“The Road That I Speak of Leads to The Mines of Moria”. Gandalf Counsels the Fellowship to Take a Dark and Secret Way Under the Mountains.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 287-290

The road over the mountains has failed and the weary travellers are forced to consider another way. Until this point neither Gandalf nor Aragorn have consulted the rest of the company about what way they should take but now it is necessary that they should do so. Merry and Pippin would give up if they could but Gandalf makes it clear that there can be no turning back for if they do this there will soon be nowhere to go. To his credit Boromir has said nothing up until now but now he counsels that they retrace the steps that he took in his journey from Minas Tirith to Rivendell, passing through the Gap of Rohan. Gandalf makes it clear that this is no longer a possibility, the treachery of Saruman has seen to that.

And then Gandalf tells them of the way that he thinks best. He will take them through the Mines of Moria.

Alan Lee depicts the Dark and Secret Way Through Moria

“Since our open attempt on the mountain-pass our plight has become more desperate, I fear. I see now little hope, if we do not vanish from sight for a while, and cover our trail. Therefore I advise that we should go neither over the mountains, nor round them, but under them. That is a road at any rate that the Enemy will least expect us to take.”

Gandalf’s proposal is greeted with little enthusiasm except from Gimli the dwarf for whom the name of Moria calls to mind the greatest of his people’s achievements and the name of Durin, the greatest of their kings. Boromir simply dismisses the idea while Aragorn warns Gandalf that if he enters Moria he may never get out again. Frodo trusts the counsel of Gandalf, little though he likes the sound of this “dark and secret way” as Gandalf puts it. At the last it is not strength of argument that wins the day but a sudden attack by Wargs, the wolves of Mordor. Suddenly the way through Moria is the only option.

The Attack by Wargs Simplifies the Decision

And so begins the first of the dark ways through which Tolkien takes the Fellowship. There are three such ways and each one of them is associated with death as well as darkness. Gandalf will fall into the abyss in Moria after the attack of the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm; Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, will take the Paths of the Dead into Gondor; while Frodo and Sam will pass through Shelob’s Lair but only, in Frodo’s case, as one who has taken a deadly bite.

The Heir of Isildur Commands The Dead

For each of the Company who must go these ways there is a sense in which they tread the kind of path that Dante takes in his Divine Comedy. Each must go their own personal way through hell, each tasting something of death, and in Gandalf’s case, literally so, before they can emerge through it to what lies beyond. But for none of them is there some simple journey into Paradise. For Gandalf what lies beyond his dark road is his greatest challenge as he pits himself against the might of Mordor as well as against the leader of his own order. For Aragorn and his companions the journey through the Paths of the Dead will bring them to the battle at the gates of Minas Tirith. While for Frodo and Sam the path through Shelob’s Lair merely takes them into Mordor and all that lies ahead. While it may be too simple a thing to call this a Purgatory and so take my allusion to Dante a little further there is no doubt that for each of Tolkien’s characters who pass through their own dark ways further tests lie ahead that are no less challenging than what they have already faced.

For each of them there is a sense in which they are strengthened by the tests that they have already faced. Gandalf becomes the White after facing death itself, while Aragorn takes upon himself his true identity as the Heir of Isildur, the one who has the authority to command the obedience of the King of the Dead. And if Frodo enters Mordor as if a dead man stumbling step by step to Mount Doom, Sam enters it as a mighty hero, able to take his master to the conclusion of their journey.

And Paradise, what of this for each of Tolkien’s heroes? Tolkien leaves the answer to this question in the hands of Ilúvatar. As Aragorn was to put it, “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them there is more than memory.”

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

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

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

The Three Rings of the Elves

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

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

The Nazgûl. Wraiths and Wrath

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

Tim Catherall’s Imagining of Lothlórien

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

“We Must Send The Ring to The Fire”. Elrond Concludes The Debate on What To Do With The Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 257-260

After Gandalf ends his tale about his long journey, his battle with the Nazgûl upon Weathertop that the hobbits and Aragorn had witnessed from a distance and his long ride northward upon the mighty Shadowfax in order to draw some of his enemies, at least, away from the Ring and its bearer, he apologises to Frodo and then asks:

“Well, the Tale is now told, from first to last. Here we all are, and here is the Ring. But we have not come any nearer to our purpose. What shall we do with it?”

What Shall We Do With The Ring?

In response to a consideration of Gandalf’s question Elrond makes brief reference to Saruman’s treachery and the dangers of studying too closely the arts of the Enemy. But he gives his closest attention to a reflection upon Frodo’s story subtly drawing both him and hobbits into the long tale of the years. The Shire is placed at the edge of the great primeval forest and hobbits are named as neighbours to Iarwain Ben-adar, oldest and fatherless, Tom Bombadil of the eastern edge of The Old Forest. Briefly the thought is considered that Bombadil might be asked to be guardian of the Ring but Gandalf swiftly dismisses the idea. “He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is enough”.

Perhaps most significantly Elrond speaks of Frodo and hobbits with respect and some surprise. “Of the tales that we have heard today the tale of Frodo was most strange to me. I have known few hobbits, save Bilbo here; and it seems to me that he is perhaps not so alone and singular as I had thought him. The world has changed much since I was last on the westward road.”

Elrond leaves that thought hanging as the Elves begin to debate whether the Ring should be hidden in some fashion or destroyed. Should it be taken westward to the Undying Lands where it will lie beyond the reach of Sauron? Elrond is confident that those in the Undying Lands would refuse to receive the Ring. For them the memory of Feänor and the corrupting power of the Silmarils will be fresh. Not that the Silmarils were evil in themselves but that Feänor’s absolute desire to possess something that he had made at all costs corrupted him absolutely. It led to the rebellion of the Noldor and the kinslaying at Alqualondë, the only occasion of violent death in the long history of Valinor. Neither the Elves nor the Valar would give welcome to an object of power that was inherently evil.

Ted Nasmith’s imagining of the Kinslaying at Alqualondë

Glorfindel suggests that Saruman’s lie, that the Ring had rolled down the Anduin to the depths of the ocean should be made true. They should cast it there themselves. But Gandalf dismisses this idea. No solution to the problem of the Ring will be permanent save its destruction and so Elrond brings the debate to its conclusion.

“But it seems to me now clear which is the road that we must take. The westward road seems easiest. Therefore it must be shunned. It will be watched. Too often the Elves have fled that way. Now at this last we must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril- to Mordor. We must take the Ring to the Fire.”

The taking of the hard road, the road into peril, lies at the very heart of Tolkien’s meditation on the problem of evil. He gives no attention whatsoever to the question of why there is evil in the world. It is here and that is all we need to know. And he rejects the two solutions to the problem of evil in our own time, that either we flee from it to some absolute place of safety or that we overcome it by some greater force, defeating evil with evil. Next week we will give greater consideration to this latter solution thinking about Boromir’s suggestion that the Free Peoples use the Ring against its maker. It is enough to know now that Elrond and the Wise reject this possibility. There is only the hard road. The road into the very heart of darkness allowing it to do its very worst. The way of the cross.

The Hard Road

“He That Breaks a Thing To Find Out What It Is Has Left The Path of Wisdom”. Gandalf Speaks of The Fall of Saruman.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.248-254

“What of Saruman?” It was Galdor, the emissary of Círdan, the shipwright of the Grey Havens, who first asked the question. Why is Saruman not present at the Council? Or why, at least, is he not represented? As Gandalf says himself, “Saruman has long studied the arts of the Enemy himself, and thus we have often been able to forestall him. It was by the devices of Saruman that we drove him from Dol Guldur.”

This driving of Sauron from Dol Guldur had taken place in the same year in which Smaug had fallen, the Battle of the Five Armies had taken place and in which the Ring had been found. It was a year that gained over seventy years of time for the free peoples of Middle-earth to make preparation for the inevitable conflict but we have to observe that no such preparation has taken place. Until this day in Rivendell there has been little communication between Elves and Dwarves and the kingdoms of Men. Gandalf alone has journeyed tirelessly between them and Aragorn has served his apprenticeship in Gondor and Rohan never revealing his true identity, but each realm has largely gone its own way. Perhaps that is why Boromir has some justification in his assertion that Gondor has stood alone against the Enemy. Perhaps too this, in part at least, is why Saruman has made the choices that will soon be revealed to Gandalf.

We have to assume that Gandalf harbours no suspicions regarding Saruman when Radagast the Brown first brings him news regarding the Nazgûl and extends Saruman’s invitation (we might actually say, summons) for Gandalf to meet him in Isengard. That Radagast should be on the road at all is remarkable. Of all the Istari, the order of wizards who came to Middle-earth to rouse its peoples against Sauron, he has been the most private, the most withdrawn, staying close to his home in Mirkwood among the creatures beloved of Yavanna of the Valar. Some have even regarded him to be little more than a plot device, someone to lure Gandalf into Isengard. Certainly Gandalf is impressed that Radagast has made such a journey and this causes him to agree to Saruman’s summons. Impressed enough not to return to the Shire but to entrust a message to Barliman Butterbur to go to Frodo. A message, as we know, that was never sent with all the consequences that we have been considering over the past year.

Gandalf and Radagast the Brown

From the moment that he first enters Isengard Gandalf begins to have misgivings about his choice and Saruman quickly confirms that these are justified. Saruman is wearing a ring on his finger. Is this an imitation of the One Ring, an essay perhaps in the forging of rings of power? Or is it a statement of intent? That Saruman is himself a “power”. And he has created a new coat. He is no longer Saruman the White but Saruman of Many Colours.

Harold Jig imagines Saruman’s self display before Gandalf

“I looked then,” says Gandalf, “and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.”

If Saruman has intended to impress through this careful crafting of his image he most certainly fails. Gandalf prefers white to the breaking of white as if through a prism.

“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

In her wonderful study on logos and language in Tolkien’s world, Splintered Light, Verlyn Flieger contrasts two kinds of breaking and their consequences. On the one hand there is Frodo who in his complete offering up of himself to the task of destroying the Ring is “completely broken down in order that he may be remade”. Flieger refers to Gandalf’s pondering of the transparency that he observes in Frodo as he lies in his bed in Rivendell and contrasts it with Saruman’s display in Isengard. If Frodo is being broken then Saruman breaks down. Frodo offers himself up. Saruman seeks to break in order to gain power. “In his overweening pride, Saruman has broken himself, not, like Frodo, by yielding to a cause greater than himself but by trying to impose himself upon the cause, by endeavouring to control rather than submit”.

Andrea Pipano’s fine imagining of Saruman to suggest why Gandalf does not mistrust him

“In All These Things He Has Been the Chief.” Elrond Calls upon Gandalf to Tell His Part in the Story.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 243-248

After first Gloín, and then Boromir, have spoken of the reasons why they have come to Rivendell Elrond calls upon first Bilbo and then Frodo to speak of how they came to possess the Ring and of how it was brought to Elrond’s halls. Perhaps it is the childlike stature of the hobbits, halflings as they are named by others, that arouses a certain scepticism in their hearers and so it is Galdor who has come from the Grey Havens to represent Cirdan, his lord, who gives voice to this doubt.

“The Wise may have good reason to believe that the halfling’s trove is indeed the Great Ring of long debate, unlikely though that may seem to those who know less. But may we not hear the proofs?”

And so Elrond calls upon Gandalf, declaring that he will have the place of honour as the last to speak, for “in all this matter he has been the chief”.

Gandalf and the Ring at Bag End

We have been in the company, first of Bilbo ever since he first found the Ring deep within the tunnels of the Misty Mountains, and then of Frodo on his journey through the wild pursued by the Nazgûl. At the Fords of Bruinen we heard the cry of the Ringwraiths, “The Ring! The Ring!” as they urged their horses into the foaming waters at the Fords of Bruinen but as Galdor said, the “halfling’s trove” is too big a thing even to accept its identity at the word of Elrond and Gandalf. It is the “peril of the world” whose very existence places all the peoples of the world in the greatest danger whether they know of it or not. This is why Gandalf must offer more than his word and so he begins to tell his part in the story of the Ring.

Gandalf first came to Middle-earth as one of the Istari, seven travellers sent by the Valar “as messengers sent to contest the power of Sauron, and to unite all those who had the will to resist him”. Soon after their arrival a shadow began to fall upon the Greenwood, home to the woodland elves of Thranduil. An evil power had made a stronghold at Dol Guldur in the south of the forest and people began to call the forest, Mirkwood. At first it was thought that the power was one of the Nazgûl but eventually Gandalf went to Dol Guldur and established the truth that the power was Sauron himself who was seeking to gather all the Rings to himself and for news of the One and news of Isildur’s heir. The Istari and the greatest of the Eldar had formed a council in order to resist the Power and on learning that it was Sauron Gandalf urged an assault upon Dol Guldur but Saruman opposed him. Eventually in the year that Bilbo found the One Ring in the Misty Mountains, Smaug the Dragon was slain by Bard of Dale and the Battle of the Five Armies was successfully fought, Saruman finally agreed to an assault upon Sauron. He had learned that Sauron’s servants were searching the Anduin vale near to where Isildur had fallen and he had become alarmed. Sauron retreated from his woodland fortress but only because his work in Mordor was now complete.

The Coming of the Istari to Middle-earth

At all times Saruman sought to allay the fears of the Council concerning Sauron’s search for the Ring.

“Have I not earnestly studied this matter? Into Anduin the Great [The Ring] fell; and long ago, while Sauron slept, it was rolled down the River to the Sea. There let it lie until the End.”

But Gandalf’s fears were never fully allayed and with the help of Aragorn Gollum was found and at last, in the study at Bag End, Gandalf read the words written upon the Ring.

“One Ring to Rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them.”

There is no doubt any longer that Frodo’s ring is indeed the One Ring that Sauron seeks.

One Ring to Rule Them 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.

Watch “Хоббит / The Hobbit (СССР / USSR, 1985 г.)” on YouTube

On Friday I posted a reflection on my blog about the encounter between Frodo and Glóin as they sat together at the feast in Rivendell and how this reconnected the stories of the Shire and the kingdom under the mountain, stories that were so remarkably woven together when Gandalf persuaded Thorin Oakenshield to allow Bilbo Baggins to become a part of his quest to regain the mountain kingdom from Smaug the dragon.

As I pondered the story that Tolkien told in The Hobbit I was led by my daughter, Bethan, a doctoral student at Oxford University, to the great Soviet cultural critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, and his concept of the carnivalesque. Bakhtin’s work was on the 19th century Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the 16th century French writer, Rabelais. In both of them he finds a world that is turned upside down. As Bethan and I spoke together I became increasingly convinced that we can add another work to Bakhtin’s list, The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien.

As I pondered this I recalled once watching a film adaptation of The Hobbit that was made in Russian during the Soviet era that charmed me at the time I watched it. Instinctively I felt that its retelling of Tolkien’s story as a folk tale had an authenticity to it that I found sadly lacking in Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Many have commented on the difficulty in reconciling the fairytale aspect of The Hobbit with the mighty epic that was both The Silmarillion and also The Lord of the Rings. My feeling is that Jackson kept trying to make the story heroic and epic in nature, even trying to turn Bilbo into a character who might belong in such a story. My belief is that this delightful Russian retelling of the tale is much closer to its true essence.

And while I am expressing appreciation for people who have helped develop my own understanding of Tolkien’s work I would like to thank a blogger who writes under the name, The Catholic Knight, for reminding me of the wonderful section of Tolkien’s, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth that deals with the quest for Erebor. If you have a copy then read these pages for yourself. You can almost feel yourself to be with Tolkien, perhaps at a gathering of the Inklings, as he wrestles with the question, why did he recommend Bilbo to Thorin? Each one of the answers is profound and, in my view, leaves the subversive carnivalesque nature of The Hobbit intact.

A final thought. Don’t worry if you don’t speak Russian. Any lover of The Hobbit will have little difficulty in following the story and you might find a version somewhere with English subtitles.

The Feast at Rivendell. Frodo is Seated at Elrond’s Table Amongst the Great.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 220-223

If we are to understand the true significance of the feast that takes place on the evening after Frodo first awakes in Rivendell then we need to understand it as if it is a great state occasion. Elrond does not preside in his great chair at the end of a long table upon a dais every day. This is an occasion of real significance.

Peter Xavier Price imagines Gandalf, Elrond and Glorfindel at the Feast

There are many reasons why they should hold such a feast, says Gandalf to Frodo. “I am one good reason. The Ring is another: you are the Ring-bearer. And you are the heir of Bilbo, the Ring-finder.”

So we learn much in just a few words about the reasons why, in the world of Elrond and of the wise, honour is granted. There will be royal halls later in the story where Gandalf will be received with no honour at all. And Frodo, and to some degree, Bilbo too, regard themselves as those to whom all these events have simply happened. Frodo knows that he never sought the Ring. The Ring sought him out. But the court of Elrond in Rivendell is no meritocracy. As Gandalf said to Frodo at Bag End when Frodo asked why he had been chosen to bear the Ring, “Such questions cannot be answered… You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate.”

Frodo is not honoured because he is one of the great. He is honoured because he has been chosen and it is the choice that must be honoured. But there will soon come a time when Elrond will declare that Frodo is among the great and that will be because he will accept the burden that has been laid upon him. That we will think about in a few weeks time.

As Frodo sits nervously among the great at table he sees Gandalf, Elrond and Glorfindel close by, revealed in their glory. Tolkien draws upon all his wordcraft to convey think to us and so doing achieves far more than any picture. And so he says of Elrond that his face was “ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful.” As we read those words it is not a picture that we see. Tolkien tells us nothing about the shape of Elrond’s nose or mouth, for example. What we see, we see by means of the thoughts of our hearts, and those who know the prayer to which I allude will also know that those thoughts must be cleansed before they can enable us to see clearly.

Peter Jackson imagines Elrond, Lord of Rivendell

So it is that Tolkien shows us that Frodo is learning to see. Later Galadriel will make reference to the keenness of Frodo’s sight. Gandalf, Elrond and Glorfindel are among the immortals and unlike ourselves whose appearance is shaped by factors both inward and outward over which we only have some control, they are able to convey the truth of who they are. Glorfindel is “fair and young and fearless and full of joy. Gandalf has an aged face with eyes “like coals that could leap suddenly into fire”. And Elrond, neither young nor old seems venerable “as a king crowns with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fullness of his strength.” Later when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli encounter Gandalf they are not sure if it is he that they see or Saruman.

As a maia, an order of angelic being to which both Sauron and Saruman also belong, Gandalf has power over how he is able to appear; but this power can also be lost. In seducing Celebrimbor into teaching him the craft required to make the Ruling Ring Sauron was able to appear fair. After he seduced Númenor into its catastrophic act of rebellion he lost that power and could only be the Dark Lord thereafter. And when Saruman dies “the long years of death” are revealed in his hideous face. Gandalf remains faithful to his order’s obedience to Ilúvatar and so conveys both wisdom and strength in the face that others can see.

All this Frodo is able to see because his sight grows keen and his eye is innocent. He does not yet know that he is able to see what others cannot.

Kappriss imagines Sauron the Seducer before the Fall of Númenor

What Happened at the Fords of Bruinen? Gandalf Explains All to Frodo in Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 215-219

Gandalf explains much to Frodo as the hobbit rests in his wonderful bed but one question above all still bothers him.

“Just give me news of my friends, and tell me the end of the affair at the Ford, as I keep on asking, and I shall be content for the present. After that I shall have another sleep, I think; but I shan’t be able to close my eyes until you have finished the story for me.”

We thought about the events at the Fords of Bruinen a few weeks ago when we were introduced to Glorfindel and his decisive intervention. Now we return to them as Gandalf explains to Frodo what was happening to him on that day. Gandalf explains to Frodo that the Ringwraiths could see him even when he was not wearing the Ring because he was “on the threshold of their world”. The Morgul-knife, with which the Witch-king of Angmar, the Lord of Minas Morgul, had pierced Frodo in his shoulder, had broken inside the wound and had left a splinter there. He had tried to pierce Frodo in his heart and if he had succeeded he would have done a deed that would have been worse than murder for Frodo would have become a wraith, he “would have become like they are, only weaker and under their command”.

And now we know why Gandalf looked at Frodo so closely. How far into the shadow world had Frodo gone? Was there any lasting damage caused by the Morgul Blade as the Witch-king intended or had Elrond been successful in both removing the deadly splinter and in preventing Frodo from slipping out of the world of substance and into the world that the ringwraiths knew?

What is clear is that Frodo’s resistance played a crucial role in his escape and then his recovery. As Gandalf puts it, “Your heart was not touched, and only your shoulder was pierced; and that was because you resisted to the last”. Frodo’s resistance was crucial at that point and then at the Fords of Bruinen when he called out, “You shall have neither the Ring nor me”. But most important of all was the fact that he was able to resist tye journey of the fragment of the blade from the shoulder to the heart.

Frodo resists until the very end of his strength

Frodo’s resistance was aided at the beginning by Strider’s application of athelas to the wound. Even though he is not yet king it is a sign of his true identity that this herb, that seems to share his hiddenness in its apparent insignificance, responds both to his touch and his voice. Strider is the true king who is to come and the world listens to his voice.

But this is not the only aid that Frodo receives. When his hobbit companions said to him, “We are your friends, Frodo”, on that night at Crickhollow when the “conspiracy” was unmasked, these were not mere words. The friendship of Merry, Pippin and, above all, Sam was shown in the unloading of Bill the pony and the carrying of great burdens; it was shown in hobbit cheerfulness even in adversity; it was shown in Sam’s song about trolls at the discovery of the place where Bilbo’s first adventure took place; and it was shown at the Fords of Bruinen when they all ran towards the deadliest of danger in the ringwraiths. And, as readers of The Lord of the Rings know, this was not the last time in the story that this friends were willing to lay down their lives for the love of a friend.

Sam Gamgee cheers his friends with a little song

Of course, none of this would have been to any effect if the hobbits had been alone. The Nazgûl would have been too deadly a foe and the Ring, and Frodo too, would have been taken away to Mordor had it not been for the intervention of Glorfindel and the power in the river that awaited any attempt to cross by an enemy. The waters in the river rose and the steeds of the ringwraiths were swept away, their riders forced to return to Mordor having failed in their mission and to be rehorsed.

All of this Gandalf explains to Frodo but he also tells him that while “fortune or fate” may have helped him to escape his deadly foe so too did courage and all through the story that courage will make all the difference.

Frodo has mighty allies

“Only a Ranger!” Gandalf Puts Frodo Right About Strider.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 213-219

The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, told a story of a prince who, in order to win the love of a peasant girl, decided to live among her people as a fellow peasant and to hide his true identity. Eventually he marries her and we await the moment when he will reveal himself to her. But then, Kierkegaard asks us, does he have to do this? Why can’t he remain a peasant for the rest of his life out of the same love that him to disguise himself in the first place?

As you ponder the philosopher’s question your thoughts may turn towards Strider, or Aragorn. The poet, priest and scholar, Malcolm Guite, has published a series of poems on the great O Antiphons of the Middle Ages that have a prominent place in the liturgy of the Advent season. In a note on his poem on O Rex Gentium, O King of the Nations, Guite comments that the antiphon speaks of Christ as both king and also as a dusty potter working with the clay of our humanity, and then he says, “he is the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider!”

The One Who Walks Alongside Us

Aragorn, or Strider as he is known to the people of Bree, has walked alongside Frodo and his companions all the way from Bree to Rivendell, clad in boots that have seen much wear and are “caked in mud” with a “travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth” wrapped around him. As Frodo thinks back over the journey he begins by telling Gandalf that at first he had been afraid of Strider, then that he had become fond of him.

“Well, fond is not the right word. I mean he is dear to me; though he is strange and grim at times. In fact he reminds me often of you.”

Finally, Frodo says, after making a few general and rather dismissive comments about “the Big People”, that he thought that Strider “was only a Ranger”. And so we return in our thoughts to the king who walks alongside us in rags. Those who learn wisdom come to understand that no-one, absolutely no-one, can be dismissed with the word, only. All people are more than they seem and if we take the time to be with them we begin to discover in what ways they are more than they seem. But Gandalf is anxious to let Frodo know that to say, “only” in relation to a Ranger, is an even greater insult.

“My dear Frodo, that is just what the Rangers are: the last remnant in the North of the great people, the Men of the West.”

The Great Story into Which Frodo is Drawn

It was Strider’s ancestors who first entered Beleriand in the last centuries of the First Age where they were befriended by the Elves and gave them aid in their wars against Morgoth. That this was the people of Númenor who lived within sight of the Undying Lands. At this point of the story Frodo still has no idea that when Strider had sung the Tale of Beren and Lúthien in the camp below Weathertop he had been singing of his forefathers and foremothers. He does not know how great is the story into which he has been drawn and in which he is to play so great a part. There is one point at which his perception is entirely accurate and that is when he says of Strider “that he reminds me often of you”. But he has not learned to trust his perception. He does not yet know that he, the Elf-friend, is growing in greatness. Perhaps it is just as well, for it necessary that as we grow in greatness we must also grow in humility, to learn that everything is not gained as an achievement but given as a gift. This is the last time that we will refer to Aragorn as Strider but as Aragorn will say at a later stage of the story, Strider “has never been away”.

Strider has Never Been Away

And so we return to Kierkegaard’s story and to his question. Does his prince need to reveal his true identity to his beloved? Might not they live perfectly happily together as peasants for the rest of their lives? Perhaps they might, but equally, they might live together in happiness as a prince and princess. As Frodo is drawn into the great story so too he is becoming great, as Gildor Inglorien first recognised when he named Frodo, Elf-friend, and as Goldberry saw too in the house of Tom Bombadil. Just as with Kierkegaard’s prince, and just as with Strider, he will learn either to assume that greatness or to lay it aside as he chooses or as is necessary. Why cannot Kierkegaard’s peasant girl learn to do the same?