The Man Who Wanted to Escape the Gift – A Funeral Legend from the Riddermark

It is said by the wise that there really are only a handful of stories told in the world. There is the story about the blood, the story about the hunt, the story about the heart, the story about the gift, and a few other ones.

But wherever you travel, these stories all tell of the same things. We make them worth hearing through the uncountable ways that we tell them.

This story is about the gift, and it is told in the way of the people of the Riddermark, sometimes called “The Middle Men” or the Rohirrim.

In the land between the White Mountains and the river Isen and the far shores of Anduin, in the great vale which the men of Gondor called Calenardhon, there once lived a man who stopped plowing his fields.
One day he put down his plough and left it in the moist earth, his cropping abandoned and unfinished.

The man’s wife was dead and his children grown, but he still had much strength in his arms and his beard was barely touched by gray. His sword Grimklinga, which he had used in the battle of the crossings of Poros, he hung on the wall to gather dust, and his hand grew stiff from not practicing with it in the mornings.
Empty handed, the man started closing himself up in his hut, muttering to himself in his loneliness. “I must be careful. What if I cut my own leg, swinging Grimklinga at the wind? No point in doing that…”
So the blade rusted on the wall while the man started selling off everything which had once given him joy, to bring in more gold, which he spent buying provisions. He filled his cellar with dried foods and salted meat and in this way he could lock his door and not go out at all.

“I have what I need here,” he thought, as he sat brooding.
A wanderer who had roamed throughout Middle-earth had once told the brooding man that there were elves, who unlike men, lived forever. These elves called the aging of men and what came after, a “gift,” and this became the main dark song running through the man’s thoughts.

There came a day when a courier riding from the south, arrived to the Riddermark with a red arrow in his hand, signaling war and the need for soldiers. But Grimklinga was unfit for battle and the man’s hut was dark and closed shut with cobwebs in the windows. The Westfold Marshal and his troops passed it by, thinking the man was gone.
In the gloom of a single candle, the man was thinking, when he heard the hoof beats in the distance. “If it really is a gift, it is also a mockery, I shall not have it!”
Many autumns went by, and the war against the Balchoth was won, granting glory to men and women of the Mark. The man who refused the gift knew little of this. His days were carefully laid out between frugal meals, simple tasks, and brooding. There was nothing that he wanted.
When one day, his daughter came knocking on his door, with his first grandson on her arm, the man didn’t care. “What’s the point?” He thought. “I shall probably not see the babe’s face grow up anyway. There is nothing that I want.”

One winter, when the man who wanted nothing had lost count of years, a strange wind blew down from the mountains, thrashing his door wide open. As he went to close it, something glistening in the moonlight caught his eye. It was the shape of a great white horse, more magnificent than any steed he had ever seen. With shaking hands, the man grabbed a piece of rope and ran out with neither coat nor boots. Following hoof prints in the snow, he glimpsed the great animal now and again until he came to the edge of Fangorn Forest. There he froze.

The horse was standing in a glen watching. Ancient eyes black as tarns regarded him, he saw winter stars reflected in them, and he saw a ragged creature holding a rope, stretching out a trembling arm, his mouth forming husky words. The man who held that rope had touched neither song nor verse for many years, and yet now a lament suddenly forced itself from behind his teeth:

Mighty steed will not be bridled
by fool’s hand
feeble steps were not walked but sidled
dragon’s bed has lost its glow
In barren lands,
where you go
I must follow
I must follow

Far away there was a horn ringing out through the trees, it raised a hollow wind in his heart. He thought of wasted fields, the face of a babe, a rusty sword and many other things, and he wept because he understood.
The horse turned its head one more time, regarding him and then it started trotting toward the echo of the horn. Following the horse, the man started walking west.
water horse

Each year around the new year, on moonlit nights, when the trees raise their arms to the sky like ragged orphans, the horn of the great hunter can sometimes still be heard over the hills of the Riddermark. And if you are lucky, you may glimpse his white horse, Nahar in the shadows.
But if you hear the wistful song, or the weeping of the man who had his wish granted, you should turn your head away, because no good can come from following that lonely sound.

[Art by Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen]

Originally posted on The Forbidden Pool:

Last week the Tolkien group I am in,  the Grey Haven’s group, read the chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring about the Barrow Downs. Shortly before this meeting, Bill, a fellow member had asked what a “Barrow” was, and I told him about all those mounds in many countries, including Sweden, where men raised mounds over their famous dead, sometimes calling them “barrows”. The Old Mounds of Uppsala, is in fact one of my favorite places in the world because of its ancient, rich and multifaceted history around this place of cult, faith, cruelty and hope.


But during that meeting I started thinking about why, in Tolkien’s text, the Witch King of Angmar chose to send evil spirits (called “barrow wights”) to possess the old bones of once good and brave kings and chieftains who had fought against him and his forces in the wars. I realize that…

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The Grey Havens meet Neil Gaiman on his last book signing tour


I decided to cross post our meeting with Neil Gaiman from my blog “The Forbidden Pool”, because all of us who went were of The Grey Havens Group and had such wonderful discussions in various nooks and crannies and pauses because of that. And also because Gaiman is a great lover of Tolkien’s work and was obviously very influenced by him as a writer. Lately I contemplated this after re-reading Smith of Wooton Major with the Grey Havens Group, and realizing what a tribute to this little gem of Tolkien’s that Gaiman’s Stardust  is.

I remember the moment when I held a book by Neil Gaiman in my hand for the first time, it was in the early 90′s and it was “Preludes and Nocturnes”, the first Sandman album, and while you sometimes have no idea that a book or set of stories will change your life, sometimes you can feel a tingle deep within signalling that things will never be the same. This was such a moment. Oddly, it wasn’t any of my nerdy friends who got me into Sandman, but rather a very odd (even by geek standards) girl I took a class with in college. She always behaved like the biggest introvert in the world, and when there was a concert by a band she liked (unfailingly something deeply subcultural and undergroundsy) she would insist on going alone, so she could experience it to the fullest. For some reason she sometimes came and talked to me about art and gave me book and music recommendations though, and for that I will always be grateful, because she told me about Neil Gaiman and Sandman. Coming to think of it…this girl, with her abrupt ways and intent stare, would herself have been an excellent and very interesting character in a book by Gaiman.

The ten Sandman books along with the ones about Death and The Books of Magic will always be up there on my 100-list of most important books in my life. That’s a big percentage that Mr. Gaiman influences my reading life with as a writer.

After that came his novels and he became more and more famous, and suddenly in the later half of the 90′s his name started to travel outside of geek culture, and film adaptations of Coraline and Stardust helped all of that along. I saw Gaiman in London back all those lives ago, and it was such a small crowd in comparison to the 1000 people who gathered at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver yesterday. I have a feeling that if Mr. Gaiman could clone himself and sign more, or if the bookstore held more people, they could have easily sold several thousand tickets. The event yesterday was the end of an era, as Gaiman said himself. This is the last book tour he takes where he visits bookstores. He will in the future do talks/reads in theaters and bigger auditoriums, and maybe it’s my imagination, but I thought I heard a hint of regret in his voice when he said that. On the one hand I’m sure it’s great to be a writer-rockstar of sorts, but on the other, I do remember him as a nerdy younger man, talking about comic books at the Forbidden Planet in London. That person is still there, Gaiman is pretty much the same when it comes to genuine passion and an unfeigned drive to share that passion with others.

Me and my friends were lucky, because we belonged to the 300 guests who could be in the room with the author when he talked, the rest of the ticketed fans had to wait outside and watch the event on tv monitors. Later though, the author would faithfully and with great stamina sign books for everybody.

Gaiman talked about how he had started writing his most recent book “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” because he missed his wife (Amanda Palmer) so much, and how the raw text was done in about 4 months because of the isolation and drive he felt. And then he spoke more on the writing process and how it differs much depending on “how long the piece of string of the story is”, and also depending on what state of mind your life circumstances leave you in. When his father had passed away, Gaiman wrote the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife” frantically during one single plane trip, and didn’t remember much of the process afterward.

The writer also touched, with great humor, on the difference in how media approaches him today compared to how they used to. For years, there was a deafening silence (except from the usual fan base) whenever a book of his came out, and even as recent as with the Graveyard Book, The New York Times didn’t review it until after they realized that it had won the Newbery Medal. …On the other hand, nowadays the writer gets such odd questions from media as: “Who are your favorite designers?” At that point in the story Gaiman smirked a bit and mumbled to us “If I knew who designed the black leather jacket, I’d put a shrine up for them”.

Mr. Gaiman also took some questions, some of the most amusing answers were:

“Having a hobby that could kill you” (on what is the best thing about keeping bees – apart from the honey)

” In adult fiction you can leave the boring bits in” (on the difference between writing YA fiction and adult fiction)

I also realized that I need to re-read the Graveyard book, because it has a great great great grand niece of Lettie Hempstock’s in it, and I remember a quote from Gaiman’s newest book, where one of the Hempstock women tells the protagonist that there are several descendants of the three originals out wandering the world, and that these are pretty phenomenal women in their own right. I am also looking forward to a story of Gaiman’s called “How the Marquis got his coat back” that will be published next year in an anthology. To everybody who’ve read and liked Neverwhere, this is exciting news.

All in all, the hour and half blew by, and I was glad that I was at the event with my friends from the Grey Havens. Kelly, Donna, Kim, Kate, Clay, Sarah, Stant and Jessica. We were in the first 15% of the people who got to meet the author for signing, but we had done a lot of waiting to be where we were, and entertaining each other with book recommendations and anecdotes about reading helped making it all special.

When it was my turn to have my books signed by Mr. Gaiman, I gave him my old Sandman album “Season of Mists” (one of my favorites) and told him that I had read him since the Sandman days. We talked for a few moments about Forbidden Planet and those days, and I admit that I was shy and starstruck, thinking that this nice man must be very weary from all the talk with thousands of people already. So I was about to leave, and in answer to his “it was lovely to meet you” I heard myself saying “yes, Neil, it was really so wonderful to meet you too”. I *never* call authors by their first name, unless I know them (at least as in having been properly introduced), or am in some unique interviewing situation. I always felt that the young men who gather around scifi cult authors or comic book writers at cons and chummily call them by first name just because they love their work, were a little embarrassing. But there it was, it slipped out on its own. Neil Gaiman looked at me in a very warm sort of way and held out his hand to me, I took it, and he held it for a moment in both of his. And that was it.

I don’t even feel ashamed for being a little teary while walking away with my friends after this. He is a very nice guy, and he had other warm moments with other fans, but this one will always be mine.

Only a man who has been a great fan of writing himself through all his life has this type of humble warmth, and that is Neil Gaiman. One of the most overlooked and subtle things that Gaiman does constantly, all the time and often, is to read the books and short stories of unknown new writers and say kind things about their stories and promote them. He does it with people that are not know at all, and many many have gotten a boost in those hard initial years because of this generous writer and book lover.

ETA: It’s funny how some people will remind us of favorite characters from beloved authors. My friend Kelly, who founded the Grey Havens Group really reminds me of Gaiman’s character “Death” from Sandman. She can pull off looking like her visually, with some hair gel and gothy makeup…but amazingly enough it’s primarily on the inside that the real resemblance is, and not that many can pull that off.