It’s time for a long chapter full of exposition, as the peoples of Middle-earth must decide what to do with the time that’s been given them.
Besides Elrond, Gandalf, Glorfindel, Aragorn, and some other members of Elrond’s household, there’s Frodo and Bilbo representing the Hobbits, Legolas from the Mirkwood Elves (he’s actually the son of King Thranduil, FYI), Glóin and his son Gimli from the Lonely Mountain, and Boromir, a Man from Gondor.
They open up the conversation by talking about why each of them came, because Elrond didn’t actually “summon” any of them to Rivendell – their lands all faced troubles, and they just so happened to come to the same place for counsel. Glóin goes first, telling about what happened to Balin: He took a group of Dwarves and returned to Moria, an ancient Dwarf city in the Misty Mountains that was overpowered by some unspecified dark creature(s) centuries ago. Balin left thirty years ago, and although they heard some promising reports initially, before long the reports simply stopped coming.
‘Then about a year ago a messenger came to Dáin, but not from Moria – from Mordor: a horseman in the night, who called Dáin to his gate. The Lord Sauron, so he said, wished for our friendship. Rings would he give for it, such as he gave of old. And he asked urgently concerning hobbits, of what kind they were, and where they dwelt. “For Sauron knows,” said he, “that one of these was known to you on a time.”
‘At this we were greatly troubled, and we gave no answer. And then his fell voice was lowered, and he he would have sweetened it if he could. “As a small token only of your friendship Sauron asks this,” he said: “that you should find this thief,” such was his word, “and get from him, willing or no, a little ring, the least of rings, that once he stole. It is but a trifle that Sauron fancies, and an earnest of your good will. Find it, and three rings that the Dwarf-sires possessed of old shall be returned to you, and the realm of Moria shall be yours for ever. Find only news of the thief, whether he still lives and where, and you shall have great reward and lasting friendship from the Lord. Refuse, and things will not seem so well.’
Of course they know enough not to trust Sauron, but they’re not strong enough to openly defy him, and he sent similar messages to others in the region. So they came to Rivendell partly to warn Bilbo and partly just to ask for advice.
‘You have done well to come,’ said Elrond. ‘You will hear today all that you need in order to understand the purposes of the Enemy. There is naught you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it. But you do not stand alone. You will learn that your trouble is but part of the trouble of all the western world. The Ring! What shall we do with the Ring, the least of rings, the trifle that Sauron fancies? That is the doom that we must deem.
‘That is the purpose for which you are called hither. Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in the 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.’
So at least the infodump is warranted – of course these people would want to know everything that can be known about the Ring before making a decision. By bringing in representatives of all the (known) “good peoples”, Tolkien’s trying to add a democratic aspect to the proceedings (as opposed to the Wise simply handing down a decree).
Then Elrond starts telling the tale of the Ring from the beginning. Basically, there were some Elven-smiths who were working together with the Dwarves of Moria to make rings, Sauron wanted in, and since he had plenty of ringmaking skills to bring to the table (and a pretty face at the time), they let him into the club. One of the Elves suspected him, though, and he hid three rings from Sauron, which became the Elven Rings. War breaks out, there’s a Last Alliance of Men and Elves, and we end up at Mount Doom, with Sauron overthrown, but their leaders (Elendil and Gil-galad) died in the attempt. In the book, the implication is obviously that Isuldur cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand after he was “dead” (I won’t even speculate about what his state of not-quite-dead-ness would have looked like). Elrond tried to convince Isuldur to throw the Ring back into Mount Doom, but he was stubborn and grief-stricken and doubtless already under the Ring’s influence, and he refused. Then not long afterward, the Ring betrayed him and he was killed by Orcs by the river Anduin.
‘Fruitless did I call the victory of the Last Alliance? Not wholly so, yet it did not achieve its end. Sauron was diminished, but not destroyed. His Ring was lost but not unmade. The Dark Tower was broken, but its foundations were not removed; for they were made with the power of the Ring, and while it remains they will endure. Many Elves and many mighty Men, and many of their friends, had perished in the war. […] Never again shall there be any such league of Elves and Men; for Men multiply while the Firstborn decrease, and the two kindreds are estranged. And ever since that day the race of Númenor has decayed, and the span of their years has lessened.’
This is the first time I caught this: The failure of Númenor is directly linked to Isildur’s moral failure. In the Book of Genesis, Adam and his immediate descendants were said to live almost a thousand years, but over the generations, their lifespans got shorter and shorter. Tolkien’s linking the fall of Isildur to the Fall of Man in the Bible.
Evidently Boromir got tired of hearing Elrond bash his people.
‘Believe not that in the land of Gondor the blood of Númenor is spent, nor all its pride and dignity forgotten. By our valour 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. […]
‘But still we fight on, holding all the west shores of Anduin; and those who shelter behind us give us praise, if ever they hear our name: much praise but little help.
Then he brings up the reason for his (very long) journey: A dream. Interestingly, he says that his brother was troubled by the dream many times, but apparently no one took it seriously until Boromir had the same dream (only once).
Seek for the Sword that was broken:
In Imladris it dwells;
There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur’s Bane shall waken,
And the Halfling forth shall stand.
Elrond tells Frodo to show them all the Ring – “Isildur’s Bane”. And then Aragorn shows off his broken sword, which was actually Elendil’s sword Narsil, broken in the confrontation with Sauron. Boromir is naturally dubious of Aragorn’s claim to being Isildur’s heir, but when he offers to come to Minas Tirith (the fortress-city of Gondor), he’s ready enough to accept the help. And Aragorn talks about the work of the Dúnedain.
‘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. Fear would have destroyed them. But when dark things come from the houseless hills, or creep from sunless woods, they fly from us. What roads would any dare to tread, what safety would there be in quiet lands, or in the homes of simple men at night, if the Dúnedain were asleep, or were all gone into the grave?
‘And yet less thanks have we than you. Travellers 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, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.’
So that’s what Aragorn’s done all these years that’s made him so worn and weatherbeaten – fighting dark creatures to protect thankless townsfolk.
Bilbo and Frodo tell their parts of the story, and then people start asking about Gandalf – and also about Saruman, since ringlore is his specialty, and it would seem natural to call him up for a council like this. Long story short, Saruman betrayed them. He had mislead the White Council for a while, advising them to wait and see about the Necromancer and telling them the Ring was certainly lost for good.
And then Gandalf talks about his quest to confirm whether Frodo’s ring was the One Ring, including his search for Gollum. Aragorn was actually the one who caught Gollum, heading out of Mordor. After Gandalf learned what he needed, he left Gollum in the care of the Woodland Elves in Mirkwood – except Legolas came to tell them that Gollum had escaped with the aid of some orcs.
And then when Saruman found out Gandalf was researching the Ring on his own (and spending an awful lot of time in the Shire), he decided to have a chat with him. So he let drop that the Ringwraiths were abroad again in order to scare Gandalf into actually talking with him, incidentally causing Gandalf to leave suddenly with only the letter left with Barliman Butterbur for Frodo.
‘”Here you will stay, Gandaf the Grey, and rest from journeys. For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”
‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if they moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.
‘”I liked white better,” I said.
‘”White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
‘”In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”‘
He offers a “Let’s rule together” spiel about how the Wise should rule over all the plebes (even if they authorize some “deplorable” means to gain power), and of course Gandalf isn’t buying it, so Saruman locks him on top of the Tower of Orthanc and basically leaves him there to rot. Fortunately, he’d asked his friend Radagast to send news to Orthanc via bird, so he actually turned out to be the best-informed member of Elrond’s council despite being locked in a tower for months. And then one of the Eagles stops by to pick him up, flying him over to Rohan to find a more conventional steed (since birds aren’t exactly good at carrying weights for long distances, no matter how big they are). The King of Rohan doesn’t appreciate Gandalf’s presence (at least partly due to Saruman’s influence).
‘He bade me take a horse and be gone; and I chose one much to my liking, but little to his. I took the best horse in his land, and I have never seen the like of him.’
And that’s how Gandalf met Shadowfax. he had to tame the horse first, but he’s basically the fastest creature on land, so that made up for any lost time. He’s furious that Barliman forgot the letter, but since he initially thought that Frodo had been killed by the Ringwraiths at Crickhollow, he’s ultimately too happy to hear he’s alive at all (and with Strider!) to stay mad. His journey to Rivendell is fairly uneventful (fight with Ringwraiths notwithstanding), bringing us back to the Council, and the question of what to do about the Ring.
Some of the Elves suggest tossing the Ring into the Sea in order to lose it, but Gandalf points out that even that would only be a temporary relief – sooner or later, it would return to Middle-earth, even if it’s centuries or millennia later.
‘Then,’ said Erestor, ‘there are but two courses, as Glorfindel already has declared: to hide the Ring for ever; or to unmake it. But both are beyond our power. Who will read this riddle for us?’
‘None here can do so,’ said Elrond gravely. ‘At least none can foretell what will come to pass, if we take this road or that. But it seems to me clear which is the road we must take. The westward road seems easiest. Therefore it must be shunned. It will be watched. Too often the Elves have fled that way. Now at this last we must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril – to Mordor. We must send the Ring to the Fire.’
Then Boromir brings up the obvious counterargument: Why can’t they just use the Ring?
‘The Men of Gondor are valiant, and they will never submit; but they may be beaten down. Valour needs first strength, and then a weapon. Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory!’
‘Alas, no,’ said Elrond. ‘We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. Consider Saruman. If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself up on Sauron’s throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear. And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise. For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so. I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it.’
Boromir concedes, but I get the feeling it’s more because he knows he can’t win the argument than that he’s thoroughly convinced.
Glòin suggests using some of the other, less perilous rings, but of course he gets shut down. The Dwarf Rings were all either destroyed or reclaimed by Sauron, and although the Elven-rings are still free, Elrond implies that they’re already hard at work, but maybe not toward victory in battle.
‘But what then would happen, if the Ruling Ring were destroyed, as you counsel?’ asked Glòin.
‘We know not for certain,’ answered Elrond sadly. ‘Some hope that the Three Rings, which Sauron has never touched, would then become free, and their rulers might heal the hurts of the world that he has wrought. But maybe when the One has gone, the Three will fail, and many fair things will fade and be forgotten. That is my belief.’
This is a conflict that they never convey in the films: If the Quest of the Ring were to fail, Sauron would conquer the world, but even if it succeeds, the Elves’ way of life will most likely be lost anyway. They’re willing to give it up if it means the rest of the world can have peace.
‘Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. ‘It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this,we shall put him out of reckoning.’
Bilbo is actually the first to step forward and offer to take the Ring (although he may have had some ulterior motives: He wanted to get the council over with so he could have lunch!). Gandalf turns him down, of course – he had a lot of trouble convincing him to give up the Ring the first time. Also he’s over 100 years old, so kind of past adventuring age.
‘I will take the Ring,’ [Frodo] said, ‘though I do not know the way.’
Then Sam finally makes his presence known, asking if anyone else is supposed to go with Frodo (because of course he does).
‘No indeed!’ said Elrond, turning towards him with a smile. ‘You at least shall go with him. It is hardly possible to separate you from him, even when he is summoned to a secret council and you are not.’
I love Sam.
Until next time…