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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Boromir smiles; and then he dies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s No Good Trying to Escape You.” Frodo and Sam Set Off For Mordor Together.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 395-398

Even though all the Fellowship recognise the wisdom of Sam’s words when he spoke of how Frodo was determined to go alone to Mordor, and that the time that he was taking was not to make up his mind about the right course of action but to find the courage to begin, the debate is not at an end. Merry and Pippin, at least, are still certain that they all should all go to Minas Tirith. It is only when Boromir arrives that the story is able to move on.

‘”Where have you been, Boromir?” asked Aragorn. “Have you seen Frodo?”‘

Boromir is not ready yet to tell his story, to admit his failure, but he says enough to throw the rest of the Company into panic and despite Aragorn’s efforts to prevent them Merry and Pippin run off in one direction, Legolas and Gimli in another and Sam in another yet.

“Boromir! I do not know what part you have played in this mischief, but help now! Go after those two young hobbits, and guard them at the least, even if you cannot find Frodo.”

And so Aragorn runs after Sam while Boromir makes his final journey in search of redemption. For he will fall in battle while doing as Aragorn had commanded, willingly laying down his life for the hobbits, willingly paying with his life for his attempt to seize the Ring from Frodo by force.

Once again it is Sam, who is closest to the mind and heart of Frodo, who works out what is really going on. After Aragorn catches and passes him, making his way up to Amon Hen, Sam realises that Frodo is making his way to the boats using the invisibility that the Ring gives him, and that it is Frodo’s intention to escape them all. Desperately, Sam makes his way towards the place to where the boats are moored, caring nothing now for anything, not even for his own life, as long as he can find Frodo. Even his fear of water will not stop him until the moment comes when he fears that he will drown.

Even his fear of water will not keep Sam from Frodo.

“Save me, Mr. Frodo!” gasped Sam. “I’m drownded. I can’t see your hand.”

At last Frodo gets them all safe back to shore but he is furious, convinced that Sam has come to do what he feared the most, to prevent him from going to Mordor. It is only when he realises that Sam wants to help him do what he planned that he relaxes at last and is actually pleased that Sam has caught him.

“So all my plan is spoilt!” said Frodo. “It’s no good trying to escape you. But I’m glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad. Come along! It is plain that we were meant to go together. We will go, and may the others find a safe road! Strider will look after them. I don’t suppose we shall see them again.”

So it is Boromir who sends each member of the Fellowship towards the place that they must go. Merry and Pippin will be carried by the Uruk-hai of Isengard just in time to meet Treebeard who has made a rare visit to a hill on the eastern border of Fangorn Forest. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, while in the process of a vain pursuit of the young hobbits, will arrive in Fangorn just in time to meet Gandalf and so rouse Rohan and their king from deadly slumber to great deeds. And Frodo and Sam will go step by step towards Mordor and the destruction of the Ring.

Frodo is sure that he is going to his death but he is at peace with his choice. All that he has to do is to do his duty. But Sam is not so sure that they are going to die. Nothing will keep him from staying with Frodo right to the very end but he has not forgotten the Shire and his heart lies there. Will he see the others again?

“We may, Mr. Frodo. We may. ”

Sam still looks beyond the Cracks of Doom to the future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fellowship Attempt to Escape From Gollum.

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

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

“Maybe The Paths That You Shall Tread Are Already Laid Before Your Feet Though You Do Not Know Them.” The Fellowship Prepare to Leave Lothlórien.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.358-360

Galadriel and Celeborn gather the Fellowship together and Celeborn addresses them.

“Now is the time… when those who wish to continue the Quest must harden their hearts to leave this land”

Which way will the Fellowship take?

All the Company are resolved to go forward but which way shall they go? The journey will take them down the valley of the Silverlode to the Anduin, the great river of Middle-earth, but which bank of the river will they follow after that? The west bank of the river will take them to Minas Tirith and Gondor. The east bank will take them to Mordor. It is “the straight road of the Quest”, the “darker shore”, but which way will they choose?

For Boromir the choice is clear. He will return to Gondor and to the defence of Minas Tirith. Most of the rest of the Company would prefer to go with him. Such a choice would at least delay the terrible moment when the path of the Quest must take them eastward and to the land of shadow.

Aragorn says nothing. In Rivendell the promise that he made was to go to the war in Gondor to fight alongside Boromir bearing Andúril, the Sword that was Broken reforged, but when Gandalf fell in Moria he became the leader of the Company and which way would Gandalf had chosen were he still with them?

Which way will Aragorn go?

Frodo, too, says nothing. He will not make his choice until the breaking of the Fellowship at Amon Hen and the Falls of Rauros. There the choice will be forced upon him and it will be to go on alone to Mordor, but it is a terrible choice, it is almost certainly a choice to die, and until that moment he remains in silence for he does not wish to die.

Celeborn offers the gift of boats to the Company and they are grateful for this, Sam excepted. On the one hand it eases their journey. They do not have to walk down the Anduin with packs upon their backs. On the other it postpones the moment when the choice will have to be made.

It is Galadriel who offers her wisdom to them regarding the choice. “Do not trouble your hearts overmuch with thought of the road tonight. Maybe the paths that each of you will tread are already laid before your feet, though you do not know them.” And so it will prove. When the time comes the path will be clear for each one of them. Merry and Pippin will be forced to take the road to Isengard when they are captured by orcs. Aragorn will choose to follow the captives and Legolas and Gimli will choose to go with him. Frodo will seek some kind of sign to help him find the way ahead and in the end the sign will be that Boromir will try to take the Ring from him and this will lead him to resolve to go alone to Mordor. Thankfully he will not succeed in going alone because Sam made his choice at the Mirror of Galadriel. Wherever Frodo goes he will follow. He no longer has any uncertainty in his heart about the path that lies before him.

I am sure that Galadriel knows that her words of counsel will not keep the Fellowship from anxious thoughts. The choice that must be made is so great, so terrible, that it is impossible that it can be made without being turned over and over in their minds. At least this is true for Aragorn who must lead them and Frodo upon whom the burden of the Ring has been laid, partly by his own choice at the Council of Elrond, partly by the command of that Council. Perhaps we will always agonise over the great choices of our lives and yet when we look back we see a certain simplicity in the pathway that we have followed. The paths that we have trodden have seemed laid before our feet only we were not able to see those paths until the moment came and we had to follow them. The wisdom of Robert Frost’s wonderful poem, The Road Not Taken, only seems clear as Frost puts it, “somewhere ages and ages hence”. Perhaps when paths must be chosen there has to be agony. We are rarely given freedom from that, at least with the big choices.

Frodo and Sam will go alone but together.

“Seeing Is Both Good and Perilous”. Frodo Looks Into The Mirror of Galadriel.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.354-357

“Do you now wish to look, Frodo?” said the Lady Galadriel. “You did not wish to see Elf-magic and were content.”

Alan Lee imagines Frodo looking into The Mirror of Galadriel.

Last week we saw how Sam did look into the Mirror of Galadriel having “wanted to see a bit of magic like what it tells of in old tales”; thinking, as he did, that all magic was of the variety of a conjuring trick and done either for the purpose of entertainment or to make the world a little more wonderful. What he did experience was nothing of this kind but deeply disturbing as he was forced to witness the destruction of his own home and his father fleeing as a refugee. And now will Frodo look into the Mirror?

What Frodo sees once he has made up his mind to do so is at first the great story of which he has become such a vital part; a hero, as Elrond put it, worthy to sit among “the mighty Elf-friends of old”. He sees the mighty sea that both destroyed the land of Númenor and brought the ships of Elendil, storm tossed to Middle-earth. He sees the mighty fortress of Minas Tirith and then the ship that will carry the King back to his city. And at the last he sees the ship that will carry him away from Middle-earth to the Undying Lands for his healing from the many wounds that he has taken in giving to it a future and a hope.

But it does not end there. Frodo sighs and prepares to turn away from the vision, having understood little, if any, of what he has seen, when he is arrested by something else. He sees at first a darkness, an emptiness, and then he sees an Eye, and soon knows that this Eye is searching for him. “Frodo knew with certainty and horror that among the many things that it sought he himself was one.”

Frodo sees the Eye that is searching for him.

Frodo has seen what Sauron has become. A lidless eye endlessly searching throughout the world for anything that might pose a threat to its own existence. Not that Sauron has been reduced yet to this alone. Gollum will speak of the nine fingers upon his hand which are enough to do terrible things, but this is the main form in which he exists within the earth. He is one who sees, or perhaps we should say, one who seeks, for he is not omniscient. Frodo knows that the Eye cannot see him unless he chooses to put on the Ring.

“Seeing is both good and perilous”. These were Galadriel’s words to Frodo when he asked whether or not he should look into the Mirror and her wisdom could have been either for Frodo or for Sauron. To Frodo because it is often the wisest course of action simply to deal with what is immediately in front of us. To see too far into the future can well render us impotent in the present. Or, as in the case of Sam, may tempt us to leave a pathway that had seemed entirely right in order to solve a problem that we will be perfectly capable of solving later on down the road after we have completed our present task.

And what of Sauron? His ability to see is good in so far as he is able to gather information about the world about him but ultimately what he sees is desperately limited and he is paralysed by the gaps in his knowledge. He cannot penetrate the minds of his enemies and even when he can, as in his use of the Palantír, the Seeing Stones, he still has to deal with the duplicity of Saruman and the essentially noble character of Denethor. And when he sees Aragorn in the Stone of Orthanc, he will misinterpret what he sees so badly as to cause him to leave himself fatally vulnerable to the one thing that he fails to predict. The painstakingly slow journey of the Ring into the very heart of his realm.

Sauron completely misinterprets what he sees in the palantír.

So does Frodo see anything of good? Well the answer is that he does. He sees that Sauron cannot see him unless he chooses to reveal himself. He will always have a choice to make and though this choice will become like an intolerable weight about his neck the power to make this choice will open a way for him to Orodruin itself.

“There Must Be Someone of Intelligence in The Party”. On the Choosing of The Heroes Who Will Help Frodo to Take The Ring to The Fire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.264-267

Elrond honoured Frodo’s offer of himself to take the Ring to the Fire by speaking of the heroes of the past. “If you take it freely,” he says, “I will say that your choice is right; and though the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself, were assembled together, your seat should be among them.”

Alan Lee depicts Túrin Turambar, one of the children of Húrin

When The Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954 little was known of these names except for Beren because of the story that Strider told to the hobbits in the camp below Weathertop on the night on which the Nazgûl attacked and wounded Frodo. The Silmarillion was not published until after Tolkien’s death and in the years since our knowledge of them all has grown thanks to the work of Christopher Tolkien. But if all we knew of them was the list that Elrond gives us, that phrase, “mighty elf friends” would be sufficient to evoke our deepest respect and even a little awe.

The four “mighty elf-friends of old” that Elrond names are figures of the First Age of Arda. They were the mortal Children of Ilúvatar who, upon entering Beleriand, chose to side with the Elves against Morgoth. Deeply flawed though they were, it was their implacable denial of despair in the face of the seemingly inevitable victory of darkness that shines out again and again through the long defeat of that age. Typical of this spirit we read of Húrin at the terrible battle of Nirnaeth Arnoediad.

“Last of all Húrin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Húrin cried: “Aurë entuluva! Day shall come again!”

Jenny Dolfen imagines Húrin at Nirnaeth Arnoediad

It is of heroes like this to which Elrond likens Frodo, not because of his martial ferocity but because of his quiet courage in the face of an impossible task. When he and Sam and Bilbo meet with Merry and Pippin, Frodo describes his mission as “a hopeless journey”. There is no point at which he regards it as anything less than hopeless and yet he never thinks of turning back, of resting in Rivendell, “a long while, perhaps for good”.

Frodo is a hero to stand with the Elf-friends of old because of the choice that he makes but what of Sam, Merry and Pippin? At first glance we might think that Tolkien uses them as some kind of comic relief and Pippin’s words about “someone with intelligence in the party” and Gandalf’s response to what Pippin says seem to show that this is indeed their purpose in the story. But at all times Tolkien wants us to see that the bonds of fellowship that bind the hobbits together have a power that cannot be measured through force of arms or even their intelligence. Later when Elrond chooses the party that will accompany Frodo, Sam and the Ring, he is minded to choose someone like Glorfindel, a mighty elf-lord, but Gandalf disagrees.

“I think, Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom”

It is not that Gandalf has given way to sentimentality at this vital moment in the story but that he is true to his own charism, the grace that he has been given and which he has long nurtured. His teacher, the Lady Nienna, taught him to see with pity, not with blame and to warm the hearts of free peoples everywhere. He knows the power of a warmed heart especially when the world has grown cold and time and again, I suspect without really knowing why, his heart was drawn to the Shire and the simple hospitality of its people. His pleasure in good, simple food, good beer and a pipe to follow dinner meant that his own heart was warmed when he made these visits and if the only fruit of them was rest and the enjoyment of fireworks then this would have been sufficient for him but it was to these simple folk to whom the Ring was entrusted. Folk who live in the “merrier world” in which “food and cheer and song” are valued above hoarded gold.

The friendship of hobbits

“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.

“What of The Three Rings of The Elves?” Can They Be Used Against Sauron?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 260-263

When Celebrimbor and Sauron (in his guise of Annatar) studied and then created the Rings of Power during the Second Age of Arda there were three rings made by Celebrimbor alone over which Sauron had no influence. Seven rings were made for the dwarves and nine for humankind. The dwarves proved to be of stubborn stuff and so even when Sauron was wielding the One Ring “to rule them all” these rings and their bearers did not fall under his sway. So began the long unhappy history of Sauron’s search for the rings of the dwarves which ended in Dol Guldur when Sauron took the last of them from Thráin.

The Three Rings of the Elves

The rings given to human lords brought them swiftly under the domination of the Dark Lord. The dwarves were always true to their essential nature, loving the things that they made, implacable both in friendship and enmity, but humankind was always constrained by their mortality in a very particular way. The very brevity of a human life meant that a choice had to be made. It still does. Some would look beyond the confines of their mortality and so live in hope accepting their fate while entrusting themselves to that which lay beyond them. So Aragorn said to Arwen at the end of his life, “We are not bound for ever to the circles of this world, and beyond them there is more than memory”. Or, as in the heroic world of the Rohirrim, they would laugh in the face of despair even as they confronted their own deaths, as did Éomer when it seemed certain to him that he would die in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Or, as with the Dunlendings, there was a dull, grim and embittered spirit, a nation of “Gollums”, ever resentful of perceived slights at the hands of others. Or, as with the people of Bree, the spirit and wisdom of Ecclesiastes, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your life which you have been given under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun”. The hobbits were perhaps closest in spirit to them.

But for the Númenorians and their descendants, the ones who had come closest to Valinor and the immortality of the Elves, there was for many a growing sense that mortality was a curse that had been imposed upon them and one that they should strive to overcome. It was nine lords from among such as these who seized the opportunity given to them in Sauron’s gift of rings and who learned that immortality as a mere extension of existence is an intolerable burden, a curse rather than a blessing.

The Nazgûl. Wraiths and Wrath

The Rings of the Elves were not made by Sauron but by Celebrimbor alone although these rings could not have been made without the craft that they had learned together. Perhaps Celebrimbor had some secret suspicion of Sauron or, more likely, the desire like Fëanor before him to make something that was his and his alone, but they were not made for “strength or domination or hoarded wealth, but understanding, making and healing, to preserve all things unstained”. As with the Elves themselves, but as an intensification of who the Elves were, they were bound to the earth itself in joy and in sorrow. In the healing of the hurts of the earth and in the preserving of its beauty they brought great joy. If only we could find the earthly paradises of Rivendell or Lothlórien in our world today or even the Shire as Sam Gamgee was to remake it using Galadriel’s gift; or perhaps such places would best be kept hidden from us as we would probably spoil them by turning them into tourist destinations. Could you imagine some kind of “Lothlórien-world”?

Tim Catherall’s Imagining of Lothlórien

There is a sense in which the three rings of the Elves were used against Sauron. Elrond’s healing power, Galadriel’s adamantine resistance and, above all, Gandalf’s unresting work in warming hearts in a world ever growing cold, all of these fruits of the Elven Rings meant that Sauron had been kept at bay for long years but now as Sauron bent all of his might and malice in the task of the conquest of Middle-earth the rings of the Elves could no longer resist him nor could the combined strength of its free peoples. At the last there could only be one choice that could be made and that was as Elrond counselled the destruction of the Ring.

Take the Ring and Go Forth to Victory! Boromir Offers the Wise His Counsel.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 260-263

All who have participated in the great debate, finding “counsel for the peril of the world”, have spoken either of hiding the Ring or of destroying it, but there is one last option to be debated and it is Boromir who offers that option.

“Why do you speak ever of hiding and destroying? Why should we not think that the Great Ring has come into our hands to serve us in our hour of need? Wielding it the Free Lords of the Free may surely defeat the Enemy. That is what he most fears, I deem.”

Boromir longs to be the hero of the story.

And Boromir is right. Sauron does fear that one of his deadliest foes will take the Ring and then u7se it against him and he knows that among his enemies there are those capable of doing so. He knows that he only has a certain amount of time available to him to defeat them before what he regards as the inevitable happens. He knows that only one person can wield the Ring at any point. Gandalf was right when he said this to Saruman. But he knows also that before that moment comes there will be a struggle to be that one person. If he can strike with sufficient force while the struggle is taking place he can both defeat his enemies and regain the Ring.

But this is not how the Wise reply to Boromir. Elrond simply rejects Boromir’s proposal out of hand.

“We cannot use the Ruling Ring… It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil.”

Sauron learns the art of ring-making from Celebrimbor

What Elrond rejects is the notion that one side in the struggle is good and right and the other side is bad and wrong. The good guys versus the bad guys. As Gandalf will say to Denethor later on, “I pity even his (that is Sauron’s) slaves”. In a straight forward us and them conflict there is only one question and that is the question of power. As Boromir puts it, “Valour needs first strength, and then a weapon.” As far as Boromir is concerned the Ring is a perfectly legitimate weapon. It gives “us” the means to defeat “them”. Boromir does not make this argument but there have been those who have argued that it is morally irresponsible not to seek to be as powerful as possible. To reject power is effectively to give in to those who will then use power against us. This was used as an argument against nuclear disarmament during the Cold War. To disarm, it was said, was irresponsible both morally and practically. Although Boromir does not make this argument himself there is little doubt that if it had been made at the Council Boromir would have agreed with it.

Some critics have argued that Tolkien meant the Ring to be an allegorical representation of nuclear weapons and that The Lord of the Rings was more or less a lengthy tract against the making and the use of such weapons. C.S Lewis in a critical essay of his own pointed out that Tolkien had been creating his mythology and pondering the question of the nature of evil long before he finally wrote his story and long before the atomic bomb was first conceived and used. To Tolkien the bomb was simply one more example, albeit a significant one, of the way in which power is gained and used by human beings. It is Gandalf who speaks more nearly of the nature of evil when he speaks of Sauron thus.

“He is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts.”

It is the desire for power, power over others, that lies at the heart of the nature of evil. The Ring is the quintessential expression of this desire. How might a person achieve complete power over others? Surely it is by the possession of something that might grant that power. The Ring is both the desire for that power and it is the power itself. Thus it is utterly corrupting. To use it would be disastrous. To hide it would allow that corruption to persist. There is only one course of action open and that is to destroy it.

“We Must Send The Ring to The Fire”. Elrond Concludes The Debate on What To Do With The Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 257-260

After Gandalf ends his tale about his long journey, his battle with the Nazgûl upon Weathertop that the hobbits and Aragorn had witnessed from a distance and his long ride northward upon the mighty Shadowfax in order to draw some of his enemies, at least, away from the Ring and its bearer, he apologises to Frodo and then asks:

“Well, the Tale is now told, from first to last. Here we all are, and here is the Ring. But we have not come any nearer to our purpose. What shall we do with it?”

What Shall We Do With The Ring?

In response to a consideration of Gandalf’s question Elrond makes brief reference to Saruman’s treachery and the dangers of studying too closely the arts of the Enemy. But he gives his closest attention to a reflection upon Frodo’s story subtly drawing both him and hobbits into the long tale of the years. The Shire is placed at the edge of the great primeval forest and hobbits are named as neighbours to Iarwain Ben-adar, oldest and fatherless, Tom Bombadil of the eastern edge of The Old Forest. Briefly the thought is considered that Bombadil might be asked to be guardian of the Ring but Gandalf swiftly dismisses the idea. “He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is enough”.

Perhaps most significantly Elrond speaks of Frodo and hobbits with respect and some surprise. “Of the tales that we have heard today the tale of Frodo was most strange to me. I have known few hobbits, save Bilbo here; and it seems to me that he is perhaps not so alone and singular as I had thought him. The world has changed much since I was last on the westward road.”

Elrond leaves that thought hanging as the Elves begin to debate whether the Ring should be hidden in some fashion or destroyed. Should it be taken westward to the Undying Lands where it will lie beyond the reach of Sauron? Elrond is confident that those in the Undying Lands would refuse to receive the Ring. For them the memory of Feänor and the corrupting power of the Silmarils will be fresh. Not that the Silmarils were evil in themselves but that Feänor’s absolute desire to possess something that he had made at all costs corrupted him absolutely. It led to the rebellion of the Noldor and the kinslaying at Alqualondë, the only occasion of violent death in the long history of Valinor. Neither the Elves nor the Valar would give welcome to an object of power that was inherently evil.

Ted Nasmith’s imagining of the Kinslaying at Alqualondë

Glorfindel suggests that Saruman’s lie, that the Ring had rolled down the Anduin to the depths of the ocean should be made true. They should cast it there themselves. But Gandalf dismisses this idea. No solution to the problem of the Ring will be permanent save its destruction and so Elrond brings the debate to its conclusion.

“But it seems to me now clear which is the road that we must take. The westward road seems easiest. Therefore it must be shunned. It will be watched. Too often the Elves have fled that way. Now at this last we must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril- to Mordor. We must take the Ring to the Fire.”

The taking of the hard road, the road into peril, lies at the very heart of Tolkien’s meditation on the problem of evil. He gives no attention whatsoever to the question of why there is evil in the world. It is here and that is all we need to know. And he rejects the two solutions to the problem of evil in our own time, that either we flee from it to some absolute place of safety or that we overcome it by some greater force, defeating evil with evil. Next week we will give greater consideration to this latter solution thinking about Boromir’s suggestion that the Free Peoples use the Ring against its maker. It is enough to know now that Elrond and the Wise reject this possibility. There is only the hard road. The road into the very heart of darkness allowing it to do its very worst. The way of the cross.

The Hard Road