“He May Play a Part Yet that Neither He Nor Sauron Have Foreseen”. Gandalf and Gollum.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 244-250

No-one seems to be wasted in Gandalf’s world. By this I do not mean that everyone can be used in the sense that we might use an object and then discard it, but that everyone has a part to play in the great story. Readers of The Lord of the Rings will remember that Gandalf spoke of Gollum in much the same way in the long conversation with Frodo in the study at Bag End.

“My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end”.

Gollum may play a part yet

Note that vital phrase. “My heart tells me”. Gandalf is a man of the heart and this is what sets him apart from Sauron and from those who see the world as Sauron does. He is beyond even most of his fellows. None of the Wise would ever wish ill to hobbits but then none but Gandalf would ever expect much of them either. The Wise regard them as many regard children. They are glad that children exist and they delight in their innocence, even taking refuge from time to time in the world of the child as an expression of longing for something that they feel is lost to them forever. But despite this longing they really believe that the world of the child is a world of make believe. It does not actually exist. The real world, sadly but truly (as they see it), is one of calculation and of cold, hard facts. The Rangers are glad to protect hobbits from this cold, hard world beyond the borders of the Shire but it is that cold, hard world that is reality.

It is one thing to find a place in the world for a pleasing anomaly like the Shire, but who wishes to give any place to Gollum? Sauron does give Gollum a place but it is only the place that he gives to every creature and that is based on their usefulness to him. When Sauron captures Gollum he tortures him to find out what he knows about the Ring that he once possessed. In Unfinished Tales we are told that “When he had learned what he could from him, Sauron released him and sent him forth again. He did not trust Gollum, for he divined something indomitable in him, which could not be overcome, even by the Shadow of Fear, except by destroying him. But Sauron perceived the depth of Gollum’s malice towards those that had ‘robbed’ him, and guessing that he would go in search of them to avenge himself, Sauron hoped that his spies would thus be led to the Ring”.

J.M Snooks imagines Sauron with Gollum

Now we begin to perceive the difference between the mind of Sauron and the mind of Gandalf. Sauron is only capable of reducing everything to his own calculation. All calculation reduces the person to an object, to an it. Imagination on the other hand perceives all persons as mystery. Sauron did not “fully comprehend” Gollum but calculated that what he did know would be sufficient for his purposes. Gandalf also did not fully comprehend, in terms of calculation, but listened to his own heart which told him that Gollum would have a part to play that Sauron could not foresee. This is because imagination conceives a world that is greater and more wonderful than its capacity to comprehend it. It can only be grasped and held by love and delight.

Gandalf lives in a world in which pity, mercy and generosity of spirit, open the door to possibilities that are unforeseeable and are yet to be trusted. It was not Gandalf but Bilbo who chose not to kill Gollum when he had the opportunity to do so but Gandalf lives in a world in which a merciful deed can have wonderful consequences even if they cannot be foreseen. Gandalf does not foresee that it is Gollum who will take the Ring to the fire. He does not even know how the Ring will be destroyed. He has seen Frodo fail to throw the Ring into his own fireplace. He probably guesses that the task of destroying the Ring is probably beyond Frodo’s or anyone else’s capacity and yet he still trusts that somehow it will happen because he lives in this world of wonderful and incalculable possibility. Some might call it a fairy tale world, even regarding it with contempt, but those who live as Gandalf does seem to unlock doors of wonderful possibility that those of a calculating spirit cannot even perceive let alone achieve.

Olorin (Gandalf) with his teacher, the Lady Nienna

“In All These Things He Has Been the Chief.” Elrond Calls upon Gandalf to Tell His Part in the Story.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 243-248

After first Gloín, and then Boromir, have spoken of the reasons why they have come to Rivendell Elrond calls upon first Bilbo and then Frodo to speak of how they came to possess the Ring and of how it was brought to Elrond’s halls. Perhaps it is the childlike stature of the hobbits, halflings as they are named by others, that arouses a certain scepticism in their hearers and so it is Galdor who has come from the Grey Havens to represent Cirdan, his lord, who gives voice to this doubt.

“The Wise may have good reason to believe that the halfling’s trove is indeed the Great Ring of long debate, unlikely though that may seem to those who know less. But may we not hear the proofs?”

And so Elrond calls upon Gandalf, declaring that he will have the place of honour as the last to speak, for “in all this matter he has been the chief”.

Gandalf and the Ring at Bag End

We have been in the company, first of Bilbo ever since he first found the Ring deep within the tunnels of the Misty Mountains, and then of Frodo on his journey through the wild pursued by the Nazgûl. At the Fords of Bruinen we heard the cry of the Ringwraiths, “The Ring! The Ring!” as they urged their horses into the foaming waters at the Fords of Bruinen but as Galdor said, the “halfling’s trove” is too big a thing even to accept its identity at the word of Elrond and Gandalf. It is the “peril of the world” whose very existence places all the peoples of the world in the greatest danger whether they know of it or not. This is why Gandalf must offer more than his word and so he begins to tell his part in the story of the Ring.

Gandalf first came to Middle-earth as one of the Istari, seven travellers sent by the Valar “as messengers sent to contest the power of Sauron, and to unite all those who had the will to resist him”. Soon after their arrival a shadow began to fall upon the Greenwood, home to the woodland elves of Thranduil. An evil power had made a stronghold at Dol Guldur in the south of the forest and people began to call the forest, Mirkwood. At first it was thought that the power was one of the Nazgûl but eventually Gandalf went to Dol Guldur and established the truth that the power was Sauron himself who was seeking to gather all the Rings to himself and for news of the One and news of Isildur’s heir. The Istari and the greatest of the Eldar had formed a council in order to resist the Power and on learning that it was Sauron Gandalf urged an assault upon Dol Guldur but Saruman opposed him. Eventually in the year that Bilbo found the One Ring in the Misty Mountains, Smaug the Dragon was slain by Bard of Dale and the Battle of the Five Armies was successfully fought, Saruman finally agreed to an assault upon Sauron. He had learned that Sauron’s servants were searching the Anduin vale near to where Isildur had fallen and he had become alarmed. Sauron retreated from his woodland fortress but only because his work in Mordor was now complete.

The Coming of the Istari to Middle-earth

At all times Saruman sought to allay the fears of the Council concerning Sauron’s search for the Ring.

“Have I not earnestly studied this matter? Into Anduin the Great [The Ring] fell; and long ago, while Sauron slept, it was rolled down the River to the Sea. There let it lie until the End.”

But Gandalf’s fears were never fully allayed and with the help of Aragorn Gollum was found and at last, in the study at Bag End, Gandalf read the words written upon the Ring.

“One Ring to Rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them.”

There is no doubt any longer that Frodo’s ring is indeed the One Ring that Sauron seeks.

One Ring to Rule Them All

All That is Gold Does Not Glitter. Aragorn’s Journey Towards His Crown.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.240-243

My feelings about Peter Jackson’s film retelling of The Lord of the Rings have always been mixed but I have never denied that he had the right to make such an attempt. Tolkien always felt that the task that he had been given was to create a mythology for England, one that he felt was lost after the Norman Conquest of 1066. And just as the Arthurian legends have been told and retold by many voices (Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram Von Eschenbach and Thomas Malory come to mind, as well as T.H White and others in the modern era) so we must surely permit voices other than Tolkien to do the same to his legendarium. This will include film and fanfiction in our era, some of which will stand the test of time as being a true retelling of the myth while others will rapidly disappear into the dark. Of one thing that we can say of Peter Jackson’s films is that they have already lasted 20 years since the first of the three was released and although they have their flaws on the whole they show no sign of ageing.

As I have been thinking about Aragorn and Boromir and the war dance that they do around each other so the way in which Jackson treats the two characters has also come to mind; and if I felt that Jackson’s portrayal of Boromir through Sean Bean’s fine performance is of a character too fully formed, then I think that Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is much closer to Tolkien’s original conception.

It is really important that when we first meet Aragorn we do not receive him as the fully formed King of Gondor and of Arnor, the heir of Valandil, of Isildur and of Elendil. When we first meet him in The Prancing Pony in Bree, his well formed Strider persona is more than a name given to him by Barliman Butterbur. Although he bears a certain resentment about the name it belongs to the Ranger doing his work in secret and thanklessly. Readers of my blog may remember a piece that I wrote a few months ago about Frodo’s exclamation, “I thought he was only a Ranger.” Even though Frodo always feels that Aragorn is more than he seems even so he fails to perceive the light of Númenor in his companion. Aragorn has grown into his disguise. He is a Ranger.

Strider the Ranger

So it is that in Jackson’s The Return of the King Elrond arrives at Dunharrow just before Aragorn and his companions make the journey through the Paths of the Dead. He brings the sword that was broken with him, reforged and renamed. It is no longer Narsil but Andúril, the flame of the west and Elrond presents it to him with the words, “Become who you were born to be”. Aragorn takes the sword and as he raises it Howard Shore’s magnificent music underlines the significance of the moment. What is significant in Jackson’s retelling is that all this takes place within one short scene. We miss the slow transformation that Tolkien offers to us but whether the transformation takes place in a moment or over many years what is true for Aragorn is that it must take place or he will shrink into diminishment.

Become Who You Were Meant to Be

Each one of us takes a journey that leads to the same end that Aragorn reaches. While we will not receive the crown of the heir of Elendil each one of us should enter into our archetypal kingliness as a king or queen and it is one of life’s greatest sadnesses that so many achieve only a diminished version of what they could be. The same discipline that Aragorn accepts after Elrond tells him that his daughter will not be “the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor or Arnor”, the discipline that takes him through years of struggle, must be undertaken by all us if we are to enter into the royalty that is our birthright. Aragorn’s path will be a lonely one for both his personal happiness as well as his royal destiny are intimately linked. Ultimately he will achieve both together but might he have chosen to shrink into one who was “only a Ranger”? Might he have withered even as Bilbo’s verse speaks about? Might he have withdrawn into the shadows of his own greatness? The answer to that question has to be yes, just as it is for all the characters in the story. As Sam Gamgee says of all heroes as he and Frodo prepare to enter Mordor, “I expect that they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t”.

Alfred the Great when all that is left of England is an island in the marshes. I chose this image to give a historical example of the long hard journey into the kingly archetype.

“Who Are You, and What Have You to Do With Minas Tirith?” Boromir and Aragorn Dance a War Dance Around Each Other As They Meet For The First Time.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 240-243

It was Leonard Cohen who once commented that when two men first meet they always do a war dance around one another. I think that I might add that it is when the space between them is in any way a contested space that the dance will take place. This may not happen immediately as it is not always clear in what way they might be in competition with one another but unless it is clear where the authority lies in their relationship there will come a time when the war dance will take place.

Are we surprised that in the case of Boromir and Aragorn it takes place almost immediately. We have already been introduced to Boromir’s pride. It had to wait impatiently while Elrond spoke and it is to the young man’s credit that he listened in silence even as the Lord of Rivendell told the tale of the years, speaking of Númenor, of Elendil, Isildur and of Gondor. Boromir is the son of the Steward of Gondor, one of the mightiest of the Lords of Middle-earth even in that land’s decline and there is due pride in that position; but there is also the pride that belongs to a young man who is not yet entirely certain that he has earned his pride, who feels that he must still convince others of his importance.

Boromir, a Man in Search of an Heroic Identity

So it is that in a room full of seasoned warriors and heroes he has felt it necessary to speak of Gondor’s greatness and of his own heroism too; and so it is that when the lean-faced Ranger clad in a weather-stained cloak casts the blade that was broken upon the table before Elrond Boromir responds with a challenge.

“Who are you, and what have you to do with Minas Tirith?”

I am sure that you have noticed that Tolkien uses the word, cast here as Aragorn first introduces himself to Boromir. He could have chosen to place the blade carefully upon the table but as he declares to all that he is the keeper of the “Sword that was Broken” it is done with the crash of metal against wood. There is more than one man who is taking part in this war dance. The Heir of Isildur has announced himself and the manner in which he does so has its effect. Boromir looks “in wonder” at the lean face.

Aragorn, the Heir of Isildur, But Not Isildur Himself.

We have noted that Boromir is a young man in search of his own heroic identity and so he feels the need to assert that which, as yet, he is not entirely assured of. We have heard him speak of Gondor’s greatness, of his father’s wisdom, of his first encounter at Osgiliath with the Morgul Lord, an encounter that ended in defeat and flight, the receiving of a message and a journey over the lands between Minas Tirith and Rivendell. All this is worthy of respect but in comparison with the deeds of Elrond, of Gandalf, of Glorfindel and of Aragorn himself it does not amount to very much. So why does Aragorn find it necessary to enter the war dance with this young man? Does he too feel insecure?

We have to acknowledge that to a degree Aragorn is insecure at this moment in the story. This is the moment in which he first begins to claim the throne of Gondor and to do so to a young man who will one day have to swear fealty to him as liege lord. If Boromir is just starting to grow into his own heroic identity Aragorn is only just beginning to grow into his kingliness. Perhaps this is why Bilbo offers him indignant support and perhaps too, after Aragorn offers his own heroic credentials, his own defence of the free lands of the north, the thankless nature of the task and his own great journeys to lands that to Boromir are merely the place of legend, Aragorn returns to his humble demeanour. After he asks Boromir if he wishes the House of Elendil to return to Gondor receiving an awkwardly defiant reply in return he speaks once more of himself.

“Little do I resemble the figures of Elendil and Isildur as they stand carven in the halls of Denethor. I am but the heir of Isildur, not Isildur himself.”

The journey that lies ahead will be the proving of both of these men but at this moment all lies in the future. At this moment Boromir and Aragorn look uncertainly at one another.

Alan Lee imagines the Halls of Denethor