Friday, 29 October 2010

Memory, Tradition and Anamnesis...

The above painting is by J.R.R Tolkien and depicts Lothlórien in the Spring. Laurelindórenan, the Land of the Valley of Singing Gold, Lórien of the Blossom, the Dreamflower - it's one of those places where I always wanted to live. The significance of this image will be discerned as you read the rest of this post. I believe I have established another link, yea an important one, between Tolkien's legendarium and the Sacred Liturgy.

Memory, understood as something wholly poignant, and a concept quite different to the Eldar as it is to Men (since, as Gimli said, to the Elves it is more like unto waking life) is one of the central themes in Tolkien; often it manifests as the memory of fair things lost indefinitely, and is therefore a grief, and since he writes chiefly of the Elves, it is a constant motif. Memory ties in significantly with Tolkien's ideas about the second ''fall'' (or error) of the Exiled Elves, the Gnomes of Beleriand. At the end of the First Age, the Eldar of Beleriand were counselled by Eönwë to return into the West to receive the pardon (or in some cases, the judgement) of the Valar. Many hearkened to the summons and left the grey shores of the Hither Lands, but some, and many of the greatest and noblest of the Eldar, (eg: Galadriel and Elrond) decided to remain in Middle-earth, and these went eastwards into Eriador where they founded kingdoms - Eregion, nigh to the great Dwarrowdelf of the Dwarves, and at Lindon, where there were still havens. In Eregion, the Elves struck up a friendship with the Dwarves of the Misty Mountains, such as there had never been before, to the profit of both their realms.

On a time, there appeared in Eregion a certain sage of wise and fair countenance, calling himself Annatar, Lord of Gifts, and he posed as an emissary of the Valar, sent to heal the desolate lands. He became the friend and counsellor of Celebrimbor, son of Curufin, the greatest craftsman of his age, and Celebrimbor respected Annatar, for his knowledge and subtlety were great, and together with his small band of followers, the Gwaith-i-Mírdain (The People of the Jewel-Smiths), under the tutelage of Annatar, they wrought the Rings of Power. ''Annatar'' was, of course, Sauron the Deceiver.

The chief power of the Great Rings was not, as the film trilogy makes out, for the purposes of government - it was, in fact, the prevention or slowing of decay, or change viewed as something unfortunate but inevitable, the preservation of beautiful things, things beloved or desired, or at least the semblance of all these things. The most potent of these things were the Three, unbeknown to Sauron, and these Three were never touched by him. But Sauron wrought in secret the One Ring in Orodruin, and with this Ring he could see the thoughts and govern the actions of those who wore the lesser Rings (even the Three), and would eventually utterly enslave them. But when Sauron assumed the One Ring, and spoke the famous leit-motif ''One Ring to rule them all,'' etc, the Elves were immediately aware of him, and in wrath and great fear they removed the Rings, and hid them. Sauron then made war on the Elves, Eregion was destroyed, and the West-doors of Moria were shut. He seized the Great Rings (all except the Three, which were hidden) and gave them to those who would accept them, for reasons of greed or ambition.

As I have said, the Elves desired only the memory of ancient bliss to be made a reality in Middle-earth - which is, I suppose, where the source of their error lay. They wanted the perfection of the West, but in Middle-earth, where they were comfortably above the other uncouth inhabitants (the wild Men and the Dwarves - the Men of Númenor came seldom to Middle-earth in those days). Therefore, the Elves became obsessed with ''fading'', and they were sad. Their art, therefore, became also sad. When Sauron posed as Annatar, he feigned sympathy with this ideal, for it suited his purposes, and therein he sought to twist it, and proposed to them that with his aid, they might endeavour to make Middle-earth a separate paradise, against the Valar. Sure enough, when Sauron was vanquished at the end of the Second Age, his control over the Great Rings was lost, and the Three (while never openly declared) were released, free to act according to their initial design.

Interestingly, there are two important aspects of the ''memory'' of the Eldar depicted in The Lord of the Rings. The one is in the House of Elrond (or perhaps even in the person of Elrond Halfelven himself), a place where Tradition (songs, tales, customs, ancestral ritual) is preserved in reverent memory. The House of Elrond is a place of reflection, a veritable mirror or seeing-glass into the history of Arda. The other place is Lothlórien, where the history of Arda seemed to be alive and not just seen as a remote picture in the mind, just as real as the trees and grass. The Hobbits, Frodo and Sam, stood in wonder at it:

''The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien there was no stain.'' (The Lord of the Rings, Book II, Chapter VI, Lothlórien).

When Sam described his own sentiments, that it was like ''being inside a song'' as it were, Haldir knew immediately what he meant. Sam discerned, of course, the power of Nenya, the Ring of Adamant (one of the Three), which preserved the land of Lothlórien against the menace of Dol Guldur. All outside was dark. But, all the beauty and the memory of good depended upon the Quest of Mount Doom. Galadriel told Frodo that he was not responsible for the fate of Lothlórien, but only for the completion of his task (which encompassed the fate of all realms where the memory of good things was kept in reverence, such as in Gondor (although in the case of Gondor, things are more complex, and arguably, as Faramir says, they had less lore and had become more like the Men of Rohan)). But, since the beauty of Lothlórien was preserved with the power of Nenya, what would happen to that beauty if the One Ring were in fact destroyed? Some had argued at the Council of Elrond that the Three would be eternally released, and that the Elves would be free to heal the hurts of the world, and to preserve in a vivid tradition the memory of ancient days. But, as Elrond himself believed, wise in all lore, the other proved the more likely - and indeed befell. The One Ring was indeed destroyed, but the powers of the Three were not enhanced or set free, but were made impotent. ''For our spring,'' said Galadriel, ''and our summer are gone by, and they will never be seen on earth again save in memory.''

I suppose this is one reason I find Tolkien's work so beautiful and so resonant. I believe it was Cardinal Ratzinger who said that Tradition is the ''memory of the Church.'' Indeed, and I could not put it better myself. The Tradition of the Church is made present, and alive, in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy - and all the more meaningful in the chanting of the Scriptures, the lessons of the Fathers and the great Anamnesis of the Mass. Christ's ordinance This do for the commemoration of me makes the Blessed Sacrament present upon the Altar, not because the priest utters ''magic words'' of institution (a Traditionalist error which seeks to render the Sacred Liturgy bare of all save sacramental validity) but because it is the waking memory of Christ made present by the Church, who remembers through the faithful ministry of the Liturgy. The Apostles remembered the Risen Christ at Emmaus when He broke bread with them. It is the Sacred Liturgy which is the great connexion, a veritable catena aurea, linking us to the Fathers and thence to Christ on the Cross. What happens, therefore, when this Tradition is interrupted by tampering at magisterial level, when the Memory of the Church is supplanted by something foreign? The Pacelli propers for the Feast of the Assumption (akin, in my view, to what he did to Holy Week) come to mind. How can the People of God remember the mystery of St Mary's Assumption properly when the Church has so distanced herself from the ancestral Liturgy for this Feast? Whether this is legitimate authority or no (as you know I would say that this is misuse of supposed authority), it can only serve to render the memory of the Church void or irrelevant. What is the point of Tradition, of Memory, when you can have the Vicar of Christ make it up in the name of doctrinal clarity? If Tradition is understood as the waking memory of the Church (in the Tolkienian sense), and the Roman Church is in a state of de facto schism with her own Tradition, one could well ask: Man is nothing without his memory, what therefore is the modern Roman Church?

I shall conclude this odd post with a beautiful, but sadly seldom read, passage in Tolkien, from Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, the Death-bed of Aragorn; and so we might endeavour to reckon the present life of Men:

''Now, therefore, I will sleep.'' said Aragorn. ''I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world. The uttermost choice is before you: to repent and go to the Havens and bear away into the West the memory of our days together that shall there be evergreen but never more than memory; or else to abide the Doom of Men.''

''Nay, dear lord,'' said Arwen, ''that choice is long over. There is now no ship that would bear me hence, and I must indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether I will or I nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Númenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One [God] to Men, it is bitter to receive.''

''So it seems,'' he said. ''But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!''


  1. Yes, thank you, though my mind is actually more in Utumno...there is a valedictory air, mood with the Elves indeed. Have you read T.S.Eliot's critical essays or Lofstedt's Roman Literary Portraits?