I recently read Wade Davis’ ‘Into the Silence’ and John Garth’s ‘Tolkien and the Great War’, and it seems to me there is a beautiful intersection between the two about the human response to great grief and trauma. Davis’ book about the Mallory Everest expeditions chronicles their attempts to conquer nature in the aftermath of the Great War. They create a towering physical achievement, a testament to resilience and positive discovery. Garth’s masterpiece beautifully illustrates how Tolkien’s own experiences with the Somme and the Great War shaped his literary achievement and through his imagination transformed the cataclysm of his generation into something positive. Both books see their subjects’ achievements as a cri-de coeur against the hopelessness of the War, a vehicle for healing of that scarred generation. I have had the privilege to work literally in the footsteps of men who came back from the senseless slaughter to their own, more horizontal achievement, mapping the Arctic. One of them was the son of a member of the Mallory expedition. They were resilient spirits who turned their profound wartime loss into a lasting contribution to science.
Grief and trauma form a crucible that leaves you distilled and changed, fused and hardened, the basis for the indomitable character of all these men and something Tolkien himself imbued in nearly every page of the books. The universal theme I think is turning the experience outward and that is why I think his universe resonates so well.
Tolkien has said that of all the characters in his works Faramir is most like to him. Both are scholars, fundamentally gentle men asked to do something against their nature, both coming to the battle having already seen profound loss (Tolkien lost both parents as a child, Faramir as a child and adult) and finding hope on the edge of the abyss. After reading both books I felt a need to explore Faramir in this light. Of all of the characters in the books he has lost the most; his mother, father, brother, comrades in arms. I see him as a man pushed beyond all endurance, who has struggled, passed through the crucible and endures. But it is a struggle, one that is not shown in the books and I try to show in this short story.
1. Chapter 1 by sian22
The fields of Rohan were gold and dry, maturing with the last of the summer heat the first time it happens. Songs and laments were done for the day, a king’s spirit hallowed and a new king. Meduseld was ablaze with light and life, song and feasting. Eowyn had already brought the funeral cup to her brother. Faramir stood at the side of the hall with his lady beside him; soon Eomer will have them come forward for the handfasting. He is looking down at Eowyn, the glow of anticipation in her face, when the first hint comes. A scent of woodsmoke, the red-gold ember smell drifts from down the hall. At the great hearth Faramir can see currents move grey tendrils upward in lazy spirals. At the sound of popping and cracking; ash, paper-light and grey floats up on a breath of air. A small shriek echoes as the edge of a lady’s kirtle has caught a spark. The commotion fades. Suddenly the familiar scent twists, becoming something else, sweet and sharp and sulphurous; burnt silk. The world condenses, the world is the sweet scent and the awareness of it. Eowyn is speaking but he cannot make out the words, their sound muffled by a pounding, so loud it must echo in the far hills. Sweat begins to slick his palms and the small of his back. His limbs start to ache, ache with the need to move, to run, to hide. But he is trapped, he cannot break and he cannot move.
The whole hall is about to turn and look at them. Eowyn has taken his hand, ready to walk forward. He closes his eyes, swallows down the bile in his throat. He wills himself to not breathe in, to not know the acrid scent. All focus and every muscle tensed is trained on standing still. Suddenly, the scent is gone and he breathes, a gasping lungful as if released from underwater.
Eomer, across the hall looks to him, a question in his eyes. The new king rises and gestures for silence. “Faramir, Steward of Gondor and Prince of Ithilien asks that Eowyn Lady of Rohan should be his wife, and she grants it full willing. Therefore they shall be trothplighted before you all.” The guests are clapping, surprised and happy laughter rises. Eowyn is urging them forward to the head table. They are set hand in hand. Eowyn’s eyes are shining with happy tears. A toast is drunk. “Thus, “says the new king, “is the friendship of the Mark and of Gondor bound with a new bond, and the more do I rejoice.”
Later, when the evening shadows are long and the songs less tuneful and louder, Faramir lets himself be teased. As the men sit with their tankards of ale, Eomer recounts what he saw. “I tell you,” says the King of the Mark, “he was having second thoughts. About my sister! I could see the terror in his eyes. Shield maidens of Rohan clearly frighten this pansy of Gondor.” They all laughed, and laughed louder again, when he lied, saying it was really the thought of drinking more of their terrible ale.
The leaves have yet to turn and fall but stood trembling on their boughs the second time it happens. It is the harvest festival. The King is the ritual and Faramir is his Steward and they both stand in front of the throng. The great court is filled with much of the city, amid such mounds of plenty as can be salvaged from the land. The King is returned and the harvest will be bountiful again, people say. Aragorn makes a speech, promising that next year the bounty will be greater and the fields will be restored. The wheat king is lit and the crowd is clapping. Soon all will be dancing but at first the dancers around the golden king are children, entranced by the firelight. A little girl twirling in circles drops her doll. As her mother soothes the wails of heartbreak, the sweet scent of burnt cloth snakes its way upward. The sudden hammering of Faramir’s heart in his chest is a drumbeat of hooves, crushing his breath. He can not stay with that smell He has to move. He excuses himself to Aragorn and moves back. He is trapped in the throng, too many people are gathered, he cannot move fast enough. Move. Move. The farthest he can get is with his back to the rampart wall, the scent has followed but is fainter now. Sweat is running down the back of his collar and he is rocking back and forth with the pain in his limbs. This hurts, oh it hurts. Silently he wills himself to sink through the stone of the wall and pass out of this place. Away. As the panic and the bile rise, he is panting. Aragorn looks across at his steward, at the haunted cast to his eyes. Suddenly, the wind direction changes and Faramir is released. ‘Mellon nin what is wrong?’ Aragorn reaches his friend, a hand on his shoulder. The younger man is shaking. His nostrils flare like those of a frightened horse. He laughs weakly. “It is nothing, honestly, for a moment I just felt claustrophobic.”
Once it was the scent of blood and steel. The blacksmith grunted in pain as a sliver of the new sword flashed upward, cutting his cheek. A drop of blood hits the hot metal with a hiss. As the sweet and iron tang blossoms he sees him. My brother, myself, pierced by black arrows. The taste of blood fills both their mouths as he bites his tongue. Neither can breathe. Boromir, suffocated by the blood filling his lungs, his breath shallow and ragged, then short and sharp, drowning in the thick red liquid. Faramir’s comes in short pants, dizzy, gasping. Desperately he stumbles from the smithy to the midden and retching violently, empties his stomach. Still it heaves, over and over again, dry. His midriff is cramped and assaulted, but not rent asunder like his brother’s. That time no one sees.
The fourth time it happens the leaves are turning green to gold and all around the townlands great piles are being burned on the fields. In a few weeks Eowyn will arrive and they will be wed. The scent and smoke lie heavy in the air as Faramir is inspecting the fields with the king. He lifts his shaking hand to cover his mouth, to stop the smell. Do not breathe in. He tries for a while to follow Aragorn as he moves amongst the small holders, asking after their state. He can not do this. He hears a ragged grunting breath, a wounded animal sound, that dimly he knows is his own. For a moment he is trembling, caught frozen between fear and flight, and like a deer, the slightest change will make him bolt. Aragorn, his beloved eyes searching Faramir’s face with worry, raises his hand. He cannot hear the king’s words, but his touch is the signal, breaking the trance and the younger man flees. He is running, short hard pants taking over. He runs until he is free of the scent, pulling greedily the fresh air into his body, sobbing with relief. He is on his knees in the turned field, rocking with the ache. Eru it hurts. Strong arms wrap around him, and he is trapped again. No. No. He fights with every ounce of his strength for his body’s freedom, thrashing, hitting wildly. ‘Faramir!, Faramir!’ But he does not hear his king or know whom he strikes. Aragorn finally pins him with the length of his greater weight, holding his face in his hands. ‘Look at me!” he commands with his voice and mind, “Hold!” You called me my king, I come. The Steward’s eyes are wide, but he stills and the storm passes, the air is clear and washed anew. Muddy and bruised, Aragorn holds him, ‘I am so sorry, mellon nin, I am so sorry, we did not see.’
The trees in Ithilien are full and green the last time it happens. Faramir is unwrapping the broken horn, aged and streaked, bound in silver. A scent of the river: earthy ooze and green weed, comes to him. He stiffens. Eowyn, shining Theoden’s cup, looks up. Her husband’s face is taut and she hears his breathing quicken. Without a word she nestles herself behind him, winding her arms through his, hands splayed upon his chest. As her face brushes the soft linen on his back, she feels the pounding below her fingers start to ease. The storms pass faster now and their force abates. After, with candles lit and friends around, they will fill the little shrine.
Eomer's words about the trothplighting are of course from The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
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