18 August 2014

Frodo's question to Galadriel

At the end of The Mirror of Galadriel, after she has refused Frodo's offer of the Ring, he asks her a very telling question.

... 'I pass the test,' she said.  'I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.' 

They stood for a long while in silence.  At length the Lady spoke again. 'Let us return!' she said.  'In the morning you must depart, for now we have chosen, and the tides of fate are flowing.'
'I would ask one thing before I go,' said Frodo, 'a thing which I often meant to ask Gandalf in Rivendell.  I am permitted to wear the One Ring: why cannot I see all the others and know the thoughts of those that wear them?'
'You have not tried,' she said. 'Only thrice have you set the Ring upon your finger since you knew what you possessed.  Do not try.  It would destroy you.  Did not Gandalf tell you that the rings give power according to the measure of each possessor?  Before you could use that power you would need to become far stronger, and to train your will to the domination of others.  Yet even so, as the Ring-bearer and as one that has borne it on finger and seen that which is hidden, your sight is grown keener.  You have perceived my thought more clearly than many that are accounted wise.  You saw the Eye of him that holds the Seven and the Nine.  And did you not see and recognize the ring upon my finger?  Did you see my ring?' she asked turning again to Sam.
'No, Lady,' he answered.  'To tell you the truth, I wondered what you were talking about.  I saw a star through your fingers.  But if you'll pardon my speaking out, I think my master was right.  I wish you'd take his Ring.  You'd put things to rights.  You'd stop them digging up the Gaffer and turning him adrift.  You'd make some folk pay for their dirty work.'
'I would,' she said.  'That is how it would begin.  But it would not stop with that, alas!  We will speak no more of it.  Let us go!'
(FR 2.vii.366)
Our attention in this chapter is usually taken up by events that are far more dramatic: Galdariel's 'testing' of the hearts of the Fellowship at their first meeting; the visions Sam and Frodo see in her mirror; or Galadriel's eloquent rejection of the Ring just a moment before this.  While that's all quite understandable, I'm not sure that any of these events is more revealing than this one: Frodo asks someone who clearly could use the Ring to devastating effect about using the Ring himself.

Is Frodo's question merely an innocent one?  Can any such question about the Ring be innocent? His remark that he had 'often meant to ask Gandalf at Rivendell' seems almost disingenuous or -- what is perhaps more likely -- self-deceived.  For Gandalf had been telling him since the night Bilbo left the Shire seventeen years earlier that he should not use the Ring, as well as pointing out the harmful effects of doing so (FR 1.i.36, 40 [three times]; ii.48-49, 53-54; iii.67, 75; x.170); much of the point of the Council of Elrond was that the Ring could not be used (FR 2.ii.67); and Frodo had also spent over two months in Rivendell with Gandalf.  If he failed to ask, it was not because an opportunity to do so was wanting. Given the opposition of Gandalf and Elrond to using the Ring, Frodo may also be overstating the case when he says that he is permitted to wear it.1

Frodo, moreover, phrases the question as if he sought merely awareness (to see the holders of the other Rings) and information (to know their thoughts), but Galadriel immediately understands the matter very differently.  To her it is plainly a question of power and domination. They are the prerequisite means for using the Ring to the end Frodo mentions.  Consider also her words about her own experience with Sauron, who 'gropes ever to see me and my thought.  But the door is still closed,' (FR 2.vii.365, emphasis mine).  It seems clear that she can remain unseen and keep her thoughts unknown only because she has her ring and Sauron lacks his.  But if he were to regain the One, 'then we are laid bare to the Enemy,' and the Elves 'will cast all away rather than submit to Sauron,' (FR 2.vii.365).

It's very interesting in this context that Galadriel seems to have the ability to know Frodo's thoughts.  For at their very first meeting she penetrates his mind, and those of the rest of the company, and can tell enough about them from what she sees there to 'test' them.  As she does so, she 'holds' them with her eyes; almost none of them can 'long endure' her gaze; and it is she who 'at length ... release[s] them from her eyes,' (FR 2.vii.357).  As for the test itself,

All of them, it seemed, had fared alike: each had felt that he was offered a choice between a shadow full of fear that lay ahead, and something he greatly desired: clear before his mind it lay, and to get it he had only to turn aside from the road and leave the Quest and the war against Sauron to others. 
(FR 2.vii.358)
Galadriel here demonstrates the very power and dominance she later tells Frodo he would need to develop in order to use the Ring as he wishes.  We might also glimpse these abilities of hers elsewhere. Unlike Celeborn, she knows for a fact that Gandalf set out with the Company (FR 2.vii.355); she knows that Gandalf told Frodo about how the Ring confers power proportionally on its users (FR 1.ii.53); and she knows precisely how many times Frodo has used the Ring, which would seem an odd detail for Elrond to include in a report, even one carried by his redoubtable sons (FR 2.iii.274).Rather, she learned these facts directly from Frodo's thoughts.

It is also interesting that on this same occasion, her eyes start out on Frodo and seem to be on him still when she says 'your Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all.  Yet hope remains while all the Company is true.' (FR 2.vii.357; cf. 358: 'She held you long in her gaze, Ring-bearer.') We most often tend to think of Boromir in this context, but Galadriel appears to have been looking at Frodo, she says 'all,' and Frodo is of course far more exposed to temptation than any of them.  His peril is always the greatest, and our sympathy for his courage and suffering should not blind us to that. His inability to throw the Ring into the fire at Bag End predicts his inability to do the same at Mt Doom (FR 1.ii.61).  And the lonely road he is travelling ends with the words 'The Ring is mine' (RK 6.iii.945).  We may not like that, but we can't forget it.  The attempt to use the Ring destroys the weak, and 'the very desire of it corrupts the heart[s]' of the powerful and the Wise (FR 2.ii.267).  This is fact.

But isn't it only natural that, after what he's been through, Frodo would feel the need for power?  After all he's been hunted by Black Riders, Orcs, and Gollum; speared in Moria; stabbed by an enchanted blade on Amon Sûl and nearly turned into a wraith himself; attacked by a blackhearted willow; taken prisoner by the undead; and stunned to witness the death of the most powerful person he knows at the hands of an ancient demon. And, perhaps most pertinently here, the one time he defied the Nazgûl they laughed at him and would have captured him and the Ring if not for the intervention of others more powerful than they (FR 1.xiii.214-15).

Yes, of course it's natural.  Nothing in fact could be more natural under these circumstances than for Frodo to wish for the power to use the Ring, if only to protect himself and his friends, to save the Shire and fulfill his Quest.  In the same way, however, Gandalf might desire the strength to do good out of pity (FR 1.ii.61), and Boromir might desire strength to defend Minas Tirith (FR 2.ii.267, x.397-399). But, as Galadriel says to Sam, 'That is how it would begin. But it would not stop with that, alas!'  Seen in this way, her words are as much a warning to Frodo not to try to use the Ring as they are an explanation to Sam of why she cannot take it.

This passage shows quite nicely the grey and subtle dangers of the Ring.  In one moment Frodo is humble and noble enough to give Galadriel the Ring of his own free will; in the next he is shading the truth and asking her how to use the Ring to dominate others.  Frodo's progress here from the one to the other mirrors what Galadriel says her own would be if she had the Ring.  This scene offers a neat conclusion to a chapter that begins with Galadriel testing the hearts of Frodo and his companions, then testing Sam and Frodo further with her mirror, until Frodo in turn tests her heart with his gentle offer of incredible dominion.  Yet his test will not be over for as long as he carries the One.  The emphasis Frodo places on himself in his question is as telling as the question itself: 'Why cannot I see all the others and know the thoughts of those that wear them?'  We have not seen the last of the will to dominate revealed in these words.3

All of this may seem to suggest a darker vision of Frodo than is the norm, but that is to see only a part of the picture here.  For Frodo's question and Galadriel's answer are not all there is to this scene.  Her words both before and after Frodo's question are also important:
'Let us return!' she said.  'In the morning you must depart, for now we have chosen, and the tides of fate are flowing.'
'We will speak no more of it.  Let us go!'
We have chosen?  Galadriel pairs herself with Frodo.  For they have something essential in common. Both have chosen to reject the Ring -- she by refusing Frodo's offer of the Ring, and he by making the offer.  But so far from being alarmed when Frodo reveals his temptation by the Ring -- which he does not perceive as clearly as she perceives hers -- Galadriel counsels him against even attempting to use the Ring as suggests.  For, no matter how innocent his desire may seem to him, the will to dominate lies at its root.  She points out that as Ring-bearers they already see much that others do not, like Sam, for example, who not only does not see the ring on her finger, but still thinks she should take the One despite all she said in her rejection of it. She says that they will speak no more of it, not because their choice at this moment has delivered them from temptation, but because there is nothing more to say of it.  As Frodo's experience will increasingly reveal, the test never ends while the Ring lasts.4 They must go on.  That is all they can do.  The tides of fate are flowing.


I can find no passage in The Lord of the Rings to support Frodo's claim. Permission may be implicit in his position as Ring-bearer, but permissibility and advisability are two different things.  But I would not wish to overstate my case by arguing from silence.

Note also how Galadriel's words at FR 2.vii.355, before Aragorn tells her that Gandalf is dead: 'Now tell us where [Gandalf] is; for I desired much to speak with him again. But I cannot see him from afar, unless he comes within the fences of Lothlórien: a grey mist is about him, and the ways of his feet and of his mind are hidden from me.' She clearly expects to be able to see him and know his thoughts, likely because they both held Rings.  Cf. also RK 6.vii.985, where the keepers of the Three and Celeborn converse with each other telepathically by mutual consent. Frodo is not talking about consensual perception and knowledge, however.

A line may be drawn from this moment through to 'The Ring is mine' at RK 6.iii.945. Consider also the way Frodo uses the power of the Ring over Gollum in The Taming of Sméagol (TT 4.i.618) and The Black Gate is Closed (TT 4.iii.640-41).  Even in the darkly humorous scene at Henneth Annûn where Frodo threatens Gollum with the Ring, Frodo is exerting his will to dominate another (TT 4.vi.687-688).  Finally, as Frodo watches the Witch King leads his troops off to war in Gondor, he realizes 'that he had not, even if he put [the Ring] on, the power to face the Morgul-king -- not yet.' (TT 4.viii.707).  Not yet?  Indeed.

In his Mythgard Academy class on The Two Towers, Corey Olsen argues (starting at about 20:00), rightly I think, that by not taking the Ring from Frodo by force once he came within her reach Galadriel had already passed the test, that is, before Frodo ever offered her the Ring.  But I would suggest that her words here, especially 'now we have chosen,' indicate that the choice is never so simple or so easy that one can make it only once. 

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