Jun 12, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 33: The Council of Elrond

Next day Frodo woke early, feeling refreshed and well.

For the second chapter in a row, we begin with Frodo waking up in Rivendell. He goes for a walk, but doesn't get far until he runs into Bilbo and Gandalf, who escort him to a porch of Elrond's hall, where a council is assembling. Elrond is presiding, and presents Frodo. Glorfindel, Glóin and Strider Frodo recognizes, and he's now introduced to Glóin's son Gimli. Among the elves present are Erestor, chief counsellor of Elrond, and Galdor from the Grey Havens west of the Shire, as well as Legolas from the Woodland Realm. Finally, Boromir is introduced as "a man from the South".

We're only given a selection from what gets debated at the council, but it's still quite a lot. First up is Glóin, who fills us in on how the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain have been doing since Bilbo left for home. For whatever reason, despite the recovery of Erebor, the dwarves became unhappy and started raving about Moria. We don't actually really learn what or where Moria is, exactly, except that it's some great undertaking of their fathers. "Too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear," Glóin says, but the fear remains nameless. Eventually - thirty years ago - Balin left for Moria, taking many other dwarves, including Ori and Óin, with him. At first, they had word of him at the Lonely Mountain, but then Moria was quiet.

Balin's fate, however, isn't the only thing bothering Glóin. A year ago, Dáin - still King under the Mountain - received a messenger from Mordor, asking after a hobbit thief and a ring he stole from Sauron. He promises that should the dwarves find this ring, "but a trifle that Sauron fancies", he will return three of the rings of the dwarves to them. If not, there will be war. So Glóin has been sent, to warn Bilbo and seek the wisdom of Elrond.

This Elrond promises Glóin he shall receive. The concerns of the dwarves - and the trifle that Sauron fancies - are all one and the same problem. Elrond then launches on his own exposition, telling the history of Sauron and the Ring: how the Elven-smiths of Eregion befriended Sauron, who wasn't yet blatantly obviously evil, and the Rings were forged; chief among them the One Ring, made in secret by Sauron to rule the others. Númenor fell, but the Kings of Men came from there to Middle-earth, and together with the elves fought Sauron. There's a digression when Elrond reminiscences on "the splendour of their banners", startling Frodo, who needs to have it explained to him that Elrond is like really old.

Elrond was the herald of Gil-galad, the Elven-king, and fought with him when both the kings of men and elves, Gil-galad and Elendil, died. They defeated Sauron, however, and Isildur, Elendil's son, took the Ring from him with his father's broken sword. Only Isildur, Elrond and Círdan of the Havens were there, and Isildur refused to destroy the Ring, claiming it as weregild for his father. Eventually Isildur died, betrayed by the Ring which was then named Isildur's Bane, but the shards of his sword were brought to the North.

Although the Free Peoples won the war, Sauron was not destroyed, and the winners were weakened. Many had died, and the elves began to be estranged from men. While the southern realm of Gondor built great fortresses to keep watch on Mordor, the men of the North dwindled. In our first encounter with Tolkien's pseudo-Howardian racial doctrines, the pure blood of Númenor weakened, and the northern realms fell into ruin. Gondor also declined, and the watch on Mordor was neglected.

Boromir protests at this, and I certainly don't blame him: I wouldn't sit around quietly listening to some asshole complain about how the blood of my people has declined through racial mixing either. He counters racism with racism: maybe their blood isn't what it used to be, but "by our valour the wild folk of the East are still restrained". Thank you, Boromir. He talks about the war between Gondor and Mordor, the latter now bolstered by the Easterlings and the people of Harad, as well as a terrifying black horseman that scares the shit out of everyone. He gets in a complaint that the people Gondor protects aren't very grateful, and then explains why he's there: to get Elrond to interpret his dream. Both Boromir and his brother had a dream that told them to seek out Imladris, that is Rivendell, and the Sword that Was Broken; there will also be a Halfling, and Isildur's Bane.

The dream-interpretation, of course, is right at hand: Strider throws down his broken sword, and gets his official introduction from Elrond as that dude who creeps on my daughter Aragorn son of Arathorn, the heir of Isildur and Elendil, chief of the Dúnedain of the North. Finally, Frodo reluctantly brings forth the Ring. Boromir doubts Aragorn, but Bilbo spits some rhyme at him, and now it's Aragorn's turn to speechify.

Aragorn talks about how the Rangers of the North keep people safe, also for little or no thanks. Attention readers, it has been one (1) chapter since anyone was fat-shamed.

"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.

Attention readers, it has now been zero (0) chapters since anyone was fat-shamed. Aragorn and Boromir are effectively having a really weird passive-aggressive victimization contest, where they're both making a whole production of their selfless secret sacrifices that no-one appreciates and that Aragorn claims they don't complain about while complaining about them. Eventually, he gets to the point, which is that he so is dead butch, and will come to Gondor to prove it.

Boromir, reasonably, wants to know how anyone knows that Frodo's ring is, in fact, Isildur's Bane, and how it ended up with a hobbit. This is Bilbo's cue, and he tells his story, complete with an acknowledgement that he lied to Glóin about it earlier. Frodo is up next, and after he's finished, Galdor of the Havens has several questions. Where was Gandalf? Where's Saruman? And how does anyone actually know that Frodo's ring is the One Ring? To answer all this, Elrond finally calls on Gandalf himself to speak.

For starters, Gandalf starts filling us in on recent events. We now learn that Gandalf's visit to the dungeons of the Necromancer, briefly mentioned in the Hobbit, revealed that the Necromancer was in fact Sauron. The White Council - that is, Elrond, Gandalf and their buddies - drove him out, only to see him establish himself in Mordor. Saruman, briefly mentioned in Chapter 2 as Gandalf's boss, advised everyone to not mind Sauron, and even when they learned he was seeking the One Ring, Saruman assured everyone it can't be found: having fallen into the river, it'll have ended up in the Sea.

Gandalf didn't trust him. He wanted to know how the Ring ended up with Gollum, but Gollum was nowhere to be found. While Aragorn started searching for Gollum, Gandalf traveled to Gondor, and in the archives of Minas Tirith he found a scroll where Isildur described the ring he took off the defeated Sauron. The Ring was still hot, and the writing on it could be read, so Isildur transcribed it. Meanwhile, Aragorn had found Gollum. Gandalf learned that Gollum had lived many lifespans of his kind already, and crucially, had found the Ring in the Great River, near the Gladden Fields where Isildur fell. Finally, Gandalf recites the phrase he read off the Ring in Bag End in Chapter 2, which is the same as recorded by Isildur.

So Bilbo's and Frodo's ring is definitely the One Ring. What's more, Gollum had also visited Mordor, so Sauron knew as well, and must by now know that it's in Rivendell. Boromir asks what became of Gollum, and Legolas speaks up to report that he's escaped from the Woodland Realm where he was being held.

After a brief complaint from Glóin, who also once escaped from the Woodland Realm, Gandalf answers Galdor's other questions, and tells the story of his encounter with Saruman. In June, Gandalf had met his co-wizard, Radagast the Brown, who told him that the Nazgûl - the Ring-wraiths - were on the move, looking for a place called the Shire. But Radagast also passed on a message from Saruman, offering his help; and so Gandalf leaves a letter with Barliman Butterbur at Bree and heads off to Saruman's digs: the tower of Orthanc in Isengard, way at the southern end of the Misty Mountains.

At Orthanc, Saruman gives Gandalf a speech on how they should either ally with Sauron or take the Ring for themselves, so they could rule over Middle-earth as benign dictators for the greater good of everyone. When Gandalf refuses, Saruman imprisons him on the pinnacle of Orthanc until he reveals the location of the Ring. With the help of the Great Eagles, Gandalf manages to escape to Rohan, where the king tells him to take a horse and leave, so Gandalf takes his best horse and heads for the Shire. He gets into a fight with the Nazgûl at Weathertop, which Frodo and co. saw in the distance in Chapter 11, and manages to draw off some of them on his way to Rivendell.

Finally, with the whole story told, the council needs to decide what to do with the Ring. Elrond leads with the summing-up, and the first suggestion, by Erestor, to send the Ring to Bombadil, is sensibly dismissed. Glorfindel suggests throwing it into the ocean, which Gandalf rejects:

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.

Going through their options, the council decide that the Ring can neither be hidden or sent away. Elrond speaks the last remaining option: sending the Ring to the Fire where it was made.

At this Boromir speaks up, wanting to know why they can't use the Ring themselves. Elrond explains that it was made by Sauron and is evil; anyone who uses it to vanquish Sauron will simply become another Sauron in his place. Boromir isn't convinced. Still, the question of who will take the Ring hangs in the air. Bilbo volunteers, but is gently refused.

Finally, Frodo speaks up, and offers to bear the Ring to Mordor.


I said last time that there was lots of exposition coming, and I meant it. This chapter is practically entirely made up of reported speech, at best I think third-order: Gandalf says Radagast told him that Saruman had said something. The second chapters of books in the Lord of the Rings tend to be heavy on exposition, and this is the heaviest of them all: led by Elrond, several characters go over what is, essentially, the whole story of the One Ring and Sauron's attempts to recover it. It sets the entire novel in context and places it firmly in Tolkien's mythos; after the Council, we know pretty much all the major players in the story and their histories, and crucially, what the Ring is and why it needs to be destroyed. In that sense, this is one of the most crucial chapters in the whole of the Lord of the Rings. And as such, there's a lot to get through here.


The first speaker, Glóin, is concerned that unless they help Sauron find the Ring, he'll attack them:

If we make no answer, the Enemy may move Men of his rule to assail King Brand, and Dáin also.

He's right, too: the first time I played War of the Ring, I invaded not only Dale but the Woodland Realm as well with my Easterlings. To unconscionably jump ahead of our chronology, Appendix B of the Lord of the Rings tells us that Sauron did this as well, and took Dale, but committed the rookie mistake of settling down to besiege Erebor rather than driving on into the Woodland Realm, which tends to be an easier two victory points and also frees the forces at Dol Guldur to focus on Lórien.

To return to the narrative, the reason Balin goes to Moria is "a shadow of disquiet" that falls on the dwarves. Unfortunately, as discussed previously, it's very possible that this is another one of Tolkien's meditations on Jewishness, which he claims dwarves are allegories things that aren't allegories but are exactly like them for. But the shadow also recalls (precalls?) some incidents in the Silmarillion where Morgoth was talented at sowing discord at a distance, and Glóin's admission that Balin went looking for a ring connects this escapade directly with the broader matters of the Council.

Starting with Glóin is a good choice, because whatever Tolkien's notions of Jewishness, he writes dwarves well, and Glóin serves to connect the council to the events of the Hobbit, letting us orient ourselves.


The history of the Ring introduces us to the notion at the heart of Tolkien's racism, and perhaps also his classism: blood. Throughout, Tolkien treats heredity as defining, explaining both individual character traits and collective behaviour with blood. We'll have more direct examples of this later on, but suffice to say that it's a recurring theme.

The waning of the blood of Númenor is where the blood trope meets an even more central concern of Tolkien's: decline. If I had to pick one theme that suffuses the Lord of the Rings, I'd say it's decline and loss. The fall of empires has been an European obsession since, well, a good part of the ancestors of modern Europeans found themselves among the ruins of Roman, Egyptian and other ancient empires. Thence the precursor trope in so much speculative fiction, then; an ongoing concern in the West at least since Gibbon, taken up by fascists with Spengler and still parroted on both ends of the political spectrum today. Intriguingly, as
an article in Foreign Policy last year pointed out, apocalyptic fiction isn't particularly popular in China, but we still love it. Tolkien's account of the waning of Gondor strikes a decidedly Spenglerian note, so much so that this is certainly where Tolkien comes closest to anything actually resembling fascism. Gondor declining because "the blood of the Númenorans became mingled with that of lesser men" could be straight out of a fever dream of Eurabia, or indeed Mein Kampf.

Tolkien, however, is not consistent with this. It's worth noting that both of his major protagonists are of "mixed blood"; in Chapter One we were treated to an extended bar-room discussion of Frodo's dubious parentage ("Baggins is his name, but he's more than half a Brandybuck, they say"), echoing the first chapter of the Hobbit, where Bilbo was defined through the conflict between his stolidly respectable Baggins heritage and his adventurous Took blood. Elrond is famed for his legendary wisdom - and his sobriquet is "Half-elven". What's more, the "pure blood of Númenor" is the result of intermingling three different races: elves, humans and through Lúthien's mother Melian, angels. In the central romance of Tolkien's legendarium, a half-elf, half-angel woman is wooed by a human man, and later two of their distant descendants, an elf-woman and a man of Númenoran descent, repeat the process. So while Tolkien framed the story of Gondor as a Spenglerian parable of racial decline, there's simply no way to read his work as a polemic against racial mixing. If anything, Elrond's speech on Gondor is an anomaly. Certainly Tolkien never suggests trying to arrest decline by safeguarding racial purity or any such properly fascist notion. Maybe Elrond is a Nazi?

Robert E. Howard conceived of his fictional world as a constant struggle between different races, intermittently rising toward civilization or collapsing into barbarism.

These stone age kingdoms clashed, and in a series of bloody wars, the outnumbered Atlanteans were hurled back into a state of savagery, and the evolution of the Picts was halted. Five hundred years after the Cataclysm the barbaric kingdoms have vanished. It is now a nation of savages - the Picts - carrying on continual warfare with tribes of savages - the Atlanteans.
- Robert E. Howard: The Hyborian Age, in Howard: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Ballantine Books, 2003; p. 382

Howard's notions recall those of H.P. Blavatsky and her "root-races", as do several of his "races" and locales, like Lemuria and so on. Tolkien's ideas are very different, because they're rooted in Christianity. Christian time proceeds from creation to apocalypse, and it gets worse as the end gets nearer. This is also the nature of the decline in the Lord of the Rings: through the Fall, mankind (as it surely was to Tolkien!) has become estranged from God, and the rift will only be healed at the end of time. Until then, things are just going to keep on getting worse. So the decline of Gondor, say, couldn't have been averted with laws against mixing blood or anything like that, because no Machine can counteract the Fall. One of the strongest themes in the Lord of the Rings is that nothing will ever be the same: loss is irrevocable. The good old days are gone and will not return. So for Gondor, so for all mankind. This, rather than racial purity, is what the theme of decline is based on.


In the tale of Isildur, the Ring is perhaps more clearly than ever sin, and a commentary on pre-Christian Germanic society. Isildur's actions in Mordor are straight out of a Norse saga: he claims the One Ring as weregild, literally man-money, for his father and brother. In Germanic customary law, practiced in Scandinavia, Anglo-Saxon England and elsewhere, everyone had a price, and the penalty for injuring or killing a person was financial restitution, either to them or their kin. Isildur's claim seems to be in accordance with at least the spirit of this idea: the Ring is literally compensation for his dead kinsfolk. However, Isildur fails to realize that the Ring is cursed.

Now, cursed rings are nothing new to the sagas; in the Völsunga saga, arguably one of the most significant inspirations for Tolkien's Middle-earth stories, the famous story of the weregild of Otr is directly connected to the cursed ring Andvaranaut. I don't think we'd be wrong, however, to read a more significant commentary into Isildur's failure, because the One Ring is more than a cursed ring of the sagas: it's a Machine, i.e. it is sin. Remember that unlike Andvaranaut, there's no specific curse on the One Ring. It's an instrument of domination that grants power according to the measure of its wielder. In a saga, it might have been a powerful and valuable artifact. Its curse is that it's been designed to oppose God; in mortal hands, it circumvents death, which is, after all, the original sin. The reason Isildur makes the mistake of claiming the Ring is, arguably, that his Germanic system of weregilds and honor lacks the concepts necessary to understand and deal with sin. Because of this omission, all his pagan valor is for naught, and his claim of weregild is really nothing more than Gollum's absurd story of his birthday-present: a self-justification for succumbing to temptation.


Gandalf's conversation with Saruman deserves attention as one of the few passages in the Lord of the Rings where Tolkien is explicitly political. Here's Saruman:

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.

Reading this, it's difficult to avoid the impression that Michael Moorcock and the critics who follow him can't tell the difference between Gandalf and Saruman. Here's what Moorcock has to say of the works of Tolkien and other "enlightened Tories" in Epic Pooh:

They don't ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what's best for us.

There is simply no way to square this claim with the conversation between Gandalf and Saruman in this chapter. Saruman offers exactly what Moorcock claims Tolkien does: a world of law and order, presided over by powerful white men who know best. Somehow Moorcock must have missed the part where Gandalf unambiguously refuses to have any part in this whatsoever.

I recently happened upon Erin Horáková's wonderful Kirk Drift, where she argues that our idea of what Jim Kirk from the original Star Trek was like has been completely distorted, to the point where the popular notion of original series Kirk has practically nothing in common with how the character was portrayed. I strongly believe a similar argument needs to be made about Lord of the Rings; as with Horáková and Star Trek, not to immunize it from criticism, but rather to criticize the work itself, not the strange notion of it floating around in our popular culture. Tolkien has come to stand in for reactionary, patriarchal, racist fantasy in a way far beyond any examples of these tendencies found in his actual texts. To paraphrase Horáková, the Lord of the Rings has been colonised by a fascist reading by several mechanisms of mismemory. Saruman has become Gandalf.

The way popular notions of Tolkien manage to make Gandalf into the fascist of the piece and claim that good and evil are indistinguishable in the books is, simply put, a completely monstrous distortion of the original. This is especially bizarre in an era when the suave fascist demagogue Tolkien portrays Saruman as has made a comeback into Western politics that would have seemed unthinkable a little over a decade ago. Can many of us read Saruman's speech to Gandalf and not recognize the brutal fascism it conceals inside its rhetorical flourishes? It's among us now, as it was before Tolkien when he wrote this chapter. We may not agree that a privileged Catholic monarchism is the way to defeat the Sarumans of our time - I certainly do not! - but to lump Tolkien among them is completely, willfully ignorant. He was undoubtedly a reactionary conservative, his remarks on Jewishness alone make it clear he was a racist and an anti-Semite, and, well, he managed to write an entire novel without a single female character. But he was also strongly antifascist.

I'm inclined to speculate that one reason this has happened is that turning Tolkien into this fascist ghoul has been terribly handy for both sides of the culture wars. Left-wing reception of Tolkien has, to my knowledge, been consistently hostile, not least because of how useful a strawman the "arch-conservative" reading of Lord of the Rings is. There's a strange tendency in fantasy to self-advertise by insisting that one's fantasy offering isn't like "other fantasy" - not that it's ever clear what that "other fantasy" actually is. A fascist caricature of Tolkien is very handy for this.

Similarly, many on the extreme right have found inspiration and encouragement in a work that seems to be directly opposed to their worldview. As I'm writing this, the leadership of Finland's far-right racist party is being contested by two fascists, one an atheist at that, both of whom are avowed fans of Tolkien - and we find them competing for the position of Saruman. The caricature Tolkien's fascism must, to them, be an endorsement.

In my mind, one fundamental reason for this is the neglect and misunderstanding of Tolkien's theology. To read fascist values of obedience, authority and racist cruelty into Tolkien, one has to be almost wilfully blind to the theological underpinnings of his work. Even neglecting them, though, leaves large parts of the Lord of the Rings completely irreconcilable with the popular authoritarian caricature of Tolkien. Foremost among them is Gandalf's debate with Saruman in this chapter, which should make very clear that virtue is most definitely not found in submitting to the authority of white men in grey clothes. Saruman's language, ordering things "for that good which only the Wise can see", "deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order", is the language of 20th century totalitarianism, and it remains the language of 21st century authoritarians. Throw in a crack about unrestrained immigration and it could be a Theresa May speech. Tolkien firmly rejects it. Any critique that misses this is not a critique of Tolkien.


Finally, the council figures out what to do to the Ring. This is also a key part of the politics and ethics of the Lord of the Rings. Foremost, of course, is the idea that evil needs to be faced here and now, not postponed, ignored or hidden away. But most crucially, evil can't be fought with evil. This is why it's so preposterous to claim that the Lord of the Rings preaches submission to authority, or that it's a clash of "100% good" with "100% evil". If either of these were the case, the Council of Elrond would be a very simple affair: simply give the Ring to Gandalf and he'll destroy the Dark Lord, and everything will be fine. If this was Harry Potter and the Ring of Power, say, there'd be no trouble at all. But it isn't. In Tolkien's theology, the Ring is a Machine: an object fundamentally opposed to God. Not even the best of the good in the world can use it; as I argued in Chapter 2, that would be heresy. Power, especially the power of the Enemy, corrupts. No-one, not even the men who know what's best for us, can be trusted with it. If there's one theme at the very heart of the Lord of the Rings, this is it.


Whew! That was some heavy exposition. Tolkien gets us through it, though, I think because the structure of the chapter is succesful. We start with Glóin, who takes a fairly small perspective that also ties into the Hobbit, giving us an easy start and broaching the subject of the Ring. Elrond can then give his talk on the history of the Ring, already foreshadowed earlier, and introduce both Aragorn and Boromir, as well as Gondor and the heirs of Isildur. With the scene now quite thoroughly set, Gandalf wraps up the exposition by linking it to the previous events of the book, and carrying the narrative to where we are now. So while this really is a huge amount of information, it works because the speeches lead into each other logically. There are also some good stylistic touches, like the subtly different ways the main participants speak, and the interjections, like Bilbo's poem, break up the exposition and make the whole sequence seem more alive.

Once the stories are all told, the council deliberates on what to do, setting down the key moral of the whole novel: ends do not justify means, and power corrupts. Finally, the chapter ends with Frodo taking on the mission of destroying the Ring. So we've now set up the entire rest of the book!


Next time: hiking and snow.

1 comment:

Leon said...

Mr. Boromir, build that wall!

Really nice catch that Isildur's claim of 'weregild' is nothing more than Gollum's "birthday present". It makes absolute total sense when you think of it that way.