Pippin looked behind. The number of the Ents had grown—or what was happening? Where the dim bare slopes that they had crossed should lie, he thought he saw groves of trees. But they were moving! Could it be that the trees of Fangorn were awake, and the forest was rising, marching over the hills to war?
The march of the army of treelike Ents at the end of Book III, Chapter 4, indicates the universality of the War of the Ring in the context of the entire realm of Middle-earth. The struggle for the Ring is not a mere squabble between greedy parties who yearn for a magic object to enhance their personal power. Nor is the Ring an ancient heirloom fought over in some otherworldly realm that has little to do with the more immediate world of Men. Rather, the struggle for the Ring involves the whole cosmos, the entire scale of creation from top to bottom. Even the trees, which normally sleep through the various disturbances and conflicts of Men, as Fangorn tells us, cannot remain uninvolved in this battle. Their march to war here symbolizes not just another party joining the action, but rather the involvement of all creation in the struggle against evil.
Pippin’s amazement at the spectacle of the moving trees is also our amazement, as the hobbit reflects our reaction to the extraordinary events of Middle-earth. Unlike other fantasy novels in which the characters are accustomed to the events that occur in their world—however bizarre they may seem to us as readers—Pippin is just as flabbergasted as we are. Tolkien emphasizes the psychology of the scene by allowing us to read Pippin’s thoughts as they appear in his mind. “Or what was happening?” and “Could it be that . . . ?” are not the authoritative statements of the narrator, but private questions that Pippin is asking himself. This inward, psychological focus helps us keep a more personal perspective on the surreal and epic events unfolding in the novel.
“[Y]ou are our captain and our banner. The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider. He has passed through the fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads.”
Aragorn pays this homage to Gandalf in Book III, Chapter 5, revealing much about what leadership and warfare mean in this novel. The struggle between good and evil is clearly no conventional military encounter, as Aragorn makes no mention of the number of troops on the field, their weaponry, or their deployment in battle lines. The fact that the Enemy has eight more military commanders than his own army does not trouble Aragorn in the slightest. The traditional concerns of warriors appear to be of no interest to him. The war between the West and Sauron is a higher sort of struggle, requiring spiritual rather than material forces. It is a highly symbolic war, which explains why Aragorn calls the West’s effective leader, Gandalf, not just a captain but a “banner” as well. It is unusual for a single person to be described as a banner, as banners advertise the abstract emblems or causes for which an army or other group is fighting. But, in fact, Gandalf is his own emblem, as he is fighting for good and is himself a powerful symbol of good.
The quotation also reveals much about what inspires trust in Gandalf’s followers. There is no mention of the wizard’s military skill or brilliance at tactical maneuvers. What seems to inspire Aragorn the most is that Gandalf “has passed through the fire and the abyss.” In this regard, personal suffering defines a great leader. Gandalf’s fire-tempered resolve and will are what will terrify his enemies, says Aragorn—not the wizard’s talents at warfare. This characterization is a psychological benchmark by which to judge a good commander, but it is precisely the point of the entire novel, which values spiritual ideals of goodness and fellowship over outward accomplishments. Tolkien’s tale emphasizes that one’s inner life and personality determine one’s success far more than external achievements—or, rather, they make those achievements possible. The highly developed inner spirit that Gandalf displays is enough to command the servitude of even a great leader such as Aragorn.
“I did not give you leave to go,” said Gandalf sternly. “I have not finished. You have become a fool, Saruman, and yet pitiable. You might still have turned away from folly and evil, and have been of service.
But you choose to stay and gnaw the ends of your own plots.”
Gandalf’s fierce rebuke of Saruman in Book III, Chapter 10, shows us the relationship between the good wizard and his former superior, now his enemy. Gandalf speaks “sternly” to Saruman, as a parent might speak to a disobedient child, telling the corrupt wizard that he does not have permission to leave until the lecture is over. Adults of similar rank do not speak to each other in this condescending manner, even when they are angry. Rather, Gandalf’s is the tone taken by one who clearly feels superior to the person he is addressing. Indeed, Gandalf does feel superior to Saruman, and he is not ashamed to say as much. Gandalf’s superiority is not based on power or prestige; after all, Saruman was the leader of Gandalf’s order, and Gandalf addresses even those below him with extreme respect. Instead, Gandalf’s sense of superiority stems from the incorrect moral choices Saruman has made, which have cost him considerable respect. Gandalf’s association of “folly” with evil reflects this lack of esteem, as if only fools play at being wicked.
Tolkien implies here that evil is something chosen, rather than a cosmic force that sweeps innocent people up and corrupts them. Gandalf stresses that, until recently, it was still possible for Saruman to repent his ways: “You might still have turned away from folly and evil. . . .” Saruman might have, but he did not: he made a choice, and it was the wrong one. After that, Gandalf again emphasizes, “[Y]ou choose to stay.” Such a conception of morality as free choice is important in Tolkien’s universe. As grand and dramatic as the tale of The Lord of the Rings is, its definition of good and evil is very traditional. Every being, from the humblest Dwarf to the mightiest Wizard, chooses a course of action in life and then accepts the consequences.
“Yess, wretched we are, precious,” [Gollum] whined. “Misery misery! Hobbits won’t kill us, nice hobbits.”
“No, we won’t,” said Frodo. “But we won’t let you go, either. You’re full of wickedness and mischief. . . .”
This dialogue between Frodo and Gollum, when the hobbits first encounter the creature and tame him in Book IV, Chapter 1, gives us a clear picture of Frodo’s characteristic frankness. The hobbits do not owe Gollum any explanations about why they are forced to keep him captive. Other creatures, such as Orcs, kidnap the hobbits without giving them the slightest indication of why they are being captured or where they will be taken, as with Merry and Pippin’s capture in Book III. Frodo, however, is an honorable character, and he insists on being straightforward with Gollum about his impressions of the creature’s wickedness and mischief. Frodo is neither silent nor evasive, but upfront and honest. Moreover, he never creates the impression of being intoxicated with his own power. His casual way of saying “But we won’t let you go, either” displays none of the grandiose posturing that Saruman, for instance, would show if he had the opportunity to inform someone of his captivity. For Frodo, power is just a fact, not a justification for complacency or bullying.
This passage also showcases Gollum’s sneaky and deceptive personality, which distinguishes him from the other evil characters in the novel, who, for the most part, are just what they appear to be. Gollum’s self-abasing remarks, such as “wretched we are,” along with his incessant whining, are not imaginable in other evil characters, such as Saruman. Gollum whines and puts himself down in order to play on the hobbits’ sympathy—a tactic that works better on the trusting Frodo than on the skeptical Sam. Frodo’s goodwill is his weak point, as we find out later, when Gollum ultimately betrays the hobbits. Indeed, this tiny conversation between Frodo and Gollum is an ironic foreshadowing of the creature’s final treachery in Shelob’s lair. Here, Frodo tells Gollum that he is “full of wickedness,” and we realize later how tragically true this assertion is.
“[T]he old wisdom and beauty brought out of the West remained long in the realm of the sons of Elendil the Fair, and they linger there still. Yet even so it was Gondor that brought about its own decay, falling by degrees into dotage, and thinking that the Enemy was asleep, who was only banished not destroyed.”
Faramir recounts the history of the fall of Gondor to Frodo and Sam in Book IV, Chapter 5. Faramir’s words remind us of the constant sense throughout the novel that the world of Middle-earth is changing. Nearly all the characters the hobbits encounter on their wanderings remark that they cannot afford to be as hospitable to strangers as they used to be—they are living in “dark times,” as Éomer puts it. The world is a more confusing place than it was before, and visitors are not always who they seem. The old ways and traditions do not apply as they used to, for a new world order is emerging. This change is not always for the better, as the history of Gondor illustrates. The ancient Lords of Gondor were once proud and free, but the entire realm now lives in fear of Sauron. Gondor was once a blossoming land of orchards and gardens, but is now barren and deteriorating. The reality of decay is symbolized in the headless and graffiti-covered statue of an early king of Gondor that Frodo and Sam come upon in their travels.
The causes for these changes in the world of Middle-earth are not concerns of economics or politics, which we never hear about in the course of the novel. We do not see or hear of merchants’ disputes or groups clamoring for recognition by states or governments. Indeed, economics and politics are almost entirely absent from Tolkien’s worldview. The main motivating force behind world history in The Lord of the Rings is morality and the strength that supports it. The “wisdom and beauty” of which Faramir speaks here are really shorthand terms for moral good and strength of character. The fall of Gondor was caused by rulers who took the morality of their kingdom for granted, forgetting that it needed to be defended against evil, as the Fellowship is now trying to do. The clash between good and evil keeps history moving, and keeps the world in constant flux as the balance between the two opposing forces changes over time.
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