chapter II of The Return of the King) plus his reappearance at the Pelennor Fields, and use these scenes as prisms through which we can get a sense of what such a seismic shift might feel like from the inside, experientially and existentially.
This, to take another example, is what happens to Faramir and Éowyn as they walk the City walls at the very moment (unknown to them) that the Ring falls into Mount Doom and the Dark Lord’s power is broken:
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Then presently it seemed to them that above the ridges of the distant mountains another vast mountain of darkness rose, towering up like a wave that should engulf the world, and about it lightnings flickered; and then a tremor ran through the earth, and they felt the walls of the City quiver. A sound like a sigh went up from all the lands about them; and their hearts beat suddenly again.
‘It reminds me of Númenor,’ said Faramir, and wondered to hear himself speak.
‘Of Númenor?’ said Éowyn.
‘Yes,’ said Faramir, ‘of the land of Westernesse that foundered, and of the great dark wave climbing over the green lands and above the hills, and coming on, darkness unescapable. I often dream of it.’
‘Then you think that the darkness is coming?’ said Éowyn. ‘Darkness unescapable?’
And suddenly she drew close to him.
‘No,’ said Faramir, looking into her face. ‘It was but a picture in the mind. I do not know what is happening. The reason of my waking mind tells me that great evil has befallen and we stand at the end of days. But my heart says nay; and all my limbs are light, and a hope and joy are come to me that no reason can deny…’
And so they stood on the walls of the City of Gondor, and a great wind rose and blew, and their hair, raven and golden, streamed out mingling in the air. And the Shadow departed, and the Sun was unveiled, and light leaped forth; and the waters of Anduin shone like silver, and in all the houses of the City men sang for the joy that welled up in their hearts from what source they could not tell.
What we see here is the sudden miraculous ‘turn’, the grace of deliverance, the Eucatastrophe or happy ending that Tolkien believed to be the most important characteristic of the fairy tale.Stratford Caldecott in The Power of the Ring puts it like this:
This turn is not escapist, because it does not deny sorrow and failure, and indeed the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance. But it denies universal or final defeat, by giving a taste or echo of victory, the final victory of Eru, who incorporates with his infinite creativity and foresight even evil into his design. Evil does not cease to be evil and must never be deliberately chosen; but it can never conquer the good, which shines more brightly the more it is engulfed in darkness.
This is what The Return of the King - both the book and the general concept - is all about. And this is what we need to hear and act upon today, especially in those moments - increasingly frequent, perhaps - when this darkness seems poised to engulf and subsume us.
The Paths of the Dead
Pressure is mounting on the realm of Gondor and its capital, Minas Tirith. Aragorn is far from the City still and he has not yet declared himself publicly. But he has revealed himself privately - to Sauron, the Dark Lord - through gazing into the Stone of Orthanc and engaging the Enemy in silent mental fight:
‘It was a bitter struggle, and the weariness is slow to pass. I spoke no word to him, and in the end I wrenched the Stone to my own will. That alone he will find hard to endure. And he beheld me … To know that I lived and walked the earth was a blow to his heart, I deem, for he knew it not till now … he has not forgotten Isildur and the sword of Elendil. Now in the very hour of his great designs the heir of Isildur and the Sword are revealed; for I showed the blade reforged to him. He is not so mighty yet that he is above fear; nay, doubt ever gnaws him.’
‘But he wields great domination, nonetheless,’ said Gimli; ‘and now he will strike more swiftly.’
‘The hasty stroke oft goes astray,’ said Aragorn. ‘We must press our Enemy, and no longer wait upon him for the move. See my friends, when I had mastered the Stone, I learned many things. A grave peril I saw coming unlooked for upon Gondor from the South that will draw off great strength from the defence of Minas Tirith. If it is not countered swiftly, I deem that the City will be lost ere ten days be gone.’
‘Then lost it must be,’ said Gimli. ‘For what help is there to send thither, and how could it come there in time?’
‘I have no help to send, therefore I must go myself,’ said Aragorn.
‘But there is only one way through the mountains that will bring me to the coastlands before all is lost. That is the Paths of the Dead.’
‘The Paths of the Dead!’ said Gimli. ‘It is a fell name; and little to the liking of the men of Rohan as I saw. Can the living use such a road and not perish? And even if you pass that way, what will so few avail to counter the strokes of Mordor?’
‘The living have never used that road since the coming of the Rohirrim,’ said Aragorn, ‘for it is closed to them. But in this dark hour the heir of Isildur may use it if he dare …’
So, Aragorn goes down before he goes up. In an echo of the Harrowing of Hell, he descends into the nether places and releases the spirits in bondage that he finds there. Absolutely no-one, at the outset, sees this as a good idea. The sightless subterranean passages known as the Paths of the Dead are haunted by a host of Oathbreakers who reneged on a promise made to Isildur, Aragorn’s ancestor, to aid him in his battle against Sauron. The very thought of these spectres and their dwelling place strikes dread into the bravest of hearts. But not Aragorn’s. He does it the hard way, and when he and his followers emerge from their rite of passage a new dynamic has been set in motion as the living and the dead march side by side to war. In the deepest, darkest, most secret of places, a subtle yet game-changing shift has taken place:
‘The Dead are following,’ said Legolas. ‘I see shapes of Men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like water-thickets on a misty night. The Dead are following.’
‘Yes, the Dead ride behind. They have been summoned,’ said Elladan.
In the dead of night the Company come to a mysterious hill-top site known as the Stone of Erech. This stone - ‘round as a great globe’ and ‘the height of a man, though its half was buried in the ground’- was said to have been brought out of the ruin of Númenor and set there by Isildur at his landing in Middle Earth. Here the Oathbreakers pledge their allegiance to Aragorn and here he promises them peace once Sauron is beaten and freedom from the curse laid on them by Isildur when they refused his summons. Aragorn then bids his comrade Halbarad to unfurl the great banner of the Kings of Gondor, but in the darkness no-one can perceive the design upon it. The time for visibility - for openness and disclosure - has not yet arrived. The banner appears as black as the night that wraps itself around the Company as they try to sleep. ‘Then there was silence, and not a whisper nor a sigh was heard again all the long night.’
Something like this will happen, I believe, prior to the Grand Monarch’s coming, just before he makes himself known to the public. There will be a test or initiation that he has to undergo in some concealed and off-grid place far from the crumbling seats of power and the many sites of chaos the world will know at that time. This will be a ‘night-time revelation’ shared in and witnessed by a select few, an élite which does not, by the way, necessarily have to be human. Trees, stars, plants, animals, stones - all these in their varying capacities will recognise the Grand Monarch’s God-given right to rule. That is how clear and obvious it will be. Authority will sit naturally and easily upon him, and that will be as plain and apparent in the wild, elemental setting of the secret initiation as it will be in later days in the cathedrals and public-squares of Europe.
Then comes the day-time revelation. This is how Tolkien describes it as the Battle of the Pelennor Fields rages outside the walls of Minas Tirith:
It was even as the day that began to turn against Gondor and then hope wavered that a new cry went up in the city, it being then mid-morning, and a great wind blowing, and the rain flying north, and the sun shining. In that clear air watchmen on the walls saw afar a new sight of fear, and their last hope left them.
For Anduin, from the bend at the Harlond, so flowed that from the City men could look down it lengthwise for some leagues, and the far-sighted could see any ships that approached. And looking thither they cried in dismay; for black against the glittering stream they beheld a fleet borne up on the wind; dromunds, and ships of great draught with many oars, and with black sails bellying in the breeze.
‘The Corsairs of Umbar!’ men shouted. ‘The Corsairs of Umbar! Look! The Corsairs of Umbar are coming! So Befalas is taken and the Ethir, and Lebennin is gone. The Corsairs are upon us! It is the last stroke of doom!’
… The Rohirrim had no need of news or alarm. All too well they could see for themselves the black sails. For Éomer was now scarcely a mile from the Harlond, and a great press of his first foes came swirling behind, cutting him off from the Prince …
And then wonder took him and a great joy; and he cast his sword up in the sunlight and sang as he caught it. And all eyes followed his gaze, and behold! upon the foremost ship a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as she turned towards the Harlond. There flowered a white Tree, and that was for Gondor; but Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it, the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count. And the stars flamed in the sunlight, for they were wrought of gems by Arwen daughter of Elrond; and the crown was bright in the morning, for it was wrought of mithril and gold.
Thus came Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elessar, Isildur’s heir, out of the Paths of the Dead, borne upon a wind from the Sea to the Kingdom of Gondor; and the mirth of the Rohirrim was a torrent of laughter and a flashing of swords, and the joy and wonder of the City was a music of trumpets and a ringing of bells …
In the future, after the Grand Monarch, has thrust back the foe and restored the natural order, Tolkien will be read anew and people will be astonished at these unsuspected prophetic dimensions now openly revealed. ‘Yes!’ they will exclaim. ‘That’s how it was when the Grand Monarch pierced the gloom and brought us victory when death and slavery seemed certain’ This is Eucatastrophe in action - the miraculous turn, the grace of deliverance, the happy ending that Tolkien saw as so deeply embedded in the fabric of how things are. So, not an escape from reality but a recognition and running towards what is truly Real - the Good News that subsists beneath the ups and downs of the news cycle and that underpins the whole created order:
Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.
We looked last month at Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and there are definite echoes of that in this passage - this ongoing struggle to grasp and claim reality in a world that douses us with illusion. As I have said before, these are the transformative images and narratives that we need to connect with if we are to align ourselves with God’s regenerative power. Yes, the West is floundering at the moment and will most likely sink further but we should not dwell too fixedly on that. What we focus on grows, etc. We must believe that there is a future and we also need a picture of what that future looks like, one that we can feel and inhabit from the inside. Otherwise we might miss the sudden turn when it comes. We have to be ready and awake, looking forward to the future with hope and expectation, fully aware that the brouhaha of decline and fall does not tell anything like the whole story.
This is the mental, imaginative and spiritual side of things, and this is the most important building block to put in place. The future reaches out to us and draws us forward, and this has been one of the key themes of Secret Fire so far. We respond to the call and reach across the ‘Wall of Time’ in our turn, forging a magical link with the future which beckons us on. Thinking of the sisters of Lazarus in the Gospel, we could say that this is the work of Mary, and it remains the ‘better part’, but there is a role for Martha too. There has to be. The two go together. Martha is the Sun - the active day-time consciousness that makes concrete the contemplative revelation given to Mary under the stars. But how do we do this? How do we scale down these Platonic Forms and make them count in daily life?
This is what we will reflect on at the end of April in our penultimate essay. I want to zoom in on a struggle which takes place at the end of Narnian time and a figure - King Tirian - who is stripped of power and self-delusion in an abrupt and devastating fashion. Like a true King, he finds a way to return, but not before he has undergone a bitter purgation and dark night of the soul. The Last Battle (1956) shows us how to plan and organise in an apocalyptic milieu - when to push on, when to pull back, how to absorb setbacks and stay in the game until it’s time to unfurl the standard and reveal who we are.
From the Paths of the Dead to the Pelennor Fields; from the hidden night-time initiation to the sunlit day-time epiphany. This is the revelation. This is the promise. This is the future.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (George Allen and Unwin, 1969), pp.998-99.
Especially in his essay On Fairy Stories (1947). Full text here. Also in J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (George Allen and Unwin, 1975), pp.11-79.
Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2012), p.144.
The Lord of the Rings, pp.811-12.
Tree and Leaf, p.61.