March 11, 2019 Length: 47:03
Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick introduces his first "minisode" (a.k.a. "The Appendices") to talk about what Amon Sûl actually is in Middle-earth and its significance for him. He also responds to some concerns from a listener and visits the Tolkien exhibit in New York along with Steven Christoforou and a very special guest.
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick: Surprise! It’s an Amon Sûl podcast “minisode”!
I’m your host, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, and you’re listening to the Amon Sûl podcast in which we talk about the life and writing of the life and writing of the author J.R.R. Tolkien from an Orthodox Christian perspective. Although our normal full episodes are released once a month on the 25th, once in a while I have some content I’ve put together for you that will be simpler and briefer. Since any fan of Tolkien has to love appendices, think of these episodes as the Amon Sûl equivalent. So welcome to our first “minisode.”
First off, let’s look at some comments that I’ve received. This one came in the email. This one’s from Richard in San Diego, and he had a couple of things, corrections, really, that he wanted to offer after listening to our very first episode. First he said this:
Ilúvatar did not sing in the Ainulindalë; he brought forth the Ainur from his thought and taught to them the themes to play, but the world did come into being when he uttered the word “Eä,” which is profoundly biblical, and I agree with you that the Ainulindalë is a beautiful, cosmogonic myth.
Okay, so what Richard is referring to there is I actually made a mistake in our first episode, where I said that Ilúvatar sang the Ainur into being and sang everything into being. What I did is I actually conflated several things from the Ainulindalë, which is the creation story that’s in The Silmarillion. If you think of The Silmarillion sort of being like the Old Testament of Tolkien’s world, then the Ainulindalë is sort of like Genesis in some sense. So what actually happens in the Ainulindalë is, as Richard says, first Ilúvatar, who is the one god, the one true god, the monotheistic god of Tolkien’s world—he creates the Ainur, who are sort of like angelic beings, from his thought. It doesn’t really say much beyond that. It says that he creates them from his thought. It begins this way. It says:
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.
I’m reading here from The Silmarillion. It says:
And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.
Okay, so what happens is that Ilúvatar makes the Ainur from his thought, and then he sings to them, and then eventually he has them sing to him, and then they sing together, and all these things come together to be this great music, which we talked about in the first episode. I’m hoping that eventually we’ll have a whole episode where we talk about just this creation story. It’s really beautiful. And eventually what happens is, after the music is done, then Ilúvatar gives reality to what was in the music by saying the word, “Eä,” which means, essentially, “Let it be.”
So Richard is right. He’s correcting this error that I made in our first episode about the certain order things happen in and exactly how they happen. So Ilúvatar makes the Ainur out of his thought, then he sings to them, they sing back to him, sing with each other, he sings some more, and then eventually the song is used, this great theme is used, as a kind of template for the creation of the world when Ilúvatar says, “Eä.” Then a lot of things are found, of course, in the world that were essentially described in the music. We don’t know exactly how that is the case, but it’s described in the music. Of course, there are some things that are encountered in the world, in the creation, that didn’t seem to have any place in the music, so they’re a little surprised, even for the Ainur, who are these angelic beings. So, thank you very much, Richard, for that correction.
Then Richard also wrote this other comment. When Steve and I talked about the pity that is shown to Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, well, actually first in The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings, and we said that that was the hand of Ilúvatar acting through Bilbo, acting through Frodo, acting through Sam even, and Richard had this to say.
I’m not sure about Eru (which is the other name for Ilúvatar) being the cause and source of Bilbo’s, Sam’s, and Frodo’s mercy to Gollum. I may be lacking in understanding, but it seems that that response resided within their freedom, and that by choosing mercy they made possible the destruction of the ring.
I would say it’s really a question of interpretation. I looked to see if I could find anywhere that Tolkien had made a comment about this, and I couldn’t find something. Maybe, listeners, you know of something that Tolkien said where he gives an interpretation of this question. Is it just purely within the free will of these hobbits to show mercy to Gollum, or is it something that Ilúvatar is doing? I would say this, especially being an Orthodox Christian: I would say it’s both. It’s both, and I don’t think Steve and I were suggesting that Ilúvatar kind of deterministically made the hobbits show pity to Gollum; they were still acting in their freedom. But these are kind of really key moments in the history of the ring and in the history of Middle Earth, and it’s really important that it turns out that way.
So you have to imagine—certainly I did and Steve did—that Ilúvatar is present and he’s working and he’s helping the hobbits to make the right choice in this case, so I wouldn’t say that he made them show pity to Gollum, but I also wouldn’t say that it was sort of a naked act of the free will, as if of course any goodness that anyone in Tolkien’s world has isn’t somehow related to Ilúvatar. It is all related to Ilúvatar, and of course if you remember that passage from the Ainulindalë where Ilúvatar says to Melkor, who rebels against him that any kind of Melkor might come up with that he thinks is actually against the music of Ilúvatar turns out to have its ultimate source in Ilúvatar, and that anyone who makes some other kind of music, as he says, “shall prove but mine instrument.”
So ultimately Ilúvatar is kind of weaving all these things together for his own purposes. So, yes, I agree with you, Richard, that it resides within the freedom of these hobbits to show pity to Gollum, but at the same time I would say that Ilúvatar is present and working and probably was doing a lot to prepare them, to prepare their characters for those moments. So I would say it’s both; it’s synergistic, really. That’s certainly how I would interpret it in my own reading, especially as an Orthodox Christian. I believe in synergy, where God and man work together for the purposes that God has set out, but that God does not overwhelm the will of man when it comes to man’s salvation.
But thank you very much for those comments, Richard. I really appreciate it. Those are some good observations. Other listeners, if you have any corrections you would like to offer, just as Richard offered corrections, we would be happy to receive them. I definitely read all the email that I get, and perhaps if you send something to me and it works within an episode, it will make it on the air. So if you’d like to send any messages, any comments, questions, you can send them to me at email@example.com or you can message me via our Amon Sûl podcast Facebook page. Maybe yours will come onto a future episode.
I wanted to dedicate the bulk of this episode today to the name of this podcast, actually, Amon Sûl. What is it, right? What is Amon Sûl exactly? Well, it’s a name, of course, that only people who are real Tolkien fans are likely to sort of immediately recognize as being from Tolkien, as having something to do with Middle Earth. If you’ve read Lord of the Rings, then you probably know the place, although it’s not commonly called that, and I’ll mention that in just a second.
So what is Amon Sûl? If you’ve only seen the movies, the movies by Peter Jackson, that is, then there’s just this one line that comes in where Aragorn, Strider, is leading the hobbits, and he looks up and you see it, and he says, “This was the great watch-tower of Amon Sûl.” And that’s all he says in the movie, but there’s actually way more in the book about Amon Sûl, which is also called Weathertop, and I just wanted to go over a couple of those brief passages. Most of what you see about Amon Sûl in The Lord of the Rings is in the first volume, in The Fellowship of the Ring, in a chapter called “A Knife in the Dark.” So I’m just going to read a couple sections, not the whole chapter, but I’m just going to read a couple sections to give us a sense of the place that we’re talking about. This is from “A Knife in the Dark.”
They had not gone far on the fifth day when they left the last straggling pools and reed-beds of the marshes behind them. The land before them began steadily to rise again. Away in the distance eastward they could now see a line of hills. The highest of them was at the right of the line and a little separated from the others. It had a conical top, slightly flattened at the summit.
‘That is Weathertop,’ said Strider. ‘The Old Road, which we have left far away on our right, runs to the south of it and passes not far from its foot. We might reach it by noon tomorrow, if we go straight towards it. I suppose we had better do so.’
So that’s only when we first see Amon Sûl, also known as Weathertop, when Strider is traveling with the hobbits, and they see it in the distance. I want to just skip ahead a little bit, when there’s a little bit more about Amon Sûl, when Strider actually tells us a little something about it. So this is skipping ahead a little bit further, and they’re kind of going along the path, and the hobbit Merry says this:
‘I wonder who made this path and what for,’ said Merry, as they walked along one of these avenues, where the stones were unusually large and closely set. ‘I am not sure that I like it: it has a—well, a barrow-wightish look. Is there any barrow on Weathertop?’
‘No. There is no barrow on Weathertop, nor on any of these hills,’ answered Strider. ‘The Men of the West did not live here; though in their latter days they defended the hills for a while against the evil that came out of Angmar. This path was made to serve the forts along the walls. But long before, in the first days of the North Kingdom, they build a great watch-tower on Weathertop, Amon Sûl they called it. It was burned and broken, and nothing remains of it now but a tumbled ring, like a rough crown on the old hill’s head. Yet once it was tall and fair. It is told that Elendil stood there watching for the coming of Gil-galad out of the West, in the days of the Last Alliance.’
The hobbits gazed at Strider. It seemed that he was learned in old lord, as well as in the ways of the wild. ‘Who was Gil-galad?’ asked Merry; but Strider did not answer, and seemed to be lost in thought. Suddenly a low voice murmured:
Gil-galad was an Elven-king.
Of him the harpers sadly sing:
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Mountains and the Sea.
His sword was long, his lance was keen,
his shining helm afar was seen;
the countless stars of heaven’s field
were mirrored in his silver shield.
But long ago he rode away,
and where he dwelleth none can say;
for into darkness fell his star
in Mordor where the shadows are.
The others turned in amazement, for the voice was Sam’s.
‘Don’t stop!’ said Merry.
‘That’s all I know,’ stammered Sam, blushing. ‘I learned it from Mr. Bilbo when I was a lad. He used to tell me tales like that, knowing how I was always one for hearing about Elves. It was Mr. Bilbo as taught me my letters. He was mighty book-learned was dear old Mr. Bilbo. And he wrote poetry. He wrote what I have just said.’
‘He did not make it up,’ said Strider. ‘It is part of the lay that is called The Fall of Gil-galad which is in an ancient tongue. Bilbo must have translated it. I never knew that.’
‘There was a lot more,’ said Sam, ‘all about Mordor. I didn’t learn that part, it gave me the shivers. I never thought I should be going that way myself!’
‘Going to Mordor!’ cried Pippin. ‘I hope it won’t come to that!’
‘Do not speak that name so loudly!’ said Strider.
That’s where we hear about Amon Sûl in The Fellowship of the Ring, in that chapter called “A Knife in the Dark.” Strider gives a little bit of its history, actually, and then Sam knows a little bit of a rhyme that Bilbo had translated about Gil-galad. So lots of names here, lots of stuff.
Let’s get a sense of exactly where Amon Sûl is. If you’ve got a map of Middle Earth, which if you’ve got copies of either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, there are maps usually in those editions, or you can go to LotRproject.com, which is a website that has lots of maps on it. You’ll see there’s various maps, so you want to look at a map of Middle Earth, and you’ll want to look up in the northwestern part, the part that’s called Eriador, that whole region. If you’re looking at that region, you’ll see that there’s a road that runs basically east-west throughout most of this part of the map. The western ending of it, roughly, is in the Shire, where Hobbiton is, where the hobbits are from. Eventually the hobbits make their way through the old forest which is right near there—they’re heading east—and then the Barrow downs, which is why there was this concern about barrows on Amon Sûl, no barrows there, and then eventually they make their way to Bree after they saw Tom Bombadil over in the old forest and so forth.
They make their way to Bree, and that’s where they meet Strider. Then Strider takes them out into the wild. They don’t take the road very much, but they do come to Amon Sûl, which if you’re looking at your map and you find Bree, which is east of the barrow downs, and just follow the old road, the road east, then you eventually see that there’s a series of hills running north and south called the Weather Hills. At the very bottom of those hills, at the very south end, there is Amon Sûl. So Amon Sûl is the highest one, and that’s where all of this takes place that we read there in Lord of the Rings, and it’s, of course, the name of this podcast. You see it on your map.
First I want to mention what does the name mean exactly. We first encounter it with the name Weathertop, and that’s what the men of Bree call it. It’s what the hobbits refer to it as initially, but of course Aragorn, being wise in old lore, he knows the Elvish name for it. I believe this is in Sindarin—correct me, listeners, if I get this wrong—and he called it Amon Sûl, which means the Hill of Winds. So these are the Weather Hills, and that one at the bottom is Weathertop or the Hill of Winds, so this tells us a little something about the weather in this area. It’s a very sort of practical name that refers to what the weather is like. It’s a very windy place. So Amon Sûl means Hill of Winds.
Just as an interesting side-note, if you ever looked up Amon Sûl on Wikipedia and then you scrolled down to the bottom, you’ll actually discover that there is a whole category on Wikipedia dedicated to hills in Middle Earth! I couldn’t believe it when I saw that! Of course, there’s many hills actually mentioned in Middle Earth. Of course there’s mountains also, but there’s lots of hills, and a lot of them have this first word in their name, Amon, which means Hill. So Amon Sûl: Hill of Winds. You may also think of Amon Hen and Amon Lhaw and other names from other parts of Middle Earth, but there’s a whole category on Wikipedia dedicated to hills in Middle Earth. And this is Amon Sûl, the Hill of Winds. So that’s the name for it of old.
At this point when they come upon Amon Sûl, it’s just a hill and there’s kind of ruins up at the top. Not much left. Like an old crown on the hill’s head, is what Aragorn says. When you see it in the movie, there’s kind of more ruins up top than are described in the book, at least from the way that I imagine the book. In the book, it sounds like there’s kind of not much there, but in the movie there’s almost whole walls standing. Of course, they’re ruined, but they’re up, standing above a man’s head. The impression I get from the book is that it’s just this low sort of ring that maybe is not even waist-high.
But in any event, no matter what it actually looks like, there’s just ruins up top. And why are there ruins? Well, those ruins are there because there was this great watch-tower there. So where does that watch-tower figure into the history of Middle Earth? Go way, way back in time, before the events of The Lord of the Rings and you look at the time when men are coming from Númenor into Middle Earth. I’m not going to go over that whole story, but just for our purposes here I’m just going to say that Númenor is Tolkien’s sort of Atlantis story about a great island that essentially sinks into the sea. He himself compares it to Atlantis, by the way. So a number of the men who lived there escaped from there, including the king, Elendil.
So Elendil comes with his two sons, Isildur and Anárion, and fans especially of The Lord of the Rings will recognize Isildur. He’s the guy who eventually is corrupted by the one ring, but he’s also the guy who cuts the one ring from Sauron’s hand, but we’ll get to that in just a second. So Elendil comes over to Middle Earth, and he establishes essentially two kingdoms. He establishes one up in the north, which they call Arnor, and then one in the south called Gondor. Gondor probably very familiar to everybody. He puts his two sons, Isildur and Anárion, in charge of Gondor, and then he rules Arnor up in the north himself, Elendil does.
He builds Amon Sûl up on top of this hill, and the reason he puts it there is because it’s a great strategic location. If you just look at it in terms of where it is in the map of Eriador, that whole northwestern region of Middle Earth, in between those two mountain ranges, then you can see it’s actually a really good place, and of course it makes sense that there would be a road that would pass right beside it.
One of the things that Elendil did was—now, this was not his only stronghold, right? He had multiple strongholds up there in Arnor, but he had one there at Amon Sûl, and one of the things he did is he put there a palantír. So a palantír, also known as a seeing stone, there were seven of them made, and they had the ability… It was like a crystal ball almost. I don’t want to reduce it to that, reading somebody’s fortunes or whatever, but it was kind of like a crystal ball. You could see things that were at a great distance, and also occasionally you could see the future maybe, or the past, but certainly you could see at a distance, so it was like a telescope of sorts, but you didn’t have to have a line of sight, but also they could be used to communicate. So if someone were standing at one palantír, and then someone were standing at another one, then there could be conversations back and forth. So this was kind of the instant messenger of its day, but there weren’t that many of them around, so it’s not like everybody had a palantír that they carried around with them.
And the palantíri were sort of so valuable and powerful that they were in these fortresses. Fans of Lord of the Rings will probably remember the palantír that is in Orthanc, that Saruman uses, and of course Denethor in Gondor has one as well. They used those to see things coming from afar.
An interesting note about the palantír in Gondor that Denethor uses—now this is obviously way in the future compared to Elendil—is that he sees something that’s true—he sees the black ships coming up the river—but of course he doesn’t see everything that there is to see, which is that at that point that they’re not being sailed by the enemy, but actually being sailed by Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas and his sort of army of the undead, so to speak, the oath-breakers. Just because you have a palantír doesn’t mean it’s going to show you the whole truth. You might be fooled by something that you see in it, so that’s sort of an important point to make.
But in any event, there is a palantír there on Amon Sûl. It was used for communication. It was used, of course, as essentially for reconnaissance and all that kind of thing. It was really important militarily, so they put that there. Eventually what happens is that Sauron has the one ring made and he’s threatening all of Middle Earth, so Elves and men decide to form into this alliance. If you’ve watched The Lord of the Rings movies, this is all kind of depicted in a kind of prologue at the very, very beginning, and it’s talked about in various places in the books. So Elendil, the king of men, the high king of men really—his sons are still kind of subservient to him, even though they have their own kingdom—he decides to make this—he and Gil-galad, who is an Elven king, living in the West—they make this alliance. As we heard Strider say, “It is said that Elendil stood up there on Amon Sûl waiting for Gil-galad coming out of the West.” So Amon Sûl is actually the place where the Last Alliance, as it’s called, is really formed. So Gil-galad meets him there, and they form this Last Alliance, and they march their way down to Mordor, down to a place called the Pelennor Fields, which maybe is pronounced Pel-EN-nor; I’m probably mispronouncing it here. And they fight this great battle, and that’s the place where Elendil dies. Then his son, Isildur, cuts the ring from Sauron’s hand and takes the ring for himself.
So Amon Sûl fits into, pretty significantly, into this history that is the main action of what’s in The Lord of the Rings. So it’s really an important place.
Now, some time later, a few generations later—I can’t remember exactly how many now—the witch-king of Angmar, who is actually the chief of the Nazgûl, so the Ring-wraiths, he’s the head one, he leads an assault on Amon Sûl and tears it down. So this is the point that it becomes a ruin. Now, he’s not able to get the palantír; he doesn’t get it, which is good, but what happens to that palantír? That palantír, as I said, it was placed there at Amon Sûl by Elendil, and the witch-king doesn’t succeed in getting it, but it kind of passes down in generations, and eventually what happens is the last king of that area, a man named—I’m going to mispronounce this, I’m sure—Arvedui, he saves this palantír as well as another one that belongs to the north kingdom, and he goes into the far north and eventually he goes to a ship that is at the Grey Havens, which is that harbor that’s on the northwestern part of Middle Earth, and he gets on board. Unfortunately, the hull of the ship gets crushed by ice, and everybody dies, including him. So these two palantíri that he has that are on board this ship, they’re basically lost in the shipwreck and they sink. So as far as anyone knows, the palantír that lived at Amon Sûl is now at the bottom of the ocean somewhere and never to be seen again. Kind of too bad: palantíri are really useful things.
The next time, if I recall correctly, that Amon Sûl shows up is when it shows up in The Lord of the Rings. Like I said, our first approach to Amon Sûl is where Strider and the hobbits see it in the distance, but what you don’t see on-screen, so to speak, in the book, and then even in the movie, too, at that moment, is that before they ever get there, Gandalf gets there, of course. So we see that in the book; they see signs that Gandalf was there, and they see signs that the stones are blackened and that something had happened there. Well, what had happened there was that Gandalf actually fought with some of the Nazgûl, so there was a battle up there in the midst of the ruin on top of Amon Sûl.
A little bit of a difference between the movie and the book at this point—and again I’m talking about the Peter Jackson movie… Again, if you watch the Peter Jackson movie, then there’s a point where some of the hobbits start a fire and they start cooking bacon and sausage. Then Frodo says, “Put it out!” He tells them, “Put out the fire, you fools!” Then the next thing you hear, you hear the screeching of the Nazgûl. So from the movie you get the idea that their presence at Amon Sûl is revealed by the fact that they lit this fire. Well, I kind of get why they did that, because it’s sort of a visual way to describe how it is that the Nazgûl are attracted to the place, because having Nazgûl going around, smelling things… [Laughter] And saying, “Oh, that’s how they figured out that they were at Amon Sûl!” would seem a little weird, I think.
In the book it’s clear that the Nazgûl are drawn there, but I wanted to say something about this fire. Well, Aragorn actually tells them to build a fire, even after they see the Nazgûl from a distance. He tells them to build a fire, and they hang out there for a while. There’s a significant amount of time that passes from when they see the Nazgûl from afar on the road and when they actually encounter them on Weathertop. It’s not this immediate thing. Aragorn has them build a fire, and they actually eat while they’re there, so it’s not like cooking is the problem and draws the Nazgûl. Aragorn tells them to build a fire, because he says that fire helps to defend against them, because the Nazgûl hate fire. Of course, it’s depicted very nicely in the movie where you see Aragorn swinging around a flaming torch, a brand, to help drive them off.
There’s just a little bit of a difference there between the book and the movie. I get why they movie the way they did, why they put that in there, but nonetheless, that’s not how it happens in the book, and I consider the book to be primary. Anyways, that’s just kind of a roundup on what Amon Sûl is and where it places in the history of Middle Earth.
So let’s talk a little bit about what Amon Sûl means, at least what it means for me, and maybe you’ll find some of the same meaning there. The first subject I wanted to mention in regards to that is this palantír that’s up there on Amon Sûl. It’s a stone of seeing, so you can see distances, you can communicate, but even after the tower has been destroyed and various major characters stand up there, there’s also a significant view that they have from up there on top of the hill.
If I’m thinking about Amon Sûl as an emblem of spiritual life, I think it’s important for us to climb up on top of hills, so to speak, and sometimes maybe even literally. There’s something about climbing a hill or climbing a mountain and just standing up there that can help to re-center us spiritually. Of course, there are mountains and hills that figure into Scripture itself. Think about the Transfiguration. The Lord Jesus brings Peter, James, and John up on Mount Tabor, and he’s transfigured before him, and they’re able to see his glory: so this place of seeing, up on top of this hill. St. Peter later in one of his epistles refers to this as a holy mountain. But also there are other places of seeing. Moses, for instance, goes up on Mount Sinai and sees the Lord.
I think that mountain-top experiences, so to speak, are really important in spiritual life, and it’s important to take time to go and make some examination of ourselves and of our relationships. You may not literally go up on top of a mountain, but you might have a mountain-top experience of sorts, which might be found, for instance, in confession. You can do that. It’s important to take time and to see, to see what there is to see and to take stock and to have a look around. If you’re always just plodding through the forest or the mist, the Midgewater Marshes or whatever, of your spiritual life, you can lose track of where it is you’re going and lose track of who it is you are. For me, that’s part of what Amon Sûl suggests.
Another thing that is really important about the place, I believe, is this question of memory. When we’re introduced to it in the book, after there’s an initial spotting it, Aragorn, as they’re coming up upon it, he actually says something a little bit about its history. So there’s this introduction of its memory already. When we have places that we go to where we have significant spiritual experiences, or even everyday spiritual experiences, this question of memory is so important. We have to remember where it is we have been. We have to remember what it is we’ve done in that place. If you go, for instance, to the same church your whole live—which a lot of Orthodox Christians do—then in that same place, maybe you were baptized, maybe your children were baptized, maybe you were married, there is the place you give your confession, there is the place where you were given holy unction for your healing, there is the place where you receive the body and blood of Christ, there is the place where you pray, there is the place where you weep, there is the place where you have celebration—all of those things are all about memory. Even though we’re not at every single moment experiencing all those things, the memory of that shapes us.
So the memory of Amon Sûl shapes the experience that the hobbits have up there. Of course, it shapes the whole history of Middle Earth. It’s a really important place in Middle Earth. It’s not a big mountain, it’s not a great palace, it’s not anything much, actually, when they come upon it in The Fellowship of the Ring, but it really is an important piece of Middle Earth history, and the fact that so much has happened there charges the place with a spiritual significance. So memory, really.
Connected with that, I think we should recall that all things in this world fade, even things that are mighty. This was a great fortress at one point, a great tower, that had a palantír in it. When we encounter it in The Fellowship of the Ring, there’s not much left. All things in this earthly life fade. All things do, even things built by great kings, and even our own big spiritual experiences that we might have. All those things fade in one way or another, because we are mortal, because this world is passing away, because in this world we have no continuing city, to use some scriptural language. That’s all true.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the significance of these places and the significance of these things is not eternal. It is eternal, inasmuch as we orient ourselves toward the Resurrection, inasmuch as we orient our experiences toward the Resurrection. But all things fade.
Another thing I want to mention here is that history often kind of rhymes. You’ve probably heard that old saying, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Okay, but it’s the case that history tends to rhyme, that similar kinds of things happen over and over, whether it’s just in our own lives or with different people across different events in different centuries, at different times. This happens, of course, on Amon Sûl. It’s used more than once as a place of seeing, which makes sense, because that’s kind of the place it is, but it’s also a place of struggle, a place of difficulty, a place to have a spiritual battle. That happens more than once in its history. I mentioned at least three different battles that happened up there on Amon Sûl.
For instance, if we were to think of Amon Sûl as a kind of church experience of sorts—I’ve already compared it to that—church is a place where you do spiritual battle. You come to church to repent of your sins, to struggle, to weep. It’s not all beautiful and comfortable and glorious: it’s difficult, too. There is this repetition that occurs, and I think repetition is an important part of the Christian spiritual life. We shouldn’t be afraid of it. It’s not monotonous. Ultimately it’s meaningful, and sometimes it’s repetition of difficult things, but sometimes repetition is also of joy, and all those things go together.
So that’s just a few reflections on the way that I understand Amon Sûl and the kinds of meaning that I derive from it when I think about it.
When Steven Christoforou and I first had the idea to record episode one together, it actually started with the idea to see a limited-time Tolkien exhibit that is currently at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. That was what we were going to do, and the idea to record after came out of that. Well, on the day that I was supposed to go to New York to see the exhibit with Steve, we had awful, wintry weather in eastern Pennsylvania where I live. Now, it was not quite Caradhras-preventing-hobbits-from-going-over-the-Misty-Mountains level of snow, but it was enough to make me not want to drive across New Jersey.
Anyway, Steven and I went ahead and recorded together remotely, with the help of some technology, but we still wanted to see the exhibit, which includes many of Tolkien’s drawings and paintings and maps and other stuff, so we took a raincheck—I mean a snowcheck. I finally did make it to New York to hang out with Steve and see the exhibit, and I also brought along someone you might not expect.
I’m at the Morgan Library and Museum in downtown Manhattan. That’s where we are, right?
Mr. Steven Christoforou: That’s right.
Fr. Andrew: Midtownish?
Mr. Christoforou: Lower midtown.
Fr. Andrew: I’m not a New Yorker. [Laughter] I’m here with Steven Christoforou, and we just saw the Tolkien exhibit at the Morgan Library. We just wanted to share some of our immediate impressions. I mean, we literally just walked out of the door from the exhibit.
Mr. Christoforou: We are in a little sitting area in the basement right now.
Fr. Andrew: Yeah, exactly. So, Steve, what were your main immediate take-aways?
Mr. Christoforou: For me, I think it was so incredibly wonderful to pull back the curtain a little bit and get a peek at the creative process. The image that comes to mind is like a glacier. You can see sort of the top 10% of the glacier, but you don’t see the 90% that’s under the water.
Fr. Andrew: You mean like an iceberg?
Mr. Christoforou: An iceberg, sorry! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
Fr. Andrew: Pretty sure it’s an iceberg.
Mr. Christoforou: I don’t know anything. I’m no marine biologist, but… [Laughter] We know, obviously, we know him from The Hobbit, we know him from The Lord of the Rings. I’m kind of intellectually aware of the notes and the journals, but it’s amazing to see the Elvish script develop. It’s amazing to see the maps and the world develop. All of the thought and all of the preparation, all of the stuff that led the way to the finished, bound volume that we take for granted on our shelves.
Fr. Andrew: Yeah, and we saw… This exhibit has manuscripts, drawings, maps. These are not reproductions; these are not prints: these are the actual things that he was working on. Of course, if you know anything about the work of Christopher Tolkien in compiling and editing his father’s stuff, what we saw today is a tiny, tiny sample, but what a sample! I in particular was struck by seeing things that I’ve seen my whole life, especially a lot of the illustrations and of course the maps. I’ve been reading Tolkien for 35 years, and even looking at just super-rough, almost ugly early versions of the maps, even though it looks like just a mess, immediately in my mind I recognize the shapes, recognize the handwriting, recognize “Oh, that’s this forest, that’s this mountain. Oh, that’s a Tolkien mountain; that’s what mountains look like when Tolkien draws them. That’s a Tolkien dragon,” whatever it might be.
The experience that I had was, growing up not Orthodox, in my life we didn’t have iconography in our churches. I guess in terms of my imaginative formation—I’m not going to say my religious formation, exactly, but my imaginative formation, the formation of my imagination—Tolkien in a strong sense sort of served that purpose: that was the iconography that I knew, looking at his maps, looking at his drawings. The editions of Tolkien that my dad handed down to me have his illustrations on the covers, and I have been looking at those pictures for, like I said, 35 years or more. So there was this feeling, an almost iconic feeling that I had when we were at this exhibit today.
For instance, when a year and change ago I went to Mount Athos and I saw icons there that I had seen photographs of, very famous icons there on the holy mountain, and it was like, “Oh!” I immediately recognized; I immediately knew. At the same time, there was almost a sense today of being in the presence of relics almost. I’m not going to say they’re relics, but…
Mr. Christoforou: In a sense, right?
Fr. Andrew: Yes, to know that this was the sense of “this was the stuff that Tolkien had touched.” There were watercolors that he sent for illustrations for the first edition of The Hobbit, and those actual watercolors were on the wall today here in New York, along with— like we saw an early draft of the story of Beren and Lúthien. I don’t know, it just… [Laughter] I was really fan-girling, big time!
Mr. Christoforou: Can confirm. I was there the entire time.
Fr. Andrew: I just wanted to stay. I couldn’t… But, yeah, what an impact! One of the main things that I’m trying to communicate with this podcast is how the formation of the imagination affects the way you experience the world. Coming into the presence of the actual physical artifacts, things that have shaped my imagination for almost my entire life, today was nothing short of stunning. Over the last 20 years, having my imagination shaped by Orthodoxy now, I can kind of see a little bit more deeply exactly how that works. It’s one thing to see the cover of The Hobbit your whole life and then actually be face-to-face with J.R.R. Tolkien’s actual watercolor of that cover, or whatever it might be.
Mr. Christoforou: Exactly. I think the point about relics is well taken. These are not things necessarily that are imbued with grace, but they’re imbued with experience. For me, it was seeing the maps, seeing these things that were actually sort of worn with care. It’s not just the map that he put together for his publisher. You could see the burn marks where his flecks of pipe tobacco burned it through, or a little coffee stain or whatever it was. These were things that he carried with him as the world sort of came into being. They were sort of there at the very beginning, there when all had was just “In a hole lived a hobbit,” and a map. That’s where this whole thing started: it started with that line, and it started with a map of the Shire. All of these things sort of began pouring out from this, these very tangible things: words on a page, literally hand-written words on a page, and then the lines and rivers and mountains that made up these imaginations, the lands that he would fill.
Fr. Andrew: Yeah. Anyways, if you can make it to New York, we highly recommend that you come and check this out. It’s not a big exhibit, but the selection of stuff that was chosen for this exhibit is really, really remarkable, and I think that if you know Tolkien’s work, especially a lot of his visual art, but even if you just are familiar with his maps, which anyone who’s read Tolkien knows there’s a lot of maps, you’re going to come and see something that’s not just familiar, but I think will be touching.
Mr. Christoforou: And will deepen your experience. I don’t know how substantive we want to get right now, but even the fact that… There was one of the placards which was talking about how his languages came first. These were not worlds that he created and then he sort of retconned languages into it. This whole thing was sort of spoken into being. This whole thing was sort of, as we see in the cosmology of The Silmarillion, sung into being. This was very organically developed: these names and these places, and the lines sort of filled in around them, the colors filled in around them. That’s why maybe this world has more depth and more three-dimensionality than other things as well. It was part of that creative process, to see all this happen.
Fr. Andrew: One of the people that we have with us today on our trip is my son, Elias, who is nine years old. Elias, would you like to say hello to everybody?
Elias Damick: Hi!
Fr. Andrew: So, Elias, do you like The Hobbit?
Fr. Andrew: Lord of the Rings?
Fr. Andrew: And you’ve heard some of The Silmarillion, too, haven’t you?
Fr. Andrew: What’s your favorite person in The Silmarillion so far?
Fr. Andrew: Olórin? Who’s Olórin.
Fr. Andrew: Yeah, so that’s Gandalf’s name in the elder days, right? Yeah. And what can you tell me about one of the Valar? Who’s your favorite Valar?
Fr. Andrew: Manwë, what do you like about Manwë?
Elias: He’s like sky.
Fr. Andrew: The sky and the clouds, right? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, you saw this exhibit with us today. Was there something you saw, a picture or something, that you’re going to remember especially?
Elias: “Conversation with Smaug.”
Fr. Andrew: Oh, you saw the “Conversation with Smaug”? What’s in that picture?
Elias: Well, basically Bilbo Baggins. They’re trying to show he’s invisible with a cloud around him.
Fr. Andrew: Yeah. Did you like that picture?
Fr. Andrew: And you knew that J.R.R. Tolkien drew that picture himself, right?
Fr. Andrew: So when he was thinking about Smaug and Bilbo having that conversation, that’s what was in his head. How did it feel to get to see what was in his head?
Fr. Andrew: Yeah, you liked that? All right. Well, thank you for coming today, Elias.
Thanks for joining me today for this Amon Sûl podcast “minisode,” a.k.a. “The Appendices.” Our full episodes release on the 25th of the month, so be sure to watch for the next one. You can send your questions, comments, or topic suggestions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or by messaging me through the podcast Facebook page, and feel free to include questions for my next co-host or even a past one, and maybe we’ll even bring that co-host back on to answer. Don’t forget to subscribe to the Amon Sûl podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or whatever service you might use, and please: rate, review, and share with your friends. And look up the Amon Sûl podcast page on Facebook and like and share that with your friends. While you’re at it, if you appreciate this or other Ancient Faith media, go to ancientfaith.com/support and show some practical love.
Our “minisode” theme music is “Celtic Impulse” by Kevin McLeod, whose music you can find at incompetech.com, and our podcast cover art, which is of Amon Sûl, was created by John Walter Elliot, whose work you can find at telltalevisions.com. Further design work was by Matthew Dorning, and our audio producer is David Hyatt. Special thanks go to the Amon Sûl Facebook group for conversation, inspiration, and close readings on whether the Istari were ordained by cheirotonia or cheirothesia, and whether Donatism might really count in Saruman’s case.
I’m your host, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, and even though the podcast servers at ancientfaith.com get clogged up and Bobby Maddex has to go plunge them again every time he hears me say it, this has been a listener-supported presentation of Ancient Faith Radio.