The Morgul Blade by Keith Lowery

The Morgul Blade

on Experiencing Grief at Christmastime

Early every December, I find myself climbing into the attic and handing innumerable boxes and tubs down the ladder to my wife. The boxes contain, by now, the decorative accumulation of forty years of Christmases past.

Stockings and garlands. Wreaths and lights. Table runners and hot chocolate mugs. All of these things are found where they were carefully packed away the year before. But when we unpack the decorations we're not just unpacking things; we're really unpacking memories, aren't we?
I was caught off-guard this year when, going through the boxes, I came across my daughter's stocking. My daughter won't be with us this year. In fact, truth be told, she'll never be with us again. On January 10th, just after Christmas last year, she unexpectedly died.

For forty years we have accumulated stockings to hang on our mantel. Each one has a name embroidered at the top. Sons and daughters, grandchildren, wives and husbands. Everybody is represented by a stocking on the mantel. But until this year, we have never needed to discuss whether to hang anyone's stocking. Now, though, someone we loved is gone forever. She is no longer someone actually in our lives, but someone who is from our past. The whole thing feels obscene.

We've been hanging the stocking with her name embroidered across the top every Christmas since her birth in 1988. The need to decide whether to hang her stocking this year was . . . unexpected.

Grief flows like a river immediately following the death of someone we love, but then it slows to a kind of continuous trickle, punctuated by periodic but unexpected flash floods. And for a long time it seems that you continue to step on these little landmines of unexpected reminders. Like Christmas stockings. Or accidentally retained old voicemails. Or pictures you stumble across that you can't remember ever having seen before.

Permanent Wounds

J. R. R. Tolkien knew at a deeply personal level the permanence of such losses. He, along with his three best friends, went to war. Two of his friends never returned, and the one who did return was so altered by the experience that he never psychologically recovered.

Years after the war, Tolkien wrote his monumental trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. The hero of the story, a hobbit named Frodo Baggins, is at one point stabbed by a magical knife wielded by the evil witch-king of Angmar. The knife was, as described in the story, a "Morgul blade." It was inhabited by dark magic, which caused a wound administered by such a blade never to completely heal.

I have always suspected that such an ingenious plot device could only have been invented by someone who was himself the recipient of such a wound. Deep and permanent wounds are not just the stuff of fantasy. There are wounds in the real world from which we can never fully recover without some kind of supernatural intervention.

American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was another writer all too familiar with permanent wounds. His first wife died in childbirth. His second wife, to whom he was very devoted, died in 1861, succumbing to burns she received when her dress accidentally caught fire. Less than two years later, in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, Longfellow was distraught to discover that his son had snuck away to join the Union army. His son was soon badly wounded in battle and only just clinging to life as Christmas neared.


So it was in this context, Christmas of 1863, that Longfellow penned, in "Christmas Bells," these famous verses:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
     Had rolled along
     The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
     A voice, a chime,
     A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

. . . .

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
     "For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

It's easy to imagine Longfellow's despair that Christmas as he wrote those words. Two wives dead and a son badly injured, as he sat alone with his thoughts. The fact of the matter is that, at times like Christmas, those who bear the wounds of the Morgul blade are reminded of the keenness of their loss. The missing phone calls; the empty chair at mealtimes; the impossibility of ever again showering gifts on someone you love.

The empty stocking.

Not All There Is

My wife and I are not the first, nor will we be the last, to lose a child. I know that. I know of another couple who buried their infant son this year after months of heroic medical efforts to try to save him. I know wives and husbands who lost their spouses this year. I know of children who lost their parents. There's no healing these kinds of wounds. At least, not in the world as we know it.

But the message of Christmas is, in part, that the world as we know it is not all there is. The Baby in the manger will heal all wounds. He is the mortal enemy of the witch-king of Angmar. And his arrival in Bethlehem was not merely a happy story about babies and angels and shepherds. It marked the real-life arrival of the cavalry in the nick of time. The Allies landing on Normandy beach. Gandalf appearing at first light on the fifth day.

That manger in the stable marked the down payment on God's promise that good would triumph over evil. Only he has the power to heal the wounds received from a Morgul blade. And as Tolkien himself believed, he's going to make it so that "all things sad are going to come
untrue."

Longfellow believed this, too, as he penned the words of his famous Christmas poem. He reminded himself, and he reminds us still, in his final verse:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
     The Wrong shall fail,
     The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

So take heart this Christmas! The Baby in that Bethlehem stable is actually the secret King of heaven and earth, who wields the power to heal un-healable wounds. The story that started in a manger found its way to the triumph of an empty tomb.

The witch-king will be dethroned. Every wound will be healed. Every tear will be dried. And there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. 

Keith Lowery works as a senior fellow at a major semiconductor manufacturer, where he does advanced software research. He worked in technology startups for over 20 years and for a while was a principal engineer at amazon.com. He currently serves as an elder at Lake Ridge Bible Church in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.

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more on J. R. R. Tolkien from the online archives

34.6—Nov/Dec 2021

The Morgul Blade

on Experiencing Grief at Christmastime by Keith Lowery


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