“From the First my Heart Misgave Me”. Gandalf, and Tolkien too, only gradually begin to understand the meaning of the the Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.245

When I thought to spend a few weeks reflecting upon themes from The Fellowship of the Ring over the summer before continuing with The Two Towers in September I did not expect to spend much of the time writing about Gandalf; but so it has proved. Maybe I should not have been surprised. When Elrond asks Gandalf to speak at the Council in Rivendell he introduces him by saying, “in all this matter he has been the chief”.

Peter Xavier Price imagines the Council of Elrond in Rivendell

I wrote a few weeks ago about how Gandalf loved to play in order to find some rest from his labours and how the Shire became especially important to him to allow him to do this. We saw how this desire for play proves to be utterly crucial in the history of Middle-earth. We recall that when Tolkien’s publishers first asked him for “more about hobbits” after the success of The Hobbit that he first regarded the request as an annoying interruption to what he regarded as his life’s work, the history that his son Christopher would eventually edit and publish as The Silmarillion. It was only with time that it began to dawn upon him that the ring that Bilbo found in the depths of the Misty Mountains and put to such good and, might one say, playful use, might be prove critical to the resolution of the history of the Third Age.

Why was the Ring given into Bilbo’s safekeeping?

As Gandalf puts it to the Council what began as a little more than a misgiving began to turn to dread. The thing that Bilbo had in his possession, that he regarded as little more than something useful in case awkward relatives like the Sackville Baggins came to call, was indeed the Ring of Power that Sauron had lost in the great battle at the end of the Second Age and for which he was now seeking in order to complete his conquest of Middle-earth.

Gandalf’s misgiving that turned to dread moved hobbits from a pleasant distraction on the fringes of his life onto the centre stage. When he reflects upon what he can discern of the big story, of the purposes of the divine, of Illuvatar in Arda, he tells Frodo that first Bilbo and then himself were meant to have the Ring. This is a statement of incredible importance. I use the word, incredible, in its essential meaning, as speaking of something that is hard, almost impossible, to believe. If the divine mind were to entrust the Ring to anyone for safekeeping surely a hobbit would be the last person chosen. Even hobbits are not, in themselves, a completely reliable choice. After all, Gollum was himself a hobbit and he began his possession of the Ring with murder.

But what began in Tolkien’s telling of a children’s story in The Hobbit as the happy and fortuitous entrance of magic into that tale was to turn into something that would be critical to the whole history of Middle-earth and it became clear that neither elf, nor dwarf or man could be entrusted with the Ring. It had to be a hobbit and it had to be a particular hobbit with the history and character that Bilbo had. And then because the Ring was beginning to have a destructive influence even on this good hobbit it had to pass to another, to Frodo. It has to pass to someone who does not want it, or the burden that it represents. Frodo tries to give it to Gandalf in Bag End, to Aragorn in Rivendell and to Galadriel in Lothlórien. He is the perfect person to have the Ring in his possession and even he will be overcome by it in the end.

Gandalf might have said that in his reluctance to take on the burden of the Ring Frodo reminded him of himself. When the Valar first thought to send the Istari to Middle-earth Gandalf was reluctant to go because he feared Sauron. Perhaps it is this reluctance, this desire for peace, even obscurity, that makes Gandalf, and Frodo too, the ones who can be chosen for the really great tasks. Help will be given to them when they most need it. Frodo will eventually achieve his task through the aid of Gollum. But it is not the ones who seek greatness who can be entrusted with the great things. It is those who wish to be little but are willing to say yes to the call that they receive.

Gandalf did not want to go to Middle-earth.

“Give It To Me!” Boromir Tries to Take The Ring From Frodo.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 387-390

We have heard this before. The long speech full of self-justification and fine sounding words. But when we heard this speech before it came from the mouth of Saruman when he gave it to Gandalf in Isengard, calling upon Gandalf to co-operate with him and with Sauron. Do the greatest crimes always require such grandiosity? Are such justifications always couched in terms of a particular action being an exception to moral law?

After Aragorn announced to the Fellowship that the day of choice had come, the day on which they would have to decide whether to make a journey directly towards Mordor on the east bank of the Anduin or to remain on the west bank and go to Minas Tirith, Frodo was given permission to spend an hour in thought alone. And it was during this time that Boromir finds him and begins to declare his mind.

Anke Eissmann depicts the moment when Boromir finds Frodo

The speech begins with kindliness as it must. If the speaker intends to justify a crime then they must first establish their intention to do good.

“Are you sure that you do not suffer needlessly?” Boromir says. “I wish to help you. You need counsel in your hard choice. Will you not take mine?”

Ted Nasmith imagines Boromir as he gives “counsel”

So the speech begins with sweet reason but soon it begins to display the same kind of exceptionalism that we saw in Saruman. He spoke to Gandalf about the failing of the Elves and of “dying Númenor”, and of “weak or idle friends”, and all this is with the intention of justify his own desire to rule and his need to obtain the One Ring in order to do so. Boromir also speaks dismissively of “elves and half-elves and wizards”, of their claim to be wise which he considers to be merely a cloak for timidity. And for Boromir it is “failing Númenor” that is the exception, “true-hearted Men” who “will not be corrupted”. It is the same speech albeit with a different cast of characters and a different exception. And in both speeches what begins with a we ends inexorably with an I.

“The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!”

Compare these speeches to the words that Gandalf and Galadriel speak when Frodo offers the Ring to them. They both acknowledge what they might do if they were to possess the Ring and both are tempted to take it so that they might do good through its possession. But both know that the achievement of personal power always ends with a contempt for the lives of others. Others exist merely for the sake of the one who rules. Saruman and Boromir dismiss this refusal of personal power as timidity. Gandalf and Galadriel have both achieved this rejection of power for the sake of personal gain through long inner struggle and it is that struggle that proves vital in the ultimate destruction of the Ring and the overthrow of Sauron.

There is a wonderful moment in The Lord of the Rings in which Tolkien exposes the true reality of the speeches that Saruman and Boromir make and that comes when Gollum makes the same speech to himself, to his Sméagol self, during the journey that he makes with Frodo and Sam through the desolation before Mordor.

“See, my precious: if we has it, then we can escape, even from Him, eh? Perhaps we grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths. Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum! Eat fish every day, fresh from the sea. Most Precious Gollum! Must have it! We wants it, we wants it, we wants it!”

Gollum the Great

It may be that Gollum’s ambition goes no further than a desire to eat fresh fish three times a day but once you realise that it is the same speech as Saruman and Boromir both make then you realise also that all desire for power for the sake of self-aggrandisement is ultimately as pathetic as is Gollum’s. It is not that Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond reject the use of power, but that power must be wielded for the Common Good and with as much restraint as possible. They also recognise that their part in the story of Middle-earth is soon to reach its conclusion, that they have played their part in it, and they recognise that power must pass to the ordained authority, which is the kingship that Aragorn will bear.

“Give it to me!”

“We wants it, we wants it, we wants it!”

The same speech. The same tragic desire.

“I Will Diminish, and Go Into The West, and Remain Galadriel.” The Lady Galadriel Rejects The Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.354-357

It is clear throughout The Lord of the Rings that there is an alternative to the rule of the Dark Lord apart from the destruction of the Ring and that is rule by another. Saruman had long understood this becoming convinced that this rule could only be achieved by one who could match or even surpass Sauron in achieving power over all things. But if Saruman desired simply to replace Sauron either by taking the Ring by force or perhaps by creating his own there are more nuanced alternatives that are considered by the Wise.

When Frodo offered the Ring to Gandalf at Bag End at the beginning of his adventure Gandalf responded with horror.

“Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me!”

So there is more than one way of the Ring to a great heart. If for Saruman it is by way of his contempt for weakness and a belief that the strong have the right to rule over the weak, then for Gandalf it is by way of the desire of the strong to protect the weak, the very thing that Gandalf has done throughout his career in Middle-earth. The Shire is the fruit of his labour and the right of hobbits to be self-satisfied and even proud of their lack of intellectual curiosity is something that he is content to protect.

The Hildebrandt brothers show us Galadriel in her act of rejection of Sauron and the revelation of Nenya, the ring of adamant.

And what of Galadriel? We saw when we first crossed the Nimrodel into Lothlórien that we were entering an enchanted land. We saw at Cerin Amroth “a timeless land that did not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness”. This is what Galadriel desires to keep even in the midst of all the changes and chances of the world. And Frodo is touched by this desire even as he was touched by Gandalf’s desire to protect the weak, sharing that desire himself. He can envision the enchanted world that Galadriel would create had she the power to do so and he desires, at least in part, to share in it.

“I will give you the One Ring if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.”

Perhaps Galadriel had long thought that she had passed the test. She had long pondered what she might do were the Great Ring to come into her hands and doubtless she had rejected that possibility just as she rejected Sauron himself. She knew that if she were to possess and use the Ring she had the power to defeat Sauron once and for all and, as Sam put it, she could “make some folk pay for their dirty work”. But now she knows that until the Ring is within her reach the test is not real. Now she truly faces it.

In preparation for writing this post on my blog I explored artwork under the theme of “I will diminish”. Much of what I found were stills of the scene in Peter Jackson’s imagining of this scene which I confess to find unconvincing. It is not Galadriel’s impossible beauty that is created in that scene in the film but a grotesque distortion of feminine power, one that would evoke fear rather than desperate love. Then I came across an image that was quite different and yet seemed to me to convey something much closer to the fallen femininity of which Galadriel would have been become a terrible expression. This is a painting of the enchantress, Circe, from Homer’s Odyssey, by John William Waterhouse. In the scene that Waterhouse depicts Circe offers Odysseus a cup of wine that will subject him to her will. We can see in her sensual beauty why Odysseus is tempted and what Galadriel might become and even surpass. All would indeed love her, desire her, and despair in never being able to possess her, and in that desire all other good would become worthless in comparison to this unattainable good.

The Pre-Raphaelite painter, John William Waterhouse, depicts the enchantress, Circe, from Homer’s Odyssey.

Frodo offers her the opportunity to achieve this form of feminine power and now it lies within her grasp, but she rejects it. She chooses the way of faith in allowing “what should be” to be. She chooses to diminish and go into the west. She allows her destiny and the destiny of Arda to be shaped by Eru Illuvatar and not by her.

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.

“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

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

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(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.