“I Will Take The Ring, Though I Do Not Know The Way.”

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 260-264

How much we would like to view the hero as someone in an exalted state. The eyes should gaze intently to a distant point, towards the hero’s glorious destiny. The hero will stand alone and the admiring gaze of all will look up into those eyes for how could anyone look down at the hero. And the hero should be beautiful. How could it be otherwise? For the hero is the projection of our longings for ourselves, the exalted self that we long to be or, perhaps, to be with.

If this hero is beautiful it is not because he tried to be beautiful. If he is a hero it is not because he wants to be a hero.

Older and wiser heads may smile at such longing with a degree of indulgence, remembering that I used the words, high, lonely and destiny quite recently in this blog reflecting as we did so on the close kinship between Saruman the White and Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew. Am I suggesting that neither Saruman nor Uncle Andrew have never outgrown this rather adolescent longing? I rather think that I am. There is no blame attached to an adolescent being an adolescent but the world is blighted by adolescents who never grow up.

And when we compare these characters to the one who speaks the words of the title of this blog post so quietly and so reluctantly we know that we are talking about something quite different to the self admiration of these outgrown children. For Frodo shares little in common with Saruman. This is not to say that Frodo is completely free of the desire for exaltation. When he sat with Gandalf in his study at Bag End Frodo had felt “a great desire to follow Bilbo” flame up in his heart; a desire “so strong that it overcame his fear”. Perhaps at this point of the story the influence of Narya, the ring that Gandalf bears, is able to warm his heart, though even Gandalf is surprised. It is at that moment when he declares that “hobbits really are amazing creatures”. So there is a place and a time for exaltation but as the story reaches the place in which the decision has to be made concerning the Ring all exaltation, all warmth has gone. Frodo has met the implacable hatred of the Morgul Lord, has felt his blade pierce his flesh, the tiny splinter travel towards his heart. Now as he sits among the Council and listens to the debate about what should be done to the Ring he feels “a dead darkness in his heart”.

The debate continues. Boromir argues that the Ring should be used against Sauron, Elrond says that this is impossible; Glóin asks about the three Elven Rings and Elrond declares that they must remain hidden; Erestor of the Grey Havens speaks of the folly of trying to make the journey to Mordor and Gandalf answers that it is this folly that Sauron is incapable of grasping; and at the last it is Bilbo who asks what messenger should take the Ring to the fire.

No-one answers him. Either because they still feel that it is folly to take the road to Mordor or because they know that for them to carry the Ring is impossible all remain silent. And at the very last it is Frodo’s voice, this time struggling against an overwhelming desire to rest, that speaks “as if some other will was using his small voice”.

“I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”

After this everything is all quite simple. So it is once the great choices are made. All falls into place around them and the people who make them. Even Sam does not argue against the choice only that Frodo should not go alone. But the choice and the manner of its expression is the most moving moment of the whole story. It is the moral heart of the story. It is made, not at the conclusion of some process of selection with all the qualities of each candidate having undergone careful assessment but simply because one person has been called, has been chosen. And the choosing is like “the pronouncement of some doom”.

Are life’s truly great choices always like this? Do they always feel unavoidable, even inevitable, and yet they still have to be made? And do they always feel like pronouncements of doom? A last judgment against which no argument can be found? Such choices are practically inexpressible. Elrond rightly places Frodo amongst his mighty ancestors even as the heroes gathered in Rivendell had to remain silent as a hobbit stood to speak but even his words feel small against the magnitude of the choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Jackson imagines Elrond, Lord of Rivendell

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

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

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

Kappriss imagines Sauron the Seducer before the Fall of Númenor

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.”

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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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