Feb 5, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 41: The Breaking of the Fellowship

Aragorn led them to the right arm of the River.

The Fellowship camps out at Parth Galen, a lawn on the shores of the River. In the night, the edges of Sting glow faintly, meaning orcs are somewhere nearby. On the next day, the Fellowship can no longer postpone their decision: they must choose where to go next. Boromir will head west to Gondor (although if you look at the map, it's southeast; presumably Aragorn, who says this, means the west bank of the river), but should the rest of the Fellowship accompany him, or should they head east, to Mordor, or break up and each go their separate ways? As Ringbearer, it falls on Frodo to make his choice. He asks for a moment alone, and steps away into the woods at the foot of Amon Hen next to them.

Frodo wanders up the hill, which is dotted with old ruins. He sits for a while, thinking, until he finds that Boromir has followed him. Boromir tries to persuade Frodo that the Ring has to be used, not thrown away like "these elves and half-elves and wizards" think; the true Men of Gondor would not be corrupted. Frodo refuses, and as Boromir tries to lay his hands on Frodo, he puts the Ring on and vanishes.

Boromir falls, and realizing what he's done, calls out to Frodo. The hobbit is already gone, though: Frodo is running up the hill and soon reaches the summit. There he finds a high stone seat, the Seat of Seeing that the hill itself is named for. True to its name, he sees a whole lot of stuff, from Mirkwood to the Sea. To the south are the white walls and towers of Minas Tirith, but from there, his eye is inexorably drawn east, to Mordor, where Sauron perceives him. Frodo feels Sauron's gaze looking for him, and throws himself off the high seat. Frodo is torn, terrified by the Eye and at the same time drawn to it. He also hears a voice, imploring him to take off the Ring. For a moment, Frodo is balanced between the Eye and the Voice, until suddenly he is free to choose, and takes off the Ring.

As Frodo finds himself back on the hilltop, his decision is clear: he must go to Mordor and go alone, before the Ring corrupts more of the Company. He hears cries from the wood below, and puts the Ring back on as he heads for the boats.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Fellowship have been talking at the riverside. Legolas suggests they take a vote, and votes for Minas Tirith. Gimli agrees, but adds that he would not leave Frodo. Aragorn suggests that not everyone should go east with Frodo: at least Merry and Pippin should go with Boromir, but they absolutely refuse. Sam makes an intervention, and states that none of the others understand Frodo at all: he isn't debating where to go, he's gathering the courage to say they're going east, and also that he wants to go alone.

Just as they've decided to call Frodo back, Boromir returns. Upon being questioned, he reports he spoke to Frodo, and he put the Ring on and fled. The rest of the Fellowship has a fit and runs off into the woods, shouting for Frodo. Aragorn completely fails to restore order, and entreats Boromir to watch over the young hobbits. He himself runs after Sam, heading for the hilltop.

As in the conversation by the river, so now Sam is the only one who uses his head. Aragorn soon overtakes him, and Sam realizes that Frodo needs a boat to cross the river. He heads back to the boats, and sees one of them heading into the water all by itself. Sam leaps into the water after it and has to be rescued by Frodo. They then cross the River and head east, for Mordor.


True to its title, this is the chapter where the Fellowship falls apart; quite literally, when most of them panic and run off into the woods to find Frodo. Like I said earlier, there's no indication that Gandalf had any plan beyond Moria and possibly traveling down the River, and no-one really seems to know what to do next.

Well, okay, Boromir does. I like his dismissive attitude to "elves and half-elves", because he's hitting back at Elrond's racism. In general, Boromir lays out the case for using the Ring - and the corruption of the Ring - very well: the Ring would make him the greatest commander in the world, and with its power he would overthrow Mordor and set himself up as king. Boromir would be no Cincinnatus, nor does he even claim he would be: he wants Power. Again, if this was Harry Potter and the Ring of Power, the objection would be that Boromir is just the wrong person to use the Ring. In Tolkien's world, everyone is the wrong person.

I only started reading Christopher Tolkien's History of the Lord of the Rings when I was already well into this series of posts, and I haven't really referred to it much because I want these posts to focus on the text itself rather than its composition or history. Here, though, I do want to point out that J.R.R. Tolkien at one point planned for Boromir to survive the breaking of the Fellowship and head to Gondor with Aragorn. At this point, Boromir was the son of the king of Gondor -
the idea of Denethor as steward was yet to come - and when the king died in battle, Aragorn would be chosen as his successor and Boromir would defect to Saruman (The Treason of Isengard, HarperCollins 2002, pp. 210-211, 330). Maybe the most interesting thing I've learned from the History is how few of what we now think of as the basic facts of Middle-earth existed when Tolkien started writing, and how late some of them showed up.

Finally, a theological inquiry. Back when I was talking about Chapter 2 of the first book, I made the point that in my opinion, Tom Shippey is wrong when he posits that there are two contradictory theories of evil in the Lord of the Rings: evil as an external force and evil as internal corruption or sin. In fact, these two aren't contradictory at all, and in my mind, the best way to illustrate this is to look very closely at what happens to Frodo on Amon Hen.

When Frodo is caught between the Eye and the Voice on the high seat, he initially can't tell what he himself is saying: is he rejecting Sauron or promising to come to him? He's then very graphically described as "writhing" between the two points of power, namely Sauron and - at least judging from the fact that the Voice calls Frodo a "fool" - Gandalf. Suddenly, though, there's a moment when Frodo can choose for himself, and he takes the Ring off, dispelling the conflict.

If you follow Shippey in wanting evil to be either internal or external, this is all very contradictory. I maintain that this is an absolutely key scene in the book for understanding that for Tolkien, as a Christian, evil is both. Clearly Sauron is an external evil working on Frodo. Even though Frodo passionately wants to resist him, he's not sure he can. Even with Gandalf on his side, he still can't bring himself to reject Sauron. In theological terms, this is because Frodo is fallen: he simply can't reject evil on his own, because to be able to do so would be Pelagianism, a heresy. It's only in a single exceptional moment that Frodo gains the ability to choose. That moment is grace: it is literally God, Eru, reaching down and allowing Frodo to transcend his fallen nature for a split second, and choose. Only God can do this; fallen beings can't transcend the Fall on their own, but only with a divine assist.

So yes, Sauron is certainly an external, active evil who can be resisted, but ultimately, the internal evil of the Fall means that no-one can ultimately defeat evil through their will alone. Boromir was the first of the Company to be corrupted, but Frodo is probably right to think that he wouldn't have been the last - or indeed that Gondor would be no refuge. The message of Amon Hen is that in the end, only divine intervention will save fallen creatures from evil.


Whew. This chapter concludes Book Two of the Lord of the Rings, and the first volume: the Fellowship of the Ring. In the first book, Frodo and his hobbit pals traveled with the Ring, but in the second, they got the whole Fellowship, which started tying the story into the broader picture of Middle-earth: dwarves, elves, Gondor - and Mordor. Now the Fellowship is broken, with Frodo and Sam going their own way and everyone else left to fend for themselves.

Next time: the Two Towers.


Leon said...

Nice. Looking forward to The Two Towers.

Michael Halila said...