“You Are Come and Are Met, In This Very Nick of Time, By Chance As It May Seem.” Wisdom From ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’.

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

As readers of this blog will know I have come to the end of a long and careful reading of The Fellowship of the Ring and before I continue with The Two Towers I would like to do what the title of my blog speaks of. I would like to spend a few weeks thinking about the wisdom that we can find in Tolkien’s great tale. Perhaps it might help us as we ponder our own journeys.

I am not sure why I ended the quotation that is the title for this week’s reflection where I did. I am sure that my readers will recognise that the words quoted thre are those that are spoken by Elrond at the Council in Rivendell. They speak of how Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, Men and a wizard have all arrived in the Halls of Elrond at this moment, one described as but a ‘nick’ in the long tally of time, but it is the right moment, even the last possible moment.

Alan Lee’s depiction of the Council of Elrond

Elrond ponders the meaning of this council. He did not summon these people. Had he done so it would surely have been a meeting of the White Council, a meeting of the Wise. Galadriel would have been there, as would Círdan of the Grey Havens. And Saruman would have been its leader. The descendants of Númenor would not have been summoned, nor Durin’s folk, nor the people of the realm of Thranduil in the northern marches of Mirkwood. And hobbits would most certainly not have been invited.

So is it merely a matter of chance that has brought Glóin from the Lonely Mountain of Erebor to Rivendell with Gimli his son? Or Legolas, the son of Thranduil from his land? Or Boromir from Minas Tirith; or a small group of hobbits from the Shire with their guide, Aragorn, the heir of Isildur?

Elrond chooses his words with care. “By chance as it might seem.” By using this word, seem, Elrond deliberately draws a distinction between those things that merely appear to us, like traffic passing by on a busy highway, and something of a deliberate purpose. Actually, if we were to ponder the deliberate purpose behind every one of the journeys being taken by those travelling down a particular highway on any given day, we might be able to discern and then tell a story in which each of those participants would have a part to play. The song, “Another Hundred People”, from Stephen Sondheim’s show, “Company”, comes to mind here and that tale is rather beautiful.

So Elrond chooses not to end with chance. “Yet it is not so,” he continues. “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.” Elrond chooses to speak of belief. By this he does not mean an assent to certain doctrines. He encourages his guests to accept that their presence in his halls, at this precise moment, this “nick of time”, is a part of a big story in which each one of them has a part to play.

We might want to say at this moment that it is the unseen presence of The Ring that gives significance to the whole proceeding. Certainly, if it were not for The Ring there would be no hobbits present. I wonder if Boromir had this thought in mind when he cried out to Frodo, “It is not yours save by unhappy chance. It might have been mine. It should be mine.” Frodo made a similar statement when he bemoaned the seemingly cruel fate by which he has come to be in possession of The Ring. Gandalf’s response was that “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”

Bilbo was meant to find the Ring

Neither Gandalf, nor Elrond, choose to give themselves to lengthy metaphysical speculation about such matters. They receive encouragement from the thought that there seems to be a power for good at work in the world, one that put the Ring of Power into the hands of first Bilbo and then Frodo, neither of whom had any interest in power for its own sake; and one that has gathered this particular company of people together in Rivendell at this moment. Frodo is not encouraged by either of these things. As we saw last week, he simply accepts that he has been given a job to do and that is enough.

Frodo, and each member of the Fellowship, has been given a job to do. Bohemian Weasel depicts the Company before Durin’s Doors.

“Take Off the Ring!” Frodo’s Inner Struggle Upon Amon Hen.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 391-392

It all begins because Frodo has to flee from Boromir wearing the Ring in order to do so. Frodo climbs up the slopes of Amon Hen and finally reaches its top.

“He saw as through a mist a wide flat circle, paved with mighty flags, and surrounded with a crumbling battlement: and in the middle, set upon four carven pillars, was a high seat, reached by a stair of many steps.”

A beautiful depiction of Amon Hen by Woodhouse

The high seat upon Amon Hen has always been a place set apart for reflection, an expression of the belief that if only we can get high enough, if only we can somehow rise above all the chaos that surrounds us, we will achieve a kind of clarity and will know what we must do. But in all the long years since first the seat was placed upon this hill top by the men of Númenor there has never been a moment like this. No-one has been able to see as Frodo does because no-one has sat upon the chair while wearing the Ring.

And what Frodo sees is war. “The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills; orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes. Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly strife of Elves and Men and fell beasts. The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lórien.”

And last of all, and perhaps inevitably, Frodo’s gaze is drawn towards the place in which the Ring was forged and the tower in which its master dwells: “wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant, he saw it: Barad-dûr, Fortress of Sauron. All hope left him.”

A fascinating, almost surreal, depiction of the struggle upon Amon Hen by Joel Marriner.

It is at this moment that Frodo becomes aware that someone is searching eagerly, voraciously, for him, for the Ring that he is now wearing; and that this creature, whose very being has become an embodiment of desire, so entire, that if the thing that he longs for were to cease to exist there would be nothing left of him but a memory of what he once was, will find him. And it is at this moment too that he becomes strangely aware of a familiar voice telling him to take off the Ring.

“Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!

The struggle lasts only for a moment but during that time the whole fate of Middle-earth lies, literally, in the balance. Frodo is held, “perfectly balanced” between the Voice and the Eye. If Sauron is able to find him, to identify exactly where he is, then he will regain the Ring at last and darkness will fall.

Crucially, this moment is resolved when Frodo becomes “aware of himself again” as one who is free to choose and he takes off the Ring. “Then all the sky was clean and blue and birds sang in every tree.”

Frodo is not only able to think for himself again but he is able to achieve a clarity of purpose that all his seeing could never give him. Not that the vision that he has been given upon Amon Hen has been of no value for it has enabled him to see that he cannot put his trust in any power outside of himself because every power is as nothing compared to the power that resides within Barad-dûr. All that he has is the Self who is able to make this choice, the choice to go alone to Mordor.

The problem with hope is, as T.S Eliot puts it in his Four Quartets, is that “hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” There is no hope for Frodo in Minas Tirith because, for all its courageous beauty, it cannot stand at the last before the power that is rising against it. All that he has is himself and the choice that he made at the Council of Elrond to take the Ring to the Fire though he did not know the way. As Eliot puts it, following his teacher, St John of the Cross, we come to the point in which all hope has been stripped away and there we find, as Frodo does, that “the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing”.

Wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing”. A depiction of Minas Tirith.

“The Day Has Come at Last.The Day of Choice Which We Have Long Delayed.” Which Way Will Frodo Choose to Go?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 386-387

It is the 26th of February in the year 3019 of the Third Age and when Frodo walks away from his companions so that he might have an hour in order to think he will not see them again until he wakes on the Field of Cormallen on April 8th. That is, I should have said, he will not see his companions save one, and briefly, tragically, another, until that day. During that time the world will change because of the choice that Frodo will make but also because of the choices of each of his companions, but at this moment none of them knows what those choices will be.

Anke Eismann beautifully expresses the anguished thoughts of the Fellowship on this “day of choice”.

Perhaps Frodo really does know but as he walks away in order to think he still struggles with that choice and with how he is to tell the others. Sam really does know. “Plain as a pikestaff it is,” he says to himself, but then for the very first time in all the story Sam chooses not to follow Frodo. Frodo has to make his own mind up.

That the Ring must go to the Fire is, for Frodo, beyond doubt. He made this promise at the Council of Elrond with the words, “I will take the Ring… though I do not know the way” and Elrond confirmed his choice at the departure of the Fellowship from Rivendell.

“The Ring-bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom. On him alone is any charge laid: neither to cast away the Ring, nor to deliver it to any servant of the Enemy nor indeed to let any handle it, save members of the Company and the Council and only then in gravest need. The others go with him as free companions, to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows. The further you go, the less easy it will be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will. For you do not know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road.”

Elrond’s words prove prophetic but perhaps, as is the true nature of prophecy, he speaks of what is always true and at all times. None of the Fellowship can foresee what they are to meet upon the road and the events that will follow Frodo’s request to spend time alone in thought are, at the moment when he makes that request, entirely unknown both to him or to any of the others. For each one of them it will be these events and not what they thought had been their considered opinions that will shape their choices. Gimli had wanted to swear an oath, as was the practice of his people, to stay with Frodo with Frodo until the very end but Elrond wisely persuaded him not to do this. On this day Gimli will need the freedom that Elrond gave him to make a choice that he never thought that he would ever have to make.

The Fellowship hear Elrond’s words and none of them know what these words will mean to each one of them.

Is there any point in all our struggles to make the great choices of our lives? Should we not simply accept, as Galadriel said to the Fellowship on the eve of their departure from Lothlórien, that the paths that each of us will tread are already laid before our feet though we do not see them?

As with Elrond’s words Galadriel’s are always true, always and timelessly wise, but surely there is a place for thought of the road ahead? Such thought acts as a preparation of the heart for the moment when the choice will have to be made. Frodo has already decided that he must take the Ring to the Fire and that this is his destiny. Sam is certain that he must go wherever Frodo goes. Aragorn longs to go to Minas Tirith but feels that it is his duty to go with Frodo. The events of this fateful day will appear to take him to neither but he will remain true to his deepest self.

Anke Eissmann depicts Frodo deep in thought moments before Boromir will make his choice quite clear.

“Behold the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings.” The Heir of Isildur Comes To His Kingdom.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 375-385

After the encounter with Gollum upon the eyot, the small island in the river, the danger of the journey begins to grow. Orcs upon the eastern side of the river fire at the Fellowship and, for the very first time, they meet a Nazgûl, mounted upon his foul winged steed. Legolas uses the bow given to him by the Elves of Lothlórien and brings the creature down from the sky. One cannot help but feel that a company of archers from Lothlórien, armed thus, would have been very useful at the siege of Minas Tirith.

It is not only the threat of enemies that grows as the party travels southwards but the river itself becomes more dangerous. More suddenly than Aragorn had anticipated the boats arrive at the rapids of Sarn Gebir and the Company are forced to carry both them and their baggage on an old portage-way on the western bank of the river until that danger is passed.

Every mile southwards is bringing them all closer to the moment when a choice will have to be made. Either, as Boromir is beginning to urge, they will make their way down to Minas Tirith or they will begin the journey to Mordor. Aragorn has little wish to make this choice and searches for any kind of sign to aid him in the task. His immediate aim is to reach the lake of Nen Hithoel that lies above the Falls of Rauros and which is fenced upon the left by Amon Lhaw, the Hill of Hearing, and upon the right by Amon Hen, the Hill of Sight. It is there that the choice must be made.

The Fellowship Cross Nen Hithoel

And before they reach this point the river cuts a narrow channel between the Pillars of the Argonath.

“As Frodo was borne towards them the great pillars rose like towers to meet him. Giants they seemed to him, vast grey figures silent but threatening. Then he saw that they were indeed shaped and fashioned: the craft and power of old had wrought upon them and, and still they preserved through the suns and rains of forgotten years the mighty likenesses in which they had been hewn.”

John Howe’s magnificent imagining of The Argonath

The likenesses are of Isildur and Anárion, the sons of Elendil, and first kings of Arnor and of Gondor, and they stand with hands raised and palms stretched outwards “in gesture of warning.” It is a terrible and an awesome place and poor Sam is overcome by terror. Indeed all the company are very afraid, all that is except Aragorn. In the film he is depicted standing proudly in the boat and it is a very impressive scene. Tolkien, more sensibly, has him seated, but his description of Aragorn is equally impressive. He is Strider “and yet not Strider”. He is proud and erect, “his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes: a king returning from exile to his own land.”

“Fear not!” he said. “Long have I desired to look upon the likenesses of Isildur and Anárion, my sires of old. Under their shadow Elessar, the Elfstone son of Arathorn of the House of Valandil Isildur’s son, heir of Elendil, has nought to dread!”

Nought to dread maybe from these mighty symbols both of Aragorn’s ancestry and his destiny but Aragorn does fear the choice that he must make. He longs to go to Gondor. His heart “yearns for Minas Anor”, the ancient name of the city that is now Minas Tirith, the Tower of the Guard, but he also knows that the task that the Council gave to Frodo was to take the Ring to the Fire and now that Gandalf is gone how can he abandon Frodo?

Eventually, as Galadriel foretold in Lothlórien, his path is already laid before his feet. The path that he will take will lead neither to Minas Tirith nor to Mordor, not yet at least. It will be a series of events that are now entirely unforeseeable that will make the choice clear to him in a way that is impossible as he passes the Argonath or when he climbs Amon Hen. It is clear as he navigates the passage that his heart’s yearning must eventually lead him to his city but it is rare in our lives that the path between our current position and the place for which our heart yearns is a clear one, even for those of us for whom that place is known. Aragorn’s path to his city and to his kingdom will wind and twist through many unexpected places.

Aragorn at the Argonath