(Updated on 26/05/2015)
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 in its pages. Crucial characters, coming locations and vital plot points are going to be introduced in “The Council Of Elrond”.
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 the 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 now, the danger passed, his quest to this point described as a bad dream he is just waking up from. It is a bit of a stretch I think. He’s still the Ring-bearer and important things need to be decided. His major moment will be right at the end. But, for now, Frodo acts as if his struggles are over, wanting only to go and explore some pine woods.
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. Security needs some work, clearly.
Beyond that, the chapter is largely focused on other matters and other people, so it is 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:
“He was cloaked and booted as if for a journey on horseback; and indeed though his garments were rich, and his cloak was lined with fur, they were stained with long travel. He had a collar of silver in which a single white stone was set; his locks were shorn about his shoulders. On a baldric he wore a great horn tipped with silver that now was laid upon his knees.”
There is a lot you can infer from this description before Elrond does the actual introduction, and it’s a great example of what Tolkien can do. Neither Gimli nor Legolas get much character development in comparison, and it isn’t until the next chapter that the reader will realise how important those two are.
Anyway, “The Council of Elrond” is split into stories told by different people, with some brief bits of dialogue between those present in-between. Some of them are quite lengthy, like Gandalf’s contribution, and others are quite short, like Bilbo and Frodo’s. For this series, I suppose that it is best that I just take them one at a time, and there is so much that I won’t even try to cover everything. Tolkien infers that even what follows is just a snippet, writing like a documentarian recollecting events years afterwards: “Not all that was spoken and debated in the Council need now be told.”
Gloin starts us off. The overall theme for many of the stories is a “gathering darkness” feeling, of good things having a shadow cast over them and of doom encircling the free nations and peoples of Middle-Earth. 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. Here it’s Moria, the old Dwarven stronghold, which was destroyed by “Durin’s Bane” when the Dwarfs got too greedy and dug too deep. 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 others. In fact, you can pretty much see the same thing in the history of Erebor itself.
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, and is a bit of a swerve in some respects: are we meant to think that Erebor will suddenly deal with Mordor over some rings? 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 much later in the story.
After that it’s Elrond’s turn to talk, but not before he has a little spiel 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, but maybe Tolkien was worried that readers might get offended at the idea of this random assortment of characters deciding the fate of the entire planet.
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, Gil-Galad, Elendil, Orodruin, Minis Tirith, Minis Ithil, Minis Morgul, Osgalith – and it’s easy to get a little lost. It’s a longer version of the same tale Gandalf told in the second chapter of the story. But it’s still good to hear, 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 and he has the air of someone who is weary of the world and its sadness: “I have seen three ages in the West of the world, and many defeats, and many fruitless victories.” For him, the long defeat is a very real thing.
Boromir interjects, and not for the last time. He’s insulted by Elrond’s insinuation that Gondor is weak (which was a little below the belt you have to admit). He’s on the defensive constantly in this chapter, which will be seen throughout the rest of this Book as well. 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”, urging them to head north and “Seek the Sword that was broken”. 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, voices from the west, but that’s just me. Boromir has his heroic quota filled up here, with the info that he’s been wandering around the continent alone for over three months looking for Rivendell. However, it is important to remember that the vision was sent to his brother twice before it was sent to him, indicating that someone else was supposed to be seeking 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 who is 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, because that has been notably absent up to now. 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. Boromir retains doubts about Aragorn’s position, but is man enough to admit that the coming of the “sword of Elendil” would be a very big deal for Gondor. The moment of conflict is largely overshadowed though, by the solemn revealing of the Ring itself, a moment that carries with it an important reaction: “Boromir’s eyes glinted as he gazed at the golden thing.”
Moving on, after a brief note on Bilbo and Frodo’s journeys – that Tolkien wisely plays down, since we’ve read it all already – 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 tale, with Gandalf hunting down Gollum and 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 meet him in Gandalf’s account, dismissive and arrogant.
A nice creepy moment occurs when Gandalf recounts one of Isildur’s 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 that sets to work on its owners mind very quickly. The “precious” connection between Isildur, Gollum and Bilbo draws a very strong line.
Aragorn gets some time next, 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 film 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 the bad guys’ help, maybe Saruman since the Orc raid came “from over the mountains“, but that makes little sense: Why would Saruman or Sauron want Gollum free? Gollum knows just as much as Sauron does about where the Ring is, so it can’t be that. Did Saruman aim to capture him? Really, 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”. But the implementation of it is a bit clumsy.
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 his 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.
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, happy to be in a position where his true feelings can laid bare. 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, whose pointed rejoinder to Saruman’s colour change – “I liked white better” – is a simple way of showing how different their viewpoints now are. It’s positively Satanic, as Saruman goes from prideful to pleading, but never too far from his true position. Tolkien has set Saruman up quite well as someone to be very concerned about, even if Gandalf is able to escape his clutches somewhat easily. He’s a brash, condescending power, 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 convenient plot device in this account, 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 up to angrily reject this, again showing his proud streak. He comes off as a bit interventionist: Boromir is the kind of guy who thinks everyone is against him in some fashion. The remainder of Gandalf’s tale is a breathless chase around the north as he follows in Frodo’s footsteps, then leaps ahead of him, filling in gaps we’ve guessed at already.
With that, we’ve come to the crucial part of the chapter: “Here we all are, and here is the Ring…What shall we do with it?” 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. Giving the Ring to Bombadil is similarly discounted, because the mysterious “oldest and fatherless” wouldn’t be a safe guardian, not caring a jot for such things. It can’t be destroyed by the Council and it can’t be kept hidden anymore.
The three Elven rings are brought up. We don’t know who carries them but they are important. The destruction of the One will probably diminish their power 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. That long defeat.
Anyway, the decision is made: the destination is, must be, Mount Doom. It’s the insane solution, but the only one: As Gandalf says: “Let folly be our cloak”. In destroying the Ring is the only way to defeat Sauron anyway, and the dynamic that The Lord Of The Rings flirts with constantly, that of selfishness versus selflessness, is at play in a large way with the decision. Indeed, one of the reasons the plan has a chance of succeeding is because Sauron would not be able to contemplate the idea of his enemies trying to destroy the Ring and the power it contains, instead of wielding it for themselves.
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. It’s all well and good to decide that the Ring must go to the fiery mountain, and to commit to doing so. But who is actually going to take it there? “All the Council sat with downcast eyes, as if in deep thought.”
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, almost speaking with a voice that is not his own. Just as in the other exposition chapter, he’s decided that it is he who must bear the Ring forth. He may not be strong, or know where he’s is going or what he’s doing exactly, but Frodo at least has the courage and the fortitude to reject the easier option, rise up and take the burden on. “The Halfing forth shall stand”. Elrond gives his approval, deciding there and then, to the apparent lack of objection from the others, that “this task is appointed for you”. All that’s left is a brief bit of comedy with Sam, the first to be added to a newly constituted Fellowship, and the exposition is over.
“The Council Of Elrond” could easily have been a horrible slog, due to its inherent expository nature and the vast amount of information that is dumped into the readers lap. But it rises above that, thankfully. Lots of interesting stories and tales are told here, from Gloin’s opening account of life in Erebor, through to Gandalf’s elongated attempt to patch some holes in the narrative told thus far. Lots of new and interesting characters are introduced or alluded upon, and the Boromir/Aragorn dynamic is set up nicely.
Tolkien knows how to make an info-dump entertaining, and the amount of exciting stuff that we learn – Isildur’s final account, Aragorn’s search for Gollum, Gandalf’s encounter with a villainous Saruman and his subsequent trek through the north after Frodo – all combine to drag “The Council Of Elrond” up from its potentially low ranking. And, most importantly of all, the reader gets firm planning for the rest of the tale and what the quest of the One Ring is going to entail. A long and a difficult journey into darkness will now take place, with Frodo at the centre of it, the latest part in a very long and old story. His will be a dangerous road, and the reader cannot wait for it to get started. “A nice pickle we have landed ourselves in, Mr. Frodo!” says Sam. Yup.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.