17 April 2021

The Council of Elrond and the Doom of Choice (FR 2.ii.270)

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

Elrond raised his eyes and looked at him, and Frodo felt his heart pierced by the sudden keenness of the glance. 'If I understand aright all that I have heard,' he said, 'I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will. This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?

'But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right....'

(FR 2.ii.270, italics mine)

The Council of Elrond, to which those present have been ‘called, I say, though I have not called you to me’ in order to ‘find counsel for the peril of the world’ (FR 2.ii.242), seeks to harmonize choice – the expression of the will – with Providence or ‘Eru’s plan’. It replays with a different result the debate Elrond and Círdan must have had, however briefly, with Isildur on the slopes of Mt Doom three thousand years earlier. Frodo’s ‘I will take the Ring’(FR 2.ii.270), Isildur’s ‘this I will have as weregild’(FR 2.ii.243), Elrond’s ‘I will not take the Ring to wield it’ and Gandalf’s ‘Nor [will] I’ (FR 2.ii.267) are all choices to be weighed together in the scales of this Council, as is Aragorn’s ‘it does not belong to either of us’ (FR 2.ii.246). Isildur ‘took [the Ring] for his own’ (FR 1.ii.52; 2:ii.243); Frodo takes it as ‘burden’ (FR 2.ii.270). As we have seen*, however, the line between ‘the Ring is my burden’ and ‘the Ring is mine’ cannot be maintained in the end. Yet choosing ‘freely’ to accept the Ring as a burden brings the expression of the will into sufficient harmony with Providence to ‘send the Ring to the Fire’, as Elrond puts it (FR 2.ii.267, emphasis mine), at which point Providence will see to it that it goes into the Fire. 

Elrond’s choice of preposition here seems almost prescient given Frodo's failure at Mt Doom. His remarks about Frodo's present choice, hedged about with four conditional statements in nine sentences (as italicized above) question his own understanding, the conclusion he has reached because of his understanding, the ironic paradoxes of wisdom, and the necessity of free choice to the correctness of Frodo's decision. Elrond recalls all too well how badly Isildur chose, Ring in hand. Could anyone in Middle-earth besides Bombadil make a wholly free choice while in possession of the Ring?


*Sorry, you will have to wait for my book, To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity, and the Ring of Power, to see what we have seen above. 

Éomer and Aragorn's New Mood (TT 3.ii.433)

Gimli and Legolas looked their companion in amazement, for they had not seen him in this mood before. He seemed to have grown in stature while Éomer had shrunk; and in his living face they caught a brief vision of the power and majesty of the kings of stone. For a moment it seemed to the eyes of Legolas that a white flame flickered on the brows of Aragorn like a shining crown.

Éomer stepped back and a look of awe was in his face. He cast down his proud eyes. 'These are indeed strange days,' he muttered. 'Dreams and legends spring to life out of the grass.

'Tell me, lord,' he said, 'what brings you here?'

In rejecting the logic of either going after the Ringbearer or continuing on to Minas Tirith, and instead choosing to pursue the orcs who have abducted Merry and Pippin, Aragorn does the right thing because it is the right thing, regardless of its seeming hopelessness. In doing so he passes the test and proves himself worthy to become king, though that, too, seems a hopeless cause. Is it any wonder that he seems so different so immediately? His unhesitating, bold declaration of his identity and purpose to Éomer stuns his comrades, 'for they had not seen him in this mood before' (one of the funniest lines in the book), but it also finds confirmation in Éomer’s response. He takes a step back, lowers his eyes, accepts what he has seen and heard, and addresses Aragorn as 'lord'. He is the first to do this.

14 April 2021

'I shall' and 'I will' at The Council of Elrond

'I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.'

These are perhaps some of the best known words said by Frodo in all of The Lord of the Rings, often quoted and commented upon. 'I shall', however, is the normal way to express the future tense in the first person singular. Before commenting upon the choice Tolkien made here in preferring 'will' to 'shall', it will be useful to examine the times character say 'I shall' and 'I will' throughout the discussion in The Council of Elrond. Let's start with 'I shall'. It is the default, and there are only three instances.

(a) And now that part of the tale that I shall tell is drawn to its close. (FR 2.ii.245)

(b) It was hot when I first took it, hot as a glede, and my hand was scorched, so that I doubt if ever again I shall be free of the pain of it. (252, emphasis original, indicating quotation of a written document)

(c) I had thought of putting: and he lived happily ever afterwards to the end of his days. It is a good ending, and none the worse for having been used before. Now I shall have to alter that: it does not look like coming true.... (269)

The speakers here are, in order, Elrond, Isildur (as quoted by Gandalf), and Bilbo, three very different characters. Each use of 'shall' here indicates nothing more or less than the speaker's opinion of what is or is not going to happen. There is little to say or argue about here so far.

Turning to 'I will', we find nineteen instances uttered by nine speakers: Elrond, Isildur, Aragorn, Bilbo, Gandalf, Radagast, Boromir, Gwaihir, and Frodo.

(A) 'And I will begin that tale, though others shall end it.' (Elrond, 242)

(B) '"This I will have as weregild for my father, and my brother," (Isildur, 243)

(C) 'And this I will say to you, Boromir, ere I end.' (Aragorn, 248)

(D) 'But now the world is changing once again. A new hour comes. Isildur's Bane is found. Battle is at hand. The Sword shall be reforged. I will come to Minas Tirith.' (Aragorn, 248)

(E) 'Very well,' said Bilbo. 'I will do as you bid. But I will now tell the true story, and if some here have heard me tell it otherwise' – he looked sidelong at Glóin – 'I ask them to forget it and forgive me.' (Bilbo, 249)

(F) 'But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing: of all the works of Sauron the only fair. It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain. (Isildur, 253)

(G) 'And now I will answer Galdor's other questions. What of Saruman? (Gandalf, 256)

(H) '"I will go to Saruman," I said. (Gandalf, 257)

(I) '"I will do that," he said....' (Radagast, 257)

(J) "Well, the choices are, it seems, to submit to Sauron, or to yourself. I will take neither. Have you others to offer?" (Gandalf 260)

(K) '"Then I will bear you to Edoras, where the Lord of Rohan sits in his halls," he said; "for that is not very far off." (Gwaihir, 261)

(L) 'Nor is it now, I will swear,' said Boromir. 'It is a lie that comes from the Enemy.' (Boromir, 262)

(M) "If this delay was his fault, I will melt all the butter in him. I will roast the old fool over a slow fire." (Gandalf, 263)


(N) 'I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it.'

    'Nor I,' said Gandalf. (Elrond, followed by Gandalf, 267)

(O) 'I will take the Ring,' he said, 'though I do not know the way.' (Frodo, 270)

(P) 'But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right....' (Elrond, 270)

In contrast to the three instances of 'I shall', 'I will' quite clearly communicates intent, desire, or choice (whether acceptance or refusal). Particularly interesting is that Isildur twice uses 'I will' (B, F) of what he intends to do or not do in connection with the Ring, in contrast with his use of 'I shall' (b) to denote what he expects will be the case with the pain the Ring has caused him. Mark also Elrond's explicit and Gandalf's implicit use of 'I will' to indicate their refusal of the Ring (N). Elrond makes clear (P) that his approval of Frodo's choice or intention is conditional (O). Elrond, moreover, has previously expressed an opinion about the wisdom of 'taking' the Ring:

'Isildur took it! That is tidings indeed.' [said Boromir]

    'Alas! yes,' said Elrond. 'Isildur took it, as should not have been.' (243)

On this showing, Frodo's 'I will take the Ring' occupies a much greyer area than it seems to do at first glance. His courage and his humility are still there, just as they always have been, but the ambiguity and the peril of 'I will' are also in keeping with the desire he had felt only the night before to strike Bilbo when he reached out for the Ring which Frodo was quite reluctant to show him (231).

I hope to study these uses of 'I shall' and 'I will' further in a later post, which will also explore the distinction more widely in The Lord of the Rings.

23 March 2021

Hope and Courage in Memory -- Tolkien Reading Day 2021

After rescuing the hobbits from the Barrow-wight, Tom Bombadil, in a moment I have always found unforgettable, conjures an elegiac memory of a woman long dead:

He chose for himself from the pile a brooch set with blue stones, many-shaded like flax-flowers or the wings of blue butterflies. He looked long at it, as if stirred by some memory, shaking his head, and saying at last:

'Here is a pretty toy for Tom and for his lady! Fair was she who long ago wore this on her shoulder. Goldberry shall wear it now, and we will not forget her!'

For each of the hobbits he chose a dagger, long, leaf-shaped, and keen, of marvellous workmanship, damasked with serpent-forms in red and gold. They gleamed as he drew them from their black sheaths, wrought of some strange metal, light and strong, and set with many fiery stones. Whether by some virtue in these sheaths or because of the spell that lay on the mound, the blades seemed untouched by time, unrusted, sharp, glittering in the sun.

'Old knives are long enough as swords for hobbit-people,' he said. 'Sharp blades are good to have, if Shire-folk go walking, east, south, or far away into dark and danger.' Then he told them that these blades were forged many long years ago by Men of Westernesse: they were foes of the Dark Lord, but they were overcome by the evil king of Carn Dum in the Land of Angmar. 

          (FR 1.viii.145)

Old Tom's recollection of this otherwise vanished woman reveals the sorrow innate in memories as long as his, but his statement that he and Goldberry will continue to remember her verges on hope. For how fair she was is only the beginning of what he recalls about her and her people. And though by calling the daggers with which he arms the hobbits 'old knives' he seems to dismiss them, the description of them makes clear that they are not ordinary, but as remarkable and as full of memory as the brooch. Undulled, unstained by the centuries, the blades are as ready to serve the purpose for which they were made as they were when newly forged, as if the memory of that time and that purpose dwelt in them even now. In telling their history Old Tom suggests a new hope to the hobbits, who glimpse the flow of past into present and even present into future. For the hobbits have no idea that the man with the star upon his brow is in their future and that one of the names he bears is Hope (Estel).

'Few now remember them,' Tom murmured, 'yet still some go wandering, sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless.'

The hobbits did not understand his words, but as he spoke they had a vision as it were of a great expanse of years behind them, like a vast shadowy plain over which there strode shapes of Men, tall and grim with bright swords, and last came one with a star on his brow. Then the vision faded, and they were back in the sunlit world. It was time to start again. 

          (FR 1.viii.145-46)

Just as Tom picks up the woman's memory with the brooch, which leads the hobbits to a hope they do not yet recognize, and to a courage they do not yet know, so too the vision of the man with a star upon his brow brings us to Aragorn, to the sword that was broken, and to Arwen Evenstar. We hear her voice so seldom, it is almost no surprise that her first words come to us through another, relayed to Aragorn by his kinsman, Halbarad:

'The days now are short. Either our hope cometh, or all hopes end. Therefore, I send thee what I have made for thee. Fare well, Elfstone!' 

(RK 5.ii.775)

Indeed Arwen's voice is so full of hope and grace the few times we do hear it -- whether she is renouncing both the Shadow and the Twilight (RK App. A 1060) for the love of Aragorn, or ceding her place beyond the sea to Frodo in the hope that he might find healing there (RK 6.vi.974) -- that it is stunning when in the face of Aragorn's death she is 'overborne by her grief' (RK App. A 1062):

'"But I say to you, King of the Númenóreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive."

'"So it seems," he said. "But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell!"

'"Estel, Estel!" she cried, and with that even as he took her hand and kissed it, he fell into sleep.'

(RK App. A 1062-63)

The faltering of Arwen at the last, now no longer immortal nor, it seems, elven-wise, is such an eloquent counterpoint to Aragorn’s faith. She puts on Men's knowledge when she puts on their sorrow. Yet the last words we hear her speak – ‘Estel, Estel!’ – testify ironically to the surety of the hope she does not recognize.


22 March 2021

Review of Holly Ordway -- "Tolkien's Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages"

In this well made, thoroughly researched, and clearly written book, Holly Ordway has at long last rid us of the false notion that Tolkien neither read nor liked anything written after the Middle Ages. The specific suggestions she has made that a given author influenced Tolkien in a given way will be met with approving nods as well as eyebrows cocked in disbelief. That is the way of things. There were moments I did both in quick succession, within the same paragraph. Nevertheless, Ordway has proved her overall point quite persuasively and finally. Tolkien unquestionably read modern books, enjoyed them, and was influenced by them. 

Of equal or perhaps greater importance than the many positive proofs Ordway offers of Tolkien's engagement with modern books are her investigations in the book's first and last chapters into the sources of this common misunderstanding of Tolkien: it arose from a combination of the job Humphrey Carpenter did in his biography of Tolkien and Tolkien's own ways of expressing himself. One can only hope that Ordway's reassessment will lead the Tolkien Estate to authorize a new and more scholarly biography by a writer worthy of the task, someone like John Garth, whose 'Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth' has set a high professional standard.