The Old Straight Path:
Pathworking in Middle-earth
In this article I wish to share my experiences of Pathworking within the realm of Middle-earth. This is - and can only be - a personal account. Someone else following the same initial steps would probably find themselves somewhere totally different. I should also say up front that I claim no special knowledge or expertise. I have been meditating daily for some ten months, but my first experiences of Middle-earth occurred within weeks of starting to meditate. That aside, a full description of Pathworking per se would be beyond the present scope. A number of meditation books provide general information on Pathworking. Specific Path-working books are less common, but can be found. To my knowledge, nothing on Pathworking within Middle-earth has previously been published.
What, though, is Pathworking? It is a form of directed meditation, in which you explore an imaginary (in the true sense of 'pertaining to the imagination') realm. For some people the aim and purpose of Pathworking will be the experience itself: the adventure of boldly going, literally, where no-one has gone before. Others might use the technique to work through problems or situations occurring within their own lives. Still others, myself included, find in Pathworking a means to further their personal and spiritual awareness. For those involved in role-play gaming (DMs in particular), Pathworking might also provide a novel means to develop new ideas, scenarios and encounters.
The relevance to gaming may not be immediately obvious. Even if conducted within a group of other people, Pathworking is essentially a personal adventure. Nevertheless, there are parallels. Both enable you to interact with the landscape, creatures and inhabitants of a Secondary realm of the imagination. Furthermore, both require, to a greater or lesser extent, a formalised structure within which events and experiences unfold. In role-play gaming, the structure derives from the chosen game mechanics and the overall setting of the adventure, mediated by the DM and by the players themselves.
The structure of a Pathwork session is given by scripted directions, leading you into and through the meditation. The script may have been written by someone else, or by you yourself. If you are working with others, the leader or mediator will read the script to the group. If you are working alone, a friend could read for you, or you might record yourself reading the script, then play it back to guide your meditation. After a while you may decide not to bother with a formal script, preferring to interact more freely with what is happening within the meditation. Nevertheless, a script of sorts still exists, in that you will 'talk yourself through' the events as they unfold.
Once inside the meditation a second level of order comes into play: your own sense of what is valid and allowable within your chosen Secondary Realm. Obviously, there should be scope for the unexpected. An encounter with a particular character might be anticipated, but not the outcome of that encounter. Your interpretation of what is 'valid' is personal, and will differ to a greater or lesser extent from everyone else's. For example, anyone familiar with the Middle-earth Role-play (MERP) gaming system will accept creatures, places and events unique to that system. These may be unacceptable to someone whose knowledge of Middle-earth is limited to the published Tolkien canon. The primary texts (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion) provide a general consensus for all those exploring Middle-earth. In this regard, Pathworking in Middle-earth is relatively safe and straightforward.
Mention of 'safe' raises the question: Is Path-working dangerous? This is difficult, but I should say the answer is a qualified 'no'. No more dangerous, at least, than any interactive encounter with a Secondary (or Primary) world. That said, you may find yourself experiencing some fairly powerful emotions, so this isn't something to dive into naively or unprepared. The relevant word, perhaps, is perilous.
'But of that perilous land we have heard in Gondor, and it is said that few come out who once go in; and of that few none have escaped unscathed.'
The following are taken from notes made immediately after my 'visits' to Middle-earth, abridged in cases where I actually made several journeys, each of which progressed my Quest a relatively short way. The accompanying maps and diagrams illustrate my journeys. Whilst the maps can be related to the 'standard' map of north-western Middle-earth at the close of the Third Age, please note that they are intended as charts of my adventures, not as serious pieces of cartography.
Path 1. Nan Tíriel: The Crystal Spring
My first experience of Middle-earth happened 'by accident' (as they say), while I was performing a newly-learned meditation exercise. The exercise involved leaving conscious control of the body behind and 'drifting', first into the 'sky', then down into the 'sea' (a version of the exercise, as I now use it to revisit Middle-earth, is given in the appendix).
While I was 'under the sea', immersed in the black, silent depths, I became aware of another 'presence', and a voice asking me to make an offering. I found (within the meditation) that I was holding a smooth, sea-washed stone. I held out the stone and let it drop into the deep. There was a subtle change in the darkness that surrounded me, and I began to sense faint trails of light in the water. I found myself moving along, as though pulled by an invisible current. A few minutes more, and I could sense that I was moving along a narrow rock-hewn tunnel. Suddenly I found myself stood in a grassy clearing in a wood.
At my feet a crystal-clear spring bubbled up from an outcrop of rock. To say that I was surprised would be an understatement! I looked around me. A short distance away, I noticed a small fire was burning: thin wisps of smoke disappearing into the evening sky. Above, the first stars could just be seen. I felt very much at peace, and grateful for having been allowed passage. I offered a quiet word of thanks to Uinen, Lady of Waters. I have thanked her on each return, often tying a ribbon to one of the branches that overhang the spring.
I noticed a young woman stood watching me. She was fairly tall, dressed in a simple white dress. At first I took her to be Uinen. I greeted her and asked her name, and where I was. She hesitated a moment, then answered 'Nan Tíriel'. This translates as something like 'Valley of She-who-watches'. In my meditations I call her Tíriel, or just 'The Lady'.
I asked if I could drink the spring water, and she said yes. It was icy cold. When I had drunk, Tíriel told me that now I could return to the Spring from anywhere, by simply repeating its name three times: Nan Tíriel, Nan Tíriel, Nan Tíriel. In answer to my questions, she explained that she was there to watch over me: also that she was mortal (ie not Elven or Maiar).
Path 2. Rivendell: The Quest Revealed
On my first return to Nan Tíriel, the Lady asked me if I would like to begin my journey. I said yes, and she led me away from the spring into the forest. After a short distance we stopped. Tíriel pulled back a curtain of hanging ivy to reveal the opening to a tunnel. She led me inside. It was almost pitch black, although I could just make out the surface of the stone wall as I passed along the tunnel. We seemed to be moving faster and faster. Suddenly the passage veered sharply to the right. There was no time to stop, and I passed out into brilliant sunlight. At the same moment I realised with a violent sense of vertigo that the tunnel had opened from the side of a sheer cliff. Several hundreds of feet below, the valley floor was deep, lush and green. Before panic set in, Tíriel was with me, explaining that there was no need to worry: I would not fall (unless I chose to), and that all I had to do was 'think myself down', if I wished to explore below.
On that occasion I had had enough excitement, and returned to Nan Tíriel, but in two or three subsequent visits I retraced my steps and did explore what lay at the bottom of the valley. I soon realised that it could only be Rivendell. The place was deserted, yet not at all ruined or overgrown. I knew that I was to find something or someone, but at first I had no idea what. Then it came to me that I was trying to find the Mirror of Galadriel, take it to Nan Tíriel and fill it from the Spring.
Path 3. Beorn: The Sign of the Bear
Thus, on my next session I decided to explore downstream. I seemed to walk for miles. I noticed a tunnel-like opening in the bank on my right, but didn't stop to explore. Eventually, the stream joined 'The Great River'. (This could only be the Anduin, which helped me to fix the location of Nan Tíriel more specifically). A small boat was moored nearby, almost hidden in a tall bed of reeds. After some thought, I untied the boat and climbed in. Slowly, it moved away from the bank, and began to carry me downriver. The land slipped away as we passed on and on. At last the boat stopped against the far shore.
To the north-east, some distance off, smoke rose from a small group of buildings. Rather uncertainly, I made my way towards them. As I arrived at the gate to a long wooden hall, a large red-haired man appeared, carrying an axe. I knew it could only be Beorn the Shape-shifter. Brusquely, Beorn asked me my name, and why I was there.
He said that if I made the mark I would return instantly to his house, but that I could only attempt this three times. I thanked him and bade farewell. Invoking 'Nan Tíriel' three times I returned to the Crystal Spring, and from there back 'home'.
I took a couple of days to prepare for my first return visit: I felt instinctively it was important to offer Beorn a tale worthy of the telling. After arriving at Nan Tíriel and paying my tribute of ribbons to Uinen, I made the Sign of the Bear in the earth beside the stream. Almost at once I found myself inside Beorn's Hall. A long table filled the room, decked with food. When invited, I told Beorn the story of Gawain and the Green Knight in full. He seemed to consider it a worthy story, but I was weary and once I had finished I took leave of Beorn and returned home. At first I felt disappointed: nothing much seemed to have happened. Had I told the wrong tale? Then I started to become aware of the parallels. Beorn, of course, was the Green Knight with his wild hair and fearsome axe. Gawain was myself: the young, inexperienced adventurer. My three visits to Beorn's House - the first of which was now completed - mirrored Gawain's three tests in the Knight's Castle.
Several days passed before I felt ready to return to Middle-earth. When I did, Tíriel was waiting for me in the glade, a circlet of silver leaves in her hair. She asked me to sit with her beside the fire. After a moment of silence, she asked me to count the number of stones that formed the hearth of the fire. There were thirteen, and she explained that these were for the thirteen months of the year. I took this as another sign that the grove was dedicated to Uinen, Lady of the Waters, whose tides are governed by the moon.
Tíriel then invited me to review what I had learnt so far. I told her my Quest was to find the Mirror of Galadriel: that I thought it lay in Rivendell, but I didn't know where to look. That Beorn might be able to help me, in exchange for my tale, and if I revealed to him the secret way to Rivendell. Tíriel replied that it would be safe to tell Beorn, if necessary, but that it would be better if I did not have to. Then she suggested that Beorn might be prepared to teach me something of his shaman's skills with animals.
I made the Sign of the Bear for the second time, in the ashes at the edge of the fire. The grove dissolved from view, and I found myself outside the door to Beorn's Hall. This time he seemed more friendly towards me. He invited me inside, and asked if I had any request to make of him. I asked if he could teach me to converse with animals. He laughed at this, not unkindly, saying that his skills came of many years of study and training-but that if I would undergo a form of initiation, I might learn something of value to my Quest.
I was uncertain, but Beorn said if I was bold and sure of heart I would pass the test. I asked if I could return again to take the test. He said yes, and that I would need to find a token of the creature I wished to commune with. Before I left, Beorn bade me sit and gaze into the fire which blazed in the centre of the Hall, the smoke curling up through a hole in the roof. I did so ... and suddenly in the flames I saw strange shapes, shifting all the time.
At first I saw a feather, then the image shifted to show the Mirror itself, a wide, shallow silver bowl, on a short pedestal. Nothing, though, of its location. After a while the vision faded. I took my leave of Beorn, and returned home as before.
In the days that followed, ahead of my third and possibly final visit to Beorn, I gave a good deal of thought to what my totem creature might be. What animal would be of most value in my Quest? A bear, perhaps, after Beorn himself. Then again, the feather I had seen in the flames made me think of Eagles. Five days after my visit to Beorn's hall, I still hadn't reached a decision. I was also uncertain as to whether I was supposed to find a real (Primary Realm) token of the creature - a feather, perhaps - or whether an 'internal' (Secondary Realm) token was sufficient, as it had seemed to be in the case of the pebbles I had offered to Ulmo beneath the Sea.
Then I took my five year son on a day's trip to the coast. In advance, I felt that, in one way or another, the trip would provide me with some sort of 'sign'. I recalled that there was a stuffed eagle in the museum, but when we got there it looked so pathetic and sad I knew it would not do as a totem.
Later in the afternoon, we turned into a park, and I saw the Swans. More than sixty of them, sailing on the lake, and parading on the grass around the water. Walking around the lake we passed right amongst them: arching necks and beating wings. And, all around on the grass, hundreds of snow-white feathers. I gathered half a dozen of the finest. In the evening I wove them together with beads and small shells, into a sort of charm.
So, I had found my token object. I still had no idea what to do with it, however, nor how Swans might aid me in my Quest for the Mirror. The only connection I could see was that the boats of Galadriel and Celeborn in Lórien were Swan-prowed. Nevertheless, I could put off my third visit no longer.
Path 4. The Tower of Swans
I sat down to meditate with the swan-feather charm in my hands. When I reached the Crystal Spring I sat talking a while with the Lady Tíriel. She smeared soot from the fire across my face, and traced the Sign of the Bear on my brow with her finger. Everything shifted, and I found myself again in the Shape-shifter's Hall. Beorn told me to sit again and look into the fire. As I did so, I heard him explain that he would take me into the forest. He would leave me there for one day and one night, after which I must make my way back to the lodge alone. A little later we set off.
At length we came to a high lonely place deep in the forest: a rocky pier or possibly a ruined tower, the top at the level of the tree-tops. Beorn left me there without a word. Much later - it was dark by now - I heard a noise, and suddenly the tower was crowded with Swans. They were all around me, beating their powerful wings against the sky. I cowered down in the centre of the floor, and in time they left. At this time I felt that they would return twice more, and that on the third time I would stand and they would acknowledge me in some way. It didn't exactly work out like that!
The next morning - I think, it was still dark - the Swans did indeed return, and the tower was again filled with their powerful forms. I don't recall standing, but suddenly I was being swept up with them as they all took to the air. At the same instant I felt powerfully faint. I tried for a time to go with it, but the sensation was so strong that I was certain I would pass out if I didn't do something. When I could take it no longer I cried out (within the meditation) 'Nan Tíriel! Nan Tíriel! Nan Tíriel!'
At once, I was back at the Crystal Spring. I thought if I remained there a while I might recover, but the feeling of faintness and nausea remained, and I had to return to the Primary Realm. After lying down for a while I did return to Nan Tíriel briefly, for a word with the Lady. She comforted me by saying that my initiation had not been totally unsuccessful. Although I could no longer use the Sign of the Bear to revisit Beorn, the birds had taken me up with them, and might return to me again. Thanking the Lady, I made my way back to the Primary Realm.
Path 5. Swanhaven
The strength and suddenness of my reaction to the Swans had shaken me, and it was several days before I felt ready to take the next step. I spent the time trying to make sense of what had occurred. At my next meditation class, I noticed a small illustration of a swan on a poster the teacher was using to illustrate the lesson. I asked its significance, and was told that the swan in a 'sacred bird', which never picks anything bad up in its beak.
I also checked various references in Tolkien's writings. 'Swan' is alque in Quenya, alph in Sindarin. I noted the river Swanfleet (Glanduin), lying west of the Misty Mountains. The Glanduin lies many miles south of both Nan Tíriel and Rivendell, and seemed too remote. Then I read:
This passage struck a strong chord with me, and encouraged me to revisit Nan Tíriel. The Lady was there to meet me, and I asked her about my experiences. She said that the Sindarin Alph was my taken name, to be used within the Secondary Realm. She told me the Swans were not the servants of Ulmo and Ossë, as I had thought, but came to their call out of love and respect. Tíriel confirmed I might meet the Swans again by the Swanfleet river, but gave no indication of how I should travel there. Then I recalled the tunnel opening I had first noticed on my journey down the Crystal Stream. Perhaps it led under the mountains.
I made my way downstream again, until I came to the tunnel mouth. There was no door, just a square opening in a slight rise above the river bank, a stone lintel supported on twin pillars. Inside was very dark, except for a slight glow which enabled me to keep track - just - of the tunnel walls. The floor was at first sandy, then stone. I went on and on, until I was certain the tunnel was taking me under the mountains. At last I came into a huge chamber.
Aside from the passage I had just come down, there were three exits, at roughly eleven, twelve and one o'clock. Uncertain which path to take, I stood and considered each in turn. As I turned my attention to the central opening the chamber was suddenly flooded with white, almost blinding, light. As I entered the central passage the brightness dimmed a little, but continued to light my way forward ... until I emerged into sunlight. To the left a river - surely the Swanfleet - faded into the distant haze.
On my next visit the Lady brought me a glass goblet of water drawn from the Spring. I held my hand over the glass to test its purity: the water sparkled brightly and I drank deeply. Retracing my previous steps I walked barefoot down the stream, and made my way down the tunnel. When I reached the chamber I held up my hand and spoke the word 'Light!'
The chamber was at once filled with light: less blindingly than the first time. As I emerged into daylight I was aware that the light was still streaming out from the tunnel behind me. Then it went out, or rather the opening closed behind me. I wasn't concerned, as I knew I could instantly return to Nan Tíriel if I needed to.
I walked along the near bank of the Swanfleet, until at last I saw the Swans. There were hundreds of birds, and as one they rose up, wheeling in the air high above me. I held my arms up to them, and called out that I honoured them and offered only my friendship. They whirled down around me, faster and faster, until I felt myself being caught up again into the air. I felt faint again, but not so strongly. I became aware that I was being borne by one of the Swans.
He gave his name as Falmarindë, or 'Foam-rider'. At my request he bore me back to Nan Tíriel, and said that he would come again if I called him.
Although some months ago, that has been almost my most recent experience within the Secondary Realm. For a time I decided to concentrate on a different, breath-focused, meditation technique, which seemed to make it difficult to re-enter the Pathworking Realm. Recently I have revisited the Crystal Spring, but only to sit and meditate beneath the trees. However, there is one more piece of the story to be told. Last year I contributed some material to one of Iron Crown Enterprises' Middle-earth Role-play (MERP) modules, and in April of this year I received my copy of the book (Southern Gondor: The People). There, totally out-of-the-blue (as they say), I read:
I give here the 'script' I use to revisit Middle-earth. Whilst this works for me, it may do nothing for you, or you might end up somewhere very different, perhaps not in Middle-earth at all.
Assuming something does happen for you, what can you expect? What you might experience is impossible for me to imagine or foresee: I am not you. Perhaps the Lady will invite you to sit and talk with her, or offer to take you on a journey to explore the Realm further. Do so, if you feel comfortable about it. As I have related, you may experience some fairly powerful feelings and emotions, but remember that you are totally free to leave the meditation at any time.
The script could be taped and played back, or memorised so that you can talk (think) yourself through it. Pause a little at each '@', before continuing.
Finally, may I wish you well in your Pathworkings. If you would like to share any aspects of your experiences with me, I would be delighted to hear from you.
Sit. Relax. Close your eyes. Imagine a point of blue light beneath your feet. The point of light begins to rise and grow, becoming a circle of blue light. As the circle rises it expands, then closes in again, surrounding you in a sphere of protection.
You are not this body. You are that which inhabits this body. Long before your body existed, you were here. And long after your body has ceased to exist, you will still be here @ And now you decide to lay aside control of your body for a little while. You feel yourself beginning to rise up, up, leaving your body behind you @ @
You find yourself at the top of a tall tower. Above you a million stars sparkle in a midnight sky. The sky is so dark you seem to rise up into it @ Now the sky and the stars are all around you @ @
You turn to your right, to face the east. You sense a lightening in the darkness as dawn approaches. As the light grows you begin to move towards it. The light becomes stronger, and larger, as you approach. Now it fills you, surrounds you. Embraces you in warmth and light. You breathe the light in, and it fills every atom of your being @ @
After a time, you become aware of the Ocean far below you, and you begin to sink down towards the surface. Down, down @ @ You see the surface of the water glinting, green and dark. It is calm, but you sense that the gentle waves hide an awesome power. You continue to sink down, down, and under the surface @ In time you become aware of the power, and offer a gift to the deep in gratitude for being allowed thus far @
You sense, rather than see, a trail of light in the water about you, swirling, moving. You feel yourself gently moving along the trail of light @ You sense at last that you are moving up, through a narrow rock-bound channel. Up. Up.
Suddenly there is light, and you find yourself standing in a small clearing in a wood. It is evening, the first stars sparkling in the sky above you. At your feet a spring of crystal clear water bubbles up from a small mound of stones. You feel a rush of gratitude and peace, and offer a silent word of thanks for being allowed to come to this place @ @
After a while you become aware of a young woman standing a little way off. She is tall, blonde, and is wearing a long plain white dress. She seems to be waiting for you to speak. You walk over to her and ask her name. The Lady answers you @ @
You ask if the Lady has anything to tell you, and listen carefully to what she has to say @ @
When you are ready to leave, bid farewell to the Lady @
You feel the trees fade away as you return to full consciousness of your body and your immediate surroundings @ @
You are still surrounded and protected by the sphere of blue light. You imagine a small point of intense blue light at the top of the sphere, directly above your head @ The point of light begins to move and descend, gradually unwinding the protective sphere as it does so, until it has completely been discharged @ @
You open your eyes and take a deep breath, feeling totally refreshed and relaxed.
When you have finished your meditation, get up and do something. Make a cup of tea. Walk the dog. Later, if you wish, make notes on your experiences during the meditation