“Now I Can Take a Night’s Rest, The First Since I Have Forgotten When”. Gandalf is Able to Rest Even While Riding The Storm.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 254-258

The words in this week’s title come in the midst of a passage that is moves at a ferocious pace. From the moment in which Saruman has Gandalf confined to the pinnacle of Orthanc to the moment in which Gandalf apologises to Frodo for failing to keep his promise Tolkien takes us upon a journey that covers most of the western lands of Middle-earth and some east of the Misty Mountains too.

The journey begins with honest Radagast, keeping his promise to gather news and to send it to Gandalf in Isengard, a promise that he keeps even as he rides towards his home in Mirkwood. The Eagles of Manwë, Lord of the Valar, fly over many lands observing “the gathering of wolves and the mustering of orcs” and the ferocious pursuit search for the Ring by the Nazgûl. Gwaihir, the Windlord, takes Gandalf from his prison and carries him to Edoras and the hall of Théoden, King of Rohan, where Gandalf takes a horse, the mighty Shadowfax, who takes him hundreds of leagues even as Frodo and his companions rest in the house of Tom Bombadil and then have their misadventure in the Barrow Downs and their night at The Prancing Pony in Bree.

Ted Nasmith depicts Gandalf’s escape from Orthanc upon Gwaihir

Gandalf arrives in Bree upon the very same day in which the hobbits had set off towards Rivendell with Aragorn and upon receiving this news from Barliman Butterbur with joy he decides to rest.

I have always enjoyed the moment in which Gandalf lays Butterbur’s beer “under an enchantment of surpassing excellence”. Apart from the obvious and enticing pleasure of excellent beer it is a moment in which we gain an insight into his character. Gandalf does not live at a great height in some remote and, to others, inaccessible place. In recent weeks we have poked fun at Saruman’s “high and lonely destiny”. Gandalf, the grey pilgrim, is as much at home in an inn at Bree, smoking his pipe and savouring the pleasure of good beer, as he is amongst the great. Not only does he enjoy simple pleasures for their own sake he also understands their importance in the wider scheme of things. Places of hospitality play a key role in the whole story of The Lord of the Rings. Without them the Ring could never have been taken to Mordor. All along the East-West road through Eriador from Rivendell to Bree to the Shire to the Grey Havens lie such places, places in which the giving of welcome is something that is prized. Such welcome is a inner disposition, an enjoyment of the stranger as well as those who are familiar. And, of course, there are the places along the road that are less known, where unexpected hospitality is given; places like Woodhall and Farmer Maggot’s farm, Crickhollow and Tom Bombadil’s cottage. It is because of the spirit of hospitality that the Quest of the Ring is ultimately successful and Gandalf has spent long years nurturing this spirit.

Places of hospitality in a cold world

Gandalf is a warmer of hearts. He is the bearer of Narya, the ring of fire but this is not external to his character but merely an intensification of it. When Cirdan gave Narya to Gandalf and not to Saruman it was because of a recognition that he was the right bearer of such power. There are other uses that fire can be put to than the warming of hearts. Gandalf saw such uses as a prisoner in Orthanc in Saruman’s “pits and forges”. Places in which creatures are merely put to temporary use, in which shelter is a necessity required to enable production. Later Merry and Pippin will enjoy the hospitality of Isengard but will do so as a spoil of war and not as a freely given gift.

Merry and Pippin enjoy the unintended hospitality of Isengard

That Gandalf does not come to a place like The Prancing Pony in Bree as a figure of terror as do the Nazgûl is because he has chosen not to do so, a choice that he has made over and over again throughout the long and hidden years. That Aragorn and the hobbits are able to enjoy Butterbur’s hospitality too is the fruit of this choice and why Gandalf is able to sleep, albeit briefly, before returning to the great struggle.

“Saruman, You Missed Your Path in Life. You Should Have Been the King’s Jester”. On Seeing Through Saruman’s Fantasy World.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins) pp. 251-254

I am sure that my readers have recognised that the quotation from The Lord of the Rings that is contained in this week’s title does not come from the encounter between Gandalf and Saruman that Gandalf describes at the Council of Elrond in Rivendell but from the chapter entitled The Voice of Saruman that comes after the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers. I have deliberately done this because I want to come back to the question of humour that I began to discuss in last week’s post and the critique of modernity that lies within Tolkien’s work and the work of the Inklings. Last week I compared the speech made by Saruman in Isengard to the captured Gandalf with speeches made by Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew and by Weston in Out of the Silent Planet both written by C.S Lewis. I noted that each speech seemed “well rehearsed” and then I noted that each speech was as much an exercise in self-aggrandisement as it was in presenting something that was objectively true. At all times the speaker was saying, “Look at me!”

Is Harold Jig depicting the court jester in the figure of Saruman?

There have been times when I have thought that humour is merely an expression of despair. I imagine myself standing in the queue for the gas chamber in a concentration camp and standing beside us is an entertainer whose job it is to cheer us up. The entertainer is doing the funniest imitations of the guards and even the camp commandant and despite ourselves we are all enjoying his performance but one by one, even amidst the laughter, we are all disappearing into the gas chamber. Perhaps when we are all gone the entertainer will follow us and perish just as we all did. Sometimes I have felt that the satire on late night TV is of that nature. We share the joke with the performer, congratulating ourselves on our ability to see through the person or situation that is being satirised but deep down we know that we are laughing on the way to the gas chamber.

Is Gandalf’s humour and the laughter in Lewis’s works at the expense of Weston and of Uncle Andrew of that nature? Are they merely trying to cheer us up as we make our inevitable journeys into the dark? Certainly the fantasy worlds that these characters create in which they are the central figure, these are risible. The genius that Lewis displays in putting the words “Ours is a high and lonely destiny” into the mouth of a character as obviously contemptible as Uncle Andrew is to render those same words as equally contemptible no matter who speaks them. When Saruman makes his speech he reveals himself as just another Uncle Andrew but what do we gain from such awareness if we are all on our way to the gas chamber? In Tolkien’s legendarium it is the archetypal figure of Morgoth who infects the world with his assertion that the darkness is the final reality. Verlyn Flieger shows how Tolkien struggled with the fear that Morgoth might be right throughout his life speaking of the loss of his parents in his childhood and then the loss of all his closest friends during the First World War. She shows how in his seminal essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” he speaks of a world ringed with a shoreless sea in which “as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat”. Gandalf’s laughter at Saruman’s expense may be no more than defiance in the face of inevitable defeat or it can be an expression of hope.

Gandalf’s Laughter. Despair or Hope?

Flieger speaks of two words that Tolkien coined that, in many ways, described both his own inner spiritual conflict and also the spiritual conflict of our age. These are dyscatastrophe and euchatastrophe. If dyscatastrophe is at best a heroic life in the face of inevitable defeat then euchatastrophe is a world in which I might lose myself but then find it again “in another and perhaps higher world”. This, of course, is Frodo’s journey to the “far green country under a swift sunrise” that follows his defeat in Middle-earth. Tolkien chose this ending to The Lord of the Rings, a poignant, tear stained but ultimately hopeful ending. We have the same choice of possible endings for our own story and the story of our world.

A Far Green Country

“Ours is a High and Lonely Destiny”. Is the Lord of Isengard Saruman or Uncle Andrew?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 251-254

Scholars of the Inklings speak of a certain cooling of the friendship between Tolkien and C.S Lewis following the publication and subsequent success of Lewis’s Narnia stories. It is not my intention to go into this here but I do want to draw the attention of my readers to a similarity between the speech that Saruman makes to Gandalf and that which Uncle Andrew makes to Digory in The Magician’s Nephew. We might extend that similarity to Weston’s speech, translated by Ransom, to the Oyarsa of Malacandra in Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet even though it was first published seventeen years before The Magician’s Nephew. Each of the speeches are similar in spirit. Each one has the sense of it being, as Tolkien describes Saruman’s speech, “long rehearsed”. And each speech is risible in nature. Lewis is quite explicit in this. Both Weston and Uncle Andrew are treated as laughable by those that they are trying to impress. Tolkien is never explicit in this manner and this might be regarded as a difference between him and Lewis as writers of fiction but I have written in this blog before of the way in which Saruman descends into absurdity as the story progresses. While Gollum’s fall into the fires of Orodruin calls upon our pity and Sauron’s fall into nothingness is a terrible thing, Saruman somehow becomes an unhappy joke. Not that anyone in the story is laughing, except perhaps for Merry and Pippin.

Harold Jig’s excellent imagining of Saruman’s display

I am sure that most of my readers recognised the quotation in the title of this week’s post as coming from The Magician’s Nephew. “Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are free from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.” Uncle Andrew is at one and the same time trying to impress his nephew with his significance while, at the same time, seeking to justify the low mean trick that he has just played upon Polly. In his speech to the Oyarsa in Out of the Silent Planet Weston is also trying to impress his audience while justifying his murder of some of the creatures of Malacandra. “To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race”.

Andrew Ketterley imagines Uncle Andrew’s Mean Trick Upon Polly

And then there is Saruman’s speech to Gandalf. Last week we thought about Saruman’s display of his own significance. The ring upon his finger, the coat of many colours and the magnificence of Isengard itself, are all intended to impress and to intimidate. This is a strategy that works with the Dunlendings but most certainly not with Gandalf. Nor does his speech, however well rehearsed it is.

“The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men that we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.”

One can only guess that the kind of spirit that Saruman, Uncle Andrew and Weston all display must have been discussed when the Inklings met and certainly it must have been recognised and deplored by Tolkien and Lewis. Each of these characters place themselves within modernity, regarding themselves as its heralds, even its guardians and each of them enthusiastically adopt a chronological snobbery that regards any kind of morality other than the right of the strong to order and exploit the lives of the weak as being contemptible. Tolkien describes this contempt eloquently in his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. He speaks of the difference between the War of the Ring to the Second World War that had taken place as he was writing his own work. If, he says, the two had resembled each other more, the Ring would most certainly have been used against Sauron and then he says of Saruman that if he had failed to get possession of the Ring he “would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves”.

All of the works of the Inklings are a critique of this version of modernity and, as we have noted, as well as this version being cruel it is also absurd. We will return to this in next week’s blog.

“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

“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

“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

All That is Gold Does Not Glitter. Aragorn’s Journey Towards His Crown.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.240-243

My feelings about Peter Jackson’s film retelling of The Lord of the Rings have always been mixed but I have never denied that he had the right to make such an attempt. Tolkien always felt that the task that he had been given was to create a mythology for England, one that he felt was lost after the Norman Conquest of 1066. And just as the Arthurian legends have been told and retold by many voices (Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram Von Eschenbach and Thomas Malory come to mind, as well as T.H White and others in the modern era) so we must surely permit voices other than Tolkien to do the same to his legendarium. This will include film and fanfiction in our era, some of which will stand the test of time as being a true retelling of the myth while others will rapidly disappear into the dark. Of one thing that we can say of Peter Jackson’s films is that they have already lasted 20 years since the first of the three was released and although they have their flaws on the whole they show no sign of ageing.

As I have been thinking about Aragorn and Boromir and the war dance that they do around each other so the way in which Jackson treats the two characters has also come to mind; and if I felt that Jackson’s portrayal of Boromir through Sean Bean’s fine performance is of a character too fully formed, then I think that Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is much closer to Tolkien’s original conception.

It is really important that when we first meet Aragorn we do not receive him as the fully formed King of Gondor and of Arnor, the heir of Valandil, of Isildur and of Elendil. When we first meet him in The Prancing Pony in Bree, his well formed Strider persona is more than a name given to him by Barliman Butterbur. Although he bears a certain resentment about the name it belongs to the Ranger doing his work in secret and thanklessly. Readers of my blog may remember a piece that I wrote a few months ago about Frodo’s exclamation, “I thought he was only a Ranger.” Even though Frodo always feels that Aragorn is more than he seems even so he fails to perceive the light of Númenor in his companion. Aragorn has grown into his disguise. He is a Ranger.

Strider the Ranger

So it is that in Jackson’s The Return of the King Elrond arrives at Dunharrow just before Aragorn and his companions make the journey through the Paths of the Dead. He brings the sword that was broken with him, reforged and renamed. It is no longer Narsil but Andúril, the flame of the west and Elrond presents it to him with the words, “Become who you were born to be”. Aragorn takes the sword and as he raises it Howard Shore’s magnificent music underlines the significance of the moment. What is significant in Jackson’s retelling is that all this takes place within one short scene. We miss the slow transformation that Tolkien offers to us but whether the transformation takes place in a moment or over many years what is true for Aragorn is that it must take place or he will shrink into diminishment.

Become Who You Were Meant to Be

Each one of us takes a journey that leads to the same end that Aragorn reaches. While we will not receive the crown of the heir of Elendil each one of us should enter into our archetypal kingliness as a king or queen and it is one of life’s greatest sadnesses that so many achieve only a diminished version of what they could be. The same discipline that Aragorn accepts after Elrond tells him that his daughter will not be “the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor or Arnor”, the discipline that takes him through years of struggle, must be undertaken by all us if we are to enter into the royalty that is our birthright. Aragorn’s path will be a lonely one for both his personal happiness as well as his royal destiny are intimately linked. Ultimately he will achieve both together but might he have chosen to shrink into one who was “only a Ranger”? Might he have withered even as Bilbo’s verse speaks about? Might he have withdrawn into the shadows of his own greatness? The answer to that question has to be yes, just as it is for all the characters in the story. As Sam Gamgee says of all heroes as he and Frodo prepare to enter Mordor, “I expect that they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t”.

Alfred the Great when all that is left of England is an island in the marshes. I chose this image to give a historical example of the long hard journey into the kingly archetype.

“Seek for the Sword That Was Broken: In Imladris It Dwells.” Boromir Speaks of His Mission to Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.239-240

Boromir is in Rivendell because he has been called there by a dream. This is no dream that begins and ends in doubt but one that is crystal clear in its content and it has been repeated over and over again. We are left in no doubt that Boromir is supposed to be here except it was not supposed to be Boromir but his brother, Faramir.

“A dream came to my brother in a troubled sleep; and afterwards a like dream came oft to him again, and once to me.”

Boromir by Donato Giancola. I like the way he captures Boromir’s insecurity of character.

That Boromir is at the Council and not his brother is because of Boromir’s masterful nature. Everything about the dream has something of the heroic quest about it. The hero must go upon a perilous journey “over many dangerous leagues” and must bring back a gift to his people. In this case it is the gift of counsel. What does the dream mean?

Seek for the Sword that was broken:
   In Imladris it dwells;
There shall be counsels taken 
   Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token 
    That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur's Bane shall waken, 
    And the Halfling forth shall stand. 


The first thing that we notice is that the dream is intended to hit the dreamer right between the eyes. Compare it with the dreams that Frodo has at Crickhollow or in the House of Tom Bombadil. We know where these dreams will eventually take Frodo but Frodo himself has absolutely no idea. He just has to keep on walking toward his destiny one step at a time. Even as we ponder Boromir and Faramir’s dream we know that Frodo sits silently among the company even as that destiny unfolds. We know how the Council will end but Frodo sits in a cloud of unknowing.

Boromir’s dream is completely different. Every line in the verse has an explicit interpretation and yet, as far as we can tell from Boromir’s telling of the story, no-one in Gondor seems to be able to say what the verse means. The only guidance that Denethor offers is that Imladris is the home of Elrond Half-elven and that it lies in the north. Is this why the guidance that the dream offers is so explicit? Compared to Frodo’s dreams this is guidance for children and yet it has such an air of mystery about it.

Within minutes of Boromir’s telling of his story much of its meaning will have been revealed. Aragorn will show Boromir the shards of Narsil, the Sword that was broken. Elrond will command Frodo, the Halfling, to bring forth Isildur’s Bane, the One Ring, to display it to the Council. All this is clear. But there is subtlety contained within the verse as well. Boromir is told that in Imladris, in Rivendell, counsels will be taken “stronger than Morgul spells”. These words ought to make it clear to Boromir that what is decided at the Council is more powerful than the danger posed by the enemies of Gondor and yet all that he says about Elrond’s wisdom is a somewhat dismissive comment about the relative importance of Rivendell’s wisdom as against its military strength. We are left in little doubt which of the two Boromir considers more important. It reminds us of Stalin’s famous dismissal of the importance of the Vatican and the Papacy when he asked about how many divisions the Pope had.

A broken sword? A Halfling? Counsels that are taken? All these somewhat beyond our brave warrior. There is only one thing that really catches his attention and that is the Ring, Isildur’s Bane. We know this tragic tale will play out. And so why was this divine guidance given at all? Would it not have been better if Boromir had never come to Imladris? Has the divine guide not simply made a big mistake here? Or would it not have been better if the voice who spoke these words had ended by saying, “And I want Faramir to go to Rivendell?” But it is necessary that all the free peoples of Middle-earth should be represented in Rivendell on that day, that all should be drawn into the Quest of the Ring and the decision that is to be made. Gondor must be at the Council because Gondor will be at the heart of the events that are going to unfold.

Catherine Chmiel imagines Faramir and Boromir’s Farewell

“Give Me Leave, Master Elrond… to Say More of Gondor.” Boromir Speaks of His Homeland and Himself.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 239-40

Let me begin by speaking well of this young man. It is necessary that I should do so because it will not take long for Bilbo of the Shire to lose patience with him. Boromir has listened in polite silence to Elrond for a considerable amount of time and during that time he has interrupted only once. He has even listened in silence while Elrond has rehearsed the history of Gondor speaking of its slow but inexorable decline. So let us praise this proud young man for remaining silent whilst his elders speak. But now he can remain silent no longer.

Boromir Listens Patiently at the Council

“Give me leave, Master Elrond…first to say more of Gondor.”

And so he speaks, but when he does so everything that he says is well known to the company that are gathered there and much of it displays his ignorance of the world outside the borders of his land. For Boromir knows nothing of the mighty deeds done by others that have also kept the enemy at bay. He does not know of Gandalf’s ceaseless toil and the great battle of the Five Armies on the slopes of Erebor without which it would be a mighty dragon and vast orc armies that would have controlled the vales of Anduin behind the borders of Gondor and at which Gloín fought and Bilbo was present. Nor does he know anything of the mighty deeds of Aragorn who has trod the Morgul Vale alone, a place where no man of Gondor has been in ages long since their last king rode to hopeless battle with the Morgul Lord. Nor does Boromir know that all present know of whom he speaks when he tells them of the power present at the taking of the bridges of Osgiliath who caused fear to fall on the boldest of Gondor and he does not know that Aragorn and Glorfindel have just faced this same foe at the Fords of Bruinen. Indeed Aragorn has done so twice, the other occasion being the fight in the dell below Weathertop. And indeed we might add that there was a hobbit there on both occasions who did not flee but sought to withstand “the great black horseman”, namely Frodo.

Aragorn and Glorfindel at the Fords of Bruinen

But we forgive him because we know that space must be given to the pride of young men to express itself and that such pride must be guided and not crushed. We know that life itself will teach wisdom to young men through failure and humiliation and that it does not require those of us who are elders to bring about such failure through our cruelty or even our malice. Boromir will fail in the most terrible manner and will live only just long enough to to achieve redemption and to learn wisdom and humility from his fall. Those few moments that he is granted after his fall in which to find redemption are some of the most poignant in Tolkien’s story. Not everyone who falls will find such peace as he does. Sauron, Saruman and the Morgul Lord will all fall into nothingness. That is truly tragic.

An ancient prayer begs for that we might be delivered from sudden death because such an event will rob us of the opportunity for repentance, for the changing of our minds. As we shall see Boromir was granted that grace and yet, as far as we know Isildur was not, and yet Isildur was a far greater hero than Boromir ever was. Boromir does not say to us that he could not face the Morgul Lord but it seems to be implied. Isildur faced the Dark Lord himself and armed only with a broken blade prevailed against him and yet Isildur’s fall, which would have taken him on the same and terrible spiritual journey that led Sauron to become the Dark Lord could only be prevented by sudden death in battle. It was the possibility of this journey that both Gandalf and Galadriel had to face when Frodo offered them the Ring. At this point in his career Boromir has no idea that such a fall is even possible, believing as he does in his own nobility and the nobility of his people and his country where the “blood of Númenor” is not spent, “nor all its pride and dignity forgotten”.

The gathering of nobility, wisdom and greatness in the house of Elrond that day listens patiently to this young man speaking of his pride. They know because everyone of them have made the same journey that life will teach Boromir wisdom through failure. Now it is guidance that he requires.

The Fall and the Redemption of Boromir

“This I Will Have as Weregild for My Father, and my Brother”. Elrond Speaks of How Isildur Took The Ring From the Hand of Sauron.

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

There is no doubt that Peter Jackson has a point to make about humankind in his film telling of The Lord of the Rings and it isn’t particularly complimentary. Or should we rather say that in his telling of the story the Elves do not have a particularly high opinion of us? Think of the scene near the end of the film version of The Two Towers in which Faramir is marching Frodo and Sam from Ithilien to Denethor in Minas Tirith and the Ring will fall into the hands of an embittered old man. As the hobbits are dragged along you hear Galadriel voicing her opinion that men are weak. And this merely echoes what Elrond has already said in the Council scene in which he describes how Isildur took the Ring from the hand of Sauron but was too weak to do what should have been done and to cast it into the Fire of Orodruin, of Mount Doom.

Peter Jackson emphasises the relationship between human strength and weakness

Peter Jackson places his emphasis upon weakness. It is the weak who are corrupted by the Ring. The strong are able to resist it. Tolkien tells the story of Isildur differently and more tragically. Isildur is one of the most heroic of Tolkien’s great characters. When Sauron was a prisoner in Númenor near the end of the Second Age he succeeded in corrupting its king, Ar-Pharazôn, playing upon his envy of the immortality of the Elves and his pride in his own greatness. Sauron turned the Númenoreans away from their faithfulness to Illuvatar and their trust in the goodness of the gift of mortality and he turned them to the worship of Morgoth, of darkness, and to the practice of human sacrifice. But there were always a small group that remained faithful to their ancient friendship with the Elves and their trust in the gift of Illuvatar. These were led by Elendil (whose name means Elf-friend) and his two sons, Isildur and Anárion. At all times this faithfulness was a matter of great personal risk but when Sauron persuaded Ar-Pharazôn to destroy Nimloth the Fair, the tree descended from the great trees of light in Valinor and a gift of the Valar to Númenor, it was Isildur who rescued a sapling of the tree, being wounded almost to death as he did so. And it was Isildur who stood alone by his father’s body on the slopes of Orodruin when all seemed lost. Gil-galad was dead. Anárion was dead. Elendil was dead with his mighty sword, Narsil, lying broken beneath his body. And it was Isildur who, taking up the shards of Narsil, was able to cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand and so brought about a great victory and a diminishing of Sauron that lasted much of the Third Age of Arda.

An imagining of Isildur Rescuing the Fruit of Nimloth by Samo-Art

At all times we see Isildur willing to lay down his life for the cause of faithfulness. Indeed not only was he willing to do this but he was always the one to risk everything even when it seemed that all hope was gone. But at the end he fell. “This I will take as weregild for my father, and my brother,” he says as he takes the Ring from Sauron’s finger. This I will take as a payment for the offence that Sauron has done to me and my family.

Alan Lee Imagines Isildur’s Struggle With Sauron

It is only the truly heroic who have the capacity to be truly tragic. The Greeks used the word, hamartia, to describe the flaw in the character of a hero that would lead to the hero’s fall. What was it in Isildur that lead to his fall? Was it that he had turned the great struggle against Sauron into something personal, hence his use of the word, weregild, a payment made to compensate personal loss? It might be thus, but what we can say is that it is not Isildur’s weakness that caused him to fall but his greatness. We might note here that St Paul uses this same word, hamartia, in Romans 3.23 to describe the human condition. And so we are reminded of Aslan’s words in Prince Caspian, “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve… And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.”