By nature, the beginning of The Lord of the Rings is local. We get hints of the wider world: there are stories of strange “Tree-men” to the north of the Shire, the ancient remnant of the kingdoms of the Barrow Downs, and the songs of Beren and Lúthien sung by Aragorn. But it’s a story about hobbits in this wider world. And it’s a story of their reaction to it. This all appears to change in “The Council of Elrond.”
There are a lot of parallels between “The Council of Elrond” and “The Shadow of the Past.” Both are second chapters of their respective books. Both follow a chapter focused on a party and provide a LOT of background information. Both involve Frodo taking responsibility for the Ring. Both involve Sam illicitly eavesdropping to make sure no one messes with Frodo.
But beyond that, things are different. No more fireside chats with Gandalf – the council at Rivendell is bursting with people and places foreign to the hobbits. There are elves from Mirkwood, dwarves from the Lonely Mountain. There is talk of Gondor, Ithilien, Arnor. The narrative has accelerated from namedropping Eärendil and Lúthien in song to prominently featuring Elrond, their son and great-grandson, respectively. It’s as if the narrative pried open Middle-earth with a crow-bar and all its people came spilling into Rivendell, flooding the story and insisting on a new sense of scale.
But in the end, of course, all of that simmers back down to one spot and one figure: Frodo.
Boromir at the Council
Boromir makes the biggest splash of the new council attendees. He’s the reader’s introduction to Gondor and a more complex figure than I’d remembered. He’s proud and blustering, unwilling to fully own his ignorance or stop for a breath in between speeches about the glory of Gondor. But there is an earnestness about him that’s endearing. There is a strong sense of righteousness in him, with all the good and bad that entails.
Believe not that in the land of Gondor the blood of Númenor is spent, nor all its pride and dignity forgotten. By our valor 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.
Boromir pretty much launches right into this speech as soon as he can squeeze it in at the council. It’s a good example of the tightrope he’s trying to walk in his depiction of Gondor: old and proud and strong, beaten but not broken. The rhetoric is uncomfortable to the modern ear, xenophobic and over-zealous in its patriotism. It’s telling that multiple characters have to remind Boromir that he has very little understanding of the workings of the world beyond his borders. It’s a nice trick on Tolkien’s part. Boromir’s attitude, right from the start, conveys the current spirit of Gondor. It’s a border city, constantly under threat, and consequently in possession of an embattled black-and-white mindset.
Through Boromir, Gondor’s first appearance is of a proud but brittle city. It’s clearly in some trouble, but every hint in that direction is coupled with an insistence on its strength. On several occasions Boromir insists that he did not come to Rivendell for military assistance (and on several he also admits that Gondor desperately needs it). This pride is also echoed in Gandalf’s later story of his research trip to Minas Tirith. Boromir’s father Denethor gives him a cold welcome, hesitant to let Gandalf into the archives and insisting that he already knows everything that is within them. It’s such an interesting introduction to the city and its proponents. The reader is left with the image of a city closed in on itself and focused on its singular mission, insisting that it is defending the wider world despite not knowing much or liking much about it.
It’s fascinating to watch Boromir interact with the rest of the council, particularly the Elves. He’s ignorant but eager to prove himself and his blustering seems to stem from a dangerous mix of pride and insecurity. When Galdor makes a passing reference to Gondor as the only thing holding Mordor back from spreading over the western swaths of Middle-earth, Boromir jumps down his throat, perceiving an insult where there was none. “Gondor wanes, you say. But Gondor stands, and even the end of its strength is still very strong.” Galdor dryly replies that for all Gondor’s strength and vigilance it can’t seem to keep back the Ringwraiths. By looking for an insult, Boromir’s prickliness invited one. It’s an interesting though not terribly auspicious introduction to Gondor.
The Inheritance of Númenor
This attitude, of course, is directly at odds with Aragorn’s. Even under the best of circumstances, this would be a loaded interaction: Aragorn, simply by existing, is a threat to Boromir’s social position. This is alluded to but never openly discussed, and instead their discussion veers off into their (substantial) differences in style and leadership. Both claim ties to Númenor, both characterize themselves predominantly in terms of protection. But how they do that is drastically different. So much of this relationship is left unsaid and in the implications around their statements. It’s really fun as a reader, and sets up a lot to work with for the rest of The Fellowship of the Ring.
If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, we have played another part. Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay. 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… And yet less thanks have we than you. Travelers 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… That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.
It’s fascinating to watch this play out. They are people in fundamentally similar situations who react to it in fundamentally different ways. Both cast themselves as inheritors of Númenor, as protectors the weak or threatened, and as underappreciated. They are both proud in their own ways. But their vision of what protection entails, and how leadership expresses itself, is miles apart.
Knowledge and Power at the Council of Elrond
Another intriguing theme to pop up throughout the council is the relationship between knowledge and corruption. It calls to mind the description of Gollum in “The Shadow of the Past.” Gollum fixated on “roots and beginnings” and the Misty Mountains in particular fascinated him. For “the roots of those mountains must be roots indeed; there must be great secrets buried there which have not been discovered since the beginning.” There is a sense of obsession attached to Gollum, the feeling that he was especially corrupted by the Ring because of an already-present thirst to know.
“The Council of Elrond” brings this idea to the forefront again. Glóin notes that “a shadow of disquiet” fell upon the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain because they “were hemmed in a narrow place, and that greater wealth and splendor would be found in a wider world.” Elrond makes a similar reference in his tale of the Ring. When speaking of the Elven-smith of Eregion, he states that Sauron ensnared them through “their eagerness for knowledge.” And once again in Gandalf’s tale of Saruman. When Gandalf sees Saruman’s many-colored dye job, he rejects it, saying that “he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
A distrust of over-inquisitiveness runs through the entire chapter. But Frodo is inquisitive. The well-intentioned makers of the Elven-Rings had a desire for “understanding.” Gandalf goes into Minas Tirith for some old-fashioned archival research. So knowledge is not inherently bad, but it does seem to be dangerous. There is a sense that a seeking for knowledge – particularly an obsessive seeking – can easily slide into a seeking for power. Knowledge isn’t evil, but it’s fraught.
Fate, Free Will, and Frodo
Frodo taking the Ring is still one of my favorite moments in any book. It’s succinct and jarring. He has been silent throughout the council and then the narrative decisively re-centers on him in a moment that is very simple and very brave. He is confused and frightened and overwhelmed. He does it anyway.
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.”
For me, this is most powerful as an instance of autonomy. That it’s Frodo’s personal choice to act as he does. But there are numerous points throughout the chapter that suggest it could be otherwise. Even the above quote hints at it. Frodo feels as if “some other will was using his small voice.” I’d normally write that off as a normal psychological reaction to something so daunting. But there are other arrows in this direction too.
Faramir’s dream bluntly states that Frodo will be key in the fate of the Ring. “For Isildur’s bane shall waken,” he dreamed, “and the Halfling forth shall stand.” Elrond’s speech at the start of the council implies something similar. “You have come here and 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.”
There are so many references here to an overriding force or power guiding matters that it’s hard to ignore. I’d be curious to hear what you all have to say about what this would imply about Frodo’s choice.
- We get some fun new Bombadil facts near the end of the chapter. Men apparently call him Orald, which just means VERY, VERY OLD. Gandalf rejects the idea of giving him the Ring for safekeeping, insisting he would just throw it away. This would seem like a cheat for most stories, but it seems very fitting for Bombadil’s characterization.
- Another thing I enjoyed: that Isildur claimed Sauron’s ring as a weregild for his father and brother. By citing a real principle of older Germanic law it gave this scene a much more interesting twist. Rather than a power-mad Isildur we get a grieving one, who insists that restitution is owed for his loss. That’s not to excuse him, obviously, and there was certainly a (large) element of selfishness. But it’s more interesting for Isildur to claim the Ring was his right than to steal it on a whim.
- Gandalf gives his explanation for his neglect of Frodo here. I’m… still not that impressed? Rangers were guarding the Shire, and Gandalf made some tough judgment calls in difficult situations. But I am still a bit grumpy he didn’t take Frodo to Rivendell or somewhere else for safekeeping.
- Speaking of Gandalf’s story: poor Butterbur gets a rough go of it at the council. His name is rarely used and he’s just referred to as “a fat man in Bree” or some variant. Poor guy.
- Bilbo gets a good showing in “The Council of Elrond.” He gets the most meta line of the chapter when he responds to Frodo’s tale by saying “there are whole chapters of stuff before you ever got here!” His half-hearted offer to take the Ring, delivered in a kind of annoyed bluster, is also really sweet.
- I burst out laughing at one part. Gandalf and Aragorn are talking about their interactions with Gollum and are pretty much saying ‘yikes, good think those elves in Mirkwood are keeping such a good eye on Gollum, am I right? What a disaster it would be if he got out, haha!’ Then Legolas speaks up for the first time during the entire council and literally yells “Alas! Alas! …The tidings that I was sent to bring must now be told. They are not good.”
- Prose Prize: Of Númenor he spoke, its glory and its fall, and the return of the Kings of Men to Middle-earth out of the deeps of the Sea, borne upon the wings of storm.
- Both “The Shadow of the Past” and “The Council of Elrond” end with Sam caught eavesdropping. I didn’t catch this first and all credit for the observation goes to this essay.
- Art Credits: Jian Guo and Ted Nasmith
- Next time: The Ring (and the new Fellowship) head south.