Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Harrowing of Hell According to J.R.R. Tolkien

For Holy Saturday, my favorite day of the liturgical year, the day when we truly meditate on absence, I want to offer what I think are Tolkien's reflections on the harrowing of hell.  From The Return of the King, he leads us onto the Paths of the Dead where Aragorn, the King, frees the souls of the dead from their broken promises.  I find his reflections profound and beautiful. They are taken from several different chapters and places, but I bring them together here for reflection. 
"Thus spoke Malbeth the Seer, in the days of Arvedui, last king at Fornost," said Aragorn:

Over the land there lies a long shadow,
westward reaching wings of darkness.
The Tower trembles; to the tombs of kings
doom approaches.  The Dead awaken;
for the hour is come for the oathbreakers:
at the Stone of Erech they shall stand again
and hear there a horn in the hills ringing.
Whose shall the horn be?  Who shall call them
from the grey twilight, the forgotten people? 
The heir of him to whom the oath they swore.
From the North shall he come, need shall drive him:
he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.

The deaf shall truly hear words of a book, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. 
To that Stone the Company came and halted in the dead of night.  Then Elrohir gave to Aragorn a silver horn, and he blew upon it; and it seemed to those that stood near that they heard a sound of answering horns, as if it was an echo in deep caves far away.  No other sound they heard, and yet they were aware of a great host gathered all about the hill on which they stood; and a chill wind like the breath of ghosts came down from the mountains.  But Aragorn dismounted and standing by the Stone he cried in a great voice: 
"Oathbreakers, why have ye come?"
And a voice was heard out of the night that answered him, as if from far away:
"To fulfill our oath and have peace."
Then Aragorn said: "the hour is come at last.  Now I go to Pelargir upon Anduin, and ye shall come after me.  And when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart for ever.  For I am Elessar, Isildur's heir of Gondor."
The hour has indeed come.  The oath will be fulfilled.  
Stern now was Eomer's mood, and his mind clear again.  He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could com thither; for he though to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark.  So he rode to a green hillock and there set his banner, and the White Horse ran rippling in the wind.
Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!
These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them.  For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them.
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.  But the hosts of Mordor were seized with bewilderment, and a great wizardry it seemed to them that their own ships should be filled with their foes; and a black dread fell on them, knowing that the tides of fate had turned against them and their doom was at hand.
A deeper magic, truly, from before the dawn of time.  

Legolas recounts:
"Hear now the words of the Heir of Isildur (Aragorn)! Your oath is fulfilled.  Go back and trouble not the valleys ever again! Depart and be at rest!"
And thereupon the King of the Dead stood out before the host and broke his spear and cast it down.  Then he bowed low and turned away; and swiftly the whole grey host drew on and vanished like a mist that is driven back by a sudden wind; and it seemed to me that I awoke from a dream.
Thus the harrowing of hell is completed.  If the Son sets you free, then you are free indeed.

Markel, SJ

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