Heathen kings under a swift sunrise

A sort of addendum to my last two posts: two scenes from the siege of Gondor in the movie version of The Return of the King that provide food for thought.

Here is Gandalf explaining to Pippin what awaits a mortal after death. But the description he gives is lifted from Frodo’s vision of the undying lands beyond the shoreless sea. Here are the textual sources: In the house of Tom Bombadil, “either in his dreams or out of them,” Frodo hears a sweet singing:

a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.

And then, at the end of his story, Frodo sails from the Grey Havens:

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

So Peter Jackson has taken Tolkien’s description of the immortal realm on earth and presented it as a description of what awaits mortals after death. This is pretty much exactly the error that Tolkien attributed to the heathen pagans of Middle-earth!

The second scene is not a misinterpretation; but it is illuminating to add in some of the dialogue in the book passed over in the movie.

“No tomb for Denethor and Faramir… We shall burn like the heathen kings of old.”

I remember watching this scene years ago and puzzling over the reference to “heathen kings,” which is left utterly unexplained in the movie. In fact this line is a fairly faithful reflection of the original:

No tomb for Denethor and Faramir… We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West.

But the original line is more illuminating. The ships that sailed hither from the West are the ships that came from Númenor (before and in the wake of its destruction). So here we have the idea that the Númenoreans are the source of a noble paganism that displaced an older heathen paganism. We learn even more if we read on to the moment when Gandalf confronts Denethor:

‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,’ answered Gandalf. ‘And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair…’

For Tolkien, heathenism is a paganism under the domination of the Dark Power; a paganism that feeds on human pride, and folly, and fear. Its ultimate source is fear of death, and its ultimate manifestation, in one form or another, is an attempt to cheat death. And by implication, noble paganism – the state of mind and attitudes that characterize the free Men of Middle-earth – rests ultimately upon an acceptance that death marks the limits of human power, and cannot be cheated.

 For exploration of Tolkien’s ideas of heathenism and noble paganism and Christianity see my last two posts: Christianity and Paganism, and Death and the Tower.