I was talking to my oldest son on Sunday afternoon. We talked about so many things. We got started talking about how heaven might --- well, surely WILL -- surprise us. Liam compared it to the New Covenant compared with the Old. The Chosen People knew the outlines of what was to come. There had been so many prophecies and prefigurements. But they didn't, and COULDN'T understand it the way it really would be until the time came. Perhaps, no, almost certainly, we'll get that sense of surprise as all the missing pieces fall into place.
"No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" 1 Cor 2:9
I'm not sure why, since I've heard it so many times before, but thinking about that suddenly made me feel so happy. I felt like I had just watched one of those movies that resolve so beautifully, in a way that's expected and yet with a joyous, unpredicted reversal that makes sense of everything before.
I remembered how last week I read to the boys from Return of the King. I don't want to spoil the story for you, so if you haven't read it and don't want to have a preview of a plot point, please turn away now.
Anyway, at the part we're on, Gondor and the Rohirrim are engaged in desperate battle against overwhelming odds. The king of Rohan has fallen, as has his niece, and the only son of the steward of Gondor is very ill, while the steward himself is becoming increasingly unstable and moody.
At this dark time, they look down the length of the river Anduin and see, to their horror, black ships with black sails. They are the ships of the Corsairs, who are allied with the enemy. Everyone's heart sinks. Some of the defenders shout "Back to the walls! Come back to the city before all are overwhelmed!"
Eomer, the acting king of the Rohirrim prepares to die fighting and to do "deeds of song" even though no man be left to sing them.
And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again at the black ships, and he lifted his sword to defy them.
And then wonder took him, and a great joy... and all eyes followed his gaze and behold! upon the foremost ships a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as she turned towards the Harlond. There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it, the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count. ...
Thus came Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elessar, Isildur's heir, out of the Paths of the Dead, borne upon a wind from the Sea to the kingdom of Gondor.
Tolkien talked in his essays about this idea of eucatastrophe, of a happy reversal, and he believed it represented reality. I do too.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escapist', nor 'fugitive'. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.Meanwhile the steward of Gondor despairs too soon. He sees the black sails and believes the battle is lost already. I couldn't help thinking of Aegeus, Theseus's father. Do you think Tolkien was thinking about that when he wrote the scene about the return of the king, and intentionally contrasted a Christian evangelium with a pre-Christian one? The story goes that when Theseus, the beloved son of the Athenian King Aegeus, set off in the black-sailed ship with the doomed Athenian youths sailing to Crete, intending to slay the Minotaur or die in the attempt, he promised that if he returned alive he would switch from black to white sails. But he forgot, and his father, the king, when he saw the black-sailed ship, threw himself in despair off the cliffs. The sea is called Aegean in honor of him.
The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation — This story begins and ends in joy.” J.R.R. Tolkien
There is no doubt that Denethor's "pride and despair" exemplifies one of the faults of the noble and talented person who has relied on something besides the return of the king for whom he is holding the throne.
I was just reading something about the Ten Commandments that said that the First Commandment releases us from the bondage of placing our hopes upon things that will never fulfill our hopes -- things that can't help us at the times we really need help. That was an interesting way to think of it, but it seems true. The pagans were really captives. They had to serve gods who didn't really care much about them and were not all that interested in helping them out. The Gospel message, coming to the Roman world, was truly one of freedom.
In that way, Eomer's courage in the face of the darkest moment reminds me of something that John Senior wrote memorably in his book The Restoration of Christian Culture:
the Camino Real of Christ is a chivalric way, romantic, full of fire and passion, riding on the pure, high-spirited horses of the self with their glad, high-stepping knees and flaring nostrils, and us with jingling spurs and the cry “Mon Joie!” –the battle cry of Roland..