The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 220-223
If we are to understand the true significance of the feast that takes place on the evening after Frodo first awakes in Rivendell then we need to understand it as if it is a great state occasion. Elrond does not preside in his great chair at the end of a long table upon a dais every day. This is an occasion of real significance.
There are many reasons why they should hold such a feast, says Gandalf to Frodo. “I am one good reason. The Ring is another: you are the Ring-bearer. And you are the heir of Bilbo, the Ring-finder.”
So we learn much in just a few words about the reasons why, in the world of Elrond and of the wise, honour is granted. There will be royal halls later in the story where Gandalf will be received with no honour at all. And Frodo, and to some degree, Bilbo too, regard themselves as those to whom all these events have simply happened. Frodo knows that he never sought the Ring. The Ring sought him out. But the court of Elrond in Rivendell is no meritocracy. As Gandalf said to Frodo at Bag End when Frodo asked why he had been chosen to bear the Ring, “Such questions cannot be answered… You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate.”
Frodo is not honoured because he is one of the great. He is honoured because he has been chosen and it is the choice that must be honoured. But there will soon come a time when Elrond will declare that Frodo is among the great and that will be because he will accept the burden that has been laid upon him. That we will think about in a few weeks time.
As Frodo sits nervously among the great at table he sees Gandalf, Elrond and Glorfindel close by, revealed in their glory. Tolkien draws upon all his wordcraft to convey think to us and so doing achieves far more than any picture. And so he says of Elrond that his face was “ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful.” As we read those words it is not a picture that we see. Tolkien tells us nothing about the shape of Elrond’s nose or mouth, for example. What we see, we see by means of the thoughts of our hearts, and those who know the prayer to which I allude will also know that those thoughts must be cleansed before they can enable us to see clearly.
So it is that Tolkien shows us that Frodo is learning to see. Later Galadriel will make reference to the keenness of Frodo’s sight. Gandalf, Elrond and Glorfindel are among the immortals and unlike ourselves whose appearance is shaped by factors both inward and outward over which we only have some control, they are able to convey the truth of who they are. Glorfindel is “fair and young and fearless and full of joy. Gandalf has an aged face with eyes “like coals that could leap suddenly into fire”. And Elrond, neither young nor old seems venerable “as a king crowns with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fullness of his strength.” Later when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli encounter Gandalf they are not sure if it is he that they see or Saruman.
As a maia, an order of angelic being to which both Sauron and Saruman also belong, Gandalf has power over how he is able to appear; but this power can also be lost. In seducing Celebrimbor into teaching him the craft required to make the Ruling Ring Sauron was able to appear fair. After he seduced Númenor into its catastrophic act of rebellion he lost that power and could only be the Dark Lord thereafter. And when Saruman dies “the long years of death” are revealed in his hideous face. Gandalf remains faithful to his order’s obedience to Ilúvatar and so conveys both wisdom and strength in the face that others can see.
All this Frodo is able to see because his sight grows keen and his eye is innocent. He does not yet know that he is able to see what others cannot.