“You Have Conquered. Few Have Gained Such a Victory. Be at Peace!” Is Aragorn Just Being Kind to Boromir as He Dies?

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp.537-540

In Tolkien’s telling of the tale the whole of Boromir’s last fight takes place off stage and we are taken with Aragorn upon his pointless climb after Frodo up Amon Hen and then his equally pointless descent of the hill when he hears the horn of Boromir and realises that both Boromir and, probably, the hobbits are in need. At last he draws his bright sword, and crying out, Elendil! Elendil! he crashes through the trees.

But it is all too late. Aragorn finds Boromir “sitting with his back to a great tree” as if he was resting. His body is pierced by many orc arrows, his sword is broken near the hilt and his horn is cloven in two by his side.

Inger Edelfelt’s poignant depiction of the death of Boromir.

Boromir’s final words are both a report on how the hobbits have been taken by orcs and an admission of guilt.

“I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid.”

Anke Eissmann depicts the terrible moment in which Boromir comes to try to take the Ring.

Aragorn’s response is one of great, and gentle, kindness.

“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!”

And Boromir smiles; and then he dies.

Is Aragorn simply being kind to a dying man? One might begin to try to answer this question by saying that such kindness is never a simple matter. When we are with someone as they reach the moment in which they will cross the river, never to return, it is a deeply solemn affair. We are aware that a fellow human being is entering into a mystery about which we know almost nothing. If we are people of faith then we will have received from our traditions some sense of what awaits them and rightly we will seek to comfort the one who is dying with the confidence of that tradition but we all know that faith does not mean seeing. We may even receive some comfort from the dying. A good friend of my wife told me that when her mother was dying she began to speak with joy to the people who were waiting to greet her and our friend was, indeed, greatly comforted by this. But for all the comforts death remains a mystery.

“Alas!” said Aragorn. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of Guard! This is a bitter end.”

But Aragorn’s words to Boromir are more than a matter of comfort, important though that is. They are a matter of truth. Boromir did conquer. Although he did try to take the Ring from Frodo, almost immediately after Frodo’s escape he became aware of what he had done and returned with bitter regret to the place where the rest of the Company were. He met Aragorn’s distress and anger without any attempt at self justification and upon Aragorn’s command to go after Merry and Pippin and to watch over them he did so without question and then gave his life in their defence when they were attacked and taken by the Uruk Hai of Isengard. One might think that for the heir of the Steward of Gondor, one of the mightiest lords of Middle-earth, to give his life for hobbits, perhaps the least significant of its peoples, was a wasted gift, but doubtless Boromir remembered his words to Frodo, of his curse upon all halflings, and wished with all his heart to undo them, to pay a price for what he had sought to do.

Boromir’s deed in laying down his life for the hobbits was a victory over his desire, at all costs, to achieve greatness, to be the hero of Middle-earth and the Third Age. In itself this was a conquest. But it also achieved much in the task of the Fellowship. In taking Merry and Pippin the orcs believed that they had accomplished their mission to seize the halflings and so Frodo and Sam were able to make good their escape and to continue their journey to Mordor. Surely the fact that a great warrior was defending the hobbits convinced Uglûk and the Isengarders that they had done what they had been ordered to do. There was no need to hunt and kill anyone else. They could return to base. The lives of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli were probably saved by this mistake. And surely there is something in Aragorn’s declaration that Minas Tirith would not fall that is linked to Boromir’s conquest. Just as the pity of Bilbo, when he did not begin his keeping of the Ring with the murder of Gollum, was to rule the fate of Middle-earth, might we not say that Boromir’s conquest over the corrupting power of the Ring in his own heart, expressed in his sacrifice for the hobbits and his truth telling to Aragorn, also rules the fate of his people?

I love this depiction of Boromir’s last moments. The picture is entitled ‘The Horn of Boromir’ by Matthew Stewart. Note the contrast between the fear on the faces of Merry and Pippin, the violence of the orcs, and the achievement of an inner peace shown upon the face of Boromir. He has conquered indeed.

Many thanks to Overly Devoted Archivist for letting me know about the source of the artwork. To find Matthew Stewart’s work please go to the comment below and click on the link there.

“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.

“So You Know About Our Little Footpad, Do You?” Gollum Follows The Fellowship Down The Anduin.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.371-375

“His longing for the Ring proved stronger than his fear of the Orcs, or even of light.” So said Gandalf to Frodo in the study at Bag End when he spoke to Frodo of Gollum, of the way in which, two years after the Ring left him in order to find its way back to its master, the Dark Lord who was calling it back to himself, Gollum had emerged from the darkness beneath the Misty Mountains in order to find the Ring and to revenge himself upon the “thief” who had stolen it, Baggins.

The encounter between Gollum and Bilbo deep beneath the Misty Mountains.

And it is the same desire that has driven his pursuit of the Fellowship since first he came upon them in the Mines of Moria. Somehow he had managed to escape the turmoil that followed the fall of the Balrog with Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and although his fear and loathing of Elves or anything elvish prevented him from entering Lothlórien, he had waited, hiding in the woods by the Silverlode, until the journey of the Fellowship began once more.

Aragorn has been aware of him all the time and has known who it has been that has been following them. On the one hand this is because he is one of the great trackers of the age, but it is also because he caught Gollum once. He had found him by a pool in the Dead Marshes, hunting for food and had driven him all the way to the Woodland Realm of the Elves in Mirkwood where Thranduil was to hold him prisoner. But he was not a prisoner for very long. Sauron had a purpose in mind for Gollum and that was to use his desire in order to help in the search for the Ring and so he was freed during an attack by orcs upon his guards and so had been hunting ever since. Probably it had been his intention to make his way through Moria from east to west and then to walk across Eriador all the way to the Shire and so track his mortal enemy down and to regain the Ring.

Although Gollum had dreams of becoming “Gollum the Great” once he had regained the Ring and of paying everyone back for all their mistreatment of him, as he saw it, Sauron had no fear of him. He knew that if ever Gollum were to find the Ring again he would be certain to use it, and as often as possible, and so it would not be long before his servants would track him down and to bring the Ring back at last to its Lord.

And so it is that Gollum has been floating upon a log down the Anduin in pursuit of the Fellowship and why he tries to climb onto the small island in the river where the the boats are moored where Frodo is sleeping even though Aragorn is there also. But Frodo is alert and draws Sting and Gollum quickly makes his escape.

“We shall have to trying going faster tomorrow,” says Aragorn to Frodo. “I wish I could lay my hands on the wretch. We might make him useful. But if I cannot, we shall have to try and lose him.”

The Fellowship Attempt to Escape From Gollum.

By driving their boats forward on the river the next day the Company are able to lose Gollum for a while but all such efforts are ultimately useless. Gollum’s desire for the Ring is so great that again and again he manages to find his way back to it until all comes to a head at the Cracks of Doom upon Orodruin. As Gandalf put it to Frodo Gollum has “no will left in the matter. If ever there was a time when Gollum had possession of the Ring it was very brief. He has never possessed the Ring. The Ring has always possessed him. He may think that he desires the Ring but it would be more true to say that desire has taken possession of him and will never let him go. There will be moments when the “little corner of his mind” that is still his own will emerge but that corner is very small and desperately weak. It will be his desire that will drive him on.

The story will come to its end at the Cracks of Doom.

“He May Play a Part Yet that Neither He Nor Sauron Have Foreseen”. Gandalf and Gollum.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 244-250

No-one seems to be wasted in Gandalf’s world. By this I do not mean that everyone can be used in the sense that we might use an object and then discard it, but that everyone has a part to play in the great story. Readers of The Lord of the Rings will remember that Gandalf spoke of Gollum in much the same way in the long conversation with Frodo in the study at Bag End.

“My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end”.

Gollum may play a part yet

Note that vital phrase. “My heart tells me”. Gandalf is a man of the heart and this is what sets him apart from Sauron and from those who see the world as Sauron does. He is beyond even most of his fellows. None of the Wise would ever wish ill to hobbits but then none but Gandalf would ever expect much of them either. The Wise regard them as many regard children. They are glad that children exist and they delight in their innocence, even taking refuge from time to time in the world of the child as an expression of longing for something that they feel is lost to them forever. But despite this longing they really believe that the world of the child is a world of make believe. It does not actually exist. The real world, sadly but truly (as they see it), is one of calculation and of cold, hard facts. The Rangers are glad to protect hobbits from this cold, hard world beyond the borders of the Shire but it is that cold, hard world that is reality.

It is one thing to find a place in the world for a pleasing anomaly like the Shire, but who wishes to give any place to Gollum? Sauron does give Gollum a place but it is only the place that he gives to every creature and that is based on their usefulness to him. When Sauron captures Gollum he tortures him to find out what he knows about the Ring that he once possessed. In Unfinished Tales we are told that “When he had learned what he could from him, Sauron released him and sent him forth again. He did not trust Gollum, for he divined something indomitable in him, which could not be overcome, even by the Shadow of Fear, except by destroying him. But Sauron perceived the depth of Gollum’s malice towards those that had ‘robbed’ him, and guessing that he would go in search of them to avenge himself, Sauron hoped that his spies would thus be led to the Ring”.

J.M Snooks imagines Sauron with Gollum

Now we begin to perceive the difference between the mind of Sauron and the mind of Gandalf. Sauron is only capable of reducing everything to his own calculation. All calculation reduces the person to an object, to an it. Imagination on the other hand perceives all persons as mystery. Sauron did not “fully comprehend” Gollum but calculated that what he did know would be sufficient for his purposes. Gandalf also did not fully comprehend, in terms of calculation, but listened to his own heart which told him that Gollum would have a part to play that Sauron could not foresee. This is because imagination conceives a world that is greater and more wonderful than its capacity to comprehend it. It can only be grasped and held by love and delight.

Gandalf lives in a world in which pity, mercy and generosity of spirit, open the door to possibilities that are unforeseeable and are yet to be trusted. It was not Gandalf but Bilbo who chose not to kill Gollum when he had the opportunity to do so but Gandalf lives in a world in which a merciful deed can have wonderful consequences even if they cannot be foreseen. Gandalf does not foresee that it is Gollum who will take the Ring to the fire. He does not even know how the Ring will be destroyed. He has seen Frodo fail to throw the Ring into his own fireplace. He probably guesses that the task of destroying the Ring is probably beyond Frodo’s or anyone else’s capacity and yet he still trusts that somehow it will happen because he lives in this world of wonderful and incalculable possibility. Some might call it a fairy tale world, even regarding it with contempt, but those who live as Gandalf does seem to unlock doors of wonderful possibility that those of a calculating spirit cannot even perceive let alone achieve.

Olorin (Gandalf) with his teacher, the Lady Nienna

“Don’t Adventures Ever Have an End?” Frodo, Bilbo and the Ring in the Hall of Fire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 223-26

After the feast concludes Frodo and the whole company make their way, following Elrond and Arwen, to the Hall of Fire, a place which, except on high days “usually stands empty and quiet” and where people come “who wish for peace, and thought”; and it is there that Elrond brings Frodo and Bilbo together, much to their mutual delight.

The Hall of Fire

Frodo discovers that Bilbo had sat with Sam at his bedside through much of the days in which he had lain, close to death, as the sliver of the Morgul blade, wielded by the Witch-king of Angmar, worked its way slowly towards his heart. And Frodo also learns that Bilbo has not been at the feast. Indeed that Bilbo is now old and is content to be alone with his own thoughts in this quiet place, composing a poem that he will perform before the assembled company before all retire to their rooms and dwelling places.

Bilbo and Frodo in the Hall of Fire

Little has the capacity to stir Bilbo now; except for one thing.

“Have you got it here?” he asked in a whisper. “I can’t help feeling curious, you know, after all I’ve heard. I should very much like just to peep at it again.”

Bilbo, of course, is speaking of the Ring, and there follows a brief period which, for Frodo, and then for Bilbo as well, is one of the most distressing that he has known. Frodo finds himself looking at “a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands”. The parallel with Gollum is all too clear for those who know the story. This is what the Ring does to those who have possessed it. This is what they are reduced to. Hungry and groping. They become spiritually ravenous and never satisfied. And except in degrees of power there is no distinction between Sauron, Gollum and, for a moment at least, Bilbo too. Each is reduced to the desire to consume all and everyone, “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

In Bilbo’s case the triumph of his desire for the Ring is but momentary. Perhaps his distance from the Ring over many years and perhaps even the fact that he gave it up freely, albeit with a little help from Gandalf, enables Bilbo to master his craving; but for that moment the absolutely evil potential of the Ring mars the great love that Bilbo and Frodo have for one another and it even reduces the serene gathering of the company in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, a place where at one moment Frodo wondered if people were ever ill, to an unhappy silence.

That moment passes as Frodo puts the Ring away but the distress that Bilbo feels as he realises, maybe for the very first time, the power that the Ring has over him and the burden that his beloved Frodo has to bear is heartbreaking.

“Don’t adventures ever come to an end?”

How does one portray Bilbo as hungry and groping?

And with this thought the whole entirety of Tolkien’s legendarium is brought together. And so too is the entirety of human history of the mythical world of which each one of us is a part. By myth we speak here of the age long need to find meaning in the age long sequence of events that have constituted the history of the cosmos ever since the Big Bang (as far as we know) and, in particular, the need to find meaning in the story of ourselves ever since we first emerged into consciousness in Africa long ago. Or not so long in comparison with the whole. This is the story told in the Music of the Ainur, and we will return to this next week. The story told in Tolkien’s creation myth, a story that the wise know is not about the manufacture of a clock that is then more or less left to its own devices, but one to which the divine is intimately connected at all times and in all places. Bilbo and Frodo are both a part of the one great adventure as are we. Does this adventure ever end? The Music of the Ainur reaches a sublime conclusion, but there is a beyond. There is always a beyond. But what that is is known only to the One.

The Pity of Bilbo.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 55-59

The story of Gollum that Gandalf tells comes to a great climax in two separate passages in which Gandalf speaks of Pity. The first comes after Frodo’s desperate cry, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

gollum-and-bilbo (1)

And Gandalf replies, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.”

The second climax comes as Frodo cries out, “He deserves death”.

And Gandalf replies, “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least.”

Readers of The Lord of the Rings know that Gandalf’s words are prophetic. The fate of all the Free Peoples is indeed ruled by Bilbo’s Pity because it is Gollum who takes the Ring to the Fire in which it had been forged when, in the violence of his attack upon Frodo and his uncontrollable excitement in regaining possession of the Ring, he overbalances and so falls into the Cracks of Doom. And Frodo is delivered from the overwhelming power of the Ring that has overthrown his mind at last by that same Pity. If it had not been for Bilbo under the Misty Mountains and then Frodo himself when he captures Gollum beneath the Emyn Muil there can have been no triumph.

And yet… after Gandalf has told the tale of Déagol’s murder and Gollum’s dreadful deeds in Mirkwood (did he really sneak through windows to steal and eat small children?) and how he had betrayed the existence of the One Ring and the name of Baggins and the Shire to the Dark Lord himself so that the search was now on for its whereabouts, how can we blame Frodo for what he says?

And when he says that Gollum “deserves death” surely he is right. He deserves death for the crimes he has already committed and also to prevent the appalling consequence of the Ring falling into the hands of the Dark Lord.

Yet when Gandalf responds to Frodo’s cry he is not persuaded in the slightest. He ends his argument with the appeal to Pity which is appropriate in one who sat in the school of the Lady Nienna, the Lady of Pity, of Mercy and of Mourning, the one who taught the importance of lamentation, of tears, in the life of Arda. It is Pity that eventually leads to the destruction of the Ring and the downfall of Sauron but Pity cannot guarantee any outcome. What Gandalf appeals to before he speaks of Pity is something quite remarkable.

Lady Nienna

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

The remarkable thing that Gandalf appeals to is the ability to take away and to give life. It is a great sadness that we are all capable of taking away life and so we give much thought to this power. Who has the right? Under what circumstances can this right, if right it is, be exercised? And so we think about murder, manslaughter,judicial execution and warfare, just or otherwise. Much of our judicial attention is given to preventing death or to punishing those who cause it illegally.

But what about the giving of life? This ability plays such an important role in Tolkien’s work. And it is made clear from the beginning that this right belongs only to God, to Eru, the One, Illuvatar. Morgoth seeks to create life, but fails, and at the last is able only to mar the creation in mockery of Illuvatar so forming the twisted shapes of the orcs and trolls and other fell creatures. And Aule does give life to the dwarves but has to make them sleep until the permissive word is given by the source of all life.

aule_the_destroyer

So, Gandalf argues, if you do not have the right to give life what right do you have to take it? Both the giving and taking of life is a denial of Providence the hand of grace that orders all our affairs whether we are small or great. And in many ways the whole of The Lord of the Rings is an extended meditation upon Providence, upon those who are willing to trust it and those who try to resist it.

Bilbo and Frodo Were “Meant” to Have the Ring. The Hand of Providence in The Lord of the Rings.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 53-57

Frodo is disgusted by the story of how Sméagol had murdered his closest friend, Déagol, and taken the Ring and so began the journey from being a hobbit to becoming the “loathsome creature” that Bilbo had encountered deep beneath the Misty Mountains many years before. Gandalf tries to engage Frodo’s sympathy for a fellow creature but at this point in the story he has little success. Frodo even finds it difficult to believe that Gollum might have been a hobbit like him.

We cannot really blame Frodo for his reaction to Gollum and in a further reflection that will be published soon we will think about how we learn to pity another. Frodo has to go some distance yet down the road of experience in order to learn pity and it is not only experience itself that teaches. Gandalf and Sauron are both Maiar and so belong to the same order of angelic being with the same long experience of time and all its sorrow and joy. And yet while Gandalf has learnt Pity Sauron has entirely rejected it. Among the Valar, the Divinities of Tolkien’s legendarium, Gandalf sought out the Lady Nienna as his teacher while Sauron sought out Melkor who became Morgoth. Consequently Gandalf never achieved the power that Sauron did but he did learn Pity and Patience which were to prove to be so much more important.

Lady Nienna

Gandalf as Olorin and The Lady Nienna

One of the most important things that Gandalf learnt through his long practice both of Pity and of Patience was the ability to discern the significance of small things. Whereas Sauron could think only in terms of the exercise of his own will and whatever might aid or frustrate it Gandalf could see the exercise of another hand in history to which he must pay close attention and that this hand is as likely to work through small things as through great.

When he speaks of the Ring being found “by the most unlikely person imaginable” Gandalf is speaking of the work of this hand.

“Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring  and not by its maker.”

l3

Gandalf is capable of discerning that “something else at work” in the astonishing moment of chance in which Bilbo places his hand upon the Ring because of his long practice of paying the closest attention to things. And when we speak of things we are not speaking of those things that are generally regarded as important but of small things. Things like hobbits.

Gandalf expects to see the hand of Providence at work in such things. Sauron does not look for the hand of Providence at all. The direct intervention of the Valar at the end of the First Age and that of Eru, the One, when Ar-Pharazôn of Númenor attacks the Undying Lands, takes him entirely by surprise. But that he might fall because of hobbits is a possibility that could never have entered even his darkest thoughts. You require certain powers of imagination in order to see Providence at work and Sauron not only has no imagination but he despises it. It is necessary to have imagination in order to people the world with hobbits and dwarves and ents. Sauron, like his master, Morgoth, before him, can only think in terms of slaves and of usefulness.

At_the_entmoot

At The Entmoot by Stephen Hickman

Oh, the limitations of the practically minded! Those whose careful cost-benefit analyses can only be constructed in terms of profitability. Those who are prepared to declare whole peoples useless and to construct realities in which the useless no longer exist. Those for whom trees have only value as a carbon based energy source. Those who can only look at land as potential real-estate. At the last they must fall before the playful, the imaginative and the foolish.

Gandalf is accused of being trivial in his love of pipe-weed, fireworks and hobbits and accused of madness in entrusting the Ring to a “witless halfling”. But he has seen something that others have not. That no-one can simply abandon the Ring (or cast it into the Fire for that matter) unless another hand is at work and he has discerned that hand at work in the hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.

And that is an encouraging thought!

Gandalf Speaks of How Sméagol Took the Ring and So Became Gollum.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 51-53

Gandalf is answering a question that Frodo asked him fearfully and desperately.

“How on earth did it come to me?”

Gandalf Rejects the Ring

Frodo is speaking of the Ring of Power forged by Sauron so that he might become lord of all the earth. In a few short minutes Frodo has journeyed from being a hobbit enjoying a comfortable if rather a dull life to one at the very centre of the great events of his age. He has already protested against the apparent injustice of his fate. If Gandalf had invited him to be a part of an adventure he might have responded with more enthusiasm. To go on an adventure would have been a conscious and carefully considered choice, although when Bilbo made that choice it had to be done in haste before the possibility passed him by for ever. Frodo is given no choice. The Ring has come to him and its maker is searching for it.

And so Gandalf gives him a brief overview of the history of the Second and Third Ages, of the evil desire of Sauron and the brave resistance of Elendil of Gondor and Arnor and Gil-galad, the High King of the Elves. He speaks of how Isildur, son of Elendil, cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand but how he failed to destroy it, eventually losing it in an orc ambush in the Gladden Fields in which he lost his life. He tells Frodo how the Ring remained hidden for long years there until it was found by hobbit like creatures near their ancestral home.

Isildur-Takes-Ring

The Ring was found by Déagol, friend of Sméagol, a friend, that is, until the moment in which Sméagol murdered him because the Ring “looked so bright and beautiful”.  And so began Sméagol’s unhappy career as a creature of power and menace, a career in which he began as a hobbit and ended as Gollum, a name given to him in contempt by his fellows but one that eventually he took for himself, or at least for that expression of himself that was entirely under the power of the Ring.

In Peter Jackson’s films we are given the impression that Sméagol’s decision to murder his friend was because of the overwhelming and entirely malicious power of the Ring and it is true that the Ring plays a key role in the whole unhappy affair. But Tolkien would not allow so simple an explanation. Before the moment of the Ring’s discovery and the murder, Sméagol had a career. We learn that he “was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he into green mounds”. In other words he was a scientist.

smeagol before the ring

Now before all the scientists who are among my readers cry out in protest let me say that I do not believe that Tolkien was against the scientific method in and of itself. What he tried to get us to see is that knowledge can never take the place of wisdom. Poor Sméagol may have learnt all that there is about the roots and beginnings of things but he never learnt how to find love, or joy, or peace. He may have stolen a tool that could give him power but he had to trade happiness in order to gain it. As Gandalf was to say later to Saruman, those who break a thing in order to find out what it is leave the path of wisdom. Sméagol, like Saruman, was a breaker, a manipulator, and a fool!

Sméagol’s journey took him deeper into the roots of things, away from the warming sun, the gentle breeze and the kind company of friends and kinsfolk. He went down into the tunnels underneath the mountains, down into the dark. It is the inevitable end for one who chooses power over others in stead of the service of others. The dark may not be physical as it was in Sméagol’s case but it is utterly isolating. It is the reality that comes when someone turns inward, centreing only upon themself, turning away from others.

Gollum-Smeagol

But at last a moment of grace broke into Sméagol’s dark world in the form of a hobbit who was utterly lost. But would Sméagol recognise it when it came?

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Bilbo Baggins’s Little Joke

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 25-30

How might the Ring, the “One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them in the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie”, how might it have eventually taken possession of Bilbo had he kept it long enough?

I think that we get a clue that might help us answer this question in Bilbo’s “little joke”. The joke is first introduced to us in a conversation between Bilbo and Gandalf. Gandalf urges Bilbo to stick to his “whole plan”, in other words to give up the Ring of his own accord. Bilbo answers, “I mean to enjoy myself on Thursday, and have my little joke.”

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Gandalf plainly does not appreciate the joke and wonders who will laugh as he shakes his head. Bilbo’s reply gives us an insight into his character.

“We shall see,” he said.

In other words Bilbo does not much care who does or does not laugh as long as he enjoys himself. You see, Bilbo has a very high opinion of his own cleverness and a fairly low opinion of the cleverness of his fellow hobbits. One might argue that he has good reason for both opinions. Although his actual finding of the Ring was entirely fortuitous (except for the “meant to find it” that Gandalf will one day tell Frodo about!) his use of it thereafter until the end of his adventures as recounted in The Hobbit shows a high degree of intelligence, common sense and an ability to remain calm in a crisis. Even among his companions on the expedition to the Lonely Mountain the Ring chose the person best able to make use of it, excepting Gandalf, of course. And eventually Bilbo comes to realise this himself.

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I do not mean to be critical of him here. Self-awareness is praiseworthy and false modesty has little to recommend it. Bilbo’s growing self-confidence plays a vital role in the events of The Hobbit but there is little doubt that Bilbo becomes really quite pleased with himself.

Pleased, that is, until he realises that the Dwarves’ thirst for wealth is in danger of causing catastrophe among the Men of Esgaroth on the Long Lake, the Elves of the Woodland Realm and also the Dwarves themselves. At this point it is not so much Bilbo’s cleverness but his kindness that comes to the fore. At no point in the story does he wish to do harm to anyone, not even those who wish to hurt him, as can be seen in his sparing of Gollum.

But it is his cleverness and not his kindness that leads him to decide to use the Ring in order to make his disappearance from the Shire all the more dramatic. He wants to be talked about, to enjoy a certain notoriety and he wants to enjoy the effect that he makes. When Gandalf asks the question, who will enjoy your joke, the answer is, no-one, that is no-one except Bilbo himself and for Bilbo that is quite enough.

How would the Ring have insinuated itself into Bilbo’s heart? Surely by isolating him within his own self-satisfaction until there was room for no-one else. Once that had happened other people would either be fools or a threat. Even on the night of the party we see how Gandalf is a threat, one who might take the Ring from him, while he wants a holiday from everyone else. One wonders if he had taken the Ring with him whether he would ever have found a resting place. Later in Rivendell Bilbo will complain that he has been refused permission to go back to Hobbiton to get the Ring. “They seemed to think that the Enemy was looking high and low for me, and would make mincemeat of me, if he caught me tottering about in the Wild.” Bilbo may have been talking lightly but he was speaking a truth that went deeper than his words. He would have become a lonely figure “tottering about in the Wild” and eventually  he would have fallen into the hands of either the Enemy or of Gollum.

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But Bilbo is saved from that fate both because there is a goodness that goes very deep down inside him and thanks to the help of a very good friend. But more on that next week.

 

“Where Shall I Find Rest?” Frodo Longs For Home. His True Home.

The hobbits are eager for home and set out for the Shire with Gandalf. It is the sixth of October when they reach the Ford of Bruinen, a place redolent with memory for Frodo as he almost fell into the grasp of the Nazgûl there. The date too is filled with ominous significance. It was on this date a year before that the Nazgûl attacked the camp below Weathertop and Frodo received a wound that almost made him a wraith like them but under their power.

The combination of the two is almost too much for Frodo and he says to Gandalf: “I am wounded with knife, sting and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”

Right from the very beginning of the quest it has been clear that Frodo and his companions have taken on a task that is too big for them. For the briefest of moments Frodo is excited by the thought of the adventure that lies ahead but soon that excitement is replaced by the unhappy realisation that he must leave the Shire, leave his friends, leave home. And soon it is clear that there are powers in the world that are far greater than he is. Old Man Willow in the Old Forest; the Wight in the Barrow Downs; and most deadly of all, the Nazgûl haunting their every step along the way. Aragorn doubts the hobbits’ capacity for the task. Butterbur fears they behave like gentlemen engaged in nothing more dangerous than a walking holiday.

But that is exactly the point. That is the mysterious wisdom of The Lord of the Rings. This is a task that can only be achieved by those for whom it is too great. Those who might have the capacity to undertake the task, who might be strong enough to carry the Ring to Mordor in order to destroy it are those who are in the greatest danger. Gandalf and Galadriel are both offered the Ring and both reject it despite being profoundly tempted to take it. They have come to realise that it is stronger than they are and that in taking it they would begin the road to becoming the Dark Lord or Lady. Boromir does not understand this believing that his noble spirit is sufficient defence against the Ring and he is almost overthrown entirely.

The task and the Ring itself is most certainly too great for Frodo and he knows that it is. Even he begins to ponder what it might mean to seek to possess and to use the Ring as he shows in his questioning of Galadriel at her mirror. Eventually it will overcome him and only through the strange mercy of Gollum’s attack will he and all Middle-earth be saved.

Frodo is saved but he is broken too. The knife that the Witch King of Angmar drove into his shoulder at Weathertop, the sting of Shelob in her lair, Gollum’s tooth biting the Ring from his finger at the Cracks of Doom and worst of all, the slow, inexorable overpowering that the Ring achieves over him, all these have done their terrible work.

“Where shall I find rest?”

Frodo knows that the return to the Shire will be no true home-coming for him. It may be the same but he will not be. This is a powerful insight and one that Tolkien must have gained on his return from the trenches of the First World War as did so many of his generation. It was not just the journey from the familiarity of home to the horror of the battlefield that lead to a profound sense of displacement but the journey back again to what should have been familiar but was no longer. Frodo puts it this way. “It shall not be the same; for I shall not be the same”.

Frodo knows that if there is to be a place of rest for him then it will be somewhere else than the Shire but he does not know where such a place can be. We might know that this sense of displacement, of homelessness, of exile is that which will lead us in search of our true home but when we are gripped by this it is nothing less than terrible.