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

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

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

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

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

The Fall of Thangorodrim by Steve Black

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

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

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

The Last Alliance of Elves and Men by Jenny Dolfen

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

Isildur resists Sauron at Orodruin by Alan Lee

At Weathertop With a Long Journey Ahead. Frodo Longs to Go Home.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 180-84

There are moments in any great venture in which its sheer scale becomes all too much. There is no shame in such moments. Who, upon setting out on a great journey, can possibly know all that lies ahead? Modern life seems to require the elimination of as much risk and unpredictability as possible. Those who try to sell us a holiday will brand the experience as an adventure but a true adventure is something in life in which the end is uncertain. A holiday, by comparison, is a distraction from our regular routine.

I expect that they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t

Later in the story, after he has had much more experience of adventure, Sam will reflect on this with Frodo.

“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been landed in them, usually- their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect that they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.”

And it is upon Weathertop, with the first view of snowcapped mountains ahead of him and long leagues of open country between him and the horizon, that Frodo longs to be safe at home, longs to be able to turn back, wishes “bitterly that his fortune had left him in the quiet and beloved Shire.”

Strider Approaches Weathertop with Frodo and Merry

Frodo and his companions have been landed in a story that is quite simply much too big for them. As Gandalf said to Frodo in the sitting room at Bag End it would appear that, first, Bilbo, and then Frodo, were meant to have the Ring. Why this should be is unknown to either them or anyone else. It is not because of their wisdom or might. Later the story will be told about them that will draw attention to both of these qualities but the hobbits will never draw attention to themselves in this regard.

But what of the other heroes that are mentioned in the pages about which we are thinking here? What of Gil-galad and Elendil? They were kings of Elves and of Humankind who were confronted by the might of Sauron at the end of the Second Age. Gil-galad was the last great elven king in Middle-earth, capable of raising an army to fight the Dark Lord in all his power in open battle. Elendil, whose very name means elf-friend, had remained faithful to that friendship when Sauron had seduced Númenor to the worship of Morgoth. He, his family and followers, were literally carried by a great wave to the shores of Middle-earth. It was friendship that brought the last alliance together just as it was friendship that caused the hobbits to leave the Shire with Frodo.

And so it always seems to be. Something compels us to make a choice, to take an action that we never anticipated. There comes a moment in which the thought that we might have to deny something essential about ourselves becomes intolerable. Merry, Pippin and Sam could not have denied their friendship with Frodo to allow him to journey into the wild alone. Elendil could not have denied the friendship that was the meaning of his very name.

And Aragorn, or Strider as we know him in this part of the story, cannot deny the destiny that he must seek to fulfil, spending the years of his manhood as a homeless wanderer in the lands of Middle-earth, sneered at by people like Bill Ferny in Bree. Despite all of his doubts about the hobbits he has promised to save them by life or death if he can.

And so it is on Weathertop, with the signs of Gandalf’s battle about them and the Black Riders assembling on the road beneath them that the companions must try to go on together, hoping against hope.

Alan Lee’s Wonderful Evocation of the Bleak View from Weathertop