A Traveler’s Tale by Roger Echo-Hawk
Reading JRR Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, revisiting Middle-earth over many years, I always look forward to entering Lothlórien. At that point in the quest, the way has been dark and dreadful under cruel Caradhras. Gollum has appeared in the gloom of Moria; monstrous orcs have been stirred to violence; Gandalf has been taken by a Balrog into a frightful chasm.
But that tale begins with a magic door, opened by the word mellon, “friend.” And this doorway ultimately takes us to the realm of Lothlórien, the Golden Wood, where hearts expect to be glad, where we have no need for earthly burdens. Haldir the Elf welcomes Frodo and Legolas kindly.
But the Elves of the Golden Wood feel wary of strangers. Haldir speaks ominously, “It is not our custom to lead strangers through our land.” And when he hears of a Dwarf in the company, he declares with alarm, “I cannot allow him to pass.”
The next day, crossing the Silverlode, Haldir makes ready to blindfold Gimli the Dwarf. Tolkien wants us to feel a little doubtful of the Elves and their chilly suspicion of Gimli – Gimli is not at all pleased with the ancient wisdom of the Elves.
We glimpse a troubled history between Dwarves and Elves. This half-seen vista helps to make Middle-earth feel complex, real. We understand Gimli’s resentment at being treated with suspicion, but we also wonder whether the Elves might be wise to be suspicious of Dwarves who stumble hurriedly into their realm.
One day, driving through Kansas in the Seventh Age of the world, I came away with a slightly deeper understanding of Gimli’s displeasure.
Leaving my home under a starless early morning, I saw several trains on mysterious errands. Beside the dark road a mysterious animal stared at me. I drove through the dawn of a sunless day. And after turning right at Salina, after crossing Mulberry Creek, I received a formal greeting from the Sunflower State Highway Patrol.
A chill drizzle fell upon the hurrying patrolman as I opened my window. He wanted to see my driver’s license. What was my business in Kansas? I’m on my way to a funeral, I said. The funeral of our family leader. After listening to my story, studying my license, he said I’d gotten too close to a truck, but he would let me off with a verbal warning. Thanks Officer, I said, I’ll be more careful.
But there was a half-hidden backstory. He hadn’t pulled me over to share his concerns about my driving skills that day; he had first driven up next to me there on the highway as we sped along under a cloudy cold rain. I had glanced over to see him leaning toward me in his seat, carefully studying me through his passenger window. With a shiver, I realized he wanted to know whether I might be a Dwarf! His suspicions sufficiently aroused by what he saw of me, he dropped back and activated his lightbar.
The patrolman stepped up to my window, “I am not the master of the law, and cannot set it aside. I have done much in letting you set foot over Celebrant.” The name on his badge read “Sgt. Haldir.” So after explaining that I was in mourning just then for the fallen leader of our Fellowship, I planted my feet and said, “I will go forward free, or I will go back to my own land!” And he muttered, “A plague on Dwarves and their stiff necks!”
But after hearing the accents in my voice, he had to admit that I might not be a Dwarf after all. He said I was free to go. I thanked him but I didn’t feel grateful. I felt a chill.
My look – my hair and my face – had told him that I might be… I might well be a Dwarf smuggling illegal goods from the Blue Mountains to Dale. He needed to investigate… to listen for the damning accents of a Dwarf; to see whether I might have a name in the secret Dwarvish language. Having been interrogated by the secret power of that perilous realm, I whispered to myself, “It is said that few come out who once go in; and of that few none have escaped unscathed.”
The next year I happened to have dealings with the Office of the Lord and Lady of that realm. A Pawnee who served Governor Celeborn contacted me about the content of a special exhibit on the Museum Flet of the University of Kansas. I had a pleasant exchange with him. I didn’t say anything about how I had been greeted that previous year by a patrol of the Golden Wood… the chill drizzle, the blindfold.
Dealing with Celeborn’s representative, I tried to be helpful and for my trouble I received a book in the mail as a gift, Enough Good People. The cover said it was about “inter-cultural collaboration.” A friendly message. I’m sure it says somewhere inside: Pedo mellon a minno.
Friendship often means finding new paths, new destinations – various magic doors open before us, and sometimes they close behind us forever. When you find yourself in perilous lands under sunless skies, you might not escape the darkness unscathed. But when we cross the Silverlode into the Golden Wood, we must keep wandering anyway. Along the way, we can hope to speak the secret words that will someday make sense of the mysterious magic of our lives.