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Ósanwe: A Scene of Utter Awe in The Return of The King

Painting of Ósanwe being practiced by Gandalf, Galadriel, Celeborn and Elrond by Miriam Ellis
"Ósanwe" - Miriam Ellis

Ósanwe is the practice in J.R.R. Tolkien's legendarium via which powerful figures can communicate in thought. It is an ability possessed by the Valar and the Maiar, and to lesser degrees by elves and men. Ósanwe is very mysterious, and despite Tolkien's essay, Ósanwë-kenta: Enquiry into the Communication of Thought and the excellent section in Carl F. Hostetter's The Nature of Middle-earth on the topic, readers are left best-guessing at whether particular moments can accurately be categorized as featuring this remarkable ability which means "interchange of thought" in Quenya.

Perhaps the most famous scene which hypothetically demonstrates Ósanwe comes in the The Breaking of the Fellowship in The Fellowship of The Ring. Frodo is on the summit of Amon Hen, and the gaze of the Eye is approaching him when a thought we come to realize must be emanating from Gandalf suddenly flashes into his mind: Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring! There is debate over whether this is truly a moment of Ósanwe due to it featuring words, but it seems like a good candidate to me, and is a memorable scene even to first-time readers of The Lord of the Rings.

But a later scene in the book is less debatable, and yet, it never properly stood out to me in a lifetime of reading Tolkien until my most recent annual read. How I overlooked this confounds me. I think I'm always so eager to get to The Scouring of the Shire (a favorite of mine) once the Ring has been destroyed that I may not have sat quietly enough with this utterly aweing episode in Many Partings in The Return of the King. The hobbits are on the westward journey home, at last, in the august company of Gandalf, Celeborn, Galadriel and Elrond:

"Often long after the hobbits were wrapped in sleep they would sit together under the stars, recalling the ages that were gone and all their joys and labours in the world, or holding counsel, concerning the days to come. If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands. For they did not move or speak with mouth, looking from mind to mind; and only their shining eyes stirred and kindled as their thoughts went to and fro."

This seems clearly to be a magnificent instance of Ósanwe and it is intensely moving to think of these noble beings recalling all the ages they had known. Consider the ancientry of their memories!

Gandalf, of course, has the most to remember, from the time of his creation by Eru before the Music and the world began, to his years spent in the company of the Vala, Manwë, all the events of The Silmarillion, his mission that brought him to the shores of Middle-earth, his long wanderings there, his apparent death in Moria and glorious re-embodying, and the downfall of his great foe. Along the way, his life is marked with episodes of mercy and merriment, like bringing supplies to the hobbits during The Long Winter, and illuminating their celebrations with his fireworks, and a ride on an eagle to rescue Frodo and Sam from the destruction of Mount Doom.

Galadriel was born to Finarfin in The Blessed Realm and survived all the catastrophic events of The War of the Jewels. Though she took no part in the dreadful Kinslaying at Alqualondë, she does initially posses that dangerous Noldorin desire for power. She wants a realm in Middle-earth and uses her ring to protect the beauty of Lothlórien, where she eventually passes her critical test and resolves to return home. She would remember meeting Celeborn in Doriath, becoming a mother and grandmother, losing her daughter, and parting from her granddaughter. Her journey across thousands of years from hectic youth to aweing wisdom in great old age is worthy of contemplation. As an illustrator, I have worked with dedication to capture some of all this in her face.

While the birthdate of Celeborn is undocumented, he is considered one of the noblest of the Sindar, and shared in all the later events of Galadriel's life. He would have remembered the beautiful realm of Melian and Thingol where he met his bride, the birth of his daughter, the cataclysm of the Fall of Beleriand, his flight with Elrond from the sack of Eregion, his reunion with his wife and child in Imladris, and then the long years of his lordship in Lothlórien. During this scene of Ósanwe, the characters are considering the future, as well as the past, and Celeborn knows he is on the verge of another parting from Galadriel. She will take the ship to Valinor while he reputedly remains for some hundred or more years in Middle-earth before following her.

And finally we have Elrond, whose lineage is simply aweing. Born in the First Age to Eärendil and Elwing and left a virtual orphan when their doom takes them on their epic voyage to Valinor to seek the mercy of the Valar, Elrond survives all the vast battles across the ages and founds the monastery-like haven of Rivendell. There wisdom is kept alive and will eventually be passed on to the hobbits (and to us!) via Bilbo. From his youth, Elrond has lived looking up at the sky, knowing his father is passing over him as a star of hope, and he has to endure so much, from the loss of his parents and his wife to the eventual parting from his daughter. Despite all this, his goodness seen in the help and counsel he so willingly gives to wanderers in tree-tangled Middle-earth shines out from the pages like a beacon of hope. Like his father, Elrond is almost a kind of star in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

It would be impossible to briefly summarize all that these four characters experience across the Three Ages, but we can think of a theme that unifies their lives: service. Again and again, Gandalf, Galadriel, Celeborn and Elrond rise to the call to serve the good side of history in Middle-earth. Some of them have to endure and pass difficult tests along the way, but all of them succeed and are rewarded. Gandalf's words, "All that we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us," apply not just to Frodo, but to beings as high as these, even when the length of that time spans thousands of years.

Professor Tolkien gifts us with this moment, near the end of long, beautiful, arduous The Lord of the Rings, in which we see this beloved quartet reflecting in shared silence on how they have endured and served goodness. I think it may be a pause of invitation for us to be inspired in our own lives by their memorable examples. I'll close here with a short video I've created about this scene of Ósanwe in hopes that it may offer you a good moment of rest and contemplation:



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