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Rómenna Meeting Report - October 26, 1986
October 26, 1986
The October meeting of Rómenna convened on the occasion of the second Feast of Bree, held at the home of Fred Phillips. There was food in abundance. Hot soup, cold meats, bread, butter, cheese and (courtesy of master chef Roger Oliver) a blackberry tart, were all to be had, as well as apple cider, stuffed mushrooms, and enough other goodies to warm the heart (and satisfy the appetite) of the hungriest hobbit.
After partaking generously of this splendid spread, and availing ourselves of the congenial company also to be found at this gathering (a party for various friends of our host as well as a Rómenna meeting) we eventually convened in the living room for a short business meeting before beginning the chapter discussion. Business? At a Rómenna meeting? Well, yes. . . we had been invited to become a chartered discussion group of the Mythopoeic Society, so the charter was read and the pros and cons of becoming an "officially" chartered group were debated. At the end of the debate a vote was taken and the decision was made to sign the charter (with one "nay" and one abstention). The charter was duly signed (in red ink, naturally, though only four signatures 'were required-- this is a charter, not a will), and we proceeded to the chapter discussion.
"The Pyre of Denethor" opens with Pippin figuratively tugging on Gandalf's sleeve and--again figuratively--informing him that "it's hit the fan": i.e., Denethor has gone off the deep end completely and is preparing to immolate himself along with his son Faramir. Alexei made the observation that Tolkien's view of suicide as presented in this chapter is different from that of the source cultures he was drawing from (Anglo-Saxon, for instance), in which suicide was an honorable way out for a man who, like Denethor, had lost everything he most cared for. While the trappings of Middle-earth come from pagan cultures, Christian elements enter in when you come to ethical structures. Gandalf, certainly the voice of the author here (among other things) tells Denethor that "authority is not given to you to order the hour of your death."
This observation prompted a comparison between Denethor's death and Aragorn's (in Appendix A). Doesn't Aragorn choose the time of his death as well? That's not the same thing at all, we decided. Aragorn, as the last of the Númenórean kings, when he feels that it is time for him to die, is granted the'"grace [note this peculiarly Christian word] to go at [his] will, and give back the gift." Aragorn is giving back the gift of life that was granted him, whereas Denethor is destroying it. The later observation was made that Denethor's sin, in Christian terms, is despair, the denial of hope, and that if he wanted to die well, what he should have done was gone out on the battlefield to fight to the death. (Now, that would have been Anglo-Saxon.)
We noted the differing effects of the palantíri on the three people who used them: Saruman, Denethor, and Aragorn. Saruman, who had no right to the Stone at all (see the discussion of this right in the chapter on the palantíri in the Unfinished Tales) was completely corrupted by Sauron and became evil. Denethor, who as Steward had the delegated authority to use the Stone, could not be bent directly to Sauron's will, but could have his will undermined by a careful "censorship" of what he saw in the Stone (Sauron couldn't make the palantír lie, but he could control which and how much truth it told). Aragorn, the rightful king and thus the rightful possessor of the Stone, was able to wrest control of it from Sauron (who had no more right to it than Saruman), though it took him an immense effort of will to do so. The ordeal drains him, but he is not corrupted.
Getting back to the effects rather than the causes of Denethor's madness, we noted that he treats Faramir as if he were already dead, which is a monstrously presumptuous thing for him to do. Beregond, we noted, in disobeying orders, breaking the rules in order to save Faramir's life, is obeying a higher standard. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's"--but Faramir's life is not Caesar's.
We spent a bit of time discussing Númenórean death customs, which are Egyptian in flavor, and their life-after-death beliefs. We noted that the Numen6reans did not practice cremation: Gandalf calls this a "heathen" custom. The Gondoreans built elaborate tombs, such as the House of the Stewards described in this chapter, and embalmed their dead like the Egyptians. We also noted that the Númenóreans probably picked up their beliefs about life after death from the Elves, who presumably heard something about the subject from the Valar.
We commented on the actions of Denethor's servants, who are so conditioned to obey him without question that they will even hand him torches to light the pyre with. It was also pointed out that Denethor is in a towering rage at this point (nothing like sheer terror to prompt blind obedience). We contrasted Denethor's servants with Aragorn's followers, who followed him out of love and probably would not obey an irrational order. The porter whom Beregond killed was also "following orders" or "going by the book."
Denethor goes out in a blaze of glory, and with a "great cry." We noted that earlier on in the book, the Lord of the Nazgûl had also expired with a great cry, and speculated that Denethor was the kind of person who might have become a Nazgûl in the Second Age. Denethor's personality was compared with those of his two sons. Denethor was both noble and proud; Boromir was like the Rohirrim; Faramir has his father's noble nature and a great deal of wisdom (Gandalf observes at one point that "the blood of Númenor runs nearly true" in both of them, though not in Boromir) but lacks his father's pride. Boromir is nonetheless Denethor's favorite of his two sons, despite or perhaps because of his dissimilarity to his father.
Ganda1f and the others step outside of the tombs; Gandalf explains something of Denethor's background and diagnoses him for the reader's benefit. They must then decide who's in charge in Minas Tirith now, with Denethor dead and Faramir, his sole heir and now Steward of Gondor, incapacitated. Prince Imrahil is the highest-ranking noble after the Steward, but he is currently on the battlefield (which is where he belongs), so Gandalf assumes authority for the moment and hands over the key of the Hallows to Beregond for safekeeping; he also charges him with watching over Faramir. In this way he is tacitly acknowledging that Beregond did the right thing in placing Faramir's safety above all else, though the final judgment on this will be left for a time when there is someone with the authority to pass such judgment.
Going on to the next chapter and taking up a long-standing debate, we eventually decided that Sauron probably is in possession of the physical Nine Rings and that therefore the Lord of the Nazgûl's is probably not lying on the battlefield somewhere. If the Nazgûl carried their rings with them and lost them when they were unbodied, the rings would all be lying at the bottom of the Bruinen River, right?
We contrasted the deaths of Théoden and Denethor, and also noted their relative ages, actual and apparent. Théoden was quite a few years younger than Denethor (75 to Denethor's 89), but looked older, partly because of the shorter lifespan of the Rohirrim and partly because of his "aging" by Wormtongue (which Gandalf cured). We also noted that Aragorn is 88 years old and doesn't look it (he has a full Númenórean lifespan).
The "Houses of Healing" chapter is written largely in high style, which, we decided, went well with the image of Aragorn as king-healer, with its biblical parallels. We also noted historical parallels with the English kings who were supposed to be able to cure scrofula (the "King's Evil") with a touch, a custom dating back to Edward the Confessor.
The chapter opens with Merry dragging in from the battlefield, nearly falling over from weariness, grief, and the effects of the Black Breath. Pippin finds him after he wanders down a side street. To Pippin's apologetic comment that one weary hobbit is easily overlooked, Merry replies that "it is not always a misfortune to be overlooked"; it was through being overlooked by the Nazgûl that he was able to help Éowyn slay it. We noted that Merry is the most intelligent and has the most depth of Frodo's original companions. Merry is the responsible squire's son. Pippin is the heir of the Took family, of course, but he is also the youngest of four children with three older sisters. (If Merry has any siblings, they are not recorded.) He has also not "come of age" yet by hobbit standards, while Merry has (Pippin is 29, Merry 35). Pippin, however, has his moments. Here, for instance, he is calling for Gandalf again ("Good old Gandalf")--and Gandalf comes! commenting on the utility of hobbits (among other things, he knows what has just happened on the battlefield).
When they arrive at the Houses of Healing, the healers are (figuratively) wringing their hands over the victims of the Black Breath, for which there seems to be no effective treatment. At this point Ioreth pipes up "If we only had a king," and quotes the old saying about "the hands of a king are the hands of a healer." Gandalf immediately runs to get Aragorn.
Aragorn arrives, to be greeted by Pippin as "Strider!" We noted that hobbits don't go in for high style. Aragorn has his well-known run-in with the pedantic herb-master, who gives him a long string of different names for athelas before telling him they don't have any. We observed that while the herb-master is evidently the one in charge, it is the women (the "old wives" like Ioreth) who do the "hands-on" healing--and who preserve the old lore that is really valuable, though it survives only in old rhymes and such which are no longer understood.
We felt it significant that Aragorn breathes on the athelas leaves before infusing them. Symbolically he is imparting his life-force, his mana, to the victims of the Black Breath, countering the evil Breath with his own. We also wondered if the Black Breath had a Primary World source in the gas warfare that Tolkien experienced during World War I.
We observed the differing reactions of Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry to their healing by Aragorn, and Aragorn's reactions to them. Faramir he treats with gentle kingliness, he jokes with Merry (including a sendup of the pedantic herb-master), but Éowyn he can't face--he hands her over to her brother and leaves the room before she opens her eyes.
We closed the discussion by drawing a parallel between Prince Imrahil with his swan banner and the legendary Yon of Brittany, who returned from exile in England to save Brittany from a dynastic war; he also bore a swan banner. Are we recondite or what?