The Solstice approaches. Every day, the sun dips lower in the south, and every day its time above the horizon decreases. It’s dark, and it gets darker every day.
There’s not a person reading these words who, raised with an understanding that Freedom is not the default state of man but rather a force field against tyranny that must be maintained every day through effort and hard work – there’s not one among you that does not look out into the free land that was handed to us by our ancestors with dismay, and the same sense of unfocused dread that a thousand generations felt as the sun dipped ever lower, day by day – because this time, perhaps, it will not climb again.
The history of mankind has been to rule and to be ruled. For reasons that you and I will never understand, there exists in some people an insatiable desire to tell other people what to do; to bend others to their will. I suspect that every single one of those hearts is filled with a dread, a genuine horror, at the wasteland of their own emptiness, and so the bombast and the narcissism and the arrogance; the legions of fainting faithful and the roar of the applause; the reflections, the logos, the insertion of themselves into every event in history; the mind-numbing obsession with power – all of these, I think, are just shovels full of coal being pitched into the bottomless furnace of their own self-hatred.
And so here we sit, sons and daughters, grand- and great-grand-sons and daughters of the Greatest Generation who went ashore at Normandy and Iwo Jima, who died in submarines in the Pacific and in the skies over Germany, who freed the world from darkness everlasting then helped our mortal enemies to their feet and freed them from themselves as well. And everything they fought and died for, and the men before them, and the ones before them, is being washed out to sea in front of our eyes and we sit here paralyzed by our comfort and our shame.
I do, anyway.
I spent most of my life not reading The Lord of the Rings. In Gainesville, in 1979, aging hippies had Frodo Lives! bumper stickers on cars parked outside of houses that smelled funny, and I just didn’t get it at all. I just assumed it was basically a giant Dungeons and Dragons game.
But twelve years ago, I saw The Fellowship of the Ring – somewhat reluctantly, I might add – and I loved it. I’ve read the Trilogy several times since then; read the astonishingly beautiful Silmarillion… I’ve read everything. And I now believe that J.R.R.Tolkien has created the single greatest work of literature in the history of the world. Because underneath the magic and the Elves and the Wizards is an endless allegory of good and evil; of sin and redemption; of hubris and arrogance and acts of transcendental courage in the face of certain death.
These themes are so timeless, so universal and so powerful, and ultimately so spiritually satisfying because what Tolkien is selling – all that he’s selling, when it’s all said and done – are the cardinal virtues; courage, and faith, and more than anything: hope.
Not hope and change. Hope in the face of change. Hope for the eternal in the face of catastrophic change. Hope where there is no hope. And speaking for myself here, that is a message I need to hear in these dark days. So walk with me a little, because I have to tell this story in order to tell the one I need to tell.
The very first scene in the very first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, takes place three thousand years earlier, when an alliance of Elves and Men do battle with Sauron, the physical incarnation of evil, on the plains outside of his kingdom of Mordor called the Dagorlad.
Sauron is not evil because he wears black armor. Sauron is not evil because he is warlike. Sauron is the embodiment of evil because all of his strength and power is deployed to bend every living creature to his will.
To that end, he has put all of his strength and will into a single Ring of Power: the circle, the zero -- golden and beautiful and precious, it will draw every living soul into its bottomless depths.
But there is power for good in Middle Earth, as well as for evil, and much of the goodness and wisdom of the Elves has been breathed into metal as well: Narsil, Light of the Sun and the Moon, sword of the King, Elendil – the only blade that can cleave the armor of Sauron.
But with one swing of Sauron’s terrible mace, Elendil is killed – so effortlessly that it seems almost an afterthought. The King’s son, Isildur, reaches for Narsil, but the Dark Lord crushes it with his iron boot and Narsil shatters into shards.
And then, when all is lost – when the Old King is dead and the One Sword shattered… as Sauron reaches down to crush the life out of the New King, and Darkness incarnate will triumph until the sun goes out… when all is lost and no hope remains, Isildur grabs the shattered hilt of Narsil, and with his last strength cuts off Sauron’s fingers and with them the Ring of Power… and, just like that, Sauron disappears. Not dead, as we later discover (although all think he is) because Sauron cannot be killed as long as his essence remains in the Ring. But at the moment of lowest hope the battle is over -- won.
There are still some among you reading this that remember those days of 1940, and 1941, and 1942, when all seemed lost; before the Greatest Generation rode out to do battle with Evil Incarnate.
In May of 1940, Winston Churchill looked across the English Channel at a fallen France, an unstoppable Dark Lord that had done in six weeks with a few thousand casualties what had not been accomplished a generation earlier in four bloody years at the cost of millions of young lives. He faced the ruin of his army on the beaches of Dunkirk, and stood there, gazing across the English Channel, knowing that now the fleets of aircraft that outnumbered his Island Home’s defenses by five to one would be coming… and behind them the coal-scuttle helmets aboard landing barges, and then the murdering would begin in earnest.
The best and brightest of the British Empire saw the hopelessness of the situation, and argued that the only sane choice was to take the generous offer of serfdom from the Dark Lord across the waters. And Winston Churchill went to Parliament and addressed the Umbrella Men, who through their weakness and arrogance had brought on this catastrophe, and he said,
I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man... And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.
And so, every day, he woke up to face the ruin of everything he loved and decided, every day, that he would fight them. And he did.
Isildur took the Ring of Power. But he didn’t destroy it. Because ruin follows the lust for power, and that lust always disguises itself – even to its own heart – with the Shroud of the Desire to Do Good. And so Sauron lived as the Ring lived.
A little over a year after the Final Victory, Isildur took both the Ring and the shards of Narsil on an errand to the Elves. But a party of Orcs appeared, as unlooked for and unsuspected as if out of a clear blue Sunday morning in December, or an even more beautiful Tuesday morning in the fall.
Surrounded, fighting hopelessly against overwhelming odds, he entrusted the Shards of Narsil to his squire, and bade him make his escape. Isildur was then commanded by his son and Heir, to put on the Ring and escape even in disgrace, since the Ring at all costs could not be allowed to fall into the hands of the enemy. He donned the Ring, and becoming invisible escaped from the massacre. But as he tried to swim across a river to make his escape, the Ring turned on him. It slipped from his fingers, and Isildur – whose love of power prevented its destruction – suddenly became visible once more and was pierced by the arrows of the pursuing Orcs.
Narsil was brought to the haven of Rivendell, and there it sat for three thousand years: the ruined shards of goodness and light and hope, shattered into uselessness and despair.
The spectacularly brilliant Joseph Campbell referred to The Collective Unconscious as a common wellspring of mythological yearning that every human seems to share.
And it was Campbell’s remarkable book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, that showed how time and time and time again, across every culture and every age, timeless themes emerge and repeat again and again.
It seems that virtually every culture has independently invented, on their own from the depths of the Collective Unconscious (which is likely hard-wired into the human brain) the same exact story -- the same myth – told again and again and again.
It’s The Journey of the Hero, and it is amazing to me how perfectly it is retold and re-invented and yet remains exactly the same, because the Journey of the Hero speaks to the deepest heart in each of us.
The Hero begins as a callow lad: unformed, weak and clueless. But there is a yearning in him, a spark of what seems at first to be a mere thirst for adventure – but it is something much, much deeper than that. Because this farm boy, this unknown, unremarkable callow boy has – unknown to himself – the Blood of Kings in his veins.
Arthur is a lowly page, an unknown boy. But he is of Royal blood, hidden away from danger but somehow tragically lost to the world in the process.
A sword is set in a stone, and a prophecy states that whoever can pull the Sword from the Stone will become the greatest of kings of England. While mighty captains try with all their great physical strength, and the arrogance that comes with that power, and fail, Arthur in his humility, alone and without fanfare gently slides the sword out from the rock because Arthur is not a pageboy. Arthur is a king. He has always been a king.
With the aid of a wise man (Merlin) and a powerful warrior who nevertheless does not have the divine spark and thus overcomes his pride to become his loyal lieutenant (Lancelot), he sets out to banish evil from his kingdom by leaving behind the page boy and becoming what he was meant to be: King.
Luke Skywalker is a farm boy: lost, insignificant and forgotten. He has been raised in seclusion and not told of his true lineage in order to protect him from the forces that would kill him as a child. But he discovers his father’s sword, and with the aid of a wise man (Obi Wan) and a bigger, stronger warrior who has overcome his pride to become his friend and lieutenant (Han Solo), he sets out to banish evil from the Empire and become what he was meant to be: a Jedi.
Aragorn is a Ranger: unknown, unsung, a muddy man hiding from his destiny. Raised in Rivendell by the Elves, who have not told him of his heritage and keep him secluded from the Evil that knows he is a mortal threat. In the end he will wield the reforged sword of his forefather, and with the aid of a wise man (Gandalf) and a more powerful warrior who has overcome his pride and become his loyal lieutenant (Boromir) he sets out to banish evil from his kingdom and become what he was meant to be: King.
All three of these Heroes With a Thousand Faces are worthy to be King. Do you know why?
Because none of them desire to be King. Whatever callow ambition they had as farm boys has been beaten out of them by terrible hardships and the wisdom of their helpers. At the moment of truth, each is given a chance for the absolute power that evil men crave, and they turn it down.
Arthur, in dismay, casts Excalibur – his magical sword which is the spiritual center of his power – back into the lake. He walks away from power. He becomes worthy of wielding power because he willingly forgoes that power. He is a far better man than his father Uther, who ruined his kingdom for a single night of lust.
Luke casts his Lightsaber away, and accepts death over the Emperor’s offer of limitless power. He is a Jedi, like his father, he says. But his father failed the test that Luke has just passed. He is a far better man than his father.
And Aragorn… Aragorn...
The Shards of Narsil have lain in Rivendell for an age. He knows that only he, as a direct descendant of Elendil can wield the reforged sword and defeat the Shadow that will bend everything to its will. And yet, Aragorn knows that he is also the Heir of Isildur, who, like Uther Pendragon and Anakin Skywalker, failed at the moment of truth and brought about the evil and disaster that the sons must now set right. The Ring of Power is in his hand, dropped in the snow; a gift from Sauron… and he places it back in Frodo’s palm. He walks away from power, and so becomes worthy of it.
I have on the far wall of my bedroom wall three items: they are the first things I see every morning.
On the right, I have her portrait of Aragorn. It is sublimely done. To me, it is the moment of truth where a man has to decide, as Winston Churchill did, whether he will go out and face impossible odds and risk failure and ruin, or remain in the shadows not as King but as Strider, the Ranger.
On the left, another of Alice’s haunting images: and this one I have to remind me that nobility and divinity are not advertised; that the Remnant remains hidden, and that anyone I may pass that day may be in fact an Angel – and not in the puerile way we speak of Angels today. That anonymous figure in the gloom may be a Michael, an archangel warrior: the champion of Good who casts down Satan.
And between them I have a sword: Anduril, reforged from the shards of ruined Narsil.
Anduril, the Flame of the West. Narsil reborn, stronger than before, hammered and heated and cooled and smitten, again and again, beaten again and again while red hot, only to be dashed once more into ice water because that is what gives steel its strength.
Why do I have these things?
Well, the decision to be Ranger or King is one I have to make every day. And so do you. That anonymous Warrior Angel may be anyone. Maybe it’s you. Who knows? It could even be me.
And Anduril reminds me that there is no Greatest Generation. There is no sword broken; there is no Golden Age lost and locked in the past. There are only shards lying before us, waiting for us to gather the will to reforge and wield them. It’s a decision, not a doom or a destiny, and we have to make it every day.
I don’t know if we can stop the destruction of everything we love in this world. I don’t know that we can destroy this all-seeing eye that seems to watch us all now, day and night, in this once-free land. I don’t know if all of my efforts will amount to anything at all, in the end, and I don’t know if yours will either.
I only know that every day I will make a decision to do everything I can to make sure my land, my realm, my America does not fall into darkness today.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien:
You may feel lost, and alone: insignificant and unsung. But you aren’t. You are nobility. You may be a farm boy or a farm girl on the outside, but if you found this message and stayed with it until the end then you have the spark of divinity within you. I am a messenger only. I am not the message.
You are the message.
The Return of the King is not the story of the arrival of a man in a kingdom. It is the story of the arrival of a kingdom in a man.
Fight them, King. Not forever. Just today.
( A small coda... When Isildur dispatched his squire, Ohtar, to save the Shards of Narsil, he commanded him to "Save it from capture by all means that you can find, and at all costs; even at the cost of being held a coward that deserted me." In other words, for a certain type of man it took more courage to run away than it did to stay and die; but in the end the mission trumped everything, even personal honor. And so, in an age where everything is a commercial and everyone is trying to sell you something, I too hesitate to say that without the vision and generosity of our Subscribers, these free messages simply would not be possible. But this mission, too is important. If you can help us to reforge this sword, we could use your help.)