My monthly Tolkien reading yesterday from A Reader’s Companion by Hammond and Scull took me on a journey into the ancient past, both in Tolkien’s Legendarium and in our own world. The rise and fall of empires; the hubris of man and his futile pursuit of immortality; the triumph of time over all things . . . all of this from a few lines of a two hundred year old poem about a three thousand years dead king.
It all started with a note (p. 485) referencing this passage in Chapter 7 Journey to the Cross-Roads in Book Four of The Lord of the Rings:
At length they reached the trees, and found that they stood in a great roofless ring, open in the middle to the sombre sky; and the spaces between their immense boles were like the great dark arches of some ruined hall. In the very centre four ways met. Behind 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. Turning towards it, he saw, beyond an arch of boughs, the road to Osgiliath running almost as straight as a stretched ribbon down, down, into the West. There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the Sun was sinking, finding at last the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud, and falling in an ominous fire towards the yet unsullied Sea. 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.
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 hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.
‘They cannot conquer for ever!’ said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell.
H&S compare the statue’s description, ravages of time and hostility towards a once imposing figure to a poem commemorating a battered statute of an Egyptian pharaoh written by Percy Bysshe Shelly in the early 19th century entitled Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In a previous note (p. 477) for Chapter 5 The Window on the West (the chapter for which I named my blog domain), Hammond and Scull had referenced a letter Tolkien wrote to Rhona Beare on October 14, 1958:
The Númenóreans of Gondor were proud, peculiar, and archiac, and I think are best pictured in Egyptian terms. In many ways they resembled “Egyptians” – the love of, and power to construct, the gigantic and the massive. And in their great interest in ancestry and tombs.Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 281
The poem evokes sadness within me – men repeating for thousands of years their folly, their vainglory. Screams against the inevitable swept away by the sands of time. Nothing lasts forever and there is truly nothing new under the sun.
If we fast-forward another three thousand years, would a traveler find anything remaining of what we’ve built here in America? More than likely, the colossal statue of Rameses II would probably still be, if not standing, at least at rest.
And yet Tolkien evokes hope in his depiction of a fallen empire. His ‘shattered visage’ with a ‘coronal of silver and gold’ portended the return of the king and the fall of the current rising dark empire.
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