Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Autumn in Middle-earth: not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall

It's definitely not fall here in northern Indiana. Today and yesterday, the heat index was near 100 degrees, reminding us that even though school is back in session, and it's September, officially it's still summer. Last year on this date, it was Labor Day, and it did get up to 90, but the humidity levels were much lower, making for a pleasant day. I must have spent part of the day looking through old pictures on Facebook, as the one below prompted me to post this article on I hope you enjoy it as you think about cooler days to come.
Fall colors from 2012
Photo by Mark Sommer, October 2012

In the Peter Jackson movie "The Two Towers," Aragorn finds a clasp shaped like a mallorn leaf from an elvish cloak. For Aragorn’s reaction, the movie uses the exact same words as JRR Tolkien wrote in the book.

Not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall.

This quote is quite ubiquitous on the Internet, but no one seems to know why it is such a favorite. There appears to be more to it than just “This brooch didn’t fall to the ground by accident.” 

Aragon’s declaration has a certain rhythmic quality to it as though it were a well-known saying.
It would seem that not idly does Tolkien use these words.

Aragorn could very well be remembering a saying about Lorien which aptly applies to what he has found. Does Tolkien intend a double meaning?

What does Lorien represent in The Lord of the Rings? In a draft of a letter to the editor of New Republic, Michael Straight [letter #181 in The Letters of JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, p.236], Tolkien gives us a little hint.

Elves… are... ‘immortal’… to endure with and within the created world, while its story lasts… When ‘killed’… they do not escape from time, but remain in our world, either discarnate, or being re-born. This becomes a great burden as the ages lengthen… [T]he Elvish weakness is… to become unwilling to face change: as if a man were to hate a very long book still going on, and wished to settle down in a favourite chapter. Hence they fell in a measure to Sauron’s deceits: to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair.

The great desire of the Elves of Lorien was to preserve the world ever the same – especially their part of it. Elves were especially gifted at controlling nature, which may have led to the saying, “Not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall.” Not even the falling of a leaf was an accident in the Perilous Realm.

The mallorn trees in Lorien had green and silver leaves and golden flowers in spring and summer, and their leaves turned gold in autumn. However, the golden leaves would remain all winter, and not fall until replaced by green and silver in spring.

The falling of the brooch also seems to have more significance than hope for Merry and Pippin. The age of the Elves was coming to an end. Their autumn is here; soon winter will come, and the next age will dawn as the beginning of the age of Men. The Elves will no longer try to hold on to Middle-earth, but will return to the West where they are meant to be.

In the same passage of the letter quoted above, Tolkien tells us that the Elves, while they were resisting the change coming to Middle-earth, were opposing “the unfolding of the story and to refuse this is of course against the design of God.”

The temptation for Men was their thirst for power in order to enforce unmitigated “progress,” while the temptation for the Elves was to obtain power to resist change. Both temptations can be lessons to us as we seek to be responsible in our stewardship over the earth. (Genesis 1: 26-28) God has given us “all things freely to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17), but we are to be conscientious in how we use the resources we are given. The wide use of natural resources has done much to mitigate suffering and poverty. But wanton waste of the environment benefits neither humankind nor the other species of earth. The hard part is finding the balance between progress and conservation.

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