The Fellowship of the Ring
Book II, Chapter 2
Summary — The Council of Elrond
In the morning, Gandalf summons Frodo and Bilbo to the Council. Messengers from many lands and races are there seeking Elrond’s advice. Glóin says that the Dwarves are worried: the Dwarf-king Balin, who journeyed to the Mines of Moria under the Misty Mountains to reestablish the ancient Dwarf-kingdom that once flourished there, has not sent word for quite a long time. Furthermore, a messenger from Mordor has come offering the Dwarves an alliance, as well as new Rings of Power, in exchange for news about a certain Hobbit.
The wise Elrond tells of the origins of the Rings of Power, forged by the Elven-smiths in the Second Age, and of the One Ring, which Sauron made to rule the others. Elrond speaks of the great battle in which Isildur cut the Ring from the Dark Lord’s hand, and of the loss of the Ring in the Anduin River when Isildur perished. Afterward, the realms of the Men of Westernesse went into decline: the northern realms were mostly abandoned, and though the southern realm of Gondor endured, it weakened as well. The Men of Gondor allowed Sauron’s forces back into Mordor and had to cede territory to the Dark Lord.
At this point, Boromir, a powerful-looking warrior from Minas Tirith, the great city of Gondor, speaks. He tells of a rising power in Mordor that has recently dealt crushing losses to Gondor. Boromir tells of a dream he had that spoke of the Sword that was Broken, something called Isildur’s Bane, and a Halfling. The meaning of Boromir’s dream is suddenly made clear as Strider stands and reveals himself to be Aragorn, the heir and direct descendant of Isildur, keeper of Elendil’s broken sword. The Halfling—another word for Hobbit—is Frodo, who stands and displays Isildur’s Bane—the Ring.
Frodo and Bilbo relate their parts in the story of the Ring thus far. Then Gandalf tells how he managed to prove the identity of the Ring. He discovered that Sauron was gaining power again in Mirkwood, and that Saruman the White, the head of Gandalf’s order of Wizards, advised against challenging Sauron. When the Wizards finally did decide to challenge Sauron, it was too late, as the Dark Lord had built up his forces in Mordor and fled there. Gandalf searched for Gollum but was unable to find the creature, so he went to the city of Minas Tirith, where Isildur had allegedly left a description of the Ring. From this description, Gandalf learned about the writing on the Ring. Then Aragorn tells the Council that he did in fact find Gollum after Gandalf left; the wizard adds that it is surely from Gollum that Sauron heard of Bilbo and the Shire. Legolas, an Elf from Mirkwood, interrupts with the alarming news that Gollum recently escaped from the Elves’ dungeon with the help of an army of Orcs.
Gandalf tells how he journeyed to Orthanc, the tower of Saruman, where he was dismayed to learn that Saruman, the greatest of the Wizards, intended to join forces with Mordor or to wield the Ring himself. When Gandalf refused to join the side of Mordor, Saruman locked him in the tower of Orthanc until Gwaihir, the Great Eagle, came and rescued Gandalf, taking him to the horsemen of Rohan. There, Gandalf tamed Shadowfax, the swiftest of all horses, and rode him back to the Shire. Gandalf missed the hobbits and Aragorn at Bree, and then went on to Weathertop, where he battled the Nazgûl. The wizard then made his way to Rivendell, hoping to draw some of the Nine away from Strider and the hobbits.
The only remaining question—the most important one—is what to do with the Ring. The Elf-lord Erestor suggests they give the Ring to Tom Bombadil, over whom it seemingly has no power. Glorfindel counters that such a course of action would simply postpone the inevitable, as Tom alone could not defeat Sauron. Boromir brashly recommends that they use the power of the Ring to defeat Sauron. Gandalf and Elrond immediately dismiss this suggestion. As the Ring contains the power of Sauron, it is irrevocably evil, and anything done with it will ultimately turn to evil.
Glóin suggests that the Elves use the Three Rings of the Elves to fight Sauron, but Elrond silences this idea. Glóin asks what would happen if the Ruling Ring were destroyed. Elrond sadly replies that he thinks the Three Elven Rings would fail; their power and all that they have created would fade. However, the Elves are willing to endure that possibility in order to destroy Sauron.
Erestor suggests that it is despair and folly to go into Mordor to look for the fire that forged the Ring. However, Gandalf responds that despair is only for those who have no hope; as for folly, that may be their only chance. Sauron is wise, but he only thinks in terms of desire for power. That someone would pass up power by trying to destroy the Ring would never occur to him. Elrond agrees, adding that the road will be so hard that neither strength nor wisdom will be of much help; the weak are as likely to succeed as the strong. It is often true that the weak make all the difference in the world “while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
At this, Bilbo pipes up, declaring that it is obvious that Elrond is saying that old Bilbo himself should take the Ring to Mordor. Gandalf disagrees. After a heavy silence, Frodo feels strangely compelled to speak up. He says he will take the Ring himself, “though I do not know the way.” Elrond agrees, saying that it is a heavy burden, but it seems that Frodo is meant for it. Sam, who has been hiding in a corner, jumps up and demands to go along. Elrond smilingly assents.
Like the second chapter of Book I, the second chapter of Book II offers a lengthy historical context for the events to follow. Indeed, there is much overlap between the story Gandalf tells to Frodo in Bag End and the history described at the Council of Elrond; the only difference is that more has been learned over the course of Book I. Indeed, at the Council, much of the history that has only been hinted at or sketchily described earlier is laid out in full, and many of the pieces are fit together. As Tolkien’s narrator likes to remind us, the story he tells is merely one episode in a long saga. However, the narrator does not explain all, but continues to hint at stories and myths that remain unexplained—Gandalf and the Necromancer, the story of Arwen’s mother, and so on. To fully explain would provide a sense of closure, finality, or complete knowledge, which is apparently not Tolkien’s intention. By leaving so many myths, stories, and characters only partly explained, or not explained at all, Tolkien gives Middle-earth an aura of mystery and vastness, leaving us with the sense that The Lord of the Rings is merely a small glimpse of the realm’s history, geography, and inhabitants.
Elrond and Gandalf, however, are determined that the story of the Ring end with them. They reject any potential solutions that would simply pass the Ring along to others, whether Tom Bombadil, those who live across the sea in the Downs, or future generations. Gandalf and Elrond assert that the responsibility to deal with the Ring is theirs and theirs alone. As Gandalf says to Frodo earlier in the novel, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” History assigns tasks, and Tolkien’s heroes must rise to meet them.
Such a conception of heroism sets up one of the central oppositions of The Lord of the Rings: the conflict between selflessness and selfishness. Heroism demands selflessness, a willingness to give oneself to a larger cause. For the Elves, the sacrifice required is especially acute, since, in fighting for the Ring’s destruction, they may bring about the end of their own power and all that they have built with it. Sauron, by contrast, as Gandalf explains, understands only the desire for power. This characteristic is the weakness that those who fight Sauron might exploit in order to defeat him. Anyone who dares to try to destroy the Ring, thereby denying himself its power, would be acting in a way that Sauron would neither understand nor expect. Of course, to destroy the Ring, or even merely to resist its powerful appeal, is easier said than done, as Isildur, Gollum, Bilbo, and now Frodo have discovered.
Tolkien’s idea that resisting evil means, in part, resisting desires reflects his Christian sensibility. Christianity demands the subjugation of one’s own desires—whether sensual, material, or even merely a greed for knowledge—before the word of God. Indeed, excessive thirst for knowledge can be the most dangerous desire. In the biblical book of Genesis, this danger appears in the form of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which offers the irresistible promise of forbidden knowledge that leads to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. In Middle-earth, there are similar examples of forbidden knowledge: the Elven-smiths, ensnared by Sauron with promises of great learning, and the corrupted wizard Saruman. Indeed, even the Dwarves whom Glóin describes to Frodo, who dig too deep in Moria in search of the precious metal mithril and awaken “the nameless fear,” serve as a symbol of the dangers of reckless and greedy curiosity.
Tolkien’s warning against the greed for knowledge appears to be based on the distinction between mere knowledge and wisdom. We are offered a clue as to exactly what differentiates the two in Gandalf’s rebuke to Saruman when he discovers that the latter’s deep study of Ring-lore has corrupted him: “he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” Wisdom implies an added moral dimension that mere knowledge lacks: wisdom involves thinking of the consequences of actions. Gandalf and Elrond, among others, embody wisdom, while Saruman, the Elven-smiths, and the Dwarves of Moria have sought only knowledge.
Another notably Christian element in the text is Elrond’s prediction of the great part that “the weak,” including Hobbits, are to play in the coming battle. Indeed, it is Frodo’s physical weakness that makes him the ideal Ring-bearer, as he is not powerful enough to wield the Ring in a truly dangerous or destructive fashion. However, Frodo’s temperament suits him to the great task before him. As Elrond and Gandalf both point out, physical strength and wisdom will not carry the day in the quest. Resisting the temptation of the Ring is a matter of conviction and inner strength. Elrond’s description of the ideal Ring-bearer—who is not necessarily physically unimpressive, but is morally steady, willing to sacrifice himself for the good of humanity—constitutes a fair description of a Christian saint.
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