And now, an attempt to discuss the enormous second chapter of Book II of Fellowship, “The Council of Elrond.” For all that this is one of my favorite chapters, I admit I rather sat on writing this post because I just didn’t know where to start; but here’s where the decision to move this project to Tor.com was a good one, because on my own site I might have dithered forever, but here I felt obligated to just sit down and start writing. Let’s see what results (apparently, an appallingly long post):
Frodo, Bilbo, and Gandalf go to the Council of Elrond; Sam follows without anyone noticing. The Council opens with Glóin telling of a messenger from Mordor to Dáin at the Lonely Mountain, seeking Bilbo and his ring.
Elrond then gives a brief history of the Ring from its forging to its passing out of knowledge in the days of Isildur. There is an interlude while Boromir describes the dream that brought him to Rivendell, Aragorn reveals the Sword that was Broken and his heritage, and the two discuss their people’s roles in defending against evil. Frodo displays the Ring; Bilbo tells the full tale of its finding. Gandalf explains how he identified it as the One Ring, through research in Gondor and the capture and questioning of Gollum. Legolas, distressed, tells the Council that Gollum has escaped the Elves of Mirkwood. Gandalf then tells of his betrayal and captivity by Saruman; his rescue by Gwaihir of the Great Eagles; his journey back to the Shire on a horse from Rohan; and his coming to Rivendell.
The Council then discusses what to do with the Ring. Sending it to Bombadil is considered and rejected as unsafe, as is bringing it to the Sea, either to send to those who dwell beyond it or to cast it into the deeps. Elrond says that they must send the Ring to the Fire in Mordor where it can be destroyed. Boromir asks why the Ring cannot be used as a weapon, and Elrond and Gandalf tell him that it would corrupt anyone capable of it and they will not do so. Glóin asks if the Three Rings of the Elves can be used, and Elrond tells him that they were not made for such work.
Bilbo volunteers to carry the Ring, but Gandalf tells him that his part in the story is over, and Bilbo agrees, but asks who is to be sent with it. After a long silence, Frodo volunteers. Elrond says that he thinks the task is appointed for Frodo, though he will not lay such a heavy burden upon him. Sam bursts out that Frodo should not be sent alone, and Elrond agrees that Sam at least shall go, since he will not leave Frodo even for a secret council.
This chapter parallels and revises the second chapter in the first book, “The Shadow of the Past”. They are both big info-dumps that result in Frodo deciding that he needs to take the Ring and go, first out of the Shire and then to Mordor. As befits the more serious happenings since and the movement out of the Shire, the Council of Elrond is attended by many people, not just Frodo and Gandalf—though Sam remains as an uninvited listener. It is held outside, not inside Bag End, though the peacefulness of nature is mentioned as a contrast to the darkness of the discussion (very much less so, however, than in “Shadow”).
As with “Shadow,” I’m going to attempt to analyze the mechanics of this chapter, how it moves and engages the reader, by listing the sections.
- Establishing scene of Frodo, Bilbo, Sam, and Gandalf in the beautiful outdoors.
- Start of the Council; introducing new characters.
- Glóin’s tale.
- The Ring’s history from forging to Isildur (partly summarized).
- Gondor’s valor and Boromir’s dream.
- The Sword that was Broken and Isildur’s Bane.
- Frodo displays the Ring. The merits and work of Aragorn.
- Bilbo and Frodo’s tales (summarized).
- How do they know it’s the One Ring? Where’s Saruman?
- How they know it’s the One Ring: Gandalf and Aragorn’s search for Gollum; Gandalf’s research in Gondor.
- Legolas on Gollum’s escape.
- Where’s Saruman: Gandalf and Radagast.
- Gandalf and Saruman.
- Gandalf on Orthanc and his rescue.
- Gandalf from Rohan to Bree.
- Gandalf from Bree to Rivendell.
- What to do: not Bombadil, not the Sea: the Fire.
- Rejecting the Ring, and any other Rings of Power, as weapon.
- Bilbo offers and is refused.
- Frodo offers.
- Elrond accepts. Sam speaks.
Here are some things that strike me about this:
It’s much longer and much more divided than “Shadow.” Some of the sections are very short indeed, either because they are just summaries or context (the first two, Bilbo and Frodo’s tales) or for emphasis (the last three, particularly Frodo offering to take the Ring).
It again mixes summary and quoted dialogue with a good eye toward what information is necessary and what isn’t. For instance, Gandalf passes very lightly over his time in Rohan, because we’ll be going there next volume and will hear about it then. Similarly, we don’t need to know why Númenor fell, just that it did and Elendil’s house returned to Middle-earth as a consequence.
This is also structured similarly to “Shadow,” starting with the present, here a brief context of wider happenings via Glóin. Then it heads into the past for the history of the Ring; comes back up to the present through Gandalf’s stories; and looks to the future for solutions. It ends with Sam again being caught as an uninvited listener and being sent off with Frodo.
On the other hand, it lacks the constant contrasts to the external environment. There’s the establishing opening, and a brief mention of everything going dark when Gandalf recites the Ring’s inscription, but otherwise there’s very little reference to the characters’ surroundings. I think this is because we know the danger much better by now, and so we don’t need repeated comparisons between the peace of outdoors and the tension of the conversation.
* * *
Aragorn, Boromir, and the future of Gondor:
Just as a POV note to start. Though Frodo thought of Strider once as Aragorn when he saw him with Arwen in the last chapter, he starts this chapter out again thinking of him as Strider, when he sees him sitting in a corner alone; but after Boromir recounts his dream, he’s Aragorn from then on.
Next, much of my comments on Aragorn’s behavior in this chapter are influenced by Paul Kocher’s Master of Middle-earth, but I can’t be more specific because the book went back to the library. However, it contains a lengthy chapter closely reading and analyzing Aragorn’s behavior, and I recall that it pointed out what a careful line Aragorn walks with regard to Boromir in this section. He lets Elrond announce his lineage; deliberately disclaims being Isildur come again and offers only to put his strength to the test, without pointing out that it’s been tested repeatedly since before Boromir was born; and does not lay claim to anything, merely saying,
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.
(Which is an interesting change in his manner of speaking, much shorter and simpler sentences.)
On the other hand, he does ask Boromir if he “wish(es) for the House of Elendil to return to the Land of Gondor,” which I wonder is maybe a bit of a hint for Boromir to think about the implications?
A few other notes: the whole chance/not thing gets a good workout throughout this chapter, particularly in that Boromir arrived literally that morning.
I like Aragorn’s rebuke to Boromir that “Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay”; I find it evocative. I am less crazy about his statement that “If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so,” because I disfavor, on principle, keeping secrets from people to protect them.
(However, Boromir knows Rohan better than Aragorn, correctly stating that they would not pay horses as tribute to Mordor.)
And there’s a reference to the prophecy that the Sword would be reforged when the Ring was found, which I’d either never noticed before or forgotten.
* * *
He says that a “a shadow of disquiet fell upon our people. Whence it came we did not at first perceive.” There’s no explicit statement of where it did come from; I gather we’re supposed to infer that it’s Sauron?
Also, it took them a whole year to decide to send warning to Bilbo? Gee, thanks.
* * *
When asked to show the Ring, Frodo “was shaken by a sudden shame and fear; and he felt a great reluctance to reveal the Ring, and a loathing of its touch.”
I have the urge to connect this to the reaction of an addict being asked to show the drug he carries, but I don’t know how realistic that is.
* * *
Meta-fiction: Frodo and Bilbo are full of comments about the story being incomplete, and their place in the story, and writing the story and a sequel. It’s not unique to this chapter, but it’s very noticeable here. My guess is that one’s reaction to this depends heavily on one’s opinion of the framing device. I don’t really believe in the framing device, in my gut, and so find these comments slightly jarring—which is odd, because normally I enjoy meta-fiction. Maybe it’s because this dates from before I acquired that taste.
* * *
When he speaks the Ring’s inscription, I’m okay with the porch going dark, but I find the image of the Elves stopping their ears more comical then dramatic.
I get the impression that Gandalf doesn’t think much of Radagast, a “bless his heart” kind of vibe. What about you all?
(Also, he once dwelt near the borders of Mirkwood, but doesn’t any more, and isn’t a traveller; I wonder where he lives now?)
Saruman the not-White:
Gandalf “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.” Can anyone else picture this? The iridescence of, say, mother-of-pearl or opal, doesn’t quite seem colorful enough.
And it’s unreasonable of me to be grumpy at Gandalf for not knowing that white light can be put back together again by another prism, isn’t it?
(Or for harping on Butterbur’s fatness? Neither Gandalf nor Tolkien knew of genetic predispositions towards certain body types.)
* * *
The what-to-do discussion:
I suppose it’s a good thing that there was no real option short of final destruction of the Ring, because if there were, I think there would be a genuine dilemma between the short-term solution with a higher chance of success, or the long-term one with lower.
I note that Galdor is concerned, not only for the safety of the Ring if they attempt to send it westward, but for the possibility that “the Elves may have no escape from the lengthening shadows of Middle-earth” if the Havens are assaulted.
Boromir says, “Valour needs first strength, and then a weapon,” which sounds proverbial, and as perhaps a result, I want to argue with it.
(And yet when Gandalf says “despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt,” I nod my head and think he’s wise. Is it only because I like Gandalf better?)
I’ve never understood why the Three should fail when the One was destroyed, since they were made entirely separately. Anyone care to explain their understanding?
Frodo’s offer to take the Ring:
A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.
“I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”
Oh, Frodo. This time you know what you’re assuming—well, much more of it, anyway—and you still do it anyway. No longing to follow Bilbo to counteract your fear, either.
(I don’t read the “as if some other will” literally, and I very much doubt it was intended as such. I suspect most people have had the sensation of words coming out of their mouth that seemed to bypass their brain—in a good way, I mean, not just thoughtlessness.)
Though, Elrond may say he won’t lay the task on Frodo, but his having previously said “I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will” does reduce the power of that statement a bit, hmm?
* * *
- Elrond says at the start, “That is the doom that we must deem,” which is a rare clunker of a sentence to my ear.
- We get told why it was cheeky of Bilbo to write verses about Eärendil in Elrond’s house: Eärendil was his father.
- Boromir says that “Mordor has allied itself with the Easterlings and the cruel Haradrim.” I’m just noting this for future reference, because I don’t recall how much information we get about those societies later; but this suggests that they were not dominated by Mordor until recently.
- This is the first time anyone calls the Black Riders/the Nine “Nazgûl.”
- Words I had never actually looked up before, relying on context until now: “weregild” and “glede.” (They mean, respectively, compensatory/reparational payment for a crime, and a live coal.)
- Isildur is apparently the first, chronologically, to call the Ring “precious,” unless you can imagine Sauron doing so. (I can’t.)
And while that may not exhaust the chapter, it exhausts me. See you next week.