“The Nine Walkers Shall Be Set Against The Nine Riders That Are Evil.” Thoughts on the Power of Symbols in The Lord of the Rings.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 269

I had intended to start blogging on The Two Towers this week but events in my islands have got me thinking a lot about the nature of power. It will be the subject of my sermon in the village parishes in the Shire, that I care for, tomorrow. The event, of course, to which I refer, is the death of Queen Elizabeth II and this Sunday, the 18th September, will be the eve of her funeral in Westminster Abbey.

I came across an interview with former President, Bill Clinton, on YouTube this last week about Queen Elizabeth. In this interview the question was raised as to why heads of state, including President Biden, from around the world are going to gather in London for the funeral of a woman who wielded very little power and was head of state of a country that also has no longer great geopolitical significance. For a moment, it seemed to me, the interview got a bit stuck until Clinton and his interviewer both agreed on the fact that Queen Elizabeth was “one helluva woman” and both laughed and the interview moved on.

Now, if there is someone who ought to know that power is not merely a matter of (to refer to Joseph Stalin’s crude comment about the Pope) how many army divisions someone has, it ought to be Bill Clinton. I remember once listening to two wise women discussing a fictional biography of Hillary Clinton and noted, with some fascination, that when they started to talk about Bill they were soon giggling like teenage girls. What, I wondered, as a mere male, causes that kind of reaction in normally mature women?

I think, by this point, we are beginning to see that there is more to power than mere strength and this is a major theme that runs through The Lord of the Rings. Right from the start of the Quest in Rivendell Elrond makes it clear that it will not be because of might that Sauron will be overthrown. “Had I a host of Elves in armour of the Elder Days,” he says, “it would avail little, save to arouse the power of Mordor.” For Boromir this very admission diminishes the value that he places upon Elrond and all that he represents. “The might of Elrond is in wisdom not in weapons,” he says, and it is quite clear that he regards weapons more highly than wisdom. How many divisions, he might ask, does Elrond have?

The Nine Walkers against the Nine Riders

Sauron would ask the same question and it was because of his understanding of power as a simple application of strength that he forged the One Ring in the first place. As the title of the current Amazon series tells us, it is a Ring of Power, of absolute Power. That is what makes it such a fearful thing but it also that which makes Sauron so vulnerable. For one thing he has no understanding of the power of something like friendship. To choose four hobbits to stand against the might of the Nazgûl would seem laughable to him. And as Gandalf says at the Council, “the only measure he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.”

The very rejection of a certain kind of power is a key theme throughout The Lord of the Rings but Elrond shows that there is another kind of power, about which Sauron also has no understanding, and that is the power of symbol. All symbols point towards something else than themselves. They are, by their very nature, signposts. The Nazgûl are by their very nature simply themselves, men that have become wraiths whose power derives from the Ring of Power and the fear that this creates. The Nine Walkers represent utter freedom of choice. They do not stand against the Nazgûl by reason of enslavement. Nor apart perhaps for Gandalf, and maybe Aragorn, do they stand against them by reason of their wisdom and insight. Saruman will dismiss the hobbits as merely little creatures behaving like young lordlings who need a good lesson in the true nature of power. He has no understanding of the power of the hobbits’ love for one another either.

The Power of Friendship

Tolkien, to the best of my knowledge, makes no explicit reference anywhere to the power of archetype, something that the work of Carl Jung has helped us to understand much better, but I would argue it is this power, and the wielding of this power, that proves decisive in The Lord of the Rings. It is this power, I argue, that Queen Elizabeth instinctively understood throughout her long life. The archetypal power of kingship was granted to her at the intensely mystical ceremony of her coronation in 1952, the key moments of which took place under a canopy in secret away from the television cameras. What enabled her to channel that power so effectively was the deep humility that she gained through a lifetime’s practice of her Christian faith. She knew that power was not her own possession but a gift from the king of kings, so she did not reduce her role to mere crude mockery of that power. The pomp and ceremony never became vulgar but retained a remarkable purity of expression until the very end. Of course, she alone could not hold back the decline of the country over which she ruled. The problems concerning Britain’s political and economic frailty await both our new King and his government but, I would argue, it was that remarkable purity of Queen Elizabeth’s expression of archetypal power that is drawing about 100 heads of state to London this weekend. When we encounter real archetypal power at work we almost cannot help but be drawn towards it.

A short postscript… When I spoke of my village churches in the Shire I was referring to the English county of Worcestershire. Tolkien said of this county that it was “my Shire”, a place of “woods and fields and little rivers”. He loved it deeply and so do I.

10 thoughts on ““The Nine Walkers Shall Be Set Against The Nine Riders That Are Evil.” Thoughts on the Power of Symbols in The Lord of the Rings.

  1. “Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”. Elrond (and therefore, of course, Tolkien) knew the shift over the millennia of great and mighty individuals to the small and weak Everyman to do the amazing deeds of courage needed to save the world. Tolkien had seen it in WWI and Elrond in the shift from the War of Jewels to the Last Alliance. As a Naval Officer I too saw this: it is a great sadness to me. Until Christ comes again, I am afraid it is what we have, what we must work with in our battle with great Evil. You have hit it on the nose.

    • Many thanks for offering me such generous words. There is so much that I could say in response to them but, in a sense, everything that I have been writing in my blog is a reflection upon those words of Elrond at the Council. It seems to me that there are different types of power at work in The Lord of the Rings. When Aragorn leads the Army of the Dead to Pelargir he is mainlining archetypal power in a way that Legolas and Gimli describe as pretty terrifying. It is only when Frodo claims the Ring at Orodruin that he tries to access that power in the same way. Otherwise it is in his, and Sam’s faithfulness that Sauron is overcome.
      I was struck by your reference to sadness when you were in the Navy. Could I ask what caused that sadness?

      • On my tours I was Command Duty Officer during several tragic episodes. First to hear of, first to respond to, and sometimes the person to inform family members of the loss of their loved ones. Life in the Navy was not always adventure and fun. USS Stark. USS Roberts. USS Detroit. USS Iowa. USS Iwo Jima. I was on duty for them all. They left their marks. Meeting crews at the pier when they returned and watching those who didn’t make it land at Dover AFB was… life changing.

    • Many thanks for asking to see what I said. My practice for some time now is to speak without notes or any kind of script. I find a connection with the congregation as I preach that I do not want to break by looking down at something that I have written. What I do is to create a script that I hold in my mind and (I trust) in my heart also. On bad days this can feel like a shapeless affair but I know that what I say last Sunday was different. I spoke of the remarkable archetypal power that the late Queen exercised but then referred to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (published in 1662) and the prayer offered for the Church, and for the Queen, as a part of the church. “That she, knowing whose minister she is, may above all things seek thy honour and glory”. I spoke of how the Queen took these words with total seriousness and so was not overcome by power, as Frodo is when he lays claim to the Ring at Orodruin. All of us are capable of exercising power in its shadow form, as school yard bullies. The Queen exemplified the practice of power to the glory of God and for the enlivening of her people.

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