The Council of Elrond
Shadows of the Past
Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as six books for one grand work. It was his publishers who imposed the ‘trilogy’ format. Each of the six books of his original schema is radically different, though sometimes looking back and explaining, or looking forward and foreshadowing.
The Council of Elrond is the longest chapter in the book. It completes the explanation of why Frodo had to make his journey without Gandalf, which was begun in Many Meetings. It also sets the frame for the rest of the adventure, introducing some places that the Fellowship will visit later on. And gives good reasons why the One Ring must stay with Frodo. Settles his Doom, if you like.
But it doesn’t stick to the bare plot. A willingness to meander and describe things that might seem irrelevant is one of the book’s best features. And this chapter begins with one of Tolkien’s beautiful landscape descriptions:
“Next day Frodo woke early, feeling refreshed and well. He walked along the terraces above the loud-flowing Bruinen and watched the pale, cool sun rise above the far mountains, and shine down. Slanting through the thin silver mist; the dew upon the yellow leaves was glimmering, and the woven nets of gossamer twinkled on every bush. Sam walked beside him, saying nothing. but sniffing the air, and looking every now and again with wonder in his eyes at the great heights in the East. The snow was white upon their peaks.”
We then get the setting for the Council: also beautiful.
“Gandalf led them to the porch where Frodo had found his friends the evening before. The light of the clear autumn morning was now glowing in the valley. The noise of bubbling waters came up from the foaming river-bed. Birds were singing, and a wholesome peace lay on the land. To Frodo his dangerous flight, and the rumours of the darkness growing in the world outside, already seemed only the memories of a troubled dream; but the faces that were turned to meet them as they entered were grave.”
We got more details in the previous chapter:
“Sam led him along several passages and down many steps and out into a high garden above the steep bank of the river. He found his friends sitting in a porch on the side of the house looking east. Shadows had fallen in the valley below, but there was still a light on the faces of the mountains far above. The air was warm. The sound of running and falling water was loud, and the evening was filled with a faint scent of trees and flowers, as if summer still lingered in Elrond’s gardens.”
I’d carelessly imagined the Council taking place in some gloomy underground meeting round a table. Jackson was true to the source in putting it outdoors. But he has a small table where the One Ring is immediately displayed, rather than having Frodo bring it out later. And groups the participants on one side, so that a single camera shot can show them all.
The central table allows for what I’d count as his best addition: Gimli belting the One Ring with a huge axe, breaking the axe and doing it no damage. Hurting both himself and Frodo, who is being increasingly tied to the ring.
The BBC radio version handled it differently – when the ring’s powers are invoked Radio, you hear voices – maybe the Nazgul – doing a chanted version of the Ring Spell in Black Speech. Something a future more leisurely television adaptation might borrow.
So, they gather. Note that the Council of Elrond was not the same as the White Council. That had been headed by Saruman. Dwarves, men and hobbits would presumably not have been invited to such a gathering. Alternatively, there may be have been trustworthy human magicians whom we simply don’t hear about.
Elrond thinks that they are meant to be there, several having arrived for some separate purpose. Radagast not having come, he maybe is not meant to be there.
If we leave aside the comic portrayal in the film, it is unclear how far Radagast could fight. If he was mostly concerned with birds and animals, he might not have been very useful. But it is odd that Radagast, first mentioned in The Hobbit, does nothing after his role in first luring Gandalf to Saruman’s stronghold, and then showing his honesty by sending the eagle who rescues him.
To wrap up the matter of this enigmatic wizard, we are told in the next chapter than scouts are sent out after the Council of Elrond look for him. Radagast is not at his home at Rhosgobel and cannot be found. Tolkien makes no mention of what has happened to Radagast, and he plays no further role in events.
If you wanted to invent a story for him, Saruman and presumably also Sauron knew he was an enemy, though a weak one. They might have killed him, or tried to and he fled or hid.
Tolkien also views him as having failed in his mission. His care for animals and birds is admirable, but fighting evil and helping the various Free Peoples should have been his main mission. Saruman tried to rule them. Radagast gets diverted to a lesser task.
The council begins with Elrond introducing Frodo to the others. Introducing him as ‘Frodo son of Drogo’, slightly oddly, though they ought to know that this is Bilbo’s nephew. That he arrived wounded and pursued by forces of evil.
He then introduces Gimli son of Glóin, not seen before. Also Legolas from Northern Mirkwood, and Boromir who is described as a ‘man from the South’. Plus an Elf called Galdor from Cirdan and the Grey Havens, who does little but does foreshadow the ending.
Boromir has high status, and shows it:
“A tall man with a fair and noble face, dark-haired and grey-eyed, proud and stern of glance.
“He was cloaked and booted as if for a journey on horseback; and indeed though his garments were rich, and his cloak was lined with fur, they were stained with long travel. He had a collar of silver in which a single white stone was set; his locks were shorn about his shoulders. On a baldric he wore a great horn tipped with silver that now was laid upon his knees.
Aragorn meantime has gone back to modest Ranger garb. He’s not going to start out asserting himself as heir of kings. Nor as potential King of Gondor and husband of Arwen.
It is worth adding that Arwen is not mentioned as being there, though you’d have thought she counted for something. Nor is anything said about needing Galadriel, though we later learn that she has been consulted. Of course they were added to the narrative well after Tolkien wrote this chapter in something like its finished form.
The introductions done, the narrator-voice tells us that we get an edited version:
“Not all that was spoken and debated in the Council need now be told. Much was said of events in the world outside, especially in the South, and in the wide lands east of the Mountains.”
The first recorded remarks are Glóin telling of Balin’s attempt to recover Moria, and the alarming lack of news. And then of an insinuating messenger from Mordor asking after hobbits and rings. Offering three Dwarven rings in Sauron’s possession, which unknown to them would include the ring taken from Thorin’s father. Also offering Moria, though Sauron at least would be well aware that the last of the dwarf colony had been killed more than 20 years earlier. Perhaps also that the balrog roused, though it’s not clear when it was roused before its confrontation with Gandalf.
We are also not told the exact relation between Sauron and the balrog. It probably viewed him as an equal and might resent Sauron’s abandonment of Morgoth’s cause after his defeat by Luthien and Huan back in the First Age. Had Sauron reported his own failure, Beren and Luthien could not have infiltrated Morgoth’s stronghold in the guise of servants of Sauron who were either dead or defeated. (Whether Thuringwethil the bat-woman was killed or just had her magic confiscated is left unspecified in the writings we’ve seen.)
Sauron makes an offer he doesn’t want refused. The elderly Dain Ironside as ruler of the kingdom he inherited from Thorin Oakenshield is sensibly suspicious. Also reluctant to betray the ties of friendship with Bilbo, although he might have truthfully said ‘he’s no longer with us and we think he lives among the Rivendell elves’. Also ‘we have no knowledge of what he did with his magic ring, but he probably still has it’. The un-named dwarves that Bilbo travelled with had no reason to think he had handed over the ring. But such an answer would have led Sauron to concentrate on Rivendell. As things are, the Nazgul must be unsure of which Baggins they are looking for or where he might be.
The dwarves have kept loyal, but are alarmed:
“’Heavy have the hearts of our chieftains been since that night. We needed not the fell voice of the messenger to warn us that his words held both menace and deceit; for we knew already that the power that has re-entered Mordor has not changed, and ever it betrayed us of old. Twice the messenger has returned, and has gone unanswered. The third and last time, so he says, is soon to come, before the ending of the year.
“’And so I have been sent at last by Dáin to warn Bilbo that he is sought by the Enemy, and to learn, if may be, why he desires this ring, this least of rings. Also we crave the advice of Elrond. For the Shadow grows and draws nearer. We discover that messengers have come also to King Brand in Dale, and that he is afraid. We fear that he may yield. Already war is gathering on his eastern borders. If we make no answer, the Enemy may move Men of his rule to assail King Brand, and Dáin also.’”
Elrond then gives the bigger picture, including his belief that Fate is shaping matter:
“`You will hear today all that you need in order to understand the purposes of the Enemy. There is naught that you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it. But you do not stand alone. You will learn that your trouble is but part of the trouble of all the western world. The Ring! What shall we do with the Ring, the least of rings, the trifle that Sauron fancies? That is the doom that we must deem.
“`That is the purpose for which you are called hither. Called, I say. though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.”
He goes on to tell of the ring’s history, and of still deeper history, including his own origins near the end of the First Age. But Boromir interrupts to explain that they know of the One Ring in the South, but had supposed it destroyed:
“`So that is what became of the Ring!’ he cried. `If ever such a tale was told in the South, it has long been forgotten. I have heard of the Great Ring of him that we do not name; but we believed that it perished from the world in the ruin of his first realm. Isildur took it! That is tidings indeed.’”
It is also not something Boromir needed to tell the Council, but Elrond is polite. He gives more details, and ends by explaining that with the One Ring gone, the three Elven Rings became usable.
When he’s finished, Boromir claims the right to defend Gondor’s reputation. He complains about lack of support:
“By our valour the wild folk of the East are still restrained, and the terror of Morgul kept at bay; and thus alone are peace and freedom maintained in the lands behind us, bulwark of the West…
“But still we fight on, holding all the west shores of Anduin; and those who shelter behind us give us praise, if ever they hear our name: much praise but little help. Only from Rohan now will any men ride to us when we call.”
Ursula Le Guin detects a hint of a whine in Boromir’s complaints, showing that he is a flawed hero. Aragorn later on takes a much more generous view.
“You know little of the lands beyond your bounds. Peace and freedom, do you say? The North would have known them little but for us. Fear would have destroyed them. But when dark things come from the houseless hills, or creep from sunless woods, they fly from us. What roads would any dare to tread, what safety would there be in quiet lands, or in the homes of simple men at night, if the Dúnedain were asleep, or were all gone into the grave?
“`And yet less thanks have we than you. Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. ‘Strider’ I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.
Boromir had earlier told of Gondor’s defeat at Osgiliath, the old capital that lies between what are now Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul. And how he claimed an errand that might in fact have been intended for his younger brother:
“For on the eve of the sudden assault a dream came to my brother in a troubled sleep; and afterwards a like dream came oft to him again, and once to me.”
The prophetic warning that Boromir hijacked is a beautiful little poem
“Seek for the Sword that was broken:
“In Imladris it dwells;
“There shall be counsels taken
“Stronger than Morgul-spells.
“There shall be shown a token
“That Doom is near at hand,
“For Isildur’s Bane shall waken,
“And the Halfling forth shall stand.”
I’d suppose we are intended to understand that the Valar sent Faramir the dream, but Boromir copied it in his own mind and took on a task he was unequal to. Also that Boromir mistakenly understood Doom to be the doom of Minas Tirith, not realising that the struggle is far wider.
Tolkien developed Boromir as a good man tempted by evil. Much later on in the writing, he added Faramir as a younger brother who avoids such temptations. Who accepts the original role of the Ruling Stewards, to hold the realm until a true King should appear. The Jackson films make Faramir imperfect, which adds dramatic tension as well as enraging many long-term fans of the book.
Faramir as told by Tolkien was wise enough to flatly reject the One Ring, so with him in place of Boromir the Fellowship might not have broken. Aragorn’s loose plan for some of them to help Frodo enter Mordor might have succeeded without the suffering and complex choices over Gollum. Without the things that paved the way for Frodo’s final failure after vast and possibly avoidable suffering. There must have been other paths into Mordor that Aragorn and Gimli could have found. Meantime Denethor with Boromir beside him would have done a much better job defending Minas Tirith, and Denethor would have stayed more hopeful. But that’s also not the story as Tolkien wished to tell it.
Whether or not Faramir should have been there, they actually have to win over Boromir. Aragorn reveals the broken sword, and Elrond identifies him as Isildur’s heir. Frodo supposes this means he should have the One Ring, but Aragorn sensibly refuses. It has been hidden until then, but Gandalf tells him to bring it out.
Boromir is once again mistaken. He sees it as the doom of his city, and then is suspicious of Aragorn’s offer to help.
“`I was not sent to beg any boon, but to seek only the meaning of a riddle,’ answered Boromir proudly. `Yet we are hard pressed, and the Sword of Elendil would be a help beyond our hope – if such a thing could indeed return out of the shadows of the past.’ He looked again at Aragorn, and doubt was in his eyes.”
Bilbo defends Aragorn with another beautiful little poem. One that is my personal favourite:
“All that is gold does not glitter,
“Not all those who wander are lost;
“The old that is strong does not wither,
“Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
“From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
“A light from the shadows shall spring;
“Renewed shall be blade that was broken:
“The crownless again shall be king.”
After a debate on Isildur and Fate, Bilbo is typically hobbitish in suggesting it is time for lunch. Elrond responds by asking him to tell his part, which he does with a poor sense of what’s important:
“To some there Bilbo’s tale was wholly new, and they listened with amazement while the old hobbit, actually not at all displeased, recounted his adventure with Gollum, at full length. He did not omit a single riddle. He would have given also an account of his party and disappearance from the Shire, if he had been allowed; but Elrond raised his hand.”
Elrond then has Frodo tell the events of Book One, which the reader does not need repeated.
Treason Clad in White
We now come to the Treason of Saruman. But note that this was an addition to the original plot. Not inherent, but something that became necessary as the story deepened and darkened from its original status as a repeat of the semi-comic adventures of Bilbo..
Tolkien was scrupulous about maintaining consistency in a narrative he had developed by stages. From the History of Middle Earth volumes 6 and 7, we know that he began the tale with a grand departure party for either Bilbo or his heir. This heir begins as his son Bingo, and then his nephew Bingo. Frodo as we know him also absorbs aspects of Frodo Took, one of Bingo’s companions.
In early drafts, Bilbo or his heir has run out of money, and the heir also wants to seek Bilbo. Bilbo’s ring only emerges gradually as the main issue. Bilbo’s heir travels to Rivendell, separately from Gandalf, and is menaced by Black Riders who seek him. At Bree, he gets a letter from Gandalf. This recommends a helper, initially a hobbit called Trotter, and Butterbur is also a hobbit. Gandalf in these early drafts is travelling with a party of dwarves and Rivendell elves, seemingly in harmony. It’s not obvious why Bilbo’s heir was not with them. But Gandalf leaves a message at Weathertop, along with some food – very hobbitish. But as in the final version, Bilbo’s heir is attacked and wounded.
When I originally reviewed the Jackson film, I said that in the book Glorfindel appears where one might have expected Legolas. (And the earlier dire Bakshi film actually has Legolas.) I think I now understand why things are as Tolkien made them – but that belongs in the next chapter, where the nine walkers of the Fellowship are chosen. For now, I’ll note that as Bilbo’s ring evolves into the One Ring, some different reason must be found for Bilbo’s heir not having Gandalf as a guide and companion. Tolkien naturally wanted to keep the meetings and adventures that are shaped by Gandalf’s absence, but also needed some logic for things to fall out so. He can’t just happen to be looking elsewhere, as happened with Bilbo and the trolls.
In the finished narrative, the explanation begins with Gildor of the Havens asking why Saruman is absent. Gandalf explains, as part of a wider explanation of how he gradually identified the One Ring as such:
“’Some here will remember that many years ago I myself dared to pass the doors of the Necromancer in Dol Guldur, and secretly explored his ways, and found thus that our fears were true: he was none other than Sauron, our Enemy of old, at length taking shape and power again. Some, too, will remember also that Saruman dissuaded us from open deeds against him, and for long we watched him only. Yet at last, as his shadow grew, Saruman yielded, and the Council put forth its strength and drove the evil out of Mirkwood and that was in the very year of the finding of this Ring: a strange chance, if chance it was.
“`But we were too late, as Elrond foresaw. Sauron also had watched us, and had long prepared against our stroke, governing Mordor from afar through Minas Morgul, where his Nine servants dwelt, until all was ready. Then he gave way before us, but only feigned to flee, and soon after came to the Dark Tower and openly declared himself. Then for the last time the Council met; for now we learned that he was seeking ever more eagerly for the One. We feared then that he had some news of it that we knew nothing of. But Saruman said nay, and repeated what he had said to us before: that the One would never again be found in Middle-earth.
“‘At the worst,’ said he, ‘our Enemy knows that we have it not and that it still is lost. But what was lost may yet be found, he thinks. Fear not! His hope will cheat him. Have I not earnestly studied this matter? Into Anduin the Great it fell; and long ago, while Sauron slept, it was rolled down the River to the Sea. There let it lie until the End.’’
“Gandalf fell silent, gazing eastward from the porch to the far peaks of the Misty Mountains, at whose great roots the peril of the world had so long lain hidden. He sighed.
“‘There I was at fault,’ he said. `I was lulled by the words of Saruman the Wise; but I should have sought for the truth sooner, and our peril would now be less.’
“`We were all at fault,’ said Elrond, `and but for your vigilance the Darkness, maybe, would already be upon us. But say on!’
“`From the first my heart misgave me, against all reason that I knew,’ said Gandalf, `and I desired to know how this thing came to Gollum, and how long he had possessed it. So I set a watch for him, guessing that he would ere long come forth from his darkness to seek for his treasure. He came, but he escaped and was not found. And then alas! I let the matter rest, watching and waiting only, as we have too often done.
“`Time passed with many cares, until my doubts were awakened again to sudden fear. Whence came the hobbit’s ring? What, if my fear was true, should be done with it? Those things I must decide. But I spoke yet of my dread to none, knowing the peril of an untimely whisper, if it went astray. In all the long wars with the Dark Tower treason has ever been our greatest foe.”
He might have added that any of Sauron’s foes might want the One Ring to use themselves. That was indeed Saruman’s motive, and we learn later that Galadriel had been strongly tempted. Gandalf himself was tempted, especially when Frodo offers it freely to him. We also don’t know how trusting he’d have been with Elrond, had things turned out differently. He did plan to bring Frodo there, but possibly not to reveal all. And as things are, Elrond is just one among many and they have to work together. Gandalf had thought Frodo fatally wounded and only Elrond was able to save him.
We learn that Gandalf in the aftermath of the Battle of the Five Armies suspected that Bilbo’s find might be the One Ring. But he could not find Gollum to verify it, even with Aragorn’s help. This last is a calculated risk – Aragorn cannot wed Arwen except as King of Arnor and Gondor, for which the One Ring would have been a great help. Regardless, they find nothing.
Meantime it seems Saruman has gained a slight interest in hobbits. But may not be aware even that Bilbo has a ring. The dwarves could be expected to keep his secrets. Even Elrond might not have known at that point.
Not finding Gollum at that time, Gandalf then remembers something that Saruman had said. Something he said rather carelessly, given that he eventually covets the One Ring and knows that Gandalf might either prevent this or might later take the ring himself:
“The memory of words at the Council came back to me: words of Saruman, half-heeded at the time. I heard them now clearly in my heart.
“‘The Nine, the Seven, and the Three,’ he said, ‘had each their proper gem. Not so the One. It was round and unadorned, as it were one of the lesser rings; but its maker set marks upon it that the skilled, maybe, could still see and read.’”
We are not told what gems, though at the end of the tale we get detailed descriptions of the three Elven rings. But the detail is significant – the ring found by Bilbo fits the One Ring. And might be identifiable:
“`What those marks were he had not said. Who now would know? The maker. And Saruman? But great though his lore may be, it must have a source. What hand save Sauron’s ever held this thing, ere it was lost? The hand of Isildur alone.
“`With that thought, I forsook the chase, and passed swiftly to Gondor.’”
Boromir once again aggressively interrupts, contributing nothing useful but asserting his kingdom’s status. And Gandalf politely explains how Boromir’s father Denethor was just as arrogant, and less great than he thought himself. Unlike other foes of Sauron, they do not realised the limits of their entirely genuine gifts. They repeat the original error of Melkor / Morgoth and also Sauron, going beyond their proper role. That’s Tolkien’s Christian and Catholic view, but on this point I agree with him. I regret that Jackson mangled Denethor’s character in the film. But as Tolkien told it, at this stage Denethor is merely impolite:
“Less welcome did the Lord Denethor show me then than of old, and grudgingly he permitted me to search among his hoarded scrolls and books.
“‘If indeed you look only, as you say, for records of ancient days, and the beginnings of the City, read on!’ he said. ‘For to me what was is less dark than what is to come, and that is my care. But unless you have more skill even than Saruman, who has studied here long, you will find naught that is not well known to me, who am master of the lore of this City.’
“`So said Denethor. And yet there lie in his hoards many records that few now can read, even of the lore-masters, for their scripts and tongues have become dark to later men. And Boromir, there lies in Minas Tirith still, unread, I guess, by any save Saruman and myself since the kings failed, a scroll that Isildur made himself. For Isildur did not march away straight from the war in Mordor, as some have told the tale.’
“’Some in the North, maybe,’ Boromir broke in. ‘All know in Gondor that he went first to Minas Anor and dwelt a while with his nephew Meneldil, instructing him, before he committed to him the rule of the South Kingdom. In that time he planted there the last sapling of the White Tree in memory of his brother.’
“`But in that time also he made this scroll,’ said Gandalf; `and that is not remembered in Gondor’.”
He is trying to gently educate Boromir, and partly succeeds. The man will repent at the end, though not before doing great damage.
Back then, Gandalf finds an exact copy of the ring inscription, in elven script but in Black Speech, which he could read. He returns, intended to perform the test that Frodo would already have told of. But Gandalf does this later than he had planned, since Gollum has at last been found. He delays and endures much tedium to get the whining and untruthful Gollum to tell something like the truth.
Why Gandalf bothers could be seen as a gap in the story, since the fire-test should be enough. But Tolkien had to have it so, to set the scene for Gollum’s later introduction as a major character. And Gandalf might have suspected the story could be more complex. Possibly Sauron could have made a first-draft Ring of Power which no one else got to hear of, and it was that which Gollum found. I’ve done a short story with Gandalf imagining this much nicer solution.
Regardless, Gandalf confirms that Gollum has lived unnaturally long for a hobbit, meaning he had a Great Ring. This done, he finally visits Frodo and reads the inscription. For unclear reasons – perhaps to shock everyone into realising the full seriousness of what they face – he then declaims the inscription in the original Black Speech. He might also have been wanting to emphasise the inherent evil of the One Ring: its purpose is set in an evil spell written in a foul language.
We then learn from Legolas that Gollum escaped, having been given gentler treatment than Thorin and his fellows had received in The Hobbit:
“We guarded this creature day and night, at Gandalf’s bidding, much though we wearied of the task. But Gandalf bade us hope still for his cure, and we had not the heart to keep him ever in dungeons under the earth, where he would fall back into his old black thoughts.’
“’You were less tender to me,’ said Glóin with a flash of his eyes as old memories were stirred of his imprisonment in the deep places of the Elven-king’s halls.
“’Now come!’ said Gandalf. `Pray do not interrupt, my good Glóin. That was a regrettable misunderstanding, long set right. If all the grievances that stand between Elves and Dwarves are to be brought up here, we may as well abandon this Council.’
“Glóin rose and bowed, and Legolas continued.”
This sets the scene for the difficulty of dwarf and elf tolerating each other. Particularly two kindreds who were about to engage in a battle over Thorin’s gold before the goblins turned up and they allied for the Battle of the Five Armies. Legolas and Gimli eventually become friends, and perhaps that was their main task.
Legolas reveals that Gollum has escaped, helped by orcs. Who may have let him go: perhaps Sauron’s orders for unclear reasons. Or he could have genuinely escaped.
Knowing nothing of this, Gandalf goes to Frodo and confirms that this is the One Ring. Does not suggest a sudden departure, since he knows that The Shire is being watched, but apparently by spies who cannot distinguish Frodo from other hobbits of the extensive Baggins kindred. Instead he departs to gather more news while Frodo slowly prepares what is intended to be an inconspicuous departure with Gandalf there to protect him. But while gathering news, Gandalf encounters Radagast and is diverted to see Saruman. Makes an unduly careless effort to inform Frodo, by relying on the unreliable Butterbur.
Saruman now holds Gandalf at the heart of his power – it seems that those strong in magic can infuse that power into a region, as Sauron does in Mordor and as the departed Noldor did in Hollin. Having a strong advantage, Saruman tries to persuade him to either join Sauron or else let Saruman have the One Ring:
“‘So you have come, Gandalf,’ he said to me gravely; but in his eyes there seemed to be a white light, as if a cold laughter was in his heart.
“‘Yes, I have come,’ I said. ‘I have come for your aid, Saruman the White.’ And that title seemed to anger him.
“‘Have you indeed, Gandalf the Grey!’”
He has repeated the classic error of Tolkien’s villains – going beyond the proper limits for their entirely genuine merits. Something that is a widespread human fault and needs no magic to make it monstrous. Our present-day elite have a bad dose of it. And Saruman is full of it:
“I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!
“’I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours. and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.
“’‘I liked white better,’ I said.
“’‘White!‘ he sneered. ‘It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.’
“’In which case it is no longer white,’ said I. ‘And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.’”
It is mentioned earlier that Saruman wore a ring unfamiliar to Gandalf. It is not mentioned again, and we are not told if he had managed to create a genuine Ring of Power. One could wonder also if he had weakened himself making a powerful artifact, as Sauron did.
His new Ring of Power might have played a role in his gathering followers – the very thing the One Ring promises to Sam and more realistically to Boromir. But that could also be credited to his power of Voice.
Significantly, when Gandalf offers terms to the defeated Saruman, he asks for his staff and the Key of Orthanc: Saruman’s ring is not mentioned. It is not found after Saruman’s body vanishes. The simplest explanation is an oversight – in a vastly complex story, Tolkien forgot about this little detail.
We also never hear of anyone using one of the Lesser Rings to make themselves invisible, even though there should be many such rings. A topic for fan fiction, perhaps. Saruman might not bother with such things. He can cast illusions, and perhaps make himself invisible. But not to Gandalf’s eyes, since both exist in the ‘other world’ to which the rings take a mortal user.
We learn later that Galadriel can make her own ring invisible, until Frodo sees it after his experience with the Mirror. Gandalf and Elrond might have done the same, or just not have been wearing theirs. Tom Bombadil has the same power – he can make the One Ring vanish.
One could also wonder how Saruman missed Gandalf’s possession of the highly useful Ring of Fire when he had him captive. That could be seen as an oversight, but it is also plausible that Gandalf could have hidden it from him. Saruman as corrupted would not have expected the generosity of Cirdan giving it to Gandalf. Or have been modest enough to think that Gandalf rather than he would be seen as the most worthy.
A mistake of a different sort relates to white light. It really is a range of many colours, though not always spectral colours. But of course Tolkien is thinking in moral terms. You could also see Saruman as becoming a kind of chameleon, losing his original identity in the belief he is being clever.
The conflict between the two wizards is about moral issues. As Gandalf reports:
“’You need not speak to me as to one of the fools that you take for friends,’ said he. ‘I have not brought you hither to be instructed by you, but to give you a choice.’
“’He drew himself up then and began to declaim, as if he were making a speech long rehearsed. ‘The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.
“’And listen, Gandalf, my old friend and helper!’ he said, coming near and speaking now in a softer voice. ‘I said we, for we it may be, if you will join with me. A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Númenor. This then is one choice before you. before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.’
“‘Saruman,’ I said, ‘I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant. I cannot think that you brought me so far only to weary my ears.’”
It does indeed make little sense. Tolkien may have been thinking of the large number of Britons who positively approved of Hitler, rather than simply hoping they could avoid a war with him. The Daily Mail was one of many, most of whom switched when the actual war started. I’ve done my own study of this, Britain’s Mixed Feelings About Hitler in the 1930s. (https://gwydionmadawc.com/20-british-history/britains-mixed-feelings-about-hitler-in-the-1930s/)
To return to Middle-Earth, Saruman makes the more sensible suggestion that Gandalf will let the One Ring be used against Sauron:
“’He looked at me sidelong, and paused a while considering. ‘Well, I see that this wise course does not commend itself to you,’ he said. ‘Not yet? Not if some better way can be contrived?’
“‘He came and laid his long hand on my arm. ‘And why not, Gandalf?’ he whispered. ‘Why not? The Ruling Ring? If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us. That is in truth why I brought you here. For I have many eyes in my service, and I believe that you know where this precious thing now lies. Is it not so? Or why do the Nine ask for the Shire, and what is your business there?’ As he said this a lust which he could not conceal shone suddenly in his eyes.
“‘Saruman,’ I said, standing away from him, ‘only one hand at a time can wield the One, and you know that well, so do not trouble to say we! But I would not give it, nay, I would not give even news of it to you, now that I learn your mind. You were head of the Council, but you have unmasked yourself at last. Well, the choices are, it seems, to submit to Sauron, or to yourself. I will take neither. Have you others to offer?’
“’He was cold now and perilous. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I did not expect you to show wisdom, even in your own behalf; but I gave you the chance of aiding me willingly. and so saving yourself much trouble and pain. The third choice is to stay here, until the end.’
“‘Until what end?’
“‘Until you reveal to me where the One may be found. I may find means to persuade you. Or until it is found in your despite, and the Ruler has time to turn to lighter matters: to devise, say, a fitting reward for the hindrance and insolence of Gandalf the Grey.’
“‘That may not prove to be one of the lighter matters,’ said I. He laughed at me, for my words were empty, and he knew it.
“‘They took me and they set me alone on the pinnacle of Orthanc, in the place where Saruman was accustomed to watch the stars.”
He’s gifted, but has a worse case of hubris than Boromir or Denethor. His role should have been large and benevolent, as Gandalf’s was. He causes much suffering and ruins himself by trying to go beyond it.
Note the description:
“In his eyes there seemed to be a white light, as if a cold laughter was in his heart.”
White need not be entirely good. I think the same applies to the vision of Frodo that Sam has at the foot of Mount Doom, ‘stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire’. This is just before Frodo nearly ruins everything by willfully trying to keep the One Ring.
Why Frodo Must be Burdened
The imprisonment of Gandalf begins the process whereby the task of destroying the One Ring falls mostly on Frodo. No one else can be trusted with it:
“`At first I feared, as Saruman no doubt intended, that Radagast had also fallen. Yet I had caught no hint of anything wrong in his voice or in his eye at our meeting. If I had, I should never have gone to Isengard, or I should have gone more warily. So Saruman guessed, and he had concealed his mind and deceived his messenger. It would have been useless in any case to try and win over the honest Radagast to treachery. He sought me in good faith, and so persuaded me.
“`That was the undoing of Saruman’s plot. For Radagast knew no reason why he should not do as I asked; and he rode away towards Mirkwood where he had many friends of old. And the Eagles of the Mountains went far and wide, and they saw many things: the gathering of wolves and the mustering of Orcs; and the Nine Riders going hither and thither in the lands; and they heard news of the escape of Gollum. And they sent a messenger to bring these tidings to me.”
The eagle – talking and intelligent, unlike in the film – rescues him, but cannot take him as far as he needs to go. They agree on Rohan, though Gandalf correctly doubts the kingdom’s loyalty. But if he identifies the problem as Wormtongue, he does not then say so:
“I will bear you to Edoras, where the Lord of Rohan sits in his halls,’ [the eagle] said; ‘for that is not very far off.’ And I was glad, for in the Riddermark of Rohan the Rohirrim, the Horse-lords, dwell, and there are no horses like those that are bred in that great vale between the Misty Mountains and the White.
“‘Are the Men of Rohan still to be trusted, do you think?’ I said to Gwaihir, for the treason of Saruman had shaken my faith.
“‘They pay a tribute of horses,’ he answered, ‘and send many yearly to Mordor, or so it is said; but they are not yet under the yoke. But if Saruman has become evil, as you say, then their doom cannot be long delayed.’
“`He set me down in the land of Rohan ere dawn; and now I have lengthened my tale over long. The rest must be more brief. In Rohan I found evil already at work: the lies of Saruman; and the king of the land would not listen to my warnings. He bade me take a horse and be gone; and I chose one much to my liking. but little to his. I took the best horse in his land, and I have never seen the like of him.’
“’Then he must be a noble beast indeed,’ said Aragorn; ‘and it grieves me more than many tidings that might seem worse to learn that Sauron levies such tribute. It was not so when last I was in that land.’
“`Nor is it now, I will swear,’ said Boromir. `It is a lie that comes from the Enemy. I know the Men of Rohan; true and valiant, our allies, dwelling still in the lands that we gave them long ago.’
“`The shadow of Mordor lies on distant lands,’ answered Aragorn. ‘Saruman has fallen under it. Rohan is beset. Who knows what you will find there, if ever you return?’
“`Not this at least.’ said Boromir, ‘that they will buy their lives with horses. They love their horses next to their kin. And not without reason, for the horses of the Riddermark come from the fields of the North, far from the Shadow. and their race, as that of their masters, is descended from the free days of old.’
“’True indeed!’ said Gandalf. `And there is one among them that might have been foaled in the morning of the world. The horses of the Nine cannot vie with him; tireless, swift as the flowing wind. Shadowfax they called him.”
He rides to Hobbiton, and learns that Frodo has gone and that the Black Riders are after him. Goes to Crickhollow, where Frodo had pretended to be moving, and makes another error:
“‘I rode on in fear. I came to Buckland and found it in uproar, as busy as a hive of ants that has been stirred with a stick. I came to the house at Crickhollow, and it was broken open and empty; but on the threshold there lay a cloak that had been Frodo’s. Then for a while hope left me, and I did not wait to gather news, or I might have been comforted; but I rode on the trail of the Riders. It was hard to follow, for it went many ways, and I was at a loss. But it seemed to me that one or two had ridden towards Bree; and that way I went, for I thought of words that might be said to the innkeeper.
“‘Butterbur they call him,’ thought I. ‘If this delay was his fault, I will melt all the butter in him. I will roast the old fool over a slow fire.’ He expected no less, and when he saw my face he fell down flat and began to melt on the spot.’
“`What did you do to him?’ cried Frodo in alarm. ‘He was really very kind to us and did all that he could.’
“Gandalf laughed. ‘Don’t be afraid!’ he said. `I did not bite, and I barked very little. So overjoyed was I by the news that I got out of him, when he stopped quaking, that I embraced the old fellow. How it happened I could not then guess, but I learned that you had been in Bree the night before, and had gone off that morning with Strider.
“‘Strider!’ I cried, shouting for joy.
“‘Yes, sir, I am afraid so, sir,’ said Butterbur, mistaking me. ‘He got at them, in spite of all that I could do, and they took up with him.”
Gandalf and Aragorn have been secretive enough that Butterbur has no idea they are connected.
Reassured, Gandalf can rest: although a spirit he is subject to human limitations. Presumably also he must eat, though food is not mentioned here and it might be he partakes in meals just to be sociable.
He rests and then tries to find Frodo:
“I stayed there that night, wondering much what had become of the Riders; for only of two had there yet been any news in Bree, it seemed. But in the night we heard more. Five at least came from the west, and they threw down the gates and passed through Bree like a howling wind; and the Bree-folk are still shivering and expecting the end of the world. I got up before dawn and went after them.
“’I do not know, but it seems clear to me that this is what happened. Their Captain remained in secret away south of Bree, while two rode ahead through the village, and four more invaded the Shire. But when these were foiled in Bree and at Crickhollow, they returned to their Captain with tidings, and so left the Road unguarded for a while, except by their spies. The Captain then sent some eastward straight across country, and he himself with the rest rode along the Road in great wrath.
“’I galloped to Weathertop like a gale, and I reached it before sundown on my second day from Bree-and they were there before me. They drew away from me, for they felt the coming of my anger and they dared not face it while the Sun was in the sky. But they closed round at night, and I was besieged on the hill-top, in the old ring of Amon Sûl. I was hard put to it indeed: such light and flame cannot have been seen on Weathertop since the war-beacons of old.
“`At sunrise I escaped and fled towards the north. I could not hope to do more. It was impossible to find you, Frodo, in the wilderness, and it would have been folly to try with all the Nine at my heels. So I had to trust to Aragorn. But I hoped to draw some of them off, and yet reach Rivendell ahead of you and send out help. Four Riders did indeed follow me, but they turned back after a while and made for the Ford, it seems. That helped a little, for there were only five, not nine, when your camp was attacked…
“I came to Rivendell only three days before the Ring, and news of its peril had already been brought here-which proved well indeed..”
Elrond now tells of wights, the Old Forrest and of Bombadil. I’d planned to include here a full look at Bombadil, but this chapter-study has become so huge I made it a section in its own right.
Discounting Bombadil, what are they to do with the One Ring? For unexplained reasons, it cannot be sent to Valinor. Because it is evil, presumably, though in early drafts Gandalf had supposed that the Elven rings had gone there. That was while Sauron was seen as the only ring-maker, and well before Gandalf himself was supposed to have one of the Elven rings.
As finalised, there is no safe place to put the ring:
“[Elrond says] ‘they who dwell beyond the Sea would not receive it: for good or ill it belongs to Middle-earth; it is for us who still dwell here to deal with it.’
“’Then, said Glorfindel, ‘let us cast it into the deeps, and so make the lies of Saruman come true. For it is clear now that even at the Council his feet were already on a crooked path. He knew that the Ring was not lost for ever, but wished us to think so; for he began to lust for it for himself. Yet oft in lies truth is hidden: in the Sea it would be safe.’
“`Not safe for ever,’ said Gandalf. `There are many things in the deep waters; and seas and lands may change. And it is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.’
“’And that we shall not find on the roads to the Sea,’ said Galdor… flight to the Sea is now fraught with gravest peril.”
Note that Glorfindel, though honest, makes the wrong choice. He would evade the challenge. Elrond and Gandalf seem to realise that this is a moral test that must be faced up to. That may be a reason why Glorfindel is not later made part of the Fellowship.
Elrond has possibly discussed this with Gandalf. He certainly gives the correct solution:
“‘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 send the Ring to the Fire.’”
Boromir now compounds his earlier errors, suggesting they use the One Ring against Sauron. Elrond has to explain why not:
“'[Boromir says] `Saruman is a traitor, but did he not have a glimpse of wisdom?
“‘The Men of Gondor are valiant, and they will never submit; but they may be beaten down. Valour needs first strength, and then a weapon. Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory!’
“’Alas, no,’ said Elrond. ‘We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. Consider Saruman. If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron’s throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear. And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise. For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so. I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it.’
“`Nor I,’ said Gandalf.
“Boromir looked at them doubtfully, but he bowed his head. `So be it,’ he said. `Then in Gondor we must trust to such weapons as we have. And at the least, while the Wise ones guard this Ring, we will fight on. Mayhap the Sword-that-was-Broken may still stem the tide – if the hand that wields it has inherited not an heirloom only, but the sinews of the Kings of Men.’
“`Who can tell?’ said Aragorn. `But we will put it to the test one day.’
“`May the day not be too long delayed,’ said Boromir. ‘For though I do not ask for aid, we need it. It would comfort us to know that others fought also with all the means that they have.’
“`Then be comforted,’ said Elrond. `For there are other powers and realms that you know not, and they are hidden from you.”
Then Glóin says:
“’Still it might be well for all,’ said Glóin the Dwarf, ‘if all these strengths were joined, and the powers of each were used in league. Other rings there may be, less treacherous, that might be used in our need. The Seven are lost to us – if Balin has not found the ring of Thrór which was the last; naught has been heard of it since Thrór perished in Moria. Indeed I may now reveal that it was partly in hope to find that ring that Balin went away.’
“`Balin will find no ring in Moria,’ said Gandalf. `Thrór gave it to Thráin his son, but not Thráin to Thorin. It was taken with torment from Thráin in the dungeons of Dol Guldur. I came too late.’
“’Ah, alas!’ cried Glóin. ‘When will the day come of our revenge?
And here is a puzzle – why had Gandalf not explained before? Possibly he did not know it at the time: but then how did he later learn?
We then get enigmatic mention of the Elven Rings. Glóin says:
“But still there are the Three. What of the Three Rings of the Elves? Very mighty Rings, it is said. Do not the Elf-lords keep them? Yet they too were made by the Dark Lord long ago. Are they idle? I see Elf-lords here. Will they not say?’
“The Elves returned no answer. `Did you not hear me, Glóin?’ said Elrond. `The Three were not made by Sauron, nor did he ever touch them. But of them it is not permitted to speak. So much only in this hour of doubt I may now say. They are not idle. But they were not made as weapons of war or conquest: that is not their power. Those who made them did not desire strength or domination or hoarded wealth, but understanding, making, and healing, to preserve all things unstained. These things the Elves of Middle-earth have in some measure gained, though with sorrow. But all that has been wrought by those who wield the Three will turn to their undoing, and their minds and hearts will become revealed to Sauron, if he regains the One. It would be better if the Three had never been. That is his purpose.’
“`But what then would happen, if the Ruling Ring were destroyed as you counsel?’ asked Glóin.
“’We know not for certain,’ answered Elrond sadly. `Some hope that the Three Rings, which Sauron has never touched, would then become free, and their rulers might heal the hurts of the world that he has wrought. But maybe when the One has gone, the Three will fail, and many fair things will fade and be forgotten. That is my belief.’”
And that is what happens. And in a letter, Tolkien suggests that even the Three were a moral error: preserving the time of the High Elves beyond its due season and causing a general sterility in which Sauron grows strong again. Much later we also get this said of Gondor, with childless lords discussing heraldry in great empty halls.
Erestor, Elrond’s chief counsellor, then says:
“‘What strength have we for the finding of the Fire in which it was made? That is the path of despair. Of folly I would say, if the long wisdom of Elrond did not forbid me.’
“’Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. `It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For 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. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.’
“’At least for a while,’ said Elrond. `The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.’”
You see other options closed down one by one. Tolkien was careful with his plots, and ensures that there is a logical excuse for the characters in the book carrying on as Tolkien wished to tell the tale, with hobbits remaining the centre of the story.
Bilbo takes this as a cue for him to take the One Ring. Boromir sees this as foolish, then realises from the reaction of the others that it is not. But Gandalf says it has passed beyond him. Which it obviously has: he is now aged and feeble and the task would soon have killed him.
Unlike the film, it seems that Gandalf is already certain that Frodo is the one chosen by fate. It is then left for Frodo to volunteer, which he does. And Sam speaks up and is sent with him – a repeat of what happened at Bag-End in The Shadow of the Past. But this time Elrond decides:
“`You at least shall go with him. It is hardly possible to separate you from him, even when he is summoned to a secret council and you are not.’”
Nothing is said then about who else will go with him. Even Gandalf only commits himself later. Merry and Pippin are not there.