“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.

“Maybe The Paths That You Shall Tread Are Already Laid Before Your Feet Though You Do Not Know Them.” The Fellowship Prepare to Leave Lothlórien.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.358-360

Galadriel and Celeborn gather the Fellowship together and Celeborn addresses them.

“Now is the time… when those who wish to continue the Quest must harden their hearts to leave this land”

Which way will the Fellowship take?

All the Company are resolved to go forward but which way shall they go? The journey will take them down the valley of the Silverlode to the Anduin, the great river of Middle-earth, but which bank of the river will they follow after that? The west bank of the river will take them to Minas Tirith and Gondor. The east bank will take them to Mordor. It is “the straight road of the Quest”, the “darker shore”, but which way will they choose?

For Boromir the choice is clear. He will return to Gondor and to the defence of Minas Tirith. Most of the rest of the Company would prefer to go with him. Such a choice would at least delay the terrible moment when the path of the Quest must take them eastward and to the land of shadow.

Aragorn says nothing. In Rivendell the promise that he made was to go to the war in Gondor to fight alongside Boromir bearing Andúril, the Sword that was Broken reforged, but when Gandalf fell in Moria he became the leader of the Company and which way would Gandalf had chosen were he still with them?

Which way will Aragorn go?

Frodo, too, says nothing. He will not make his choice until the breaking of the Fellowship at Amon Hen and the Falls of Rauros. There the choice will be forced upon him and it will be to go on alone to Mordor, but it is a terrible choice, it is almost certainly a choice to die, and until that moment he remains in silence for he does not wish to die.

Celeborn offers the gift of boats to the Company and they are grateful for this, Sam excepted. On the one hand it eases their journey. They do not have to walk down the Anduin with packs upon their backs. On the other it postpones the moment when the choice will have to be made.

It is Galadriel who offers her wisdom to them regarding the choice. “Do not trouble your hearts overmuch with thought of the road tonight. Maybe the paths that each of you will tread are already laid before your feet, though you do not know them.” And so it will prove. When the time comes the path will be clear for each one of them. Merry and Pippin will be forced to take the road to Isengard when they are captured by orcs. Aragorn will choose to follow the captives and Legolas and Gimli will choose to go with him. Frodo will seek some kind of sign to help him find the way ahead and in the end the sign will be that Boromir will try to take the Ring from him and this will lead him to resolve to go alone to Mordor. Thankfully he will not succeed in going alone because Sam made his choice at the Mirror of Galadriel. Wherever Frodo goes he will follow. He no longer has any uncertainty in his heart about the path that lies before him.

I am sure that Galadriel knows that her words of counsel will not keep the Fellowship from anxious thoughts. The choice that must be made is so great, so terrible, that it is impossible that it can be made without being turned over and over in their minds. At least this is true for Aragorn who must lead them and Frodo upon whom the burden of the Ring has been laid, partly by his own choice at the Council of Elrond, partly by the command of that Council. Perhaps we will always agonise over the great choices of our lives and yet when we look back we see a certain simplicity in the pathway that we have followed. The paths that we have trodden have seemed laid before our feet only we were not able to see those paths until the moment came and we had to follow them. The wisdom of Robert Frost’s wonderful poem, The Road Not Taken, only seems clear as Frost puts it, “somewhere ages and ages hence”. Perhaps when paths must be chosen there has to be agony. We are rarely given freedom from that, at least with the big choices.

Frodo and Sam will go alone but together.

On the Impossibility of Casting Away the One Ring. So Why Even Try?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 59-60


(An audio recording of my reading of this post)

The point has come in which a decision has to be made concerning the Ring. The time of hiding and waiting (not that Frodo had known that he was doing either of these things) has come to an end. Sauron knows that the Ring is in the Shire and that it is possessed by a hobbit called Baggins.

Frodo will take the Ring to Mordor but at the last he will fail to cast it into the fires in which it was made in Mount Doom. Only an inbreaking of the most extraordinary grace will finally destroy it.

And yet, surely, we already have evidence enough here, in the peace of Bag End in the spring time, to know that the task is far beyond Frodo’s capacity to achieve it. When Gandalf encourages Frodo to try to “do away” with the Ring he fails miserably.

“Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it. It now appeared plain and smooth, without mark or device that he could see. The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious. When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire. But he found now that he could not do so, not without a great struggle. He weighed the Ring in his hand, hesitating, and forcing himself to remember all that Gandalf had told him; and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away- but found that he had put it back in his pocket.”

And so right at the very beginning of the story Frodo fails even to cast the Ring into the small fire burning in the grate at Bag End, a fire as we have already seen would have no effect upon it at all so what chance is there that he might cast it into the Fire of Orodruin?

Gandalf makes it clear that Frodo has little talent for the task, anyway, that he lacks the necessary power or wisdom so why not give the Ring to one who possesses both power and wisdom too? Frodo offers Gandalf the Ring.

“No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.”

And with that reply Gandalf makes it clear that it is not just Frodo’s wisdom and power that are insufficient to deal with the Ring but his own too. If Frodo has too little of either then Gandalf has too much. This quest, the search for the Cracks of Doom and the destruction of the Ring, will not be achieved either by strength or even by wisdom.

Then how is the Ring to be destroyed?

Surely the clue lies in Gandalf’s words to Frodo. “You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power and wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.” It is in the words, “but you have been chosen” that we learn how the Ring is to be destroyed. Frodo will have to leap into faith and to travel, step by step, to the Cracks of Doom and there he will have to do what he can. At no time will there ever be some kind of blueprint for him to follow. No one will ever say something like, “When you get to Mount Doom this is what you have to do”. And that is because no one, not even Gandalf himself, knows what to do apart from the need to cast the Ring into the Fire and we have already seen that Frodo does not possess the capacity to do that and neither, as far as we can see here, does Gandalf. The Ring is too powerful for either of them. Some other power, the power that has done the choosing, will have to intervene.

One might wish that this power would give a little more guidance, either to Frodo or to Gandalf, but all that is given is the choosing. And that is enough.