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After Such Knowledge
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Dedicated to Altariel, ListMom Emerita of Henneth-Annun, with many congratulations on the completion of a certain thesis of her own...


~~~

The rumours in the City say the Grey Wanderer is come. That he came flying across the Pelennor on the wings of the storm, bearing a halfling out of legend before him on his great steed; even as our women and children were departing, fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

They had urged me to go, useless for combat with this dragging, halt foot; yet my place is here, defending the treasures of this House if only by my vigil. Dust in sunlight and memory in corners, these are the hallmarks of my calling; and so with all that remain in the City I wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land, and I remember how the Grey One came last to the House of Lore, some two years ago.

***

Two of the Lord Steward's guards escorted him up to the doors of the House; he knocked with the great staff he bore on the dark oak, and that great booming call summoned me from the depths, echoing around the high-vaulted stone. I came hurrying and halting from the alcove where I was working, hastily brushing the dust of Ages from my hands; stumbling a little, for I had not realised how many hours I had sat still and stiffening on my cold stone seat. The treasury of Minas Tirith is never warm, even in the height of summer.

Though it was many years since he had appeared in the City, I knew him at once, as I blinked at him in the sudden shaft of bright light slanting through the door I had hauled aside. He had changed not a hair; the great grey beard, the bristling eyebrows. Only a little grimmer, perhaps, and in more haste.

"The Lord Steward commands that you grant his.. guest.. all access to the House, and that you assist him in any way he may require." The guard delivered his message briskly, then at my nod turned smartly on his heel, drawing the great door closed behind him with a heavy grating sound. Odd, I thought; it was unlike my lord Steward not to escort one of the Istari to the House himself, even to stay and debate with them. The grey visitor turned to me and chuckled.

"Master Parmandil; well, well. So you are now the Steward's Keeper of Scripts! I remember you as a mere lad, barely apprenticed as under-assistant to the Keeper!"

"Indeed, my lord Mithrandir. But it is a score of years now since Baragond passed away, and since then I myself have kept the House of Lore."

"Then it is your help I shall need." The wizard gazed slowly about him, up into the vanishing vaulting of the treasury, at the endless shelves of scrolls and dark bindings climbing away into dusty darkness. "For I am not sure what I seek, and much less where to begin to look for it."

"I will aid you, my lord. No man alive knows the lore of this House as well as I, unless it be the Lord Steward himself." Again I was puzzled. "Have you not asked him to guide you? I know that he is much troubled and burdened of late, but..."

Mithrandir shook his head decisively under its battered, pointed hat. "This is no matter to trouble the Steward with, Parmandil. Do you take my meaning?" I looked for a moment into those deeply-shadowed eyes and thought I did.

"Can you at least tell me where you wish to begin, my lord?"

"If I knew that, then I should start there myself! And do not call me 'my lord'; Denethor is your lord, and no other. 'Mithrandir' will do well enough." He glowered at me, and I could not help thinking how different was the Grey wizard from the White; my lord Curunír, so often a guest of the Steward in this House, so smooth and charming of his tongue. And yet... the Grey One repented of his brusqueness to smile at me and clap me on the back, eyes twinkling at me, and I wondered if gruff warmth might not be preferable in these chilly halls after all.

We laboured then for many days, the Grey Wanderer and I. We turned the stiff pages of ancient tomes and unrolled countless scrolls, choking on the dust of years, hour and hour, word and word. Again and again I staggered away into the echoing vaults, bearing armsful of rejected material, and racked my brains as I combed distant shelves. History has many cunning passages, here in this House. I had long exhausted all the known and obvious sources listed in the great leather-bound guard-books of the collections, and turned to the storehouses of memory, of the House's lore as yet uncatalogued; but my inspiration was running out, and I besought the Powers: Where shall the word be found?

Once I thought we must have it, for the wizard started, bending more intently over a faded, ancient script; but he muttered only, "Old enchantments. Let them sleep," and thrust the scroll aside.

***
I hear the bells tolling frantically, now; they are ringing the tocsin, the alarm-bell, it cannot be long. Here in the furthest depths of the House I sit, in half-darkness, surrounded by our most precious and fragile parchments; am I truly guarding them, I wonder, or are they my talismans, my protection, these fragments I have shored against my ruins?

***

Back into the most distant annals of the Men of the West we delved, slowly deeper; like Dwarves, Mithrandir muttered, cleaving rock to lay bare the descending strata of its history. I wanted to ask him to tell me of the digging folk, but sensed he had no leisure for tales, not this time. I remembered past years when he had come to the House of Lore, when young master Faramir had sat at Mithrandir's feet for days, folding his lanky legs underneath him on the cold stone, and badgered the wizard for stories of Elves and Men in days gone by. A good lad, Faramir, and a good man and a fine commander now, from the little I hear. There was a time when he was always about the House, curled up all day in a corner with his nose in a scroll or a book; until the lad was summoned to join his elder brother, when Baragond the old Keeper brought down my lord's displeasure for luring Faramir too often away from drill-ground or sword-schooling. I must own that, for all his study of lore and the long hours I have seen him spend here, I am more than a little afraid of the Steward.

"Were these of any use to you?" I suppressed an impulse to tut as I indicated the last batch of scrolls which I had laid out neatly for the wizard, and which now covered the table in an untidy, teetering heap, their leather cases scattering the floor. Mithrandir frowned at the pile with those great, grizzled brows, and shook his head as he turned to the next parchment.

"So many scrolls." He sighed, turning his eyes up to the endless alcoves marching into the distance. "Denethor, Saruman; masters of so much lore, and yet, I wonder... where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?"

"I am not sure I follow you...?"

The wizard shook himself, and looked at me afresh as though returning from a long distance. "Nothing, Parmandil, nothing." He rose abruptly from his seat, took up his gnarled staff, and began to pace to and fro across the stone flags, stirring dancing dustmotes in his wake to sparkle in the shaft of sunlight which dropped sudden and clean from the invisible heights of the vault.

"We are overlooking something, Master Keeper. What we seek is no part of the formal record of this City; no great scroll hung about with royal seals. A mere note, perhaps nothing but a fragment... but concerning Isildur himself closely; perhaps even in his own hand."

I nodded slowly, taking this new knowledge in. Then, as the Grey One continued to pace back and forth through the shaft of light, taking no note of me, I wandered away into forgotten corridors of the House, losing myself in stony places. I ran my fingers along the shelves, trying to shut off my racing thoughts, the thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season. I wanted not to think but to listen, as I had so often found myself doing as I limped through the House on silent, moonlit nights.

I cannot say how long, for that is to place it in time. I know only that suddenly I found myself in one of the furthest corners of the House of Lore, in a room so low even I had to stoop to pass the threshold, breathing musty thick air which made me cough. I frowned, trying to gain my bearings, and knew the place for the first time. Ancient parchments, barely fragments, lay shelved in the gloom. With infinite care, I lifted the first by its edges, blowing softly at the layer of fine dust which coated it, and began to read. One, then another. Another.

"Mithrandir?..." I forced myself not to hurry as I re-emerged into the great vault, cradling the fragile parchment in the palms of my hands, barely daring to breathe lest my finding vanish before my eyes. "Mithrandir?..."

He looked up with an impatient grunt, then frowned as he caught my expression. As I hobbled to the table, he cleared a space, and I was too excited even to protest as scroll-cases clattered to the floor.

"I can barely read the hand, but I should judge it to be late Second Age, or perhaps early Third; and there is no seal. But see - the signature!.."

The wizard looked - then stared. Together, we bent over the dry, cracking fragment of calfskin. For an age, there was silence, the Grey One's lips moving faintly as he deciphered the fading script. "It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain..." At last, he raised his head and gazed bleakly at me with unseeing eyes. As though to himself, he murmured:

"After such knowledge, what forgiveness?..."

***

Distant yelling, now; yet something has changed. Not cries of fear. Shouts of victory! And suddenly in the distance the grating dragging sound of the great door; I struggle to my feet, prepare to defend my treasures however I may. But they come running, and tell me that the Shadow is driven back - that the City is saved - strangest of all, that the King is returned...

I hobble through the passages to the great doorway, an old man in a draughty house. I step out, blinking, into the sunlight to gaze upon our City redeemed; and I recall that the Grey One and I stood here, in just such sudden light, upon the steps as he prepared to take his leave of me.

***

"Will it suffice, Mithrandir?..."

"It will serve, Parmandil". Wearily, the Grey Wanderer clapped his battered hat upon his head, and took up the great staff. "I have the knowledge I sought, although what it may lead to is yet hidden even from me. Others may debate the finding; but where before I had only guesses to offer, I can now present the proofs. My thesis, you might say, is complete."

He turned a grimly satisfied look upon me, pulled his cloak about him and stepped out into the sunlit courtyard.

~~~

As stated in the initial Author's Note, this ficlet was originally a present to Altariel, founder of the Henneth-Annun mailing list (whose fault it largely is that I started writing LoTR fanfic in the first place) on the occasion of the completion of her PhD thesis. She graciously gave me her permission to submit it to the archive. Altariel has more than a passing fondness for T. S. Eliot - hence the choice of the quotation for the title and Gandalf's line, "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" (from TSE's Gerontion). There are lines and half-lines from Eliot scattered throughout the text.


Grateful thanks to Alawa, Forodwaith and Celandine for their constructive comments on earlier drafts.


Parmandil: parma - book; -ndil "implies devotion, disinterested love" (Appendix to the 1978 Silmarillion). The name is intended to imply "one devoted to books".


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