This is the longest chapter in the entire story, so a lot to cover. It’s the second exposition chapter, after “The Shadow of the Past”, and we’re setting up a large part of the rest of the tale here. Crucial characters, locations and plot points are going to be introduced in the next 30 or so pages.
The hobbits get little serious character development in this chapter. Frodo, at the start, wants to go out walking in the woods, seemingly unaware of the momentous council that’s about to be brought to order. He displays an attitude on this opening page that’s a bit too carefree. It might be a result of Rivendell, but Frodo is acting like the whole world is wine and roses. It is a bit of a stretch. He’s still the Ring-bearer and important things need to be decided.
Sam shows his loyalty – and his clinginess – by coming along to the council with Frodo, sitting in on perhaps the most important meeting and discussion in the history of Middle-Earth. Interesting that. Security needs some work.
It’s time for some introductions. “The Council of Elrond” gives us three crucial characters that will be at the core of the story from now on: Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf and Boromir the Gondorian warrior. Boromir gets the most vivid description, marking him out as the one to watch in the chapter. Neither Gloin or Legolas get much character development here, and it isn’t until the next chapter that the reader will realise how important they are.
“The Council of Elrond” is split into stories told by different people, with some brief bits of dialogue between those present in-between. I’ll take them all one at a time.
Gloin starts us off. The overall theme for many of the stories is a sort of “gathering darkness” feeling, of good things having a shadow cast over them. In this case, it’s Erebor. Gloin relates a sort of spin off of the “Lost Kingdom” myth, one that was destroyed by the hubris of its inhabitants. In this case it’s Moria, the old Dwarven stronghold, which was destroyed by “Durin’s Bane” when the Dwarfs got too greedy. You’ll see this sort of idea repeated all across fantasy and other genres, of a civilisation brought low due to its own follies. Even Tolkien has done it before, with Numenor and Mordor.
From Gloin’s story, it’s clear Sauron has been on the prowl for the Ring for a while. His deception with the messenger to Dain seems a bit obvious for the Dark Lord of Evil to be pulling. Still, we’ve opened up the exposition with a good sense of dread. War is mentioned to be gathering on Dwarven borders, which is a something we’ll be returning to way later in the story.
After that it’s Elrond’s turn to talk, but not before he has a little speil on how the council is justified in what it is deciding. It’s basically fate to him: all of these people have happened to turn up at Rivendell around the same time, so that’s just it. It’s kind of a divine right style justification, and not one that actually sounds very convincing.
Elrond’s bit is all high epic fantasy stuff, recounting the end of the Second Age and the first war against Sauron. It’s a flurry of names and places – Arnor, Gondor, Isildur, Elendil, Minis Tirith, Minis Ithil, Minis Morgul, Osgalith and its easy to get a little lost. But it’s an effective history lesson, one with a regretful tone that matches the story so far. The idea that all of what has occurred can be traced back to the error of a man three thousand years ago does add a sense of grandeur to everything. Elrond is a guy whose seen and done it all: he has the air of someone who is weary of the world and its sadness.
Boromir interjects, and not for the last time. If I had to use one word for Boromir in this chapter it’s “pride”. He’s insulted by Elrond’s insinuation that Gondor is weak (which was a little below the belt). He’s on the defensive constantly in this chapter, which will be seen throughout the rest of this Book. He brings bad tidings from the war in the south, which indicates that the good guys have an awful communications network for that region. Like Elrond, Boromir also gives us a load of names and places for the first time, notably his brother Faramir, father Denethor and the first mention of Rohan. You know that if they get mentioned here, we’ll be off to see them at some point.
Boromir and his brother have been getting visions in dreams about “Isildur’s Bane” and the “Halflings”. It’s a very odd bit of the story, one that is never rightfully explained or even commented upon much after this chapter. You think it would be more important to the characters to find out who or what has been giving out these dreams, but that’s just me. Boromir has his “badassery” quota filled up here, with the info that he’s been wandering around the continent alone for over three months looking for Rivendell.
Boromir is pontificating and acting like the big man on campus when Aragorn, silent so far, jumps in with a vengeance. His dramatics here seem a little out of place. The two seem to get into a debate about whose doing more in the war against evil, Gondor or the Dunedain? It’s one big pissing contest between the two really, setting up the recurring conflict between both characters. They both have a claim for the control of Gondor and neither is going to give it up. It’s good to have some actual conflict between some of the main characters at last. It gets to the extent that Bilbo interjects in favour of Aragorn, and it’s clear this is going to be a big part of the story.
Moving on, its Gandalf’s turn, his story told in two main parts. The first again has that gathering dark theme. It’s kind of like a detective story – Gandalf hunting down Gollum, looking up archives just to try and prove that Bilbo’s ring was what he suspected it was. We get glimpses of the personality that Denethor will be exhibiting in Book Five when we met him, dismissive and arrogant.
A nice creepy moment when Gandalf recounts one of Isildurs last records, where he refers to the Ring as “precious”, a word that has all kinds of negative connotations in this story. If it wasn’t clear already, the Ring is evil, somewhat sentient and sets to work on its owners mind very quickly.
Aragorn also gets some badassery points here, having been able to track down and capture Gollum even though he was essentially searching half a continent for the little bastard. This is meant to reinforce the idea of Aragorn as the master hunter/tracker and it succeeds.
Gandalf closes off the first part of his speech with some “Black Speech” a language that is so evil, it actually appears to effect the surrounding environment. That’s was a little over the top and nonsensical, and the movie representation of it was just as bad.
Legolas justifies his inclusion in the chapter by telling us that Gollum has escaped from custody, in a rather confusing manner. The implication is that it was with Mordor’s help, but that makes little sense: Why would Sauron want Gollum free? Gollum knows just as much as Sauron does about where the Ring is, so it can’t be that. Anyway, this is a tie-in to “The Shadow of the Past” and Gandalf’s assertion that Gollum has “a part to play yet, for good or ill”. This is just a plot device to allow him to play this part methinks. Yeah, he’ll be turning up and within a few chapters too.
This little interlude also serves as a way to bring up another part of the Middle-Earth universe. Dwarfs and Elves don’t get along as Gloin and Legolas have a bit of a snipe at each other. This was a key part of The Hobbit, and with the Gimli/Legolas relationship, it should be a key aspect of this book. But, Tolkien never really gets into it too much except for in the Lorien chapters, mores the pity. This sort of racial politics angle would have been fascinating, but the opportunity isn’t really taken in The Lord of the Rings.
Gandalf heads into the second part of the story, which is far more crucial. In it, we learn about the story’s “little bad”, Saruman. This section is really more about tying up some plot threads – where Gandalf has been, what happened on Weathertop etc – and it’s done well enough. Radagast’s inclusion is as a plot device to let Gandalf escape later.
Saruman is the evil wizard in a dark tower, a familiar character for fantasy. From the conversation described by Gandalf, we get the sense of a man who, his leanings revealed, is free to finally speak his mind and let loose, mocking Gandalf and others arrogantly. Saruman attempts to lure Gandalf to the dark side with an “ends justifies the means” speech but it’s clearly a bad ploy with Gandalf. Tolkien has set Saruman up quite well here as someone to be very concerned about, even if Gandalf is able to escape his clutches somewhat easily. He’s a brash, condescending asshole, but a deeply fascinating one, someone whose motivations must go further than the Nietzsche quoting Elrond surmises. We won’t be meeting Saruman for a while, but the reader should already be exited for the inevitable confrontation between the two wizards.
The eagles, just as they did in The Hobbit, serve as a bit of a deus ex machina here, and it won’t be the last time. Rohan gets some details as the horse-centric Kingdom, rumoured to be paying tribute to Mordor. Boromir steps again to angrily reject this, again showing his proud streak. He comes off as a bit interventionist but I would be too – Boromir is the kind of guy who thinks everyone is against him in some fashion.
We’ve come to the crucial part of the chapter: what to do with the Ring? The obvious solutions are discounted in a logical fashion one after the other. Boromir’s suggestion of using it (as mentioned in an earlier post, just what this means is never really expanded upon) is shouted down, but that starts a very important plot thread for the Boromir character that will come to fruition in the last chapter of this Book.
The three Elvish rings are brought up here. We don’t know who carries them (you have to go into the Appendices to get the three names) but they are important. The destruction of the One will probably diminish their powers which, in a roundabout way, is saying that if they succeed in their task, the Elves will be finished in Middle Earth. As such, the quest is imbued with a tint of sadness, of necessary evil. A long defeat.
Anyway, the decision is made: the destination is Mount Doom , please mark it on Google Maps. It’s the insane solution, but the only one: As Gandalf says “Let folly be our cloak”.
It’s Bilbo of all people and his half-serious offer of talking it himself that brings them to the point really: and the Council freezes.
And it’s Frodo, as it has always been predestined to have been, who steps up with that famous line: “I will take the ring to Mordor…though I do not know the way”. The hero rises. He may not be strong, or know where he’s is going or what he’s doing, but Frodo at least has the balls to stand up and take the burden on. “The Halfing forth shall stand”.
The council scene is shortened in the movie, to the core bits. It serves as an occasion to introduce characters to a greater extent then it does in the book, and several of the stories recounted, most notably Gandalf’s imprisonment at the hands of Saruman, are shown directly earlier in the movie. Jackson, memorably, went as far as turning that moment into a magical fight scene, one that doesn’t quite work.
But the council, especially the extended edition, is a really good scene, full of strong performances and memorable lines, especially Boromir. The conflict between Aragorn and Boromir is played up a bit more directly with Sean Bean excellently delivering a stinging “Gondor has no King. Gondor needs no King.” The division between the council attendees is far more pronounced and vicious. Really excellent bit from Ian McKellan who, when hearing Frodo’s “I will take it!” gives this perfectly delivered soft wince, as if the wizard is realising something that he must have known all along – it was always going to be innocent old Frodo. The Fellowship is assembled early, a nice finish.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.