Welcome, dear readers, as always.
Anyone who reads The Lord of the Rings must have scenes which haunt them. For me, it’s everything from the Mines of Moria
to that moment when Frodo almost doesn’t destroy the ring,
but one of the most poignant for me is that place in their journey to Mordor when Frodo and Sam stand at the crossroads in Ithilien:
“…In the very center four ways met. Beyond them lay the road to the Morannon; before them it ran out again upon its long journey south; to their right the road from old Osgiliath came climbing up, and crossing, passed out eastward into darkness; the fourth way, the road they were to take.
Standing there for a moment filled with dread Frodo became aware that a light was shining; he saw it glowing on Sam’s face beside him…The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath. The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot- folk of Mordor used.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 7, “Journey to the Cross-roads”)
(another Ted Nasmith)
The image of the headless king, seated on his throne, covered by orc graffiti, led me to this quotation:
“Napoleon or someone said you could always turn tragedy into comedy by sittin’ down.”
(Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, 1928)
This is spoken by the hero of the book, the noble detective Lord Peter Wimsey, (seen here played by Ian Carmichael) and is meant to calm down a suspect,
but it has made me wonder if the opposite might be true: suppose sitting down can produce tragedy. Certainly the seated king at the crossroads, the image of a once-powerful king of Gondor, has suffered from the depredation of the orcs, a symbol of Gondor’s flickering power and loss of the eastern bank of the Anduin to Sauron. But might the opposite also be possible, and standing up produce, if not comedy, at least a lightening of the mood?
If this seated figure suggests tragedy, what about other such sittings in The Lord of the Rings?
Certain figures are shown simply sitting:
“The chamber was filled with a soft light; its walls were green and silver and its roof of gold. Many Elves were seated there. On two chairs beneath the bole of the tree and canopied by a living bough there sat, side by side, Celeborn and Galadriel.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 7, “The Mirror of Galadriel”—although “They stood up to greet their guests, after the manner of Elves…)
“They were like great figures seated upon thrones. Each had three joined bodies, and three heads facing outward, and inward, and across the gateway. The heads had vulture-faces, and on their great knees were laid clawlike hands.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)
For two others, however, there seems to be greater weight to their positions, which, as we read, clearly comes from the same sort of baleful influence as that which produced the headless king. First, think of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, in his initial appearance.
“At the far end upon a dais of many steps was set a high throne under a canopy of marble shaped like a crowned helm; behind it was carved upon the walls and set with gems an image of a tree in flower. But the throne was empty. At the foot of the dais, upon the lowest step which was broad and deep, there was a stone chair, black and unadorned, and on it sat an old man gazing at his lap. In his hand was a white rod with a golden knob. He did not look up…
‘Hail, Lord and Steward of Minas Tirith, Denethor son of Ecthelion! I am come with counsel and tidings in this dark hour.’ “
This suggests a penalty for sitting—the empty throne above, the lower seat, suggesting the lesser office, the old man who doesn’t look up, all so completely silent and grim and then Denethor speaks:
“ ‘Dark indeed is the hour,’ said the old man, ‘and at such times you are wont to come, Mithrandir. But though all the signs forebode that the doom of Gondor is drawing nigh, less now to me is that darkness than my own darkness.’ “ (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)
In time, we’ll see Denethor as an even a grimmer figure: jealous of Gandalf and hostile to his surviving son, Faramir, sending him to near-certain death and we’ll learn that something which he then says to Gandalf will be more meaningful than perhaps he thinks:
“ ‘Yea…for though the Stones be lost, they say, still the lords of Gondor have keener sight than lesser men, and many messages come to them.’ “
If Denethor is said to be old, Theoden, King of Rohan, is described as decrepit, in contrast to his great hall and its throne:
“At the far end of the house, beyond the hearth and facing north towards the doors, was a dais with three steps; and in the middle of the dais was a great gilded chair. Upon it sat a man so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf…
There was a silence. The old man did not move in his chair. At length Gandalf spoke. ‘Hail, Theoden son of Thengel! I have returned. For behold! The storm comes, and now all friends should gather together, lest each singly be destroyed.’ “
Theoden replies—and, as in the later case of Denethor, the greeting he offers is hardly a warm one:
“ ‘I greet you,’ he said, ‘and maybe you look for welcome. But truth to tell your welcome is doubtful here, Master Gandalf. You have ever been a herald of woe. Troubles follow you like crows, and ever the oftener the worse. I will not deceive you: when I heard that Shadowfax had come back riderless, I rejoiced at the return of the horse,, but still more at the lack of the rider…’ “ (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall”)
If such figures, sitting, present such a depressed and depressing picture, can we turn the saying around again and find that their standing up will lead, if not toc omedy, at least to relief from what we’ve seen so far? Galadriel and Celeborn stand, though only in greeting, but the Watchers of Cirith Ungol, those vulture-headed creatures, remain immobile, yet, even so, appear to give a shriek of alarm:
“[Sam] sprang past them; but even as he did so, thrusting the phial back into his bosom, he was aware as plainly as if a bar of steel had snapped to behind him, that their vigilance was renewed. And from those evil heads there came a high shrill cry that echoed in the towering walls before him.”
And, in the case of Denethor, his getting up turns to more active negative behavior than that of the Watchers, though driven by the same evil force. Corrupted by the Palantir he hints at having, when Faramir is wounded in the action which his father had demanded and appears to be dying, Denethor is stirred from his throne, but not to action for the sake of the Minas Tirith which it is his task to protect. Instead, he plots suicide, taking his son with him until rescue comes in the form of Pippin, Gandalf, and a member of the Steward’s own guard, although Denethor persists in his madness and perishes.
(? I’m not sure who the artist here is)
For Theoden, however, standing has a completely different effect, once the baleful influence of Grima Wormtongue is removed:
“ ‘It is not so dark here,’ said Theoden.
‘No,’ said Gandalf. ‘Nor does age lie so heavily on your shoulders as some would have you think. Cast aside your prop!’
From the king’s hand the black staff fell clattering on the stones. He drew himself up, slowly as a man that is stiff from long bending over some dull toil. Now tall and straight he stood, and his eyes were blue as he looked into the opening sky.”
So far, then, the answer to the idea of standing vs sitting would appear to be 50/50.
But, it being the turn of the year, and, as I always try in this blog to strike a positive note, let’s return to our opening scene and complete the image which haunts me–
(by Darrell Sweet)
The nameless, headless king seems to be a sad ruin, and, as a statue, will never arise, and yet:
“Suddenly, caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king’s head; it was lying rolled away by the roadside. ‘Look, Sam!’ he cried, startled into speech. ‘Look! The king has got a crown again!’
The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony head yellow stonecrop gleamed.
‘They cannot conquer for ever!’ said Frodo.”
Somehow, even without standing, the sitting king has provided as much hope as the risen Theoden, so perhaps the opposite of Wimsey’s statement, at least in modified form, may be found in The Lord of the Rings, tragedy may sometimes be lightened, and, whatever the forces of darkness may be, they cannot conquer for ever.
Thanks for reading, as always.
May the New Year bring more comedy than tragedy,
And remember that, as ever, there’s
On the Gregorian calendar, it’s about to be New Year’s Eve, which is traditionally a time for exuberant celebration (for some a euphemism). In keeping with the season, here’s another chair scene, but hardly a solemn one.
The Spanish Inquisition has burst onto the scene, grabbing a nice old lady and accusing her of heresy. She is, not surprisingly, a bit confused and so they begin a series of horrible tortures, including–
“Ximinez [angrily hurling away the cushions]: Hm! She is made of harder stuff! Cardinal Fang! Fetch…THE COMFY CHAIR!
[Zoom into Fang’s horrified face]
Fang [terrified]: The…Comfy Chair?
[Biggles pushes in a comfy chair — a really plush one]
Ximinez: So you think you are strong because you can survive the soft cushions. Well, we shall see. Biggles! Put her in the Comfy Chair!
[They roughly push her into the Comfy Chair]
Ximinez [with a cruel leer]: Now — you will stay in the Comfy Chair until lunch time, with only a cup of coffee at eleven. [aside, to Biggles] Is that really all it is?
Biggles: Yes, lord.
Ximinez: I see. I suppose we make it worse by shouting a lot, do we? Confess, woman. Confess! Confess! Confess! Confess!”
(There are two major variations of this—here’s one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAxkcPoLYcQ )