On Pilgrimage in Northumberland With Frodo Baggins and Friends.

With the assistance of The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991)

“Looking in a mirror he was startled to see a much thinner reflection of himself than he remembered: it looked remarkably like the young nephew of Bilbo who used to go tramping with his uncle in the Shire; but the eyes looked out at him thoughtfully.”

That’s Me On The Trail!

I feel confident that you will recognise those words from the beautiful chapter entitled Many Meetings from The Fellowship of the Ring as Frodo prepares to leave the room in Rivendell in which he has lain close to death, or worse, for many days. I read them again with a rueful smile as I look back over eight days in which I have been walking the St Oswald’s Way with my wife, Laura, in Northumberland, England, a journey of 100 miles from St Oswald’s church at Heavenfield by Hadrian’s Wall to Holy Island in the north of the county. I say, rueful, because I have lost no weight at all in these last days. It is one thing to walk in the wild, pursued by Black Riders, making supplies last in the knowledge that they cannot replenished until journey’s end. My experience, by contrast, was as if I had stayed every night in The Prancing Pony in Bree with Barliman Butterbur refilling my plate or glass whenever I requested it, or as in one memorable place, as if I had stumbled across the house of Tom Bombadil, or as in this case, of the wonderful Anne Armitage, who might easily have bade us welcome with the words:

Hey! Come derry doll! Hop along, my hearties!
Hobbits! Ponies all! We are fond of parties.
Now let the fun begin! Let us sing together. 

Our way headed north from the ancient Roman wall, the northern most border of their empire, to Anne’s lovely house along a quiet country lane. This we had prearranged using the modern means of booking apps. We had tried to find accommodation each night that would be as close as possible to our route and Anne’s house was just a few hundred yards off the path. Our second night’s stay with her was unexpected. The small hotel that we had booked had closed. No wonder they did not return any of our attempts to communicate with them. We could find no alternatives locally and Anne rescued us, coming to pick us up and cooking us a lavish dinner that she served with delight.

St Oswald’s Church, Heavenfield at the start of the St Oswald’s Way
St Mary’s church on Holy Island at its ending

“‘I can carry enough for two,’ said Sam defiantly.”

Sam Gamgee Carries His Pack

We had decided that proper pilgrims ought to carry their own packs and not to use the services of one of those firms who will transfer your luggage between your pre-booked stopping places. I don’t know if this is necessarily the best idea and, doubtless, as I grow older I will either have to make use of services such as these or to take shorter walks. One thing is determined over necessity when you carry your own pack and that is that you can only take what you can carry yourself. I have no doubt that Sam Gamgee is capable of carrying enough for two, at least for a short time, but even what we thought had been careful packing proved to be indisciplined. Wash bags that contained too much will require more attention. After all, every hotel and bed and breakfast establishment will offer you shampoo and body wash. What is absolutely clear is that the reduction of weight is an absolute principle for long distance walking, whether it is the weight of your pack or your body. Next time I go a wandering I intend to carry less in both respects!

“Strider sat silent for a while, looking at the hobbits, as if he was weighing up their strength and courage.”

I wonder what he would see in me. I rather fear that he would find me lacking in both respects. But I hope that he would decide that I had taken Tom Bombadil’s advice to “keep up your merry hearts”. I do feel that complaint robs you of the energy that you need for other things. Things like enjoyment of the beautiful English countryside. How mean spirited it would have been to walked among such loveliness and to have complained of tired limbs instead of taking delight in it. And if I could lay the beer at The Sun Hotel in Warkworth “under an enchantment of surpassing excellence for seven years” then I would gladly do so although I rather think that they do not require my help in that regard!

Over moorland at the high point of the St Oswald’s Way

And now on this first day home again I will take a day’s rest, my first since the start of the trail, looking back with gratitude to the places of hospitality that I enjoyed and the beauty that I walked through each day. But not before I give you a link to Anne Armitage and her Hadrian’s Therapy Spa. And if you ever stay there please give her my warmest greetings. And many thanks, Anne, for the wonderful barbecue that you cooked us when we returned to pick up our car from you at the end of the walk.

https://www.hadriantherapyspa.co.uk/

The Imagining of Valinor. Film Makers and Artists Try to Depict The Undying Lands.

Valinor Imagined in the New Amazon Series

Like people all around the world I was captivated by the publicity image of Valinor that announced the new Amazon TV series of The Lord of the Rings. It is, of course, the quality of the light that entrances. I am not one of the fortunate reviewers who are permitted to watch the series and so I can only guess that what we can see on the horizon is Laurelin, the golden tree that brought the light of day to the Undying Lands. And what is portrayed in this image is a kind of eternal sunrise, the light always coming from the horizon. It was only after the trees were destroyed by Ungoliant that the light that we know came into existence, the light of the sun and moon.

And so what we have is a remarkable act of the imagination on Tolkien’s part and one that has been represented to us by one of the great artists of Tolkien’s world, John Howe, who is one of the chief conceptual designers on the films. We all know the feeling that we have at sunrise and sunset and that we perceive the world differently at those times than at any other part of the day. Now we are invited to perceive a world in which that light and possibly that feeling is always present at least in daylight.

John Howe’s visual imagination invites us into a world that is close enough to our experienced reality for us to recognise and yet is an intensification of that experience so that this new world that we perceive is a “more than” all that we know.

It is not just the light in this image that is captivating, it is the world that we perceive through the eternal sunrise towards which we look and possibly move. Note the contrast between the mountains that frame both sides of the picture and the city (is it Tirion of the Noldor?) and the parkland like foreground over the lone figure of an elf is moving. Wildness and cultivation seem to lie together easily. There is no strain in the image. It is not like the hall of a king of the northern world, a fragile oasis of light and warmth in the midst of a dark and dangerous wild like Hrothgar’s hall in Beowulf.

Alan Lee imagines Alqualondë, the Haven of Valinor

My own early visual experiences of the sublime were twofold in nature. Among those that I recall were the moment when I stepped inside the doors of Westminster Abbey for the first time and a journey southwards from Keswick down through The Lake District of England on a coach. In Westminster Abbey what I recall is a sudden broadening of my horizons contained within a building and a sense, equally sudden that I was a very small figure in this beautiful space. My memory of the journey through The Lake District is of the mountains rearing up above me with the same suddenness that I experienced in Westminster Abbey and that same perception of self as very small but not insignificant. The self that experienced both had entered two worlds that had both grown much greater than I had previously known but the feeling was not one of fear but of excitement. I wanted more of what both seemed to be inviting me to explore.

In my weekly blog posts in which I am reflecting upon The Lord of the Rings I am just about to begin the southward journey of the newly formed Fellowship of the Ring into the dangerous wilds of Middle-earth. It is a very different world from the imagining of Valinor with which I began this post. In the Middle-earth journey every aspect of the landscape strains against each other and perhaps the most powerful example of this is in the attempted crossing of the Redhorn Gate below Caradhras that we will come to soon. It is a terrible journey but am I alone in my feeling that it is more glorious than the everlasting serenity that we perceive in the picture, beautiful as it is, of Valinor at the head of this piece? Does my own desired experience of the sublime require wild moments too?

Alan Lee’s Awe Inspiring Depiction of Caradhras Seen From The Redhorn Gate

“The Sword-that-was-Broken Shall Be Reforged”. The Heir of Isildur Prepares For War.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 269-272

It was almost certainly Bilbo who composed the rhyme that begins with the words “All that is gold does not glitter”, words that Gandalf quoted in the ill fated letter that he left at The Prancing Pony to be taken to Frodo and which Barliman Butterbur forgot. And it is this poem that contains the line, “Renewed shall be blade that was broken: The crownless again shall be king”. Bilbo dismisses his own verse as “not very good” but what he is able to do is to make things memorable and so Gandalf uses it to introduce Aragorn to Frodo and his companions.

Bilbo is not a prophet but he is a great collector and reteller of stories and so he gathers together all the ancient stories of how the king would return. It is something that Bilbo longs for because he has befriended Aragorn. The verse that Gandalf uses contains more than a little of Bilbo’s desire but is accurate nonetheless. It is in Rivendell that the ancient memories of the King are kept alive and the belief that one day he would be restored to his throne; and central to that belief is that The Sword-that-was-Broken would be reforged before the restoration came.

The forging of Andúril, Flame of the West

The Sword-that-was-Broken is Narsil, the great sword of Elendil that was broken beneath his body when he was struck down by Sauron at the great battle that concluded the Second Age. And it was the broken blade that Isildur seized when he was attacked in his turn by the Dark Lord and with which he cut the Ring from Sauron’s finger.

Isildur resists the Dark Lord with the broken blade of his father.

Narsil remained a broken blade throughout the Third Age until it was “forged anew by Elvish smiths”. Tolkien tells of how a “device of seven stars was set between the crescent Moon and the rayed Sun, and about them was written many runes; for Aragorn son of Arathorn was going to war upon the marches of Mordor”. This is one of the occasions in which Tolkien abandons a modern narrative style of writing and adopts the style of an Old English storyteller.

“Very bright was that sword when it was made whole again; the light of the sun shone redly on it, and the light of the moon shone cold, and its edge was hard and keen. And Aragorn gave it a new name and called it Andúril, Flame of the West.” There is a particular reason why Tolkien adopts this style and it is because he is moving away from the telling of a history to the telling of myth. Tolkien deliberately moves between the historical and the mythological in The Lord of the Rings thus inviting his readers to view all history as mythology. Some, for example, have noted that the events of 1940 have become a new founding myth of England, the year in which England (and please note that I deliberately say England and not Great Britain!) “stood alone” against the might of Nazi Germany. One approach to such myth-making is to demythologise but I rather think that this misses the point. Surely the right question is to ask what story do the myth makers seek to tell and why has it become so important at this point in history?

Some readers of The Lord of the Rings might try to apply a modern form of historicism to the reforging of Narsil. How has Aragorn survived all these years in the wild carrying a useless blade? Why had the same Elvish smiths who reforged Narsil in Rivendell not done so at some other moment in the Third Age? To try to answer these questions we must try to get away from trying to read Tolkien as literal history that just happens to take place in a fantasy world. Tolkien is writing mythology just as Homer did or the tellers of the Volsunga saga. He just did it in the world of the modernist novel.

I do not know if Tolkien drew upon the scene at the end of the first act of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried when the hero takes his father’s broken sword to reforge it. He names the sword, Notung. It is the sword that he needs. The dwarf Mime, who has fostered Siegfried for his own selfish purposes has tried over and over again to reforge the blade but has always failed but now when the hero needs it the task is simple. Aragorn son of Arathorn is going to war upon the marches of Mordor and he needs the sword of his mighty ancestor. It is at this moment of necessity that the deed can be done.

Notung, Neidlisches Schwert from Wagner’s Siegfried.
Wagner, Richard Komponist 1813–1883. Werke: Siegfried (1871). “Siegfried schmiedet das Schwert Notung”. Gemälde von Ferdinand Leeke (1859–1923).

“A Foresight is On Me”. How Gandalf Chooses.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 267-269

I have learned over the years in which I have written this blog that I have readers who know their Tolkien very well, often much better than I do, and so I am sure that there will be readers who will instantly know that the quotation that heads this week’s post is not from The Lord of the Rings. It is in fact from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales. It comes from a chapter in which Frodo describes a conversation with Gandalf that takes place in Minas Tirith after the Ring has gone to the fire and Sauron has fallen. In that conversation Gandalf speaks of how he came to be convinced that Bilbo should be a part of the company that would make the journey to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, under the leadership of Thorin Oakenshield.

JEF Murray imagines Gandalf’s first encounter with Bilbo the child, seeing him high in the branches of a tree.

I write about it here because we are thinking about the choosing of Frodo’s companions in the Quest of the Ring. We have already seen that the company is chosen, as much for its symbolic quality as for its effectiveness. Nine walkers will oppose nine riders. Nine of the free peoples of the earth will oppose the slaves of the Dark Lord. And as we journey through the unfolding of the story we find that it is the hobbits who will play central roles in it. The journey of Frodo and Sam to Mordor and the Mountain and the journey of Merry and Pippin, carried as prisoners of the orcs, to the borders of Fangorn Forest and the meeting with Treebeard are these central actions and none of the rest of the company go with them on these journeys. They will have other parts to play.

Gandalf’s support for Pippin is described as “unexpected”. When Pippin announced his intention to go with Frodo because there needed to “be someone with intelligence in the party”, Gandalf’s response was that Pippin would certainly not be chosen on that basis. But Gandalf is greatly drawn towards Pippin. Indeed I rather think that Gandalf liked Pippin to be nearby and found his simple honesty and friendliness to be a comfort. Was it because he needed such comfort that Gandalf liked to go to the Shire? In his account of how he came to choose Bilbo to go with the Dwarves to Erebor he speaks of how he had been going to the Shire “for a short rest” after a twenty year absence. “I thought that if I put [my dark thoughts] out of my mind for a while I might perhaps find some way of dealing with these troubles”.

And Gandalf meets Merry and Pippin while at play at Bilbo’s party.

Gandalf’s “dark thoughts” were about the reappearing of Sauron in Dol Guldur, about the ever present danger to the north of Middle-earth that was posed by Smaug the dragon in his occupation of the Lonely Mountain, about the fragility of the free peoples and about the opposition of Saruman to any direct action against Sauron. Gandalf’s thoughts are like a hammer striking against a hard surface with the intention of making it give way before the force of its blows. He knows that his thinking will not bring about a solution by itself. It will only keep bringing him back to that which is insoluble and so he heads for the Shire and a rest from his anxiety. The Shire folk have taught him how to play. It is there that he makes fireworks and it is there that he enjoys wholesome food, good beer and pipeweed. And it is on his way there, just outside Bree, that he encounters Thorin Oakenshield who is also beset with his own dark thoughts.

Alan Lee’s beautiful imagining of the “chance” meeting of Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield

Is it because he is in search of rest that Gandalf is open to something entirely unexpected? Is it his proximity to the Shire and to hobbits that makes the participation of Bilbo a possibility for the expedition to Erebor? In Carl Jung’s idea of synchronicity it is the empty space between the spokes of a wheel that give the wheel its usefulness just as much as do the spokes themselves. So it is the empty space that the Shire is for Gandalf in his endless labours that gives him the idea of Bilbo. And when the idea comes it does so with such force that he describes it as a foresight. Not that he knows what is to come but he knows that he has to listen to his inner voice and that Thorin has to listen to it too when he declares it aloud. Perhaps it is in knowing the power of Gandalf’s inner voice that Elrond too gives way to him about Merry and Pippin despite his own misgivings.

Legolas Shall Be For the Elves. Why Does Elrond Choose the Son of Thranduil for The Honour of Being a Companion of the Ring-bearer?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 267-269

After all the scouts have returned from their brave journeys Elrond gathers the hobbits together with Gandalf and Aragorn. First he confirms that the brave offer that Frodo made at the Council still holds good and, having been assured that it does, goes on to choose companions to accompany him. He knows the power of symbol and in his choosing gives priority to this over any other consideration. “The Company of the Ring shall be Nine; and the Nine Walkers shall be set against the Nine Riders that are evil.”

The Company of the Ring Shall Be Nine

One might compare other fictional choosing of companies that are set against evil with Tolkien’s work and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven come to mind. The symbolism of number is present in all and the presence of deeply flawed members in each company is of the greatest significance in each story including Tolkien’s. Only one person is chosen explicitly for the Company of the Ring because of their valour, and that is Boromir, and he is chosen, not by Elrond, but by Aragorn. Elrond remains silent on this matter and so does Gandalf.

The choosing of the Company has another symbolism apart from that of number. Apart from the Ring-bearer and his faithful companion, Elrond chooses representatives of the “Free Peoples of the World; Elves, Dwarves and Men”. He does not choose hobbits even though he respects Frodo’s heroic choice and recognises that Sam cannot be separated from. He knows that a power greater than his has chosen the hobbit. As Gandalf puts it Frodo was meant to have the Ring. He knows too that Aragorn’s destiny is bound up with the Quest of the Ring and that he cannot stand in the way of that destiny. Gimli is the obvious choice for the Dwarves. He is the son of Glóin who is one of the great ones of his people.

But what of Legolas? Why is he chosen for the Elves?

Why is Legolas Chosen For The Elves?

When I first read The Lord of the Rings in my teens I simply accepted Elrond’s choice at its face value. As far as I was concerned, Elves were Elves and that was that. I cannot help but think that in Peter Jackson’s films Legolas is an elf in those terms. All Elves in these films have something of the super hero about them and Jackson never quite escapes from a hierarchy of the heroic. Legolas is such a figure in these films. But why does Tolkien choose the son of Thranduil from the Woodland Realm in Mirkwood to “be for the Elves”?

In The Silmarillion we learn that all the Elves awoke under starlight by the shores of Cuiviénen “in the east of Middle-earth and northward”. We learn too that the Valar summoned the Elves to Valinor, thinking that Middle-earth, the place of conflict with Melkor, the Dark Lord of whom Sauron was but a servant, was too dangerous for the Children of Ilúvatar to dwell there. And we learn that some who set out for Valinor “became lost upon the long road, or turned aside” and these were known to their fellows as The Moriquendi or “Elves of Darkness” because they never saw the light of Valinor that shone before the Moon and the Sun.

Gandalf mentions Glorfindel to Elrond as Elrond chooses the Company, but not to compare him to Legolas. “Even if you chose for us… Glorfindel, he could not storm the Dark Tower, nor open the road to the Fire by the power that is in him”. It is to Merry and Pippin that Gandalf compares him. Glorfindel is one of the great heroes of Tolkien’s legendarium but Elrond chooses Legolas and not him. In comparing Glorfindel to humble hobbits Gandalf is taking the principle that Elrond has already realised, that Frodo’s errand cannot be aided by power. Elrond chooses Legolas precisely because he comes from the least significant of all the Eldar not because he is a great hero but, as with all of the Company, he will grow into a hero because of the task to which he has been called.

Why is Glorfindel not chosen? Elena Kukananova’s depiction of the mighty hero.

“Books Ought to Have Good Endings”. Bilbo and Frodo Speak Together of Euchatastrophe and Dyscatastrophe.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 265-267

As a young person I used to read practically everything that I could lay my hands on. Books were not such common things back in the 60s and early 70s as they are now. There was not the market for children’s and young people’s literature and consequently I was forced to read books that were intended for older readers and many of them had sad endings. Some of them had terrible endings, the kind that shook my sense of safety in the world. I can still feel the memories of reading the ending to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles, and the moment when Lear staggers onto the stage bearing the body of Cordelia in the play that bears his name. I felt his Howl! Howl! Howl! in my own body then and that memory still lingers physically. Such experiences had a major impact on my passage from childhood to adulthood and created, I hope, a deepening sensitivity towards the suffering of others.

But now I find myself to be increasingly in agreement with Bilbo. “Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?” To such an ending I want to say a resounding, Yes! If I possibly can.

Stories ought to have good endings! Bilbo the story teller.

In my work as a parish priest I find myself in the company of people as they narrate their stories and the stories of the people that they love. The Church of England still has a role in this country in the way that people want to tell their life stories and so in the past week I have been with young couples preparing to marry and for two couples, I have shared the day on which they declare their love for one another to their families, friends and the communities in which they have grown up. And I have shared the gathering of a family from all parts of the country as they honoured a grand old French lady of 96 as she was laid to rest in an English country churchyard with the husband that she lost 50 years ago and I shared the grief of a woman at the funeral of her husband, knowing that as an almost palpable presence in the crematorium chapel she also carried the loss of her son who died earlier this year from Covid 19. Perhaps it was in part the shaping of my inner life through reading that has taught me to listen to these stories intently and, over the years, to develop a reverence for ordinary life. Perhaps too, it was those early visceral responses to the stories that I read that has shaped my listening to and participation in the lives of others. My whole being has soared into the heavens with joy in this past week and it has plunged into dark places in communion with the people with whom I have shared it.

For me there is a story that enables me both to bear this joy and sorrow and that is the universal story told in the liturgies of the funeral and marriage services of my church. My task as the story teller in the lives of the people who come to church on these days is to hold both their story and the universal story together in a way that gives the highest honour and reverence that I can possibly give to both and so when I invite a couple to love and cherish one another until they are parted by death or when I declare the great promise of the sure and certain hope of the resurrection through Christ I deliberately and purposely lay aside all my doubts and the simple reality that I am speaking of mysteries that far surpass anything that I will ever understand. It is not my business to intrude into their lives or into the great story of which the liturgy speaks.

But there needs to be somewhere that I can go to afterwards and here I find myself resonating with Sam Gamgee’s question to his fellow hobbits and to Gandalf, “And where will they live? That’s what I often wonder.” Sam is reflecting upon the simple fact that he does not know how the story is going to turn out. Will they succeed in their task or will the Dark Lord conquer? What he does not know is that he is prophesying regarding Frodo’s story. There will be nowhere for Frodo to live even though he will save the Shire for his own people.

Where will they live? Frodo arrives at a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Tolkien makes wise use of the word, good, in this passage. Good endings to stories and good days in Rivendell with meals, words and songs in which the hobbits take pleasure. As they do so “health and hope” grows strong within them again. The red star low in the southern sky is an ever present reminder of the threat that lies ahead of them all but how they need the “virtue of the land of Rivendell” to enable them to face all that lies ahead.

Tolkien’s own imagining of the Good Land of Rivendell

“There Must Be Someone of Intelligence in The Party”. On the Choosing of The Heroes Who Will Help Frodo to Take The Ring to The Fire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.264-267

Elrond honoured Frodo’s offer of himself to take the Ring to the Fire by speaking of the heroes of the past. “If you take it freely,” he says, “I will say that your choice is right; and though the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself, were assembled together, your seat should be among them.”

Alan Lee depicts Túrin Turambar, one of the children of Húrin

When The Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954 little was known of these names except for Beren because of the story that Strider told to the hobbits in the camp below Weathertop on the night on which the Nazgûl attacked and wounded Frodo. The Silmarillion was not published until after Tolkien’s death and in the years since our knowledge of them all has grown thanks to the work of Christopher Tolkien. But if all we knew of them was the list that Elrond gives us, that phrase, “mighty elf friends” would be sufficient to evoke our deepest respect and even a little awe.

The four “mighty elf-friends of old” that Elrond names are figures of the First Age of Arda. They were the mortal Children of Ilúvatar who, upon entering Beleriand, chose to side with the Elves against Morgoth. Deeply flawed though they were, it was their implacable denial of despair in the face of the seemingly inevitable victory of darkness that shines out again and again through the long defeat of that age. Typical of this spirit we read of Húrin at the terrible battle of Nirnaeth Arnoediad.

“Last of all Húrin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Húrin cried: “Aurë entuluva! Day shall come again!”

Jenny Dolfen imagines Húrin at Nirnaeth Arnoediad

It is of heroes like this to which Elrond likens Frodo, not because of his martial ferocity but because of his quiet courage in the face of an impossible task. When he and Sam and Bilbo meet with Merry and Pippin, Frodo describes his mission as “a hopeless journey”. There is no point at which he regards it as anything less than hopeless and yet he never thinks of turning back, of resting in Rivendell, “a long while, perhaps for good”.

Frodo is a hero to stand with the Elf-friends of old because of the choice that he makes but what of Sam, Merry and Pippin? At first glance we might think that Tolkien uses them as some kind of comic relief and Pippin’s words about “someone with intelligence in the party” and Gandalf’s response to what Pippin says seem to show that this is indeed their purpose in the story. But at all times Tolkien wants us to see that the bonds of fellowship that bind the hobbits together have a power that cannot be measured through force of arms or even their intelligence. Later when Elrond chooses the party that will accompany Frodo, Sam and the Ring, he is minded to choose someone like Glorfindel, a mighty elf-lord, but Gandalf disagrees.

“I think, Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom”

It is not that Gandalf has given way to sentimentality at this vital moment in the story but that he is true to his own charism, the grace that he has been given and which he has long nurtured. His teacher, the Lady Nienna, taught him to see with pity, not with blame and to warm the hearts of free peoples everywhere. He knows the power of a warmed heart especially when the world has grown cold and time and again, I suspect without really knowing why, his heart was drawn to the Shire and the simple hospitality of its people. His pleasure in good, simple food, good beer and a pipe to follow dinner meant that his own heart was warmed when he made these visits and if the only fruit of them was rest and the enjoyment of fireworks then this would have been sufficient for him but it was to these simple folk to whom the Ring was entrusted. Folk who live in the “merrier world” in which “food and cheer and song” are valued above hoarded gold.

The friendship of hobbits

“I Will Take The Ring, Though I Do Not Know The Way.”

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 260-264

How much we would like to view the hero as someone in an exalted state. The eyes should gaze intently to a distant point, towards the hero’s glorious destiny. The hero will stand alone and the admiring gaze of all will look up into those eyes for how could anyone look down at the hero. And the hero should be beautiful. How could it be otherwise? For the hero is the projection of our longings for ourselves, the exalted self that we long to be or, perhaps, to be with.

If this hero is beautiful it is not because he tried to be beautiful. If he is a hero it is not because he wants to be a hero.

Older and wiser heads may smile at such longing with a degree of indulgence, remembering that I used the words, high, lonely and destiny quite recently in this blog reflecting as we did so on the close kinship between Saruman the White and Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew. Am I suggesting that neither Saruman nor Uncle Andrew have never outgrown this rather adolescent longing? I rather think that I am. There is no blame attached to an adolescent being an adolescent but the world is blighted by adolescents who never grow up.

And when we compare these characters to the one who speaks the words of the title of this blog post so quietly and so reluctantly we know that we are talking about something quite different to the self admiration of these outgrown children. For Frodo shares little in common with Saruman. This is not to say that Frodo is completely free of the desire for exaltation. When he sat with Gandalf in his study at Bag End Frodo had felt “a great desire to follow Bilbo” flame up in his heart; a desire “so strong that it overcame his fear”. Perhaps at this point of the story the influence of Narya, the ring that Gandalf bears, is able to warm his heart, though even Gandalf is surprised. It is at that moment when he declares that “hobbits really are amazing creatures”. So there is a place and a time for exaltation but as the story reaches the place in which the decision has to be made concerning the Ring all exaltation, all warmth has gone. Frodo has met the implacable hatred of the Morgul Lord, has felt his blade pierce his flesh, the tiny splinter travel towards his heart. Now as he sits among the Council and listens to the debate about what should be done to the Ring he feels “a dead darkness in his heart”.

The debate continues. Boromir argues that the Ring should be used against Sauron, Elrond says that this is impossible; Glóin asks about the three Elven Rings and Elrond declares that they must remain hidden; Erestor of the Grey Havens speaks of the folly of trying to make the journey to Mordor and Gandalf answers that it is this folly that Sauron is incapable of grasping; and at the last it is Bilbo who asks what messenger should take the Ring to the fire.

No-one answers him. Either because they still feel that it is folly to take the road to Mordor or because they know that for them to carry the Ring is impossible all remain silent. And at the very last it is Frodo’s voice, this time struggling against an overwhelming desire to rest, that speaks “as if some other will was using his small voice”.

“I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”

After this everything is all quite simple. So it is once the great choices are made. All falls into place around them and the people who make them. Even Sam does not argue against the choice only that Frodo should not go alone. But the choice and the manner of its expression is the most moving moment of the whole story. It is the moral heart of the story. It is made, not at the conclusion of some process of selection with all the qualities of each candidate having undergone careful assessment but simply because one person has been called, has been chosen. And the choosing is like “the pronouncement of some doom”.

Are life’s truly great choices always like this? Do they always feel unavoidable, even inevitable, and yet they still have to be made? And do they always feel like pronouncements of doom? A last judgment against which no argument can be found? Such choices are practically inexpressible. Elrond rightly places Frodo amongst his mighty ancestors even as the heroes gathered in Rivendell had to remain silent as a hobbit stood to speak but even his words feel small against the magnitude of the choice.

“What of The Three Rings of The Elves?” Can They Be Used Against Sauron?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 260-263

When Celebrimbor and Sauron (in his guise of Annatar) studied and then created the Rings of Power during the Second Age of Arda there were three rings made by Celebrimbor alone over which Sauron had no influence. Seven rings were made for the dwarves and nine for humankind. The dwarves proved to be of stubborn stuff and so even when Sauron was wielding the One Ring “to rule them all” these rings and their bearers did not fall under his sway. So began the long unhappy history of Sauron’s search for the rings of the dwarves which ended in Dol Guldur when Sauron took the last of them from Thráin.

The Three Rings of the Elves

The rings given to human lords brought them swiftly under the domination of the Dark Lord. The dwarves were always true to their essential nature, loving the things that they made, implacable both in friendship and enmity, but humankind was always constrained by their mortality in a very particular way. The very brevity of a human life meant that a choice had to be made. It still does. Some would look beyond the confines of their mortality and so live in hope accepting their fate while entrusting themselves to that which lay beyond them. So Aragorn said to Arwen at the end of his life, “We are not bound for ever to the circles of this world, and beyond them there is more than memory”. Or, as in the heroic world of the Rohirrim, they would laugh in the face of despair even as they confronted their own deaths, as did Éomer when it seemed certain to him that he would die in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Or, as with the Dunlendings, there was a dull, grim and embittered spirit, a nation of “Gollums”, ever resentful of perceived slights at the hands of others. Or, as with the people of Bree, the spirit and wisdom of Ecclesiastes, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your life which you have been given under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun”. The hobbits were perhaps closest in spirit to them.

But for the Númenorians and their descendants, the ones who had come closest to Valinor and the immortality of the Elves, there was for many a growing sense that mortality was a curse that had been imposed upon them and one that they should strive to overcome. It was nine lords from among such as these who seized the opportunity given to them in Sauron’s gift of rings and who learned that immortality as a mere extension of existence is an intolerable burden, a curse rather than a blessing.

The Nazgûl. Wraiths and Wrath

The Rings of the Elves were not made by Sauron but by Celebrimbor alone although these rings could not have been made without the craft that they had learned together. Perhaps Celebrimbor had some secret suspicion of Sauron or, more likely, the desire like Fëanor before him to make something that was his and his alone, but they were not made for “strength or domination or hoarded wealth, but understanding, making and healing, to preserve all things unstained”. As with the Elves themselves, but as an intensification of who the Elves were, they were bound to the earth itself in joy and in sorrow. In the healing of the hurts of the earth and in the preserving of its beauty they brought great joy. If only we could find the earthly paradises of Rivendell or Lothlórien in our world today or even the Shire as Sam Gamgee was to remake it using Galadriel’s gift; or perhaps such places would best be kept hidden from us as we would probably spoil them by turning them into tourist destinations. Could you imagine some kind of “Lothlórien-world”?

Tim Catherall’s Imagining of Lothlórien

There is a sense in which the three rings of the Elves were used against Sauron. Elrond’s healing power, Galadriel’s adamantine resistance and, above all, Gandalf’s unresting work in warming hearts in a world ever growing cold, all of these fruits of the Elven Rings meant that Sauron had been kept at bay for long years but now as Sauron bent all of his might and malice in the task of the conquest of Middle-earth the rings of the Elves could no longer resist him nor could the combined strength of its free peoples. At the last there could only be one choice that could be made and that was as Elrond counselled the destruction of the Ring.

Take the Ring and Go Forth to Victory! Boromir Offers the Wise His Counsel.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 260-263

All who have participated in the great debate, finding “counsel for the peril of the world”, have spoken either of hiding the Ring or of destroying it, but there is one last option to be debated and it is Boromir who offers that option.

“Why do you speak ever of hiding and destroying? Why should we not think that the Great Ring has come into our hands to serve us in our hour of need? Wielding it the Free Lords of the Free may surely defeat the Enemy. That is what he most fears, I deem.”

Boromir longs to be the hero of the story.

And Boromir is right. Sauron does fear that one of his deadliest foes will take the Ring and then u7se it against him and he knows that among his enemies there are those capable of doing so. He knows that he only has a certain amount of time available to him to defeat them before what he regards as the inevitable happens. He knows that only one person can wield the Ring at any point. Gandalf was right when he said this to Saruman. But he knows also that before that moment comes there will be a struggle to be that one person. If he can strike with sufficient force while the struggle is taking place he can both defeat his enemies and regain the Ring.

But this is not how the Wise reply to Boromir. Elrond simply rejects Boromir’s proposal out of hand.

“We cannot use the Ruling Ring… It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil.”

Sauron learns the art of ring-making from Celebrimbor

What Elrond rejects is the notion that one side in the struggle is good and right and the other side is bad and wrong. The good guys versus the bad guys. As Gandalf will say to Denethor later on, “I pity even his (that is Sauron’s) slaves”. In a straight forward us and them conflict there is only one question and that is the question of power. As Boromir puts it, “Valour needs first strength, and then a weapon.” As far as Boromir is concerned the Ring is a perfectly legitimate weapon. It gives “us” the means to defeat “them”. Boromir does not make this argument but there have been those who have argued that it is morally irresponsible not to seek to be as powerful as possible. To reject power is effectively to give in to those who will then use power against us. This was used as an argument against nuclear disarmament during the Cold War. To disarm, it was said, was irresponsible both morally and practically. Although Boromir does not make this argument himself there is little doubt that if it had been made at the Council Boromir would have agreed with it.

Some critics have argued that Tolkien meant the Ring to be an allegorical representation of nuclear weapons and that The Lord of the Rings was more or less a lengthy tract against the making and the use of such weapons. C.S Lewis in a critical essay of his own pointed out that Tolkien had been creating his mythology and pondering the question of the nature of evil long before he finally wrote his story and long before the atomic bomb was first conceived and used. To Tolkien the bomb was simply one more example, albeit a significant one, of the way in which power is gained and used by human beings. It is Gandalf who speaks more nearly of the nature of evil when he speaks of Sauron thus.

“He is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts.”

It is the desire for power, power over others, that lies at the heart of the nature of evil. The Ring is the quintessential expression of this desire. How might a person achieve complete power over others? Surely it is by the possession of something that might grant that power. The Ring is both the desire for that power and it is the power itself. Thus it is utterly corrupting. To use it would be disastrous. To hide it would allow that corruption to persist. There is only one course of action open and that is to destroy it.