So they passed into the northern marches of that land that Men once called Ithilien…
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, Ch. IV
With the recent posts about Ithilien House, and more home-scenes waiting in the wings, I realize I haven’t yet shared here how our house came to have its name.
(A brief mention was given to friends who read the monthly letter, however; if you’d like to receive the letters, please go here.)
In this part of the country, where small houses bear numbers and street signs in the humble shadow of confidently christened farms and ranches, you may wonder that ours was given a name at all. Ithilien House isn’t emblazoned on our porch or front door — at least until I make its occupants fully aware of this covert title and get their approval to have a little sign made! — but given how much I write about it, the house has seemed to ask for some special recognition. A name.
A name is a marker for remembrance, after all: a summary glimpse of both what is and what might be, rushing in with a hundred inexpressible nuances upon those who know it and utter it, all in the space of a single mention.
So by way of a personal blessing, and a signal of certain hopes, I’ve given it one.
Ithilien House takes its name from a region in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Ithilien itself means “Moon-land,” an apt companion to the first name of this writing space (Sun-Steeped Days), and a gesture to the wide sky over our heads here, where the sun and the moon salute each other with stately regularity.
This eastern Middle-earth province, like the general nest of our home, is “a fair country of climbing woods and swift-falling streams.”*
In the history of Tolkien’s mythology, this land still keeps a “dishevelled dryad loveliness” even when it is abandoned to the enemy — a phrase which makes me grin, because few things could better describe the state of our yard upon purchase two years ago.
Yet later on, after the great War of the Ring, Ithilien becomes a site for the flourishing of life, for peace and hope:
“‘I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of the slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’ And again [Éowyn] looked at Faramir. ‘No longer do I desire to be a queen,’ she said.
Then Faramir laughed merrily. ‘That is well,’ he said; ‘for I am not a king. Yet I will wed with the White Lady of Rohan, if it be her will. And if she will, then let us cross the River and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden.”
“The garden of Gondor” holds out the promise of newness, of swords hammered into plowshares. As darkness ebbs, the members of the famed fellowship gather in Ithilien after their long and harrowing journeys to walk them again, this time in story, and in the safe company of friends.
At last the glad day ended; and when the Sun was gone and the round Moon rode slowly above the mists of Anduin and flickered through the fluttering leaves, Frodo and Sam sat under the whispering trees amid the fragrance of fair Ithilien; and they talked deep into the night with Merry and Pippin and Gandalf, and after a while Legolas and Gimli joined them.
In these passages lie a few of my dreams for our house: growth and greenness, restoration, and conversations of comfort and encouragement shared well into the moonlit hours.
In two short years, from the moment that Y carried this very astonished wife over the threshold, I’ve loved and grown to love this little home.
I’m still enchanted by the particular slant of light that traverses the width of our living room floor in all seasons. (Sometimes we sit in it for warmth.) The rooms are arranged so that I can always hear the girls playing as I work in the kitchen. Our landing-places for tea and books and pretend play are many — and Little Jo would add that there are even more to be found under chairs and in the closets.
This house has seen its share of struggles — of tears and fear and sleepless nights, and so long as the living draw breath under its roof I expect these will always come and go — but it’s also been a place to wake up in the mornings and find new mercies to chase away dread. Here Spring brings boughs and tendrils of green to every window-view, and Autumn glides in bearing the scent of savory stews and apple cakes, somehow urging us to stay indoors and run outside into crackling leaf piles at the same time. In a few short weeks, the small garden will ring with the excitement of little ones searching out Easter eggs.
I love this house, and all its quirks and its features, perhaps in a way I’ve never allowed myself to love a place before.
To be sure, Ithilien House isn’t a perfect name. “House” hints to me of something manor-like and historical, and ours is neither. The more prosaically-minded observer would use words like “cookie-cutter” or “modest” to describe its very ordinary exterior. And for the greater part of the year, the immediate landscape has more in common with the Little House on the Prairie than the verdant wild “groves and glades” of the true Ithilien.
But these lesser things aside, our simple single-family dwelling wears its name with steadfast honor because of its King.
For the best aspect of Ithilien, to me, is that its golden age comes after the great war and the establishment of the rightful kingdom, but before the final departure of the Elves. Before the great and mysterious dawn of the world’s end.
Such is the time in which we live, and every day I awake to the sun glowing in the window and the awareness of this truth. Our labors and joys on this earth so “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil” (G.M. Hopkins) aren’t over yet. But there are places left still where the weary may rest and the hurt may recover, and I pray that this will be one of them. I almost feel that it can’t help being one, if He fills it as faithfully as He has to this day.
God knows indeed that all of us have our own roads to tread. There will be days when our strength withers and dims, and we feel keenly that we follow One who has no place to lay His head. Yet where we are, so He has promised to be, and thus this tiny, daring foray of a house name reminds me that until He returns, His people will still hold the outposts of healing and of life-giving love to the end.
When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.
He remembered that smell: the fragrance of Ithilien. ‘Bless me!’ he mused. ‘How long have I been asleep?’ For the scent had borne him back to the day when he had lit his little fire under the sunny bank; and for the moment all else between was out of waking memory. He stretched and drew a deep breath. ‘Why, what a dream I’ve had!’ he muttered. ‘I am glad to wake!’ He sat up and then he saw that Frodo was lying beside him, and slept peacefully, one hand behind his head, and the other resting upon the coverlet. It was the right hand, and the third finger was missing.
Full memory flooded back, and Sam cried aloud: ‘It wasn’t a dream! Then where are we?’
And a voice spoke softly behind him: ‘In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you.’
*All quotations from the 1994 HarperCollins text of The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien: 635, 943-944, 934, 930.