The Fellowship of the Ring: The Council of Elrond
Another stop on a reader's journey through The Lord of the Rings
Don’t worry, “not all that was spoken and debated in the Council need now be told…” You’re welcome.
‘The Council of Elrond’ is nearly 50 pages of exposition that probably wouldn’t never make it past an editor today. I’ll admit it’s not the most lovable chapter—with its layers of reported speech and complete dearth of action—but I love it just the same. I love it more now because this most recent re-read comes after my first close reading of The Silmarillion and it’s full of meaningful connections, but also the chapter hold some of favourite quotes from the whole story. Nothing happens, yet every recollection, aside, and gap-filling tale helps set the stakes for the quest.
Tolkien illustrator, Alan Lee says it well in an interview about Christopher Tolkien’s final posthumous publication of his father’s work, The Fall of Gondolin:
“What makes The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings work as well as they do is that they are set into this cultural background with its own history and languages. You get so much more from those particular stories if you actually delve back and enjoy the mythology of Middle-earth. In that process of the myths changing and developing, you get all these echoes of the earlier stories running through the later ones. It makes the whole thing richer and more satisfying and more dense.”
Satisfying indeed. This chapter is so rich it won’t fit into one of my conventional posts, so instead of focusing on a single feature or theme I’ve assembled some key quotations and some commentary.
"...Elves deemed that evil was ended for ever, and it was not so." — Elrond
Elrond here is referring to the great battles to the First and Second Ages, remembering in reverse the great deeds of Elves and Men to tear down Sauron’s fortress of Barad-dur and Thangorodrim before it.
‘I remember well the splendour of their banners,’ he said. ‘It recalled to me the glory of the Elder Days and the hosts of Beleriand, so many great princes and captains were assembled. And yet not so many, nor so fair, as when Thrangorodrim was broken, and the Elves deemed that evil was ended for ever, and it was not so.’
“I have seen three ages in the West of the world,” Elrond says later, “and many defeats, and many fruitless victories.” The persistent presence and threat of evil that weighs on Elrond is exactly what the council is tasked with answering. The War of the Ring is only the latest in a long line of conflicts and, unfortunately, will not the last—but it will change the world.
"There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means."
The betrayal of Saruman the Wise. Gandalf’s telling of Saruman’s turn from the path of wisdom is an excellent example of the slow rot of corruption that an unchecked desire for power—even in service of good ends—allows to grow. It illustrates Tolkien’s preference for the slow, frustrating work of cultivation over the rapid, destructive industry of progress and achievement. Gandalf represents the garden, characterized by patience and care; Saruman represents the strip mine, burning and tearing his way to his desires.
“A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Númenor. This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.”
This is a persuasive argument because it doesn’t suggest total submission to “the Power” but rather it’s manipulation. Let us hitch our wagon to this-or-that, to this politician, to that fad. It’s how religious folk who may otherwise have good values get played by shills like Donald Trump: vote for me and let me dirty my hand for you, your meek ways haven’t worked—perhaps your ideals require less faith and more legislative to achieve their ends. But there is only one Lord of the Rings, and he does not share power.
It’s horrifying because it is tempting, especially in the face of struggle and the weight of past failures.
"Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not." — Gandalf
I’ve got this one on the cover of the notebook I draft these Reading Middle-earth blog posts in. Gandalf’s words encourage me when I don’t think I’ll ever finish this fool’s quest, reminding me that I don’t know I won’t finish it either. I love the way Tolkien portrays providence because it seems weighted ever so slightly toward action on the part of the creatures. There is a power at work in Middle-earth, but it’s rare to see anyone give a half-hearted effort. Frodo and Sam aren’t the sole actors in accomplishing the quest, in fact Frodo fails quite dramatically, yet they still spend every ounce of their will in pursuing their goal.
Following this statement, the wizard makes the powerful case for the foolish plan of destroying the Ring where it was create being the best way to avoid the malicious and exacting scrutiny of Sauron, who knows no measure but “desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts.”
After Frodo offers himself as Ring-bearer, Elrond follows up with this beautiful quote about all the things even the wise do not know:
“This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?"
If we do not know all things, then there is always cause for hope—especially in a world where there are powers at work beyond hobbits and humans alike.
Next up is Book 2 Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South” and you can bet I’ll include the fanfare from the movie. The Fellowship of the Ring finally has its fellows!