The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 387-390
We have heard this before. The long speech full of self-justification and fine sounding words. But when we heard this speech before it came from the mouth of Saruman when he gave it to Gandalf in Isengard, calling upon Gandalf to co-operate with him and with Sauron. Do the greatest crimes always require such grandiosity? Are such justifications always couched in terms of a particular action being an exception to moral law?
After Aragorn announced to the Fellowship that the day of choice had come, the day on which they would have to decide whether to make a journey directly towards Mordor on the east bank of the Anduin or to remain on the west bank and go to Minas Tirith, Frodo was given permission to spend an hour in thought alone. And it was during this time that Boromir finds him and begins to declare his mind.
The speech begins with kindliness as it must. If the speaker intends to justify a crime then they must first establish their intention to do good.
“Are you sure that you do not suffer needlessly?” Boromir says. “I wish to help you. You need counsel in your hard choice. Will you not take mine?”
So the speech begins with sweet reason but soon it begins to display the same kind of exceptionalism that we saw in Saruman. He spoke to Gandalf about the failing of the Elves and of “dying Númenor”, and of “weak or idle friends”, and all this is with the intention of justify his own desire to rule and his need to obtain the One Ring in order to do so. Boromir also speaks dismissively of “elves and half-elves and wizards”, of their claim to be wise which he considers to be merely a cloak for timidity. And for Boromir it is “failing Númenor” that is the exception, “true-hearted Men” who “will not be corrupted”. It is the same speech albeit with a different cast of characters and a different exception. And in both speeches what begins with a we ends inexorably with an I.
“The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!”
Compare these speeches to the words that Gandalf and Galadriel speak when Frodo offers the Ring to them. They both acknowledge what they might do if they were to possess the Ring and both are tempted to take it so that they might do good through its possession. But both know that the achievement of personal power always ends with a contempt for the lives of others. Others exist merely for the sake of the one who rules. Saruman and Boromir dismiss this refusal of personal power as timidity. Gandalf and Galadriel have both achieved this rejection of power for the sake of personal gain through long inner struggle and it is that struggle that proves vital in the ultimate destruction of the Ring and the overthrow of Sauron.
There is a wonderful moment in The Lord of the Rings in which Tolkien exposes the true reality of the speeches that Saruman and Boromir make and that comes when Gollum makes the same speech to himself, to his Sméagol self, during the journey that he makes with Frodo and Sam through the desolation before Mordor.
“See, my precious: if we has it, then we can escape, even from Him, eh? Perhaps we grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths. Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum! Eat fish every day, fresh from the sea. Most Precious Gollum! Must have it! We wants it, we wants it, we wants it!”
It may be that Gollum’s ambition goes no further than a desire to eat fresh fish three times a day but once you realise that it is the same speech as Saruman and Boromir both make then you realise also that all desire for power for the sake of self-aggrandisement is ultimately as pathetic as is Gollum’s. It is not that Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond reject the use of power, but that power must be wielded for the Common Good and with as much restraint as possible. They also recognise that their part in the story of Middle-earth is soon to reach its conclusion, that they have played their part in it, and they recognise that power must pass to the ordained authority, which is the kingship that Aragorn will bear.
“Give it to me!”
“We wants it, we wants it, we wants it!”
The same speech. The same tragic desire.