My first act of 2009 was a 12 hour Lord of the Rings Marathon with a swell crew gathered by Jamie, who even had her mom, the incomporable Jody Spiro, make PO-TAY-TOE soup a la Samwise Gamgee. So the right way to start a year.
As all good art should, Lord of the Rings reads/watches me as much as I watch it. The story it most often tells has to do with my friendships (my Sam knows who they are) and the places and people with whom I've watched the films (6 different states for the theatrical releases). But this time, what stuck out to me was the theme of how characters who wield Hope against seemingly impossible odds, end up acheiving that hope for others, but not for themselves.
The first moment that struck me is in Return of the King, where Elrond, having reforged the shards of Narsil, presents Aragorn with the sword that will compel certain traitors to fulfill their broken oaths. Using the sword is (in the films at least) Aragorn's first real moment claiming his role and identity as the heir to the throne of Gondor. Wielding the sword, he steps fully into his authority as the almost-crowned King. But in the handing of the sowrd, Elrond and Aragorn exchange a shared phrase (in Elvish)
ELROND: Ónen i-Estel Edain. (I give hope to Men).
ARAGORN : Ú-chebin estel anim. (I keep none for myself.)This potent text rings true at many levels. Elrond gives Aragorn hope and the tool to help acheive the hope, but he himself knows his time in Middle Earth is essentially over. Aragorn steps into a role as a symbol of Hope for Middle Earth, but relinquishes the life he has been living, and also undertakes a task that will likely kill him.
The further significance of the phrase is that its the final words of Aragorn's mother Gilraen. Wikipedia exegetes her phrase (from Appendix A of the books) as "meaning 'I gave Hope (an obvious reference to her son's childhood epithet Estel, meaning "hope") to the Dúnedain." The mother of the saving hope of Middle Earth will not live to see him crowned and Evil defeated. The Mary connection here is hard to ignore. Though Mary was present at Christ's crucifixion, we still learn in her narrative that her miracle son leaves her to fulfill his destiny. She gives hope to the world by not keeping him for herself.
However, the most haunting moment of the whole trilogy for me is when the four hobbits have returned to the Shire and are at the Green Dragon about to enjoy some half pints. But their mutual toast is silent, their eyes communicating a mixture of relief, bewilderment, gravitas and grief. They know their home will never be the same to them, because they will never be the same. This is made most true for Frodo, who tells Sam at the Grey Havens when it becomes clear that he is leaving with the Elves, "We set out to save the Shire, Sam and it has been saved - but not for me." Frodo has been marked permanently to the point that he cannot return to where and what was before, but must move forward. Essentially, he cannot belong to the thing he gave his life for, because the giving itself took his life.
At MHGS, we talk often about being prophet/ priest/ king, (categories worked out from King David). You have the truth speaker, the memory keeper, and the peace maker. As I thought about LOTR this time, I was struck that neither prophet, priest nor monarch get to exist much within the community they serve; whether its the Queen in her castle, the priest in the temple or the prophet wearing rags and screaming outside the city wall. In "saving" others, what of the salvation do they experience?
I want to be careful here not to sound like I'm saying that leaders (I abhor the word) can or should hover above the community they serve, or that prophetic risk takers/fighters don't carry hope with them as they offer it to others, but that there is definitely something to the idea that doing this comes with a cost; being so marked by the journey that you can only watch others enjoy what you have fought to protect. You yourself, can only ponder the experience of the transformation and try to live in the wake of such profound darkness and victorious light.
Makes me wonder if the disciples felt much like Sam, Merry and Pippin as they watched their Resurrected Rabbi ascend beyond them with the parting words "I am with you always, to the end of the age." And did these words come from Jesus with as much tenderness tempered by finality as did Frodo's benedicting kiss on Sam's forehead?
I give hope to men. I keep none for myself.
"I am with you always," but I must leave.
Can you ever really return from Mordor? From Golgotha?