The Ring and Tom Bombadil. So is the Ring Really Such a Big Deal?

The Fellowship of the Ring (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 126-131

I am sure that I am among many readers of The Lord of the Rings who on their first reading share the hobbits’ delight on realising that they could not travel onwards after staying the night at the house of Tom Bombadil but had to stay there one more day. Sometimes the weather calls us to journey onwards and we are delighted to do so. The poem by Patrick Kavanagh that I quoted last week, an autumn poem, ends joyously. “Son, let’s go off together in this delightful weather”. But sometimes the weather tells us that it is a day on which we should stay put and this is such a day for the hobbits.

Frodo begins the day full of energy, running to the window and looking out over Tom’s garden. It is a moment filled with poignancy as we think of the broken hobbit at the end of the story and long for his healing in the Undying Lands even while filled with sadness that this cannot come for him in the Shire. But now Frodo is alive and ready for another day in this wonderful place.

Tolkien’s description of this day spent here is deceptively simple, filled as it is with Tom’s doggerel, but we would do well not to fall into the trap of confusing simplicity with foolishness. Tom’s simplicity is the simplicity of the earth, wind, fire and water and all that grows or moves upon the earth. “He told them tales of bees and flowers, the ways of trees, and the strange creatures of the Forest, about the evil things and good things, things friendly and things unfriendly, cruel things and kind things, and secrets hidden under brambles.”

In the house of Tom Bombadil from a diptych by Eiszmann

As the hobbits listen to him they begin to realise that the world about them has its own life and is far far more than an extension of their own. Tom may be Master but that is because he has dwelt among the creatures of the world for long, long years and because they and he have come to share one life together. Unlike them he is a shaper of the world but he is a gardener and in all humility he keeps his gardening and so his shaping also to a minimum. He grows enough to feed himself and Goldberry and the occasional passing guest and no more. Not for him the production and the marketing of surplus. He lives for sufficiency alone and a pleasure in what he has and not in what he might have.

Compare him with the one who made the treasure that Frodo now bears. If Tom is content with what he has got, Sauron is almost defined by his discontent. “Who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?” Tom says to Frodo in answer to the question, “Who are you?” Sauron would answer with the things that he has made, the power that he exercises and all that he desires. Bombadil laughingly speaks of his own lack of control over the weather and immediately readers of Tolkien’s great tale will think of Sauron’s attempts to do precisely that in order to win the great battle before Minas Tirith. And the Ring is his ultimate tool, the technology with which he will rule everything, reducing all to submission to his will.

If Tom Bombadil is about the enjoyment of things and creatures in themselves, content to have enough and no more, Sauron is about the gaining and exercising of power through technology and about never having enough. Not enough power and not enough of the things that power can give him. If Tom is ever hungry it is all part of the pleasure that he takes in the satisfaction of that hunger. Sauron by contrast is always hungry and never satisfied.

And so when Tom Bombadil asks Frodo for the Ring, showing thereby that he is indeed Master, he just plays with it as he might do with any tool.

“The Ring seemed to grow larger as it lay for a moment on his big brown-skinned hand. Then suddenly he put it to his eye and laughed.” Tom is much more Master of the Ring than Sauron could ever be, even placing it upon his little finger with no effect on him. Sauron by contrast gives his entire being into the tools that he makes, seeking thereby to extend that being but succeeding only in diminishing it. Tom is Master but Sauron is slave.

Frodo Finds Sanctuary With Farmer Maggot

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 86-95

Tolkien grew up first of all in the village of Hall Green in the county of Warwickshire and then in the city of Birmingham, raised by priests of the Birmingham Oratory founded in the 19th century by John Henry Newman. He never loved the city although he had a deep respect for the priests who became as fathers to him. Even in his time the city was coming ever closer to Hall Green and today it is a suburb of the city and it is hard to remember that it was ever seperate from it. But he always kept a close connection to the country through his mother’s family who farmed in a village in North Worcestershire just a few miles from where I now live.

The farmhouses hereabouts are sturdy affairs and as most of the smaller farms have become economically unviable in recent years so they have become much sought after dwellings for people who have made their money elsewhere. But there are still plenty of families who have farmed the land here since the young Tolkien would visit his aunt and grandfather and I rather think that he would still recognise the same kind of people that he would have met then, with their slow speech delivered with care who became the models for his hobbits.

A Worcestershire Farmhouse

People like Farmer Maggot. We never learn his first name and I doubt whether he or Mrs Maggot would use first names to each other unless something needed to be said that was very serious. He would identify most with his family name, one that he would bear proudly, linked as it was with the land that he and his ancestors had farmed and the house that they had built. As Tom Bombadil was to say of him later on, “There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones and both his eyes are open.”

Farmer and Mrs Maggot

I have lived here for a few years now and as a parish priest I have a position in these villages that has been a part of their life for many centuries. I have discovered that the older families are willing to give me a chance and just as Farmer Maggot and his wife welcome Frodo and his companions into their home without hesitation, that is, of course, after they realise who they are, so I too know that I can count upon a respectful welcome even if I show up unannounced. And I know that once I am made welcome people like the Maggots will be fiercely loyal to me thereafter. It is a loyalty that I am determined to treasure and never abuse.

It is the kind of loyalty that is willing to take great risks. Maggot has no idea how deadly the creatures are who are looking for Frodo beyond his brief encounter with the one who rode up to his door that day but even if he did he would still never betray a guest that he had welcomed to his table. And he would certainly never betray the eldest son of one of the most respected families in the Shire, that is Mister Peregrin Took. Such bonds of mutual respect and, often, kinship too, are not to be lightly put aside or done so even under great duress.

Workers in the fields on an English farm in the early 20th century

Sadly, even in the Shire, things were changing and within less than a year of Frodo’s brief stay in Farmer Maggot’s house there will be plenty of hobbits who will cheer on the coup d’etat engineered by Lotho Sackville Baggins, that sour faced hobbit, who drank his parents’ resentment in at being excluded from Bag End with his mother’s milk. They too will be hungry for the status from which they feel themselves to have been excluded. They will feel entitled to share in the privilege that they believe families like the Tooks, the Brandybucks and even the Maggots enjoy.

But now on this September evening Maggot will go to his bed with a feeling of satisfaction because of the way in which he has helped a neighbour while Frodo, Pippin, Sam, and Meriadoc Brandybuck too (who they have met along the way), make a grateful way to the cottage at Crickhollow after the adventures of the day.

Hobbits Really Are Amazing Creatures. Frodo Decides to Leave the Shire With the Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 60,61

“What have you decided to do?” Gandalf rouses Frodo from his thoughts because the time has come for choosing. Gandalf has told the long and unhappy story of the Ring from the time of its making to the unlikely and entirely unlooked for manner in which itT came into Frodo’s possession. He has also told Frodo that Sauron is searching for the Ring, searching for the Shire and searching for a hobbit called Baggins.

Frodo announces his decision.

“I cannot keep the Ring and stay here. I ought to leave Bag End, leave the Shire, leave everything and go away.”

Frodo sighs because he has to go into exile and perhaps an exile that will never end. But at the same time he is filled with excitement because there is a true adventure beckoning him. “As he was speaking a great desire to follow Bilbo flamed up in his heart… It was so strong that it overcame his fear.”

Gandalf is amazed!

“Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I’ve said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch.”

And in saying this Gandalf echoed words that Tolkien himself wrote to his publisher in 1938 in reply to their wish for a sequel to The Hobbit.

“The sequel to The Hobbit has remained where it stopped. It has lost my favour, and I have no idea what to do with it… Nearly all the motives that I can use were packed into the original book, so that a sequel will appear either ‘thinner’ or merely repetitional… I am personally immensely amused by hobbits as such, and can contemplate them eating and making their rather fatuous jokes indefinitely.”

So Tolkien himself has been “amazed” by his own creation which is a rather wonderful thought. Like Gandalf he had thought that he knew all that there was to know about hobbits and that it comprised fatuous jokes and eating. Like Gandalf he rather enjoyed the company of hobbits but he could not see them playing any part in what he termed in the same letter, “the ‘pure’ fairy stories or mythologies of The Silmarillion“. That is until he met Frodo Baggins and I am not using a mere figure of speech here. For there have been few writers who have been more conscious that they are sub-creators than J.R.R Tolkien. Tolkien was not so much an inventor of story as a discoverer. He became a wanderer in his own mythology, learning the languages of Arda and listening to stories as they were told to him in the original tongues. It is not a mere literary device that The Lord of the Rings is a story formed from The Red Book of Westmarch as written by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins and with notes and additions from their literary heirs and executors. It has to be that way.

And all this makes the moment in which Frodo takes Gandalf by surprise all the more wonderful because Tolkien could only have written this scene if he had not been taken by surprise himself. And being taken by surprise he is ready to lead us step by wonderful step all the way through this voyage of discovery right through to the very last page.

On the Impossibility of Casting Away the One Ring. So Why Even Try?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 59-60

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(An audio recording of my reading of this post)

The point has come in which a decision has to be made concerning the Ring. The time of hiding and waiting (not that Frodo had known that he was doing either of these things) has come to an end. Sauron knows that the Ring is in the Shire and that it is possessed by a hobbit called Baggins.

Frodo will take the Ring to Mordor but at the last he will fail to cast it into the fires in which it was made in Mount Doom. Only an inbreaking of the most extraordinary grace will finally destroy it.

And yet, surely, we already have evidence enough here, in the peace of Bag End in the spring time, to know that the task is far beyond Frodo’s capacity to achieve it. When Gandalf encourages Frodo to try to “do away” with the Ring he fails miserably.

“Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it. It now appeared plain and smooth, without mark or device that he could see. The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious. When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire. But he found now that he could not do so, not without a great struggle. He weighed the Ring in his hand, hesitating, and forcing himself to remember all that Gandalf had told him; and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away- but found that he had put it back in his pocket.”

And so right at the very beginning of the story Frodo fails even to cast the Ring into the small fire burning in the grate at Bag End, a fire as we have already seen would have no effect upon it at all so what chance is there that he might cast it into the Fire of Orodruin?

Gandalf makes it clear that Frodo has little talent for the task, anyway, that he lacks the necessary power or wisdom so why not give the Ring to one who possesses both power and wisdom too? Frodo offers Gandalf the Ring.

“No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.”

And with that reply Gandalf makes it clear that it is not just Frodo’s wisdom and power that are insufficient to deal with the Ring but his own too. If Frodo has too little of either then Gandalf has too much. This quest, the search for the Cracks of Doom and the destruction of the Ring, will not be achieved either by strength or even by wisdom.

Then how is the Ring to be destroyed?

Surely the clue lies in Gandalf’s words to Frodo. “You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power and wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.” It is in the words, “but you have been chosen” that we learn how the Ring is to be destroyed. Frodo will have to leap into faith and to travel, step by step, to the Cracks of Doom and there he will have to do what he can. At no time will there ever be some kind of blueprint for him to follow. No one will ever say something like, “When you get to Mount Doom this is what you have to do”. And that is because no one, not even Gandalf himself, knows what to do apart from the need to cast the Ring into the Fire and we have already seen that Frodo does not possess the capacity to do that and neither, as far as we can see here, does Gandalf. The Ring is too powerful for either of them. Some other power, the power that has done the choosing, will have to intervene.

One might wish that this power would give a little more guidance, either to Frodo or to Gandalf, but all that is given is the choosing. And that is enough.

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.

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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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Why Did Sauron Make the Ring? Gandalf in Frodo’s Study at Bag End.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 50,51

In 1949 Herbert Butterfield, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, published a series of lectures that he had given under the title of Christianity and History. I do not know if he had any contact with The Inklings. He was a Cambridge Professor and they were based in Oxford. But I rather think that Tolkien would have approved of Butterfield’s thoughts contained in this quotation from those lectures.

herbert-butterfield

“The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine that they can control things in a sovereign manner, as though they were kings of the earth, playing Providence not only for themselves but for the far future- reaching out into the future with the wrong kind of far-sightedness and gambling on a lot of risky calculations in which there must never be a single mistake.”

When I asked whether Butterfield and the Inklings could have known each other it was because it seemed to me that Butterfield could have been describing the action of Sauron in the forging of the Ring. That Sauron imagined himself, not only as king of the earth, but as the king. Sauron forged the Ring in order to achieve kingship, declaring his intent in the words that he inscribed upon it.

One Ring to rule them all.

Sauron is one who fears disorder; one for whom order is only certain when he is in absolute control. This means that all other powers, even and perhaps most especially Providence itself, must first be found and then bound in the darkness. And why the darkness? Because the light is not under his control and the light is able to penetrate even the most carefully constructed of his defences. The same goes for the unruly weather. The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

And Sauron fears those who are born of the Spirit, those who are truly free, who will not bow the knee to him; and so he labours endlessly to corrupt the free and to bind them to him for ever. It is the Ringwraiths, the Nazgûl, who are the most tragic of these people. They are those who traded their freedom in exchange for power and so as Gandalf expresses it heartbreakingly, they became “shadows under his great Shadow”. It is hard to imagine any image that could convey the sense of something or someone who has less substance than a shadow within a shadow. This is the end of all who seek power and control and who grow to fear freedom above everything else. Butterfield describes Sauron so well when he speaks of one who is farsighted in the wrong way, someone who seeks to eliminate all unpredictability and risk from the future. As Butterfield puts it, someone for whom “there must never be a single mistake”.

Compare such a spirit to the astonishing risk of putting your trust in hobbits! Perhaps this is a moment to consider how great a risk this is. Later in the story Denethor, the Lord of Gondor, will declare Gandalf’s trust in hobbits as madness and the hobbits themselves as witless. Gandalf does not argue with him or try to justify his trust. His choice is the worst that could possibly have been made. Except, that is, for every other choice.

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But the same quotation from Butterfield that opened this short reflection goes on to describe the choice that Gandalf does make and the one that Frodo accepts and makes his own.

“Each of us should rather do the good that is under our noses. Those people work more wisely who seek to achieve good in their own small corner of the world and then leave the leaven to leaven the whole lump.”

This is what Gandalf and Frodo speak of on that Spring morning in the Shire. Not some vast plan to solve all the problems of Middle-earth but the decision to take one course of action. And at this point the action is only to take the Ring out of the Shire because the Dark Lord now knows that the Ring is there. The first choice to do good is very limited in its scope because at this point Frodo and, even, Gandalf himself does not know what to do next. But it is enough. The lump of dough will be leavened beyond all imagining.

(Image Below, The Fall of Sauron by Caoronach http://caoranach.deviantart.com/art/Fall-of-Sauron-349619911)

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Things That Can Only Be Spoken of in Daylight. Gandalf Speaks of the Corrupting Power of the Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 45-48

When Frodo and Gandalf begin to speak about the Ring it is as if every word emerges from a profound silence. Not just the silence of the night that has passed but the silence of long years whose shadow now lies over this comfortable hobbit hole in the heart of the Shire. At last Frodo speaks.

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Gandalf and Frodo in Bag End by Alan Lee

“Last night you began to tell me strange things about my ring, Gandalf… And then you stopped, because you said that such matters were best left until daylight.”

And so Gandalf begins to tell the story of what Frodo has always called, Bilbo’s Ring. And it is a story of power and of possession.

“A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later- later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last- sooner or later the dark power will devour him.”

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The One Ring by Badriel

What Gandalf has done here is to describe to Frodo both what it will mean to possess a Ring of Power and what it means to desire power over others. It was the 19th British historian, Lord Acton, who famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What Tolkien describes here is what happens when absolute power is achieved by means of a particular item and linked to a particular desire. The One Ring appears to convey two things. One is power over others. The other is power over death itself. Thus the one who possesses it will believe themselves to be entirely invulnerable both to the power of others and even to death. But what Tolkien shows is that the corruption that Acton spoke of in relation to power is not just the loss of a moral sense. Sauron had already made this bargain long before the forging of the Ring and did so without a backward glance. All that he desired was absolute power and his assumption was that everyone else desired this too. What he did not know was that in the forging of the Ring in order to achieve power he was giving his Self to the thing that he had made. He was able to appear, first to Celebrimbor and then later to Ar-Pharazôn of Númenor, in a fair guise. But he lost this capacity and throughout the Third Age he could only appear as a thing of terror. And when the Ring eventually goes into the Fire there is nothing left of him but a mist in the wind, malicious but utterly powerless.

Lord-of-the-Rings-the-Nazgul-kings

This is what it means to be corrupted. This is what all who desire power over others believe themselves to be exempt from. They believe that they have achieved a level of self-possession through the exercise of that power that will mean that they are the masters of their own destiny. But what we learn here is that the wielders of power, those who achieve it by means of a Ring of Power, fade. And what we also learn is that those who spend too much time with a Ring of Power are eventually corrupted by it. Even Bilbo was beginning to fall under its influence saying that it was “growing on his mind”, that “he was always worrying about it”, that he felt “thin and stretched”. Eventually even Bilbo would have fallen under the power of the Ring and surely with the Nazgûl hunting for it high and low and drawn to it because it has power over them they would have found Bilbo and found the Ring too. But might we say that a swift end at the point of a Nazgûl blade or even torture at the hands of the Dark Lord would be preferable to the terrible fate that would have befallen him through possession of the Ring? Perhaps when we pray that we might be delivered from evil it is more a prayer that we might not become evil ourselves than that we might suffer from the evil of another.

“Keep it Safe, and Keep it Secret!” On What Takes Place at Bag End after Bilbo Leaves The Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 35-40

Bilbo leaves the Shire after the party in search of a holiday but for Frodo, at least at first, life is anything but leisurely. This is all Bilbo’s fault, of course. The manner of his disappearance means that the conventional hobbits feel abused by him. Some are simply outraged; the Sackville-Bagginses try to regain possession of Bag End; while some of the younger ones cannot help but try to find out whether there is more to the stories of Bilbo’s fabulous wealth than mere rumour. All in all Frodo spends some time after the party more or less under siege in Bag End.

It is during the process of repelling invaders that Gandalf returns. At first Frodo and his friends try to repel him too, or at least to ignore him.

“Suddenly the wizard’s head appeared at the window.

‘If you don’t let me in, Frodo, I shall blow your door right down your hole and out through the hill,’ he said.”

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Gandalf wishes to speak about the Ring. At this point in the story he merely refers to the Ring as “It”. This is what needs to be kept secret and safe. It is clear that Gandalf already has his suspicions regarding Bilbo’s “magic” ring. He knows from his Ringlore that “magic” rings don’t just turn up from time to time. There was only one time during the Second Age in which Rings of Power were created and every single one of them had a connection to the Dark Lord. Seven Rings were created for Dwarf lords and Nine for Lords of Men. Three were forged by Elven Smiths but were never touched by Sauron although Celebrimbor of Eregion received guidance in their making from the Dark Lord in his fair guise of Annatar. And then there was the One Ring to rule them all.

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Even now Gandalf fears that Bilbo’s ring might indeed be the One Ring. So why does he not act upon his fear straight away? It will be nearly seventeen years before he returns to the Shire and confirms his fears. In that time Sauron will have almost completed all his preparations for war and at the end of it he will send out his most deadly servants, the Nazgûl, the keepers of the Nine Rings, in search of the One. During those years no great alliance of the free peoples of Middle-earth will be formed as took place at the end of the Second Age, an alliance strong enough to overthrow the Dark Lord. And the one alliance that has remained, that between Gondor and the Kingdom of Rohan, will be systematically weakened by the work of Saruman the traitor.

I have two thoughts regarding these years of relative inaction.

One is that Gandalf knows that he cannot afford to make any mistakes regarding the One Ring. It is much too big for that. If he were to gamble on the identity of Bilbo’s Ring and get it wrong the consequences would be catastrophic. He knows that at the end this is not a war that can be won through force of arms. Sauron can be delayed but this time he cannot be defeated. Gandalf knows that at the moment of the crisis of the Age everything will depend upon a madness, upon a gamble in which everything is wagered upon one slender possibility.

I exaggerate! To describe the possibility as slender is a nonsense. The wager will be made on an action that is as close to impossible as can be conceived. Gandalf knows this even now and so he needs to be sure.

The second is that at the moment when Gandalf leaves the Shire and the Ring he does not know what to do next. He knows enough not to try to take the Ring himself. He fears what it might do to him if it turns out to be the One. He knows that when the time comes everything will have to be risked upon one throw of the dice. But what this will mean in an actual plan of action he does not yet know. He needs time to think.

“Frodo saw him to the door. He gave a final wave of his hand, and walked off at a surprising pace; but Frodo thought the old wizard looked unusually bent, almost as if he were carrying a great weight. The evening was closing in, and his cloaked figure quickly vanished into the twilight. Frodo did not see him again for a long time.”

 

Bilbo Baggins Lets Go of The Ring. With a Little Help From a Friend.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 30-35

The One Ring has had a long and unhappy history since its forging in the Second Age of the Sun. Its purpose in its conceiving was to increase the power of its maker, Sauron, the Dark Lord.

“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

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Rule has ever been its purpose so that all the work that has ever been done in freedom by Elves, Dwarves or Mortal Men should itself become the work of one being and enslaved forever to his will and purpose.

The Ring is a fearful thing and yet it has never quite accomplished that for which its maker purposed it. Even when it was in Sauron’s possession it never quite gave him the power he desired. He had to submit to the greater power of Númenor and, at the end of the Age, in battle against the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, had it taken from him by force by Isildur, son of Elendil. And although he grows in power once again towards the end of the Third Age the Ring, now the focus of an all-consuming desire, remains hidden from him.

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The Ring has had its own history throughout this time, betraying first Isildur to his death and then the unhappy Déagol too until it falls into the hands of a hobbit lost in the endless tunnels under the Misty Mountains. And in this moment of its history a theft takes place undoubtedly but no murder and so its history begins to change. At no point does the Ring ever change in nature but it is clear that another power is at work as well as its own entirely malevolent one.

I think we can say that Bilbo meant to give the Ring up and to leave it to Frodo. It is just that at the moment when he has to make a choice he finds that he is unable to do so.

“Into the envelope he slipped his golden ring, and its fine chain, and then sealed it, and addressed it to Frodo. At first he put it on the mantelpiece, but suddenly he removed it and stuck it in his pocket.”

Poor Bilbo! The Ring is so much stronger than he is and if it had not been for Gandalf’s intervention it would have taken complete possession of him and dragged him down into a living perdition. Indeed already it has begun to do its work. Bilbo speaks of feeling “all thin, sort of stretched… like butter that has been scraped over too much bread”. He speaks of an “eye looking at me” of not being able to rest without it in his pocket.

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Eventually Gandalf has to hint at his own power in order to make Bilbo give it up. This is no act of a bully seeking to force someone weaker than himself to give up freedom for servitude but rather the opposite. Gandalf uses his greater power to free Bilbo from himself or should we say to free Bilbo from his false self from the self that can never be at rest while in possession of the Ring? Or perhaps that he can never be at rest while the Ring seeks to gain possession of him?

The true Bilbo leaps into full view almost as soon as he makes the decision to let go of the Ring.

“It was a fine night and the black sky was dotted with stars. He looked up sniffing the air. `What fun! What fun to be off again, off on the road with dwarves. This is what I have really been longing for for years.`”

A good spiritual guide might tell Bilbo that the thing that he had thought that he had desired the most was in fact nothing more than an adhesion “on the wings to love and adventure,” as the poet Patrick Kavanagh puts it. But perhaps Gandalf is better than that for rather than telling Bilbo that this is what the One Ring has become to him he actually sets him free. Later in the story he will do the same for Théoden of Rohan.

But now let us watch with Gandalf as the 111 year old hobbit leaps over a low point in the hedge and heads off down the road to his own “love and adventure”.