Tuesday, 14 August 2012

A cock crowed...


The drums rolled louder. Fires leaped up. Great engines crawled across the field; and in the midst was a huge ram, great as a forest-tree a hundred feet in length, swinging on mighty chains. Long had it been forging in the dark smithies of Mordor, and its hideous head, founded of black steel, was shaped in the likeness of a ravening wolf; on it spells of ruin lay. Grond they named it, in memory of the Hammer of the Underworld of old. Great beasts drew it, orcs surrounded it, and behind walked mountain-trolls to wield it.

But about the Gate resistence still was stout, and there the knights of Dol Amroth and the hardiest of the garison stood at bay. Shot and dart fell thick; siege-towers crashed or blazed suddenly like torches. All before the walls on either side of the Gate the ground was choked with wreck and with bodies of the slain; yet driven as by a madness more and more came up.

Grond crawled on. Upon its housing no fire would catch; and though now and again some great beast that hauled it would go mad and spread stamping run among the orcs inumerable that guarded it, their bodies were cast aside from the path and others took their place.

Grond crawled on. The drums rolled wildly. Over the hills of slain a hideous shape appeared: a horseman, tall, hooded, cloaked in black. Slowly, trampling the fallen, he rode forth, heeding no longer any dart. He halted and held up a long pale sword. And as he did so a great fear fell on all, defender and foe alike; and the hands of men drooped to their sides, and no bow sang. For a moment all was still.

The drums rolled and rattles. With a vast rush Grond was hurled forward by huge hands. It reached the Gate. It swung. A deep boom rumbled through the City like thunder running in the clouds. But the doors of iron and posts of steel withstood the stroke.

Then the Black Captain rose in his stirrups and cried aloud in a dreadful voice, speaking in some forgotten tongue words of power and terror to rend both heart and stone.

Thrice he cried. Thrice the great ram boomed. And suddenly upon the last stroke the Gate of Gondor broke. As if stricken by some blasting spell it burst asunder: there was a flash of searing lightning, and the doors tumbled in riven fragments to the ground.

In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.

All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dínen.

''You cannot enter here,'' said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. ''Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!''

The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.

''Old fool!'' he said. ''Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!'' And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.

Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin's sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.
(J.R.R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book V, Chapter IV).


So much repetition here, suspense and symbol. Grond, the weapon in the hands of Morgoth in ancient times, the head of which is shaped in the likeness of a ravening wolf, pitted against the cock, a Petrine symbol, a symbol of vigilance and hope in the Resurrection. The Lord of the Nine Riders, who fills the soldiery of the Dark Lord with fear and madness, set against Gandalf, white and without fear, here described as ''steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dínen,'' which was the ancient ''silent street,'' and buriel place of the Kings of Gondor. This is not the only place where Gandalf is described in this curious way - at the end of Book III it is said that Pippin had a strange feeling, that he and Gandalf were as still as stone, seated upon the statue of a running horse, as the world passed them by. What does this say of Gandalf and Shadowfax? Though not cut in stone, it reminds me of the melancholy expression of Christ on the Rood Loft of Binham Priory, Christ and the Saints who presided over the solemn celebration of Liturgy aforetime, and still, though defaced and long since gone into the grave, at least watch through the rude carvings of verses from an English bible. Gandalf kept vigilance, urged the men of Gondor to put off their fear of the dark, ''wherever he came men's hearts would lift again, and the winged shadows pass from memory,'' it is said of him. It was not to preserve the mere lives of Men that Gandalf went down into Minas Tirith, and stood alone before the face of a terrible captain, but to defend the Tradition and Memory of Númenor, in both the Living and the Dead; the living who were free men and true, inheritors of a regal Tradition, and the men that slept in Rath Dínen, around which the memory of that Tradition was woven, and fundamentally to defend them from enslavement to and worship of the Dark. How would Gandalf fare against the Lord of the Nine Riders who, during the Siege of Minas Tirith, was given by his Master an added demonic force and dominon? Maybe that is the wrong question. What if Gandalf had pursued the Black Captain from the Gate when he turned to meet the new challenge of his foes? What if Pippin had never come? Is it not telling that Gandalf went rather to the aid of Faramir than to the field of Pelennor? Ever the instruments of God are the small and simple in The Lord of the Rings! The cock heralds the coming of the dawn, described by Aragorn as ever the hope of Men; Pippin, as small as a pebble to cause an avalanche in the mountains, saved the line of the Stewards by calling upon Gandalf. It is sad that others died, that the Lady of Rohan was in the path of the Black Captain, but the Battle would have been more evil if Gandalf had pursued him into the field. Maybe the day would have been lost, and the hosts of Mordor victorious.
This is not an attempt to uncover Tolkien's own thoughts here at the time of writing in order to discern some pattern, least of all any obvious parallels with Christianity. This is just how the text speaks to me. I read the passage aloud to myself earlier and quailed at the words: ''all save one.'' My heart is now full of it.

Art: Ted Nasmith.

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