The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 236-239
There is no doubt that Peter Jackson has a point to make about humankind in his film telling of The Lord of the Rings and it isn’t particularly complimentary. Or should we rather say that in his telling of the story the Elves do not have a particularly high opinion of us? Think of the scene near the end of the film version of The Two Towers in which Faramir is marching Frodo and Sam from Ithilien to Denethor in Minas Tirith and the Ring will fall into the hands of an embittered old man. As the hobbits are dragged along you hear Galadriel voicing her opinion that men are weak. And this merely echoes what Elrond has already said in the Council scene in which he describes how Isildur took the Ring from the hand of Sauron but was too weak to do what should have been done and to cast it into the Fire of Orodruin, of Mount Doom.
Peter Jackson places his emphasis upon weakness. It is the weak who are corrupted by the Ring. The strong are able to resist it. Tolkien tells the story of Isildur differently and more tragically. Isildur is one of the most heroic of Tolkien’s great characters. When Sauron was a prisoner in Númenor near the end of the Second Age he succeeded in corrupting its king, Ar-Pharazôn, playing upon his envy of the immortality of the Elves and his pride in his own greatness. Sauron turned the Númenoreans away from their faithfulness to Illuvatar and their trust in the goodness of the gift of mortality and he turned them to the worship of Morgoth, of darkness, and to the practice of human sacrifice. But there were always a small group that remained faithful to their ancient friendship with the Elves and their trust in the gift of Illuvatar. These were led by Elendil (whose name means Elf-friend) and his two sons, Isildur and Anárion. At all times this faithfulness was a matter of great personal risk but when Sauron persuaded Ar-Pharazôn to destroy Nimloth the Fair, the tree descended from the great trees of light in Valinor and a gift of the Valar to Númenor, it was Isildur who rescued a sapling of the tree, being wounded almost to death as he did so. And it was Isildur who stood alone by his father’s body on the slopes of Orodruin when all seemed lost. Gil-galad was dead. Anárion was dead. Elendil was dead with his mighty sword, Narsil, lying broken beneath his body. And it was Isildur who, taking up the shards of Narsil, was able to cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand and so brought about a great victory and a diminishing of Sauron that lasted much of the Third Age of Arda.
At all times we see Isildur willing to lay down his life for the cause of faithfulness. Indeed not only was he willing to do this but he was always the one to risk everything even when it seemed that all hope was gone. But at the end he fell. “This I will take as weregild for my father, and my brother,” he says as he takes the Ring from Sauron’s finger. This I will take as a payment for the offence that Sauron has done to me and my family.
It is only the truly heroic who have the capacity to be truly tragic. The Greeks used the word, hamartia, to describe the flaw in the character of a hero that would lead to the hero’s fall. What was it in Isildur that lead to his fall? Was it that he had turned the great struggle against Sauron into something personal, hence his use of the word, weregild, a payment made to compensate personal loss? It might be thus, but what we can say is that it is not Isildur’s weakness that caused him to fall but his greatness. We might note here that St Paul uses this same word, hamartia, in Romans 3.23 to describe the human condition. And so we are reminded of Aslan’s words in Prince Caspian, “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve… And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.”
9 thoughts on ““This I Will Have as Weregild for My Father, and my Brother”. Elrond Speaks of How Isildur Took The Ring From the Hand of Sauron.”
I especially enjoyed your last paragraph with the notes on “harmartia” and the connection to Romans 3:23 and Aslan’s quote in Prince Caspian. This deserves some further pondering on my part–particularly your point concerning the downfall of Isildur being his greatness, not his weakness.
The connection between hamartia in Greek tragedy and in Paul’s letter to the Romans is completely new to me. I have no idea whether there has ever been any scholarly work done upon this. The connection to that wonderful quote from Prince Caspian was what came to mind. There is no doubt that Paul had a highly sophisticated knowledge of Greek and of classical Greek culture. All his language regarding the church is a reinvention of the language of the Greek city state. I have a good friend who teaches New Testament and New Testament Greek. I will ask him about this.
It is well to remember we are bought at a high price, and we should never forget and always give way to the one who paid it. So hard to put aside our ambitions and follow His.
Of course that is true for us. I think a lot about the way in which Tolkien, who also would have agreed with what you said, deliberately chose to set his mythology in a time before the coming of Christ. This is different from C.S Lewis’s Narnia stories. So Isildur and all of those at the Council of Elrond are living B.C. I wonder why he chose to do this.
Stephen, I am behind as ever, but loving your blog as ever. This one especially caught me as we keep the feast of the Ascension of our Lord, scars and all. The crowning of love and the transformation of suffering. I have never seen the films of TLOTR and am astonished at this emphasis as it seems totally out of character for Tolkien, and so a strange interpretation. Do you think perhaps the film maker was trying to make a point about gender, in there… that men, who feel often the stronger, are often therefore the weaker in the traditional role assigned to them, when it comes to matters of loving self-disregarding service? I love what you say about the possibility that because it has become personal it gets wound up in the Ego side of Honour and Revenge. Much to think about here, thank you… and the Romans quotation to explore! What a gem you are.
As always, Victoria, it is a delight to hear from you wherever you are in my blog. We must meet up again soon for a good long chat. I had to go back to the original post in order to remind myself what I had said and, if anything, I was even more struck by Peter Jackson’s emphasis upon strength and weakness. I am pretty sure that it is moral strength to which he is referring and that the Elves regard themselves as morally and spiritually superior to “men”, that is, to humankind.
You may have noted from my reply to Nicole’s comment above that I intended to ask my friend, Richard Goode, who teaches at Newman University, about Paul’s use of hamartia in Romans. His reply was that scholars have long disagreed about whether Paul is influenced primarily by his Jewish roots or the Greek culture within which he grew up. We are going to have a good walk together in which we are going to talk about this (among other things) and I will let you know what emerges from it. In my heart I am drawn to a reading of Romans that describes humankind as essentially heroic in nature but deeply flawed. Such a reading engages my sympathy and not my contempt.
Stephen! I have worked out how to reply! And yes I am looking forward to that long chat… now restrictions are easing I do hope it may be soon. A joy to look forward to!
ah, of course, how slow I am! “Men” as in “humanity” from the Otherness of the Elves. Thank you. And yes, I am sure you are right about the inner strength. I do sometimes (although no expert on Tolkien/elves) sense a Otherness in the Elves simply from their longevity, they have walked this journey in all its unfolding, and i wonder if humanity has rather lost touch, in many cases, with the depth of it. It seems to give the elves a determination that can seem a little cold, or at least very determined and although of great sadness it gives them the ability to maker longer-reaching decisions within a much wider perspective. Perhaps this is one of Aragorn’s strengths. Steeped as he is in his history, his legend and his songs, he glimpses that perspective a little more nearly?
I think you must be right about humanity as heroic and flawed, and I agree this is a reading for warmth. It is something of the human journey – perhaps something of the journey Tolkien paints us – that it is one of much stumbling, but it is in the stumbling that we find grace and strength. We pick up again and again and again. Even the most broken of characters (boromir and denethor spring to mind), their story is wrapped round by grace and understanding, insight and song from the other characters, despite all that speaks against them. I am not sure that I am making sense entirely so I shall stop here before you regret i learnt how to reply!
I really enjoyed your reply, Victoria! Thank you for sticking at the task until you mastered it.
What comes to mind as I read your comment was the title of Robert Llewellyn’s study of the wonderful Julian of Norwich, “With Pity, Not With Blame”. That distinction between pity and blame is also, I think, the description of the difference between Tolkien’s work and Peter Jackson’s retelling. Jackson’s elves are quite literally “super” human while Tolkien gives us a much more nuanced perspective on them. In Tolkien’s legendarium there are elves who regard humans as lesser beings, regarding them with little more than contempt, but equally there are elves who, on becoming aware of the brevity even of the longest of human lives, are filled with pity. The Elves also become increasingly aware of the burden of immortality within a world that is constantly changing. Within that perspective the spiritual lives of Elrond and of Galadriel are fascinating to ponder. For Elrond the immortality of the elf was a conscious choice given to him at the end of the First Age as he was the son of a human father and an elvish mother. Tolkien worked and reworked the story of Galadriel throughout his life. I am drawn to the version of a great queen who wanted to create a kingdom in Middle-earth free of the Valar, the angelic beings whose task it is to govern the world on behalf of God but who eventually lays it down for the sake of her fellow creatures because of the pity that she has learned through long ages. Her words to Frodo after he has offered her the Ring and the means to rule the whole world are some of the most moving in the entire story. “I will diminish and go into the West and remain Galadriel.”
Dear Stephen, as ever so much to ponder here, and I shall reflect on it all in the days to come. You always open whole new worlds to me with Tolkien that yield richly, thank you.
I love those final words. Is there a depth of truth uncovered through her action in diminishing that is actually fruition, part of me wonders? To remain Galadriel. Part of me wonders if I have remained “Victoria” or how the years have obscured that, tempted away or left unfulfilled. If she had instead increased… would she have flowered to a greater fulfilment, or… perhaps.. lost some of who she is as “Galadriel”, her core identity. In christian thought of course it makes me think of a baptismal identity, and how we are given it, yet flower into it, yet can also lose it and need to uncover it again in simplicity. It is a heart-wrenching phrase.
Thank you, as ever.