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

“Seek for the Sword That Was Broken: In Imladris It Dwells.” Boromir Speaks of His Mission to Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.239-240

Boromir is in Rivendell because he has been called there by a dream. This is no dream that begins and ends in doubt but one that is crystal clear in its content and it has been repeated over and over again. We are left in no doubt that Boromir is supposed to be here except it was not supposed to be Boromir but his brother, Faramir.

“A dream came to my brother in a troubled sleep; and afterwards a like dream came oft to him again, and once to me.”

Boromir by Donato Giancola. I like the way he captures Boromir’s insecurity of character.

That Boromir is at the Council and not his brother is because of Boromir’s masterful nature. Everything about the dream has something of the heroic quest about it. The hero must go upon a perilous journey “over many dangerous leagues” and must bring back a gift to his people. In this case it is the gift of counsel. What does the dream mean?

Seek for the Sword that was broken:
   In Imladris it dwells;
There shall be counsels taken 
   Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token 
    That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur's Bane shall waken, 
    And the Halfling forth shall stand. 


The first thing that we notice is that the dream is intended to hit the dreamer right between the eyes. Compare it with the dreams that Frodo has at Crickhollow or in the House of Tom Bombadil. We know where these dreams will eventually take Frodo but Frodo himself has absolutely no idea. He just has to keep on walking toward his destiny one step at a time. Even as we ponder Boromir and Faramir’s dream we know that Frodo sits silently among the company even as that destiny unfolds. We know how the Council will end but Frodo sits in a cloud of unknowing.

Boromir’s dream is completely different. Every line in the verse has an explicit interpretation and yet, as far as we can tell from Boromir’s telling of the story, no-one in Gondor seems to be able to say what the verse means. The only guidance that Denethor offers is that Imladris is the home of Elrond Half-elven and that it lies in the north. Is this why the guidance that the dream offers is so explicit? Compared to Frodo’s dreams this is guidance for children and yet it has such an air of mystery about it.

Within minutes of Boromir’s telling of his story much of its meaning will have been revealed. Aragorn will show Boromir the shards of Narsil, the Sword that was broken. Elrond will command Frodo, the Halfling, to bring forth Isildur’s Bane, the One Ring, to display it to the Council. All this is clear. But there is subtlety contained within the verse as well. Boromir is told that in Imladris, in Rivendell, counsels will be taken “stronger than Morgul spells”. These words ought to make it clear to Boromir that what is decided at the Council is more powerful than the danger posed by the enemies of Gondor and yet all that he says about Elrond’s wisdom is a somewhat dismissive comment about the relative importance of Rivendell’s wisdom as against its military strength. We are left in little doubt which of the two Boromir considers more important. It reminds us of Stalin’s famous dismissal of the importance of the Vatican and the Papacy when he asked about how many divisions the Pope had.

A broken sword? A Halfling? Counsels that are taken? All these somewhat beyond our brave warrior. There is only one thing that really catches his attention and that is the Ring, Isildur’s Bane. We know this tragic tale will play out. And so why was this divine guidance given at all? Would it not have been better if Boromir had never come to Imladris? Has the divine guide not simply made a big mistake here? Or would it not have been better if the voice who spoke these words had ended by saying, “And I want Faramir to go to Rivendell?” But it is necessary that all the free peoples of Middle-earth should be represented in Rivendell on that day, that all should be drawn into the Quest of the Ring and the decision that is to be made. Gondor must be at the Council because Gondor will be at the heart of the events that are going to unfold.

Catherine Chmiel imagines Faramir and Boromir’s Farewell

“Give Me Leave, Master Elrond… to Say More of Gondor.” Boromir Speaks of His Homeland and Himself.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 239-40

Let me begin by speaking well of this young man. It is necessary that I should do so because it will not take long for Bilbo of the Shire to lose patience with him. Boromir has listened in polite silence to Elrond for a considerable amount of time and during that time he has interrupted only once. He has even listened in silence while Elrond has rehearsed the history of Gondor speaking of its slow but inexorable decline. So let us praise this proud young man for remaining silent whilst his elders speak. But now he can remain silent no longer.

Boromir Listens Patiently at the Council

“Give me leave, Master Elrond…first to say more of Gondor.”

And so he speaks, but when he does so everything that he says is well known to the company that are gathered there and much of it displays his ignorance of the world outside the borders of his land. For Boromir knows nothing of the mighty deeds done by others that have also kept the enemy at bay. He does not know of Gandalf’s ceaseless toil and the great battle of the Five Armies on the slopes of Erebor without which it would be a mighty dragon and vast orc armies that would have controlled the vales of Anduin behind the borders of Gondor and at which Gloín fought and Bilbo was present. Nor does he know anything of the mighty deeds of Aragorn who has trod the Morgul Vale alone, a place where no man of Gondor has been in ages long since their last king rode to hopeless battle with the Morgul Lord. Nor does Boromir know that all present know of whom he speaks when he tells them of the power present at the taking of the bridges of Osgiliath who caused fear to fall on the boldest of Gondor and he does not know that Aragorn and Glorfindel have just faced this same foe at the Fords of Bruinen. Indeed Aragorn has done so twice, the other occasion being the fight in the dell below Weathertop. And indeed we might add that there was a hobbit there on both occasions who did not flee but sought to withstand “the great black horseman”, namely Frodo.

Aragorn and Glorfindel at the Fords of Bruinen

But we forgive him because we know that space must be given to the pride of young men to express itself and that such pride must be guided and not crushed. We know that life itself will teach wisdom to young men through failure and humiliation and that it does not require those of us who are elders to bring about such failure through our cruelty or even our malice. Boromir will fail in the most terrible manner and will live only just long enough to to achieve redemption and to learn wisdom and humility from his fall. Those few moments that he is granted after his fall in which to find redemption are some of the most poignant in Tolkien’s story. Not everyone who falls will find such peace as he does. Sauron, Saruman and the Morgul Lord will all fall into nothingness. That is truly tragic.

An ancient prayer begs for that we might be delivered from sudden death because such an event will rob us of the opportunity for repentance, for the changing of our minds. As we shall see Boromir was granted that grace and yet, as far as we know Isildur was not, and yet Isildur was a far greater hero than Boromir ever was. Boromir does not say to us that he could not face the Morgul Lord but it seems to be implied. Isildur faced the Dark Lord himself and armed only with a broken blade prevailed against him and yet Isildur’s fall, which would have taken him on the same and terrible spiritual journey that led Sauron to become the Dark Lord could only be prevented by sudden death in battle. It was the possibility of this journey that both Gandalf and Galadriel had to face when Frodo offered them the Ring. At this point in his career Boromir has no idea that such a fall is even possible, believing as he does in his own nobility and the nobility of his people and his country where the “blood of Númenor” is not spent, “nor all its pride and dignity forgotten”.

The gathering of nobility, wisdom and greatness in the house of Elrond that day listens patiently to this young man speaking of his pride. They know because everyone of them have made the same journey that life will teach Boromir wisdom through failure. Now it is guidance that he requires.

The Fall and the Redemption of Boromir

“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.

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 emphasises the relationship between human strength and weakness

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.

An imagining of Isildur Rescuing the Fruit of Nimloth by Samo-Art

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.

Alan Lee Imagines Isildur’s Struggle With Sauron

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.”

Elrond Tells of How An Eagerness for Knowledge Allowed Sauron to Ensnare the Elven-smiths of Eregion.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.236-239

It was the Elven-smiths of Eregion who gave Sauron the knowledge that he required to forge the One Ring. It was not that Celebrimbor was an ally to Sauron in his desire for the mastery of Middle-earth but that and his co-workers failed to perceive the true motives of the one they knew as Annatar. At this stage of his career Sauron was able to appear in a fair guise. That is one reason why Celebrimbor was deceived. But much more importantly he was deceived because of what he shared in common with the one who would become his deadly foe. He like Sauron had an eagerness for knowledge and this is what lead to his ultimate ensnaring.

An imagining of the friendship between Celebrimbor and Sauron/Annatar

Or so Tolkien the narrator relates that Elrond affirms in his speech to the Council in Rivendell. And I think that we must assume that Tolkien agrees with what Elrond says here for in saying this Elrond confirms the way in which the story of Sauron is told throughout the legendarium, the complete works of Tolkien regarding his mythical world. Sauron is always presented as a character who desires order and control above everything and what is always necessary if anyone is to achieve order is to possess knowledge. Without the possession of knowledge order is an impossibility.

The artist, Kapriss, imagines the shared desire for knowledge that leads to the forging of the Rings of Power

It was th desire for order that led Sauron first to admire Melkor who was to become Morgoth and then to follow him. After the Fall of Thangorodrim and the judgement of Morgoth by the Valar Sauron was at first willing to submit to the overwhelming logic of a greater power. At least he was willing in theory. The Valar demanded that he present himself in person in Valinor in order to receive their judgement but he never came. Was this because this presentation of himself was to be a voluntary act on his part and not one that would be brought about by force? And was his ever hardening rebellion caused (in his own mind at least) by the realisation that the Valar would never enforce their will upon Middle-earth? I think that we have to affirm that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes.

For Sauron the patience of the heavenly beings, the Valar to whom the One entrusted the rule of Arda (the earth) at the beginning of time was a sign of the frailty of divine lordship. For most of the second and the third ages of Arda it seemed as if the Valar had little interest in Middle-earth, leaving it more or less to its own devices. The only realities that Sauron perceived were the power of Númenor and of the great Elven kingdoms of Middle-earth. Of course he fully came to understand that there was a limit to his power when he encouraged Númenor to invade the Deathless Lands and so brought down upon himself the wrath of Illuvatar but nothing changed his mind about the apparent indifference of the Powers to Middle-earth. After all what d he did perceive in order to change his mind apart from the Eagles of Manwë, Lord of the Valar, and the arrival of the Istari, the wizards, most of whom proved either to be ineffective or open to corruption?

The Arrival of the Istari

But what of Celebrimbor and the Elven-smiths of Eregion? In what way can we say that they too shared at least something of Sauron’s perception of reality? In what way did this perception enable Sauron to ensnare them? Firstly we have to say that Sauron fully owned his perception whereas Celebrimbor did not do so. Thus one was the ensnarer while the other was ensnared; and second is that the Noldorin smiths ruled by the grandson of Fëanor also desired knowledge in order to achieve control and in their case this meant a control that would enable the preservation of beauty. Sauron may have desired mastery and order for their own sake and he may have had no interest in the preservation of beauty but in his belief that the knowledge that Sauron was offering him could enable him to preserve the beauty of an ordered world Celebrimbor proved himself a fellow traveller to Sauron’s world view.

Many Defeats and Many Fruitless Victories. Elrond Tells His Story to The Council.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 236-239

How do we judge the value of an historical event or of a lifetime? Those of us who can remember them will recall the events of 1989 in Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a thesis by the American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, in 1992 which he entitled, The End of History and The Last Man, in which he argued that the free-market capitalism of the western powers and their associated liberal democracies might signify the end point of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and become the final form of human government. For the western nations 1989 acts as a high point of optimism in their history and a year in which everything seemed to be possible. Fukuyama caught the spirit of that year with his thesis but now, a little over thirty years later, it seems to be very much of its time. Fukuyama now argues that alongside the political events of 1989 the emerging dominant cultural theory was postmodernism with its profound pessimism regarding the human project and that this undermined all that took place in that year.

Imagine Elrond giving a lecture on the geo-political history of his long life to the Council gathered together in Rivendell on that October morning in the year 3018 of the Third Age of Middle-earth. One thing that a political theorist would observe almost immediately would be its complete lack of anything that they would expect, that is a theory. Elrond has no theory but only a story. A story of thousands of years in which he has been intimately involved since the last part of the First Age. It is given to Frodo to speak on our behalf here.

“I thought that the fall of Gil-galad was a long age ago.”

The Fall of Thangorodrim by Steve Black

As a pupil of Bilbo Baggins Frodo probably already knows this but someone has to speak for the rest of us who come to the story for the first time in complete ignorance and so we are grateful to him for his willingness to do so.

If Elrond has no political theory neither does he have any doubt as to where righteousness lies. He has no doubt that Sauron and Sauron’s master, Morgoth, before him are utterly evil. He has little, if anything, to say about the peoples of Middle-earth with whom the descendants of the Eldar and of Númenor have had to do. The Easterlings, the Haradrim, the Dunlendings, the wild men of the Druadan Forest play little part in his story except as foes, largely of Gondor. This is not to say that such questions are never addressed in The Lord of the Rings. Faramir in particular speaks of his wish that the wisdom of Númenor and its descendants should be offered to the peoples of Middle-earth not as a means to dominate through cultural superiority but “beautiful as a queen among other queens… not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.” That such wisdom is praiseworthy is not something that is questioned. There is no suspicion of narratives here.

Elrond does not share the optimism of Faramir regarding the renewal of Númenor nor, as we shall see, Boromir’s pride as a son of that people. He sees the history of Middle-earth through the eyes of the Firstborn and so he speaks of fruitless victories. “Never again shall there be any such league of Elves and Men; for Men multiply and the Firstborn decrease, and the two kindreds are estranged.” Although he remembers the overthrow of Thangorodrim and the fall of Morgoth and although he remembers the overthrow of Sauron upon the slopes of Orodruin when Isildur cut the Ring from Sauron’s finger, he sees each of these events through the eyes of the decline of his people and the diminishment of the beauty that they have given to the earth.

The Last Alliance of Elves and Men by Jenny Dolfen

And yet Elrond does not give way to his pessimism. He knows truth and goodness and the beauty that harmonises them both. He knows the sacrifice of his father, Eärendil, and of his grandsires, Beren and Lúthien and he will betray neither of these sacrifices nor those who offered them. He may not know what lies ahead for good or ill but he knows what he must do. He must do all that he can to end the threat of Sauron for ever.

Isildur resists Sauron at Orodruin by Alan Lee

There is Naught That You Can Do, Other Than to Resist, With Hope or Without It. A Reflection on Hope and Courage in The Lord of the Rings.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 234-236

Last week we thought about the story that Gloín of the Lonely Mountain brought to the Council of Elrond, of how the Messenger from Mordor had offered the friendship of Sauron and Rings of Power in return for news of hobbits. Gloín has come to Rivendell in order to warn Bilbo that the Dark Lord seeks for him and to seek counsel. How should they answer the Messenger when he returns before the ending of the year?

Elrond’s reply is courteous but blunt.

“You will hear today all that you need in order to understand the purposes of the Enemy. There is naught that you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it.”

The theme chosen for this year’s Tolkien Reading Day which takes place every year upon the 25th March the date upon which the Ring went to the Fire and Sauron fell into nothingness is Hope and Courage. Those who have read The Lord of the Rings with care will know that Hope is a major theme throughout the story but that it is never addressed with anything like naive simplicity. In fact there is little naivety in Tolkien’s great tale. Those who do resist the Enemy do so with a clear eyed certainty that there is little chance that they will succeed.

When Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli decide to follow the orcs who have taken Merry and Pippin captive, Aragorn speaks for all three of them when he says: “With hope or without hope we will follow the trail of our enemies.”

Alan Lee imagines the pursuit across the plains of Rohan

Denethor of Gondor dismisses the mission of Frodo and Sam with contempt and fury. To him Frodo is nothing more than “a witless halfling” and the mission nothing more than “a fool’s hope”.

A Fool’s Hope!

And here at the Council of Elrond Gloín is offered no more counsel than to resist, “with hope or without it”. In other words we can find no evidence that any of the major characters in the story have hope in the sense of “hoping for the best”, that general optimism that keeps us going even when we are at our lowest ebb. It is not that this kind of hopefulness has no value. It does give to those who manage to maintain it a cheerfulness and courage that might otherwise be lost. In The Lord of the Rings the characters who manage to maintain this kind of cheerfulness the best are Sam Gamgee and then Merry and Pippin and far from this quality being held with contempt by their companions it is generally appreciated. It keeps their friends from falling into despair. So it is that Théoden keeps Merry close by him on the journey between Isengard and Dunharrow and even Denethor is pleased to have Pippin close by as he awaits what he is convinced will be his end. And without Sam’s cheerfulness and optimism there is little doubt that Frodo would have got very far. And he acknowledges this himself. When Sam imagines Frodo’s story written in a book Frodo response is to laugh without restraint and then to say: “I want to hear more about Sam… Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he?”

Frodo Wouldn’t Have Got Very Far Without Sam

But in the end each character in the story has to give up hope in this optimistic sense, even Sam, but none of them give way to despair. Not one of them, even Boromir after his fall, gives death and darkness their hopeless triumph. Without hope they keep on going, their courage coming simply from a determination to maintain their loyalty to one another and to do the good. In this sense their hope lies, not in a sense that a particular set of events will win out over darkness but in a belief that the good, the beautiful and the true are worthy of the sacrifice of our lives even if in that sacrifice we do no more than to declare their worthiness in their destruction. And this belief is the greatest kind of hope of all.

It is But a Trifle That Sauron Fancies. Gloín tells of the mission of the messenger of Mordor.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 234-36

One by one the company who are the Council of Elrond tell of how it is that they have come to Rivendell and as each listens to the other they begin to learn the truth of what Elrond says of how it is that they are sitting there on that October morning.

“You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.”

The Council of Elrond

And so it is that Gloín is the first to give an account of why he is in Rivendell that day. A messenger of Sauron had come to the Kingdom under the Mountain seeking news of hobbits. For “one of these was known to you on a time”. That hobbit, of course, is Bilbo and the messenger seeks him because of the Ring. Although it is not stated explicitly it is clear as we read Gloín’s account that the messenger is a Ringwraith, one of the nine, the Nazgûl. His breath came “like the hiss of snakes” and all who stand near by shudder. Sauron wishes for his embassy to have a maximum impact and requires a herald who will be a cause of fear in all who hear him.

The Messenger of Sauron

But if Sauron’s intention is to create fear what he achieves is to inspire resistance. The messenger’s mention of hobbits serves only to remind Dáin Ironfoot, the King under the Mountain, of his bond of obligation to Bilbo without whom he would never have gained his crown. And it serves also to remind him and the other chieftains of the dwarves of the alliance that fought the Battle of the Five Armies and the shelter and counsel that Thorin Oakenshield’s party received at Rivendell during their journey. For we should not assume that just because Gloín and his companions are present at the Council that this represents a normal state of affairs in which ambassadors go to and fro between the hidden valley and the lonely mountain. If there is an ambassador whose labour in making alliances between the free peoples of Middle-earth is bearing fruit on this day in Rivendell then it is Gandalf, the Grey Pilgrim, the one who encouraged Thorin to make his journey to Erebor and who, for some strange reason, had him take a hobbit with him. And it was Gandalf who brought together the men of Dale and Esgaroth, the elves of the Woodland Realm and the dwarves to defeat the orcs of the Misty Mountains. Gandalf has followed hunches, grasped at straws, and held onto fool’s hopes many times and for many years before this moment, many times before the decision is made that will be the outcome of this Council.

The Battle of the Five Armies

Sauron too has been a builder of alliances over many long years. He is gathering them together for the great war even as the Council deliberates. He knows that many of the peoples of Middle-earth are not natural allies for all Gandalf’s efforts. There has been little love between elf and dwarf through the ages, much suspicion and sometimes outright hostility and even war. The dwarves have fought many battles against orcs through the centuries but apart from the Battle of the Five Armies they have fought them alone and they have usually felt alone in the world. Sauron’s alliance building is usually a mixture of threat and gift and so it is with the dwarves. The threat is war and the gift is of two of the rings of power once held by dwarf lords, rings that greatly increased their wealth. What choice will the dwarves make in the war that is to come?

It was no accident that Elrond placed Frodo and Gloín together at the table top of highest honour at the feast the night before. Gloín, the companion of Thorin Oakenshield had to become acquainted with the heir of Bilbo, the Ringbearer. He had to be reminded bodily of the bond between dwarves and hobbits, with the family of Bilbo.

“You have done well to come,” Elrond says to Gloín after Gloín speaks of his fears. “You will hear today all that you need in order to understand the purposes of the Enemy. There is naught that you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it. But you do not stand alone. You will learn that your trouble is but part of the trouble of all the western world.”

“You do not stand alone”. Krystyn Janelle’s imagining of the Lonely Mountain.

Here is The Hobbit, Frodo Son of Drogo. The Council of Elrond Begins.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 233,234

Surely every action that Elrond takes and every word that he speaks tells that he knows that there can be but one outcome to the council that he has called to take place on the day after the feast and Frodo’s recovery from his wound. The feast itself, held in Frodo’s honour, at which he is seated at the table of highest honour; the seat at Elrond’s very side at the Council and the words with which Elrond announces him to the gathering all point to the central role that Frodo is going to have to play in the story.

“Here, my friends, is the hobbit, Frodo son of Drogo. Few have ever come hither through greater peril or an errand more urgent.”

Alan Lee’s Depiction of The Council of Elrond

Elrond must not impose his will upon the Council. The deliberations must be, as that word implies, deliberate. Every part of the story that has led each member to be there that morning must be told and must be heard. And every teller of the story and every one who hears and who deliberates must be granted honour. Elrond is the one who will chair the debate because he is Lord of Rivendell, of Imladris, because he has played so central a part in the long history that on this day will reach its climax and because of his lineage; but he knows that unless every single person gathered there is prepared to give their assent to the decision that will conclude the discussion all will be in vain.

For gathered together on this day are representatives of all the free peoples of Middle-earth. elves of every kind, dwarves, the descendants of Númenor, and most surprisingly of all, hobbits. Some of them are well aware of their dignity and their right to be parties to the decisions that will be made. Glorfindel, mighty hero of the conflicts of every age, one who lives at once, and has great power, in the worlds of both the Seen and the Unseen; and Boromir, Son and Heir to the Steward of Gondor, ruler of the greatest of all the kingdoms of humankind, these know their dignity. So too do Galdor of the Grey Havens and Erestor of Rivendell, high in the counsels of their lords. Others who have gathered there represent peoples whose essential dignity is perhaps more contested. Gloín from the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, and his son, Gimli, are of an ancient people who have played their part in the history of Middle-earth but who have always kept themselves apart, making alliances from necessity rather than desire. And Legolas, son of Thranduil of the woodland realm in Mirkwood, is described here as strange, surely here drawing upon the older meaning of that word as one who is a stranger whether by accident or by choice. Like the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain Thranduil and his people have kept apart from the great alliances except, as in the Battle of the Five Armies, by necessity.

The Battle Under the Mountain by Matt Stewart

And last, and most certainly until that day, least among the free peoples of Middle-earth, are the hobbits. The dwarves and the elves of the woodland realm, both peoples at the fringe of the great story, know Bilbo because of his part in the events that led to the fall of Smaug and the great victory at the Battle of the Five Armies, but to the descendants of Númenor and to the High Elves, hobbits have not been of any importance. Even Aragorn and Glorfindel might be forgiven for regarding them as being completely out of their depth in events too great for them to comprehend or to be a part of. After all, their main knowledge of hobbits has come from the need to rescue them from danger. Only Gandalf has really made it his business to get to know hobbits and this interest has largely been regarded as an eccentric curiosity on his part.

Is it through Gandalf that Elrond has changed his mind about hobbits? Surely it is that, that and his acquaintance with Bilbo and his wise perception of the events that have led to this moment, and so it is that with emphasis, addressing each one present, he introduces Frodo as the hobbit, as one who has come to Rivendell heroically, through great peril and on the most urgent of errands. Thus he addresses Gloín, Legolas and Boromir, all travellers from afar who have come upon errands themselves. Frodo is at the centre of the Council and Frodo will be its outcome.

The Centre of the Council