Dwarves and their stiff necks and the stiff necks of Elves

‘Now, friends,’ said Haldir, ‘you have entered the Naith of Lórien, or the Gore, as you would say, for it is the land that lies like a spearhead between the arms of Silverlode and Anduin the Great. We allow no strangers to spy out the secrets of the Naith. Few indeed are permitted even to set foot there.

‘As was agreed, I shall here blindfold the eyes of Gimli the Dwarf. The others may walk free for a while, until we come nearer to our dwellings, down in Egladil, in the Angle between the waters.’

This was not at all to the liking of Gimli. ‘The agreement was made without my consent,’ he said. ‘I will not walk blindfold, like a beggar or a prisoner. And I am no spy. My folk have never had dealings with any of the servants of the Enemy. Neither have we done harm to the Elves. I am no more likely to betray you than Legolas, or any other of my companions.’

‘I do not doubt you,’ said Haldir. ‘Yet this is our law. I am not the master of the law, and cannot set it aside. I have done much in letting you set foot over Celebrant.’

Gimli was obstinate. He planted his feet firmly apart, and laid his hand upon the haft of his axe. ‘I will go forward free,’ he said, ‘or I will go back and seek my own land, where I am known to be true of word, though I perish alone in the wilderness.’

‘You cannot go back,’ said Haldir sternly. ‘Now you have come thus far, you must be brought before the Lord and the Lady. They shall judge you, to hold you or to give you leave, as they will. You cannot cross the rivers again, and behind you there are now secret sentinels that you cannot pass. You would be slain before you saw them.’

Gimli drew his axe from his belt. Haldir and his companion bent their bows. ‘A plague on Dwarves and their stiff necks!’ said Legolas.

‘Come!’ said Aragorn. ‘If I am still to lead this Company, you must do as I bid. It is hard upon the Dwarf to be thus singled out. We will all be blindfold, even Legolas. That will be best, though it will make the journey slow and dull.’

Gimli laughed suddenly. ‘A merry troop of fools we shall look! Will Haldir lead us all on a string, like many blind beggars with one dog? But I will be content, if only Legolas here shares my blindness.’

‘I am an Elf and a kinsman here,’ said Legolas, becoming angry in his turn.

‘Now let us cry: “a plague on the stiff necks of Elves!”’ said Aragorn. ‘But the Company shall all fare alike. Come, bind our eyes, Haldir!’

‘I shall claim full amends for every fall and stubbed toe, if you do not lead us well,’ said Gimli as they bound a cloth about his eyes.

‘You will have no claim,’ said Haldir. ‘I shall lead you well, and the paths are smooth and straight.’

‘Alas for the folly of these days!’ said Legolas. ‘Here all are enemies of the one Enemy, and yet I must walk blind, while the sun is merry in the woodland under leaves of gold!’

‘Folly it may seem,’ said Haldir. ‘Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him. Yet so little faith and trust do we find now in the world beyond Lothlórien, unless maybe in Rivendell, that we dare not by our own trust endanger our land. We live now upon an island amid many perils, and our hands are more often upon the bowstring than upon the harp.

‘The rivers long defended us, but they are a sure guard no more; for the Shadow has crept northward all about us. Some speak of departing, yet for that it already seems too late. The mountains to the west are growing evil; to the east the lands are waste, and full of Sauron’s creatures; and it is rumoured that we cannot now safely pass southward through Rohan, and the mouths of the Great River are watched by the Enemy. Even if we could come to the shores of the Sea, we should find no longer any shelter there. It is said that there are still havens of the High Elves, but they are far north and west, beyond the land of the Halflings. But where that may be, though the Lord and Lady may know, I do not.’

‘You ought at least to guess, since you have seen us,’ said Merry. ‘There are Elf-havens west of my land, the Shire, where Hobbits live.’

‘Happy folk are Hobbits to dwell near the shores of the sea!’ said Haldir. ‘It is long indeed since any of my folk have looked on it, yet still we remember it in song. Tell me of these havens as we walk.’

‘I cannot,’ said Merry. ‘I have never seen them. I have never been out of my own land before. And if I had known what the world outside was like, I don’t think I should have had the heart to leave it.’

‘Not even to see fair Lothlórien?’ said Haldir. ‘The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.

‘Some there are among us who sing that the Shadow will draw back, and peace shall come again. Yet I do not believe that the world about us will ever again be as it was of old, or the light of the Sun as it was aforetime. For the Elves, I fear, it will prove at best a truce, in which they may pass to the Sea unhindered and leave the Middle-earth for ever. Alas for Lothlórien that I love! It would be a poor life in a land where no mallorn grew. But if there are mallorn-trees beyond the Great Sea, none have reported it.’

———

Where to begin? This is one of the finest passages of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Here in simple, limpid, living speech emerge from the author’s heart, unimpeded by the stupid brain, all his experience, from the obstinate Gimli who could give Sophocles’ Ajax a lesson in the heroic temper; to the tragic fate of the Byzantine Empire and the great stand of Lepanto, about which his friend Chesterton wrote; to the quiet peace of Christian monasticism, both that of the wild-eyed warrior Antony and of the firm and pragmatic Benedict, embodied in Merry’s words; to the tragic tension in a certain sense a finer tragedy than Hamlet’s, both because it captures the essence of that art form within the iron laws of a world without an afterlife, and because in it Tolkien shows that he has learned the lesson of Dickens’ Two Cities, how to find a way to tragedy in a Christian world—a world with an afterlife—by dignifying suffering through the pure love of friendship; and of course, and as usual, to Tolkien’s Catholic faith, which permeates all his art; for all these reasons, and more, on which I can only touch in the barest fashion tonight, I found this passage today to be among the most arresting of Tolkien’s art.

And it is my earnest wish that some day before too long I shall have the opportunity to write a good long essay on what makes it so beautiful that I had to stop and transcribe it immediately after sending the lad off to bed.

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being patiently open to beauty, and permitting it to arrest you right in the middle of the fool’s errand your stupid brain has you on today.

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About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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