Smoke Rings and Pipe Dreams|
Summary: Aragorn visits the Seat of Seeing on Amon Hen.
Disclaimer: I neither own nor make money from any Lord of the Rings story that I write. I only enjoy the characters and world that Tolkien created.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
~~T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
“What do you see, son of Arathorn?”
He knew not why the words angered him. Aragorn had traveled long roads with Gandalf, and knew his companion as well, he deemed, as any Man might claim to know an Istar. The wizard had never been opposed to plying a fellow traveler with soul-searching talk at day’s end, but this night his tone was neither prying nor one that boded the start of a lengthy conversation. No, the words were only mildly curious—something to fill up space in the hushed end of a long day. To be honest, Gandalf had a right to that curiosity. Aragorn had made no secret over the past days of his wish to stand in this place and see what he might, and had done naught else since their arrival. Gandalf alone had set the camp and struck up the fire and put out their evening fare, all while Aragorn stood gazing over the tumbled patchwork of lands that stretched for leagues around them.
If the wizard was half as weary as Aragorn, he owed Gandalf an apology for that oversight before the evening was out.
Even so, it took a surprising amount of effort to restrain words both hasty and unwise. For a brief moment Aragorn considered blaming fatigue, but he dismissed the thought as unworthy almost before it formed. No. Weariness, he knew, provided only the most minor contribution. In truth, Gandalf’s words touched too close, threatening to lay bare the bitter disappointment that Aragorn had been struggling to hide even from himself since their arrival. He cast another glance over the many leagues that fell away beneath their high perch, then looked toward the campsite. Gandalf was draped casually against a nearby tree, pulling on his pipe. The wizard lifted one bushy eyebrow, and annoyance flared again, all unlooked for.
The words were out before he could stop them.
“What would you have me see, Gandalf the Grey?”
A second heavy eyebrow shot up to join the first, brushing the battered grey hat. Aragorn shifted, regretting the outburst, and forced himself not to look away. It would, he feared, be tantamount to running up a white flag without even attempting battle. Finally Gandalf sucked in another deep, leisurely breath and sent a smoke ring in Aragorn’s direction.
“Peace, Aragorn. I meant nothing by it.”
“Of course.” Of course. And now you have given yourself away. Aragorn forced a smile—likely more of a grimace—and eyed the rambling hillside they had so recently climbed. “Apologies. My mind was on other matters.”
Gandalf was having none of it. “What troubles you, my friend?”
He had, it appeared, forfeited his right to an evening free of soul-searching. Aragorn scuffed his boot along the edge of the Seat, angry now at himself as well as the wizard.
He did not desire the exchange, unavoidable as it now seemed. No, he far preferred to sit by the fire and brood. It was not so much to ask, was it? This failing, which he had battled for years and had only divulged to one other, was hard enough to admit even to himself, much less the wizard who had been such an invaluable guide to him. Given a meal and a night’s sleep the troubling thoughts would be back where they belonged, buried beneath hope and will, to be acknowledged and examined only in solitude. He was loath for Gandalf to know, given the labors and friendship and wild hopes that they had long shared.
Surely this was only a passing difficulty, and need not be bared for the concern and disappointment of one who had struggled and sacrificed for so many lives of Men.
He turned, boots soundless on ancient stone. The Seat may once have been rough-hewn, but time and the elements had worn it smooth. Aragorn could barely feel the ridges through his soles, the seams so tight-fit that the entire chair might have been carven of one massive block. The land dropped sharply away on two sides and meandered down on a third. Behind him lay a slope of trees and half-dry streambeds and jagged rocks. It had been a tiring climb after their long day’s march and Aragorn felt foolish now for having suggested it, rather than an easier camp by the river’s edge. He let his gaze wander again, taking in the leagues of empty wilderness.
It was unlikely that Gandalf would drop the matter, no matter how long Aragorn let the question lie unanswered. The wizard was nothing if not persistent. It was one of his strongest attributes—a basis for his vast wisdom, a key to all of their great hopes, and a blessing from the Valar in the battles against the darkness that had been and were yet to come.
At the moment, Aragorn would have given much for that persistence to be turned safely elsewhere.
The hour was late, but high summer was only days away and the twilight stretched long, heavy and warm. He was yet able to see for a great distance, and all beneath his gaze was still—rough and overgrown, with no sign of movement or life. He knew it was there, of course. The wild lands teemed with all manner of birds and beasts, and surely also the odd hunter or traveler or band of Orcs wandered beneath the forest canopies and through the stark Emyn Muil. His vision was sharp, but not keen enough to pick out a lone creature or a small group at this distance—and if the Seat offered such sight, he saw no evidence of that now. All the world around their small camp gave the impression of vast emptiness. Aragorn suppressed a shiver and turned his gaze back to Amon Hen. His eyes fell on tumbled stone and worn pillars and a cracked, overgrown path—all that remained of the Seat of Seeing and the once great battlements that had surrounded it. The desolation was suddenly overwhelming.
Had he truly hoped to find answers here, amid the fallen glory of long dead kings? Some clue to his own way?
He was a mad fool.
“Nothing.” Aragorn heard the ragged edge, and cursed silently. It would be as a beacon for the wizard. He hopped from the Seat to the flagstones, his eyes averted. “I see nothing.”
He strode past Gandalf to their small fire and crouched beside his pack. There was naught in it that he particularly needed, but the activity gave him a reason to avoid the wizard’s gaze. He rifled through the contents twice before he could reasonably delay no longer, then pulled out his own pipe and pipe-weed before re-buckling the flap. That done, Aragorn set about stuffing the bowl with rather more force than was necessary. Gandalf finally approached, footfalls nearly as silent as an Elf’s on the rocky ground. He dropped heavily, stretched his arms and neck and back, and emitted a groan.
“I often question the wisdom of choosing this body.”
Aragorn lit his pipe, inhaled a long, calming breath, and fixed a sour eye on his companion. Gandalf hadn’t changed the subject. No, that wasn’t his way. He was only getting more comfortable for his opening gambit.
It was a well-recognized tactic. If the effort had not been directed at him, Aragorn would, as always, have been fascinated to watch his friend at work.
“So.” Another smoke ring drifted past. “Nothing at all?” Gandalf waved a vague hand at the vast sky and the darkening wood. “I find that highly unlikely.”
Aragorn’s annoyance only deepened when the smoke ring turned green and twisted around on itself before dissipating. Gandalf returned his scowl with an innocent shrug, and Aragorn completed the childish scene by kicking at the dirt beneath his boot.
It didn’t appreciably help.
“Nothing of consequence.”
The wizard frowned, and produced a ring that turned a rather fantastic shade of magenta upon leaving his lips. “What did you expect to see?”
“Expect? I know not. Likely nothing.” It was the truth. In his heart, he had known what awaited him before his boots ever touched the Seat of Seeing. It held no magic—at least, none of the kind that he sought. It did not give wisdom. It only looked out over lands long abandoned to the ravages of the wild. Aragorn watched the magenta ring swing slowly around the fire and waft back to them. For unknown reasons the ridiculous sight calmed him, and he sighed.
In the end, Gandalf would learn what he sought. It was impossible for even a friend to withstand the wizard’s scrutiny for long. Aragorn was left, then, with two choices. He could continue as they had been, forcing his companion to drag words from him one by one, or he could bow to the inevitable and participate gracefully. The second option was, in truth, not unattractive. Despite his reluctance to disappoint, Gandalf had always been a trusted ear. It was only embarrassment, and perhaps pride, that now kept Aragorn’s lips sealed.
If he was not wise enough, he was beyond any doubt old enough to know better.
“What did I wish to see? That is an entirely different matter.”
Silence descended again. The fire popped, and cicadas shrieked. Gandalf blew a rather sickly yellow ring through the approaching magenta smoke, and they both watched as it did a lazy flip into the fire. The wizard seemed to sense the change in his mood—at least, he prodded Aragorn no further. After a moment, the Man laughed softly.
“The fabled Seat of Seeing. I suppose I hoped to find something of my own future here—some glimpse of that toward which I strive.”
Gandalf’s eyes flickered. A blue ring spiraled in tight circles above their heads. “The Seat has not that power.”
“I know that!” The words were sharper than he intended, but the wizard was unruffled. Aragorn drew a steadying breath and sent out a plume of his own. It neither changed color nor took shape. “I know.” He looked down into gritty soil that had once been a broad, straight path, then shrugged and grinned ruefully. “It was a foolish thought.”
“Perhaps.” Gandalf turned his eyes to the rustling leaves. “Perhaps not.” He breathed white smoke into the heights, as casual as if they sat discussing the fine evening or their need to hunt on the morrow. “What drives this? Whatever may be your concern, it does not strike me as one of small import.” Aragorn scowled, but the wizard was unrepentant. “Reactionary defense in the face of a simple query is not your usual way.”
And here they were come to it. Aragorn sighed and lifted up his head to the night sky, letting the summer wind caress his hair and face. The entire earth might have awaited his response, so still and silent was the evening twilight. He followed a silver smoke ring with his eyes, and a gold, and a bronze as they formed interlocking rings, then shaped themselves into a cone, then began a slow, whirling dance. It came to him then, as his muscles loosened and his breathing slowed, that such had been Gandalf’s intent all along, and he offered a faint smile.
The wizard did indeed know him well.
“On the day we plighted our troth, the Lady Undómiel said to me that her heart rejoiced for my destiny.” His voice was soft with memory. “I told her that such may be, but that I could not see it.” He felt rather than saw Gandalf’s bemusement—the wizard did not stir or speak. Aragorn ran a thumb over the smooth stem of his pipe. “Together we joined our hopes, and their combined strength has sustained me even unto this day … but the one thing has not changed.” He looked up, into his friend’s shadowed eyes. “I still cannot see it.”
Gandalf’s voice betrayed nothing. “And this troubles you?”
“Of course!” Aragorn sat back, startled. “Of course it does. It is my destiny to lead Men into the new Age, if such can be accomplished, but still I know little of what I am to lead them toward. It is … it is as though I must shoot an arrow without an idea of the target.” The wizard rubbed at his thick beard, narrowly—to all appearances—missing setting fire to it with his pipe. Aragorn pushed forward, gaining courage and fervor. “I have long attempted to envision this new Age, to see what I and those who stand with me must build. What it must be, in order that the misery and strife of our current years may not be repeated. It is not clear to me, though. When I imagine the downfall of our Enemy, my kingship, the reborn kingdoms, my union with Arwen, all slips away ere the vision even forms. What I am able to see of my future lies in emblems of the past—the shards of Narsil, the Ring of Barahir. The chieftaincy of the Dunedain.” He was babbling now, but his relief at finally unburdening this fear after so long would not allow him to cease. He hoped that he didn’t sound as much a fool as he felt. “A failed kingdom in the north and a declining one at the gates of Mordor itself. A withered tree, and a few old songs and bits of lore. They are my heritage and they strengthen me, but they are no guides. I wish to fulfill the destiny appointed me, not one of my own design, and yet I cannot see it. Tomorrow’s first footsteps, perhaps, but no more.” The rushing speech left him utterly drained. He sighed, and pulled deeply at his pipe. “No more.”
Aragorn sat back, tension returning now that the words had ceased, and waited for Gandalf to pronounce judgment. The silence stretched long and deep. An owl hooted. All about, bats rose and plunged in carefree flight. A breeze rustled high in the trees. An orange smoke ring looped the fire in quick, dizzy succession.
He did not expect the wizard to laugh.
“As always, my friend, you take far too much upon yourself.”
“What?” The first hints of his previous annoyance filtered in. Such a concern could not be so easily downplayed …
“Even the very wise—”
“Cannot see all ends. Yes, you have said it before.” Aragorn shifted abruptly. “It is a favored theme of yours, in fact.”
Gandalf huffed. “And yet apparently it bears repeating, for it seems that it has not yet penetrated your thick skull!” Aragorn scowled, but the wizard took no notice. “Foresight is a useful tool, but one given freely and not to be forced.”
“I am not—”
“In any event …” Gandalf’s voice dropped, and his eyes fixed on the crackling flames. Aragorn’s protest died on his lips, gut tightening in instinctive response to the change of mood. “In any event, we are come nearly to the end now of what the foresight of the Valar can show. Even they cannot see far past the days that will soon be upon us, for they were not shown all in the beginning. Only in the mind of Eru Himself does sure knowledge of these latter days dwell.” Aragorn’s gut twisted with wonder and not a little terror. The Istar’s fathomless eyes rose, and the light in them was now not only the reflection of their small fire. “Would you claim that which is reserved for the mind of the One alone?”
“Say it not!” Aragorn stumbled to his feet, anger surging again to the fore. His pipe clattered to the ground, forgotten. “Think it not! You surely know better than—”
“Peace.” Gandalf rose as well, the hidden Maia veiled once more. He pressed Aragorn’s shoulder with a strong hand. “I do know this. I think it not.” The hand withdrew, and Gandalf pulled again at his pipe, turning away. A red smoke ring hovered between them. “My purpose is not to make a query, but a point.” Appeased and, in truth, slightly embarrassed by his forceful reaction, Aragorn offered a curt nod. Gandalf returned the gesture slowly, his eyes yet intense. “It is good and wise to consider the future, my friend, but the attempt to give it shape is a dangerous business.”
Aragorn turned the wizard’s words in his head, considering. They felt right to his heart, but they brought a fear into his breast as well. His own words were reluctant. “How shall I know, then, whether I am leading us aright?”
“How would you know it even if you should manage to conjure up some vision you believed worthy of pursuit?” Gandalf drifted to the broken base of the Seat and scooped up a handful of mingled dirt and crumbling stone. “Such a goal, one not given as gift but created instead by the wishful thinking of your own mind, is far more dangerous than any unseen path.” He opened his fingers, and the fine contents cascaded silently back to the earth. “The kingdoms and palaces we create within ourselves have less substance even than the fading memories of ancient glory. They fail to exist at all, in any time or place. We cannot reach them no matter how we might try, and any attempt to do so will lead only to heartbreak and ruin.”
The silence was profound. Gandalf sank onto the lowest stable step with a sigh. Leaves rustled, and a log settled into the fire. Aragorn rubbed both hands briskly over his face.
“Then you would counsel that I move forward blind?”
“No!” The wizard’s mouth curved into a faint smile. “Indeed not.” He motioned to the worn step, and Aragorn sat beside him. “Your dedication to your destiny does you much credit, son of Arathorn, but remember your own words—it is not a destiny of your own design. You are neither its author nor its primary mover.” Gandalf tapped Aragorn’s chest lightly. “You trust that you were meant to bear this destiny.” Aragorn nodded. “Then give yourself to it fully, and trust also that you will be given the necessary grace and strength at the appointed times. There is both freedom and peace in accepting that the fate of Middle Earth rests on far greater shoulders than yours.” The wizard let the pronouncement hang for a moment, then clapped Aragorn’s arm. “Trust me, Dúnedan, for it is this knowledge that has kept me hopeful and sane for far longer than you have lived.”
They sat long in the warm evening then, each smoking and thinking such thoughts as came to him. Finally, Aragorn nodded. “I will remember your words, my friend. They are wise.”
Gandalf snorted and rose, eyes twinkling. “You expected otherwise?”
“No!” Aragorn laughed, joining him. “Never! Your counsel has ever been good.”
“Ah! Now your words are wise as well.” They shared a grin, then Gandalf motioned toward the Seat, a dark bulwark above them. “If you’ve a mind to listen to more, go back up and look again. You may not see your future path, but it can still show much, and is quite an extraordinary view. Take a moment to appreciate it for what it is.”
Aragorn squinted toward the chair. “I fear it would be in vain, as I have not the eyes of any night creature.”
“Hmm?” Gandalf blinked and peered around them, apparently only just aware that darkness had fallen while they sat. “Ah yes. Well, tomorrow then, before we depart.” His grin returned, and he motioned Aragorn toward the fire. “Tonight you may cook for us, as payment for my labors in setting our camp while you stood idle, attempting the impossible.”
Rain set in during the early morning hours, however, and did not cease with the coming of day. They broke their camp hastily, having spent a good portion of the night crouching beneath an overhang that jutted from one of the ruined battlements. Gandalf crammed his pointed hat tightly onto his head, muttering beneath his breath and glaring as if the Seat itself had gainsaid his advice.
“Just like the weather, to take no heed for perfectly good counsel. Far less impressive this way, without the view to drive it home.”
Aragorn laughed, hoisting his wet pack. “Your words stand on their own, my friend. If it pleases you, however, I shall stand upon the Seat if I ever pass this way again, and think of them, and be suitably impressed by it all.”
“Good, good.” Gandalf slung his own baggage over his shoulder and began to pick his way down the hill, leaning heavily on his staff. “See that you do.”
Sliding his arms through the pack straps, Aragorn snickered at the old, bent back, then looked once more toward the Seat of Seeing. If there was indeed anything more for him to learn here, it would have to wait for another day. Aragorn turn his back on the ruined walls, settled his pack more comfortably, and followed the broken path away from Amon Hen.
Do you not know, Boromir, or do you choose to forget the North Stair, and the high seat upon Amon Hen, that were made in the days of the great kings? I at least have a mind to stand in that high place again, before I decide my further course. There, maybe, we shall see some sign that will guide us.
~~The Great River, The Fellowship of the Ring