August 29, 2013
The Lord of the Rings: An Unreliable Narrative. Part I
Everyone who enjoys fantasy stories thinks they know the world and narrative structure depicted in The Lord of the Rings (LotR) by J.R.R. Tolkien. The real fans and obsessives are intimately familiar with Middle Earth, not just in the details depicted in LotR, but also in the arguably equally canonical work The Silmarillion (S), never mind of course The Hobbit (H). However, even if one takes the world as presented by the author for granted on its own terms, it is by no means certain that this is the case. What I want to propose is that one can read the world of Middle Earth in a different way, using the materials presented to us by Tolkien in the canonical works mentioned above, but in a way that he did not himself consider. That is to say, a number of central theses can be applied to the world with some critical plausibility that would change the whole perspective on the nature of Middle Earth. These are that the central narrative of LotR is an unreliable narration; that this narration is made unreliable by the combination of ignorance and bias on the part of its central narrators, which can be established plausibly from the text itself; that in recognizing and correcting for this according to philological and anthropological procedure, one can derive a different perspective on Middle Earth, its central figures and motivations as presented in LotR and the other works; that this affects not just the view of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the main narratives from Middle Earth, but also the status of the different higher and lower order narratives themselves; and that finally, this can be done by using the criteria of canonicity presented by the world as depicted in the narratives themselves.
It is perhaps not possible to establish all of this with complete rigour in a single essay, not least because of the density it would reach and the risk of confusing the reader. I will therefore rather set out the general line of argument here, with appropriate citations and examples, but these more by way of illustration than thorough philological support: readers intimately familiar with the books involved will recognize the subjects under discussion in any case and any anomalies in the argument that may appear, while those unfamiliar will not find a full philological treatment useful or interesting. Nonetheless, an enterprise like this requires incorporating at least all the central themes of the narratives as we have them, and showing how with the evidence presented by these same narratives they can be recast in a different light. For this reason, I shall proceed somewhat thematically, concentrating on the narrative of LotR as presented to us through Tolkien (as this is by far the best known and most influential story of Middle Earth) and moving from topic to topic as appropriate to unfold my unreliable narration. Later I shall perhaps be able to more thoroughly deal with all the philological and anthropological issues raised by this new interpretation of the history of Middle Earth.
The Red Book of Westmarch
The starting point of my investigation is the origins and nature of the story of LotR itself. As we are told by its editor and translator Tolkien, the story as we have it is that written down by Frodo Baggins as the “Book of the Westmarch”, somewhat expanded upon and provided with appendices and background detail by his successor chroniclers of the Shire in the early Fourth Era. As Tolkien tells us: “This account of the end of the Third Age is drawn mainly from the Red Book of Westmarch. That most important book for the history of the War of the Ring was so called because it was long preserved at Undertowers, the home of the… Wardens of the Westmarch” (LotR, 14). We are further told that this manuscript started out as Bilbo Baggins’ private diary – containing his own version of the tale of “There and Back Again” that has been edited by Tolkien in the form now known as The Hobbit – and that Frodo Baggins’ account of the War of the Ring was added to this around SR 1420-21. In the next generation or two the commentaries, appendices, and genealogies were added. These, in turn, were translated, edited, and expanded upon by Tolkien himself, as explained in Appendix F, concerning Tolkien’s translation of Westron and other names and conventions into English equivalents (e.g. LotR, 1107).(1)
Evidently this cannot have been part of the original manuscript, nor would the appendix concerning Elvish script and the like have been, although Tolkien neglects to tell us which appendices are wholly his and which belong to the manuscript. However, we can take for granted that the chronology provided in the appendices, ending at SR 1541, is likely at least based on that provided a few generations after the departure of Frodo Baggins and probably complements a chronology written by him; it should therefore be taken in the same way as the central narrative of the War of the Ring itself (LotR, 1072). Of course, Tolkien’s editorial hand as editor and translator is present throughout, but this is only fair, in the same way that Seamus Heaney’s version of the Beowulf or Richmond Lattimore’s Iliad are nonetheless the same stories. In this, one can perhaps see Tolkien’s as the Loeb edition of the few manuscripts of Middle Earth that have been carried over to the modern day, and not hesitate to exercise one’s own critical judgement upon the texts so presented.
This being established, it is of central importance, a fact so easily overlooked by many contemporary commentators and interpreters, that the story of LotR and by implication at least the part of the manuscript delivered to us as The Hobbit are the story from the point of view of Frodo, and to a lesser extent the other Hobbits of the Fellowship and their descendants. For some reason, the dominant interpretation of LotR has hitherto been a rather naive one, taking the perspective of the author and his worldview for granted as the nature of Middle Earth itself, thereby committing a cardinal error of literary hermeneutics. This would be similar to the old mistake of viewing the history of Greek antiquity through the lens of Herodotus or Aristotle, without further reflection on the biases, knowledge, and interests of these authors. We must therefore treat this text with our modern knowledge of the nature of the world and the relationship between heroes and their enemies in a heroic age, the cults and norms of ancient kingdoms, the monomaniacal tendencies of the religious worldview and the otherizing and xenophobic nature of the writing of many adventurers and explorers when encountering foreign peoples, especially those politically and militarily opposed to them. A naive reading of Middle Earth’s true situation in the time of LotR through the lens of Frodo Baggins c.s. himself would be like those versions of the war between the Greeks and the Persians that fully take on board the Orientalist gloss of the Greeks as well as their 19th century commentators and interpreters, opposing the free and egalitarian Greek warrior-heroes to the feminine and tyrannical rulers of Persia in a simplistic black and white scheme. This may be good for Hollywood, but it will not do for historical reconstruction. So it is with the main documents regarding Middle Earth.
The narrators of the War of the Ring
What then do we know about Frodo, and what can we make of his story? It is clear that he was a very keen observer, gifted with a great courage, an excellent memory, never mind story-telling ability. Although we cannot quite know precisely how it the tale of the War of the Ring was written down by him, we may safely assume that to a high degree of detail it reflects his actual experiences and impressions. This is supported by the general accord of the later commentators and the virtual impossibility of any major errors going unnoticed: especially as we are told that the copy that existed in Gondor received extended annotation and correction (LotR, 14). It is highly likely that these main sources would have subsequently cross-fertilized into a version of the manuscript that corresponds fully to what was known at the time from the viewpoint of the Hobbits then and in generations immediately following, the edition of the Red Book of the Westmarch that Tolkien would have used. There can then be little doubt as to the factual reliability of the narrative in the main, provided we keep in mind that we are dealing with a partial perspective.
Frodo was clearly a member of Hobbit aristocracy in the Shire. As adoptee of Bilbo Baggins, himself a famous adventurer and author of the H-narrative within the manuscript, he would have been relatively familiar with the outside world for a Hobbit, but no more than that. It is clear that while many Hobbits may have been illiterate (LotR 13, 24) the upper class were quite literate and communicated within a limited sphere, maintaining relations almost entirely within the Shire and its immediate surroundings, although Bilbo would probably have been an exception to this. In any case, Frodo is known to have known Elvish (presumably Sindarin) to some degree even before he set out on his part in the War of the Ring (LotR 79). We may then assume the perspective of a young-ish man from the aristocracy of a rather prosperous but remote and ignorant part of Middle Earth, one whose family connections with the outside world were a strong exception to the general rule, and predisposed him to a relative closeness with Dwarves, at least some Elves, and with the wizard Gandalf (as established in the H-narrative, see also LotR 10-13). The heritage of these connections made by his uncle Bilbo would have had a considerable impact on Frodo in his perception of the world, not least as he was effectively raised by Bilbo according to his own account, and although he knew that Bilbo had not always been reliable in his stories of his past seems to have taken the general worldview so inherited for granted, which we must keep in mind as we analyze his narrative.(2)
The story of the Red Book of Westmarch can then be read as not merely about the participation of Frodo and other Hobbits from the Shire in the events of the War of the Ring, but also as the story of their incorporation into the geopolitics of Middle Earth at the time – through coming to know the other protagonists of the tale. Effectively, what the story depicts is how these elements of the hobbit aristocracy – as indeed all of them except the servant, Sam, were – become aware of and end up supporting, wittingly and unwittingly, the elvish-wizard geopolitical manoeuvring underlying the War of the Ring itself. Now this side of the War of the Ring and its ‘great game’ can be reconstructed from the narrative in roughly the following way. After the falling apart of the Last Alliance between the humans and the elves, in which their main enemy, Sauron, was defeated (though his power was not destroyed), the geopolitical structure of the world changed. The various peoples of humans increasingly gained in numbers and territorial extent, whereas the Elves were reduced, not least by ongoing migration under pressure of this expansion towards their original homelands in the Western part of Middle Earth, which by this point had acquired for them a more or less mythological status. The old Kingdom of men that had allied with the elves, Númenor, had gone into decline and been destroyed largely by internal strife and decay, as empires are wont to do, and the various successor states had either been destroyed by war in turn (Arnor) or lost much of their power (Gondor) (LotR, 1058-59). (3)
The new political entities were not nearly as friendly to the Elvish cause, and within Gondor a new dynasty had arisen that was openly hostile to them and sought a relative independence for their own affairs. Since the Elves, although strong in technology and war, were fewer and fewer in numbers, they would have seen this as a potentially dangerous situation. The result of this then seems to have been a reconfiguration of the political map of Middle Earth. While initially all the wizards seem to have allied with Elvish interests against the coalition of Sauron, the traditional counter-hegemon in Middle Earth since the fall of Númenor, a split seems to have occurred further down the line. As we can read in the narrative of LotR, one of the leading wizards, Saruman, called for a support for Sauron’s cause against the final attempts by Elves at maintaining their hegemony that frame the beginning of that story. Gandalf, the main pro-Elvish wizard, opposed this, which in turn led to war in and around Rohan as each side mobilized allies for their side – a smaller war within the larger struggle between the Sauron-Orc coalition and the coalition of (High) Elves, some Men, and most of the Wizards besides Saruman. (4)
Of course, none of this was apparent in precisely this way to the authors of the Red Book of the Westmarch, mainly Frodo, as is clear from the presentation of these events. We must therefore critically read it ‘against the grain’ in order to tease out the true historical content (as I will do in more detail later on). Indeed, as I have argued, Frodo and his companions were largely aristocrats from the Shire and were co-opted by Gandalf into his side of the alliance through the events surrounding the ‘discovery’ and mobilizing of the Ring. In fact, more than anything else the narrative of LotR shows a combination of the remarkable naïvété of the Hobbit aristocrats involved and the equally remarkable cleverness of the various political operators, especially Gandalf, in turning this to their own advantage. This series of events surrounding the rings of power can be unpacked as well. The ring that Bilbo had ‘acquired’, according to his own story, from the creature Gollum (and, as mentioned, even the narrator of the Book of Westmarch acknowledges this acquisition story to have been a lie) came to Frodo, who initially on the explicit instructions of Gandalf did nothing with it. Much later, Gandalf appears and tells him that this is the ring originally belonging to Sauron, the ‘One Ring’, in which Sauron had poured much of his power, as was the nature and function of such rings in the era of Middle Earth when they were made (LotR 45-50).
So, this presented to Gandalf and his allies a golden opportunity. They knew that Sauron, their old opponent, was gaining in strength and that the move of many of the leaders of humans away from the alliance with the elves had made the elvish-wizard position weaker than it had been in the time of the ‘Last Alliance’. Few people in any part of Middle Earth trusted the elves any more and many of the elves themselves were emigrating as a result of these pressures of the time. (One gets the impression that much of the elvish population, especially the ones not so-called ‘high elves’, distrusted the leadership of Elrond and Galadriel and Celeborn in any case, by this point – Thranduil’s son Legolas does not appear particularly close to any of them.) Now, however, a weapon of great power created by Sauron turns out by long historical contingency to have turned up in the Shire, where it has come into the hands of a young, adventurous, and impressionable aristocratic hobbit who is closely under Gandalf’s influence.
The rings of power
So what is this ring, then? What were rings in this time of Middle Earth? Gandalf and his allies knew that magic rings had the property that they could be destroyed only by dragon-fire or in the place where they were made, and the stronger the power the ring represented, the greater the impact of its destruction would be on its maker. In this sense, the rings represented a sort of amplifying battery, a storage of power for the purpose of more effectively exercising it, it seems. Yet it is not so easy to reconstruct, through the manipulative presentations on rings and the vague stories the authors of the Red Book of Westmarch write down on them (probably derived from Elvish interlocutors), what precisely the history and nature of the rings were at the time. This is not helped by the rather vague and generally strongly impressionistic depictions of the actual workings of the various rings in the LotR narrative – clearly they had a strong impact on those who encountered them unprepared, but this has if anything rendered more opaque their actual powers and effect.
In all this, we must as always use the few materials for an objective historical-critical account that the various manuscripts, in their inherited and edited form, provide, and not be too misled by the impressions of the narrators in these works themselves. Of course the power of the wizards is depicted as deriving from ‘wisdom’, and there are clear inserts to justify the character and good will of e.g. the wizard Gandalf, such as when he refuses the ring Frodo offers to him (indeed an ancient trope resembling the Biblical theme of the temptations of saints) and his story of resurrection after his presumed death in order to claim the position of Saruman in the wizard order (LotR 60, 490-491). We must take such things with a grain of salt as modern interpretative technique requires. Indeed, there is no doubt that Gandalf wished to supplant Saruman after he and the latter got into conflict over the choice between an alliance with the Elves or with Sauron, although we cannot quite trust just his depiction of what exactly took place between them. But his fall off the bridge of Khazad-Dûm into the deep and his recovery from fighting the Balrog is more simply explained as just that, and it seems the aura of revived power he had for the Hobbits in Fangorn forest is more the result of their impressionable amazement at his (bare) survival of that battle than any claim even by Gandalf himself. For these reasons, then, we must doubt the interpretation of the rings as being the ‘good’ rings of the Elves versus the ‘evil’ ring of Sauron that the narrator would have us believe, and focus on their actual properties, and so too with the wizards and all the rest.
My reconstruction runs something as follows. Clearly the rings are objects of great power. Quite possibly anyone of sufficient power and skill is capable of making them, and their power seems to depend on this power of the maker. But in principle there is no reason to doubt the LotR assertion that of the ones considered ‘great rings’ three were made by leaders of the Elves, seven by leaders of the Dwarves. Nine, it is said, were given to men by Sauron as a way of deceiving them into supporting him, but this we can safely dismiss as the gloss of Sauron’s opponents. In any case it does not make much sense – Gandalf himself, in the context of Bilbo’s ring, remarks upon how unusual it is for a ring of power to be given away of free will (LotR 47-48). More likely, they were simply made by the respective Kings of Men in turn. One, of course, was made by Sauron. This one, clearly, was considered much superior to the rest, and in fact seems to have been made by Sauron precisely to counter the power of the others – in particular since the three of the Elves seem to have been the most powerful great rings before it (5). We are told that Celebrimbor perceived this move, making a kind of counter-ring, by Sauron and prevented the three from falling under its power, and that Sauron and him may have waged war in Eregion about precisely this; something of a proxy war, perhaps (LotR 236).
However that may be, one gets the impression that the real power of the rings did not lie in anything that they did. Indeed, in LotR Gandalf asserts that all great rings have the power of invisibility and prolonging life, which is convenient enough, but (if we believe this) that seems to have been more a side effect than the main purpose. Precisely how the rings function as this kind of amplifier of power is not clarified anywhere in the tale, and probably remained unknown to the Hobbit authors, possibly because nobody wanted them to find out. In any case all those with knowledge of the matter say nothing to them about it, save to mention that destroying the one ring of Sauron would destroy much of his power vested in it as well, and that if Sauron were to regain this ring and use its power at full strength, it would exert power over the other rings as well and dominate all the works made by their strength – a result much feared by the Elves and their wizard allies, for obvious reasons. It is also clear that although no wizards ever made rings themselves as far as we know, they knew much about them and could wield great power through them (LotR 50, 1007).
It is imaginable that Sauron was also a wizard. Perhaps this would explain Saruman’s ambivalence between him and the Elvish side chosen by Gandalf – all the more since we have only Gandalf’s report of Saruman’s argument for joining the Sauron side, although there is little doubt that he did. If that is so, then perhaps the wizard motivation against Sauron becomes more clear: his creation of such a ring is seen as a kind of treason against the wizard interest, which appears to have been bound up with controlling other rings. Indeed, in the final sections of the Red Book of Westmarch manuscript (perhaps written by later writers?) it seems to have been suggested, as far as one can make out from Tolkien’s edition, that Gandalf ended up controlling one of the three Elvish rings (LotR 1007). There may have been some kind of wizard strategy involving dominating the Elves of this part of Middle Earth for the sake of their rings, but the authors of the LotR narrative did not know enough about it to give us reliable information.
The rings of the nine, of course, in some way are said to have caused them to join Sauron’s side, and also to become undead in some fashion. Again, here we get more vague impressions of terror from the hobbits than any clear information, although it is certainly likely enough that they were hunting on Sauron’s behalf to recover his ring. We must not forget that Gandalf as well as the elf company in the shire the hobbits met immediately set fear of the nine riders in black in the minds of the hobbits, and for this reason they do not seem to have reflected much on the nature of these riders or their power, except to ask Aragorn’s view of the matter in Bree (LotR 169-170; and that barely). Therefore, it is once more necessary to resort to some degree of speculative reconstruction of a more objective view of events. One could here combine what we know about the immortalizing, but ‘wearing out’ effect of the rings of power in the longer run, noted by Gandalf in the case of Bilbo and probably responsible for the state of Gollum (which seems corroborated by Bilbo’s narrative in The Hobbit), with what we know of the power of Sauron’s ring to command other rings, which as mentioned seems to have been its express purpose (“one ring to rule them all”). In that case, one could surmise that perhaps the nine had fallen into a Gollum-like half-life state, and that Sauron had managed to use the controlling powers of his ring over theirs to cause them to fall under his command. That said, we do not know much about who they were other than that they had been Kings of Humans in other ages, so quite possibly some of them were opposed to the elvish cause and therefore presupposed towards Sauron in any case. But that by the time of the LotR narrative they were under Sauron’s effective orders and in some way disjoined from their historical context, a kind of living, fearsome anachronism – not unlike Gollum – does not seem implausible.
Sauron and his origins
When speaking of Sauron, we must also talk in more detail about him and his depiction in the events of the War of the Ring. It is clear that the Hobbit narrators from the start know very little about him: we are told they had only dimly heard of him and of Mordor. Isolated in the Shire, they seem to have had little knowledge of any geopolitical developments since the fall of Arnor – and even that only barely, we are told by Tolkien’s summary of the later chronologies (LotR 9). Only through their experience in the ultimately victorious side in the War of the Ring do they come to know Sauron, and their experiences and impressions are colored not just by this, but also by what they are told by their powerful interlocutors among elves and Wizards, never mind independent-minded humans and dwarves also warring with Sauron in (often separate) conflicts. It is clear that a great contest for power over Middle Earth, or at least a hegemonic position, was ongoing, both as a ‘cold’ and as a ‘hot’ war. But what then can I reconstruct about Sauron that is not tainted by the hatred and fear of the hobbits for their powerful enemy? One can no more rely on that simpliciter than one can trust Medieval Christian narratives about the Saracens or the like. Yet through such narratives we must come to know them.
However, in reconstructing our knowledge of Sauron, there are some serious historical difficulties that must be cleared away first. We know some of the story of his origins only through Elven mythology, possibly written much later than the facts they purport to describe, and through the story of his role in the ‘decadence’ and then downfall of Númenor. The former I will deal with when I discuss the S-manuscript now known as the story sequence of The Silmarillion. The latter is more immediately relevant to the War of the Ring: it appears based on a part mythological, part historical description of the fall of the original Kingdom of Númenor, undisputedly the first and most significant hegemonic power of humans in this part of Middle Earth, and we are told there were various works of lore describing this history in some detail, which are unfortunately lost (e.g. LotR 654).
One of the appendices to the LotR edition of the Westmarch book does provide us with a chronology that includes some Númenorean history, although it gives us little indication of its reliability beyond the broad scope, having been written vastly later than the original events (LotR 1058-59). In any case, it appears from this and from the stories of Númenor that still circulated around the time of the War of the Ring that the main island from which it ruled this part of Middle Earth in question was destroyed by an earthquake at the end of the Second Era. We also learn that this was preceded by a period of religious and political change and turmoil in Númenor. This seems to have involved a turn by the ruling class away from the traditional subservient alliance with the High Elven domains and in favor of a more independent and aggressive course. Of course, the pro-Elven section then interpreted the subsequent destruction of Númenor by natural disaster as the retaliation of the gods. Since this group seems to have been dominant among the refugees of that devastation, this caused the mythological proportions of the pro-Elvish attitude of the late Númenoreans and their descendants as well as the Elvish support for their cause.
All that being established, we can fairly safely discount a too significant role by Sauron in Númenor itself, although there may be a kernel of truth in his presence in Númenor at the time. As wizards tend to show up in centers of power in order to ‘coordinate’ the course of various leaders in the direction desired by the wizard council, it is very imaginable that Sauron, if he was indeed also a wizard, did so in Númenor. Quite possibly he did so on his own account, having split off from the Gandalf-Saruman council as it still was then, before that split in turn. We do not know any of this with any certainty, however. Fact is that Sauron appears in Middle Earth much later, establishes himself in Dol Guldur, and forms an independent pole of power there. Although he seems to do little wrong, he is actively combated by the ‘White Council’ (Gandalf, Saruman, and some High Elven leaders) and they ultimately drive him out, after which he again, much later, re-emerges in Mordor where he had lived before in the Second Age (LotR 1058). The exact details of his presence and activities in Mordor at different times are not fully clear other than from the one chronology, which is perhaps a bit meagre as a source base, but I can readily accept Sauron’s periodic presence in Mordor at times when the power of Gondor in that terrain had lapsed. Indeed it seems Gondor had undertaken a kind of castle-building regime in the borderlands, somewhat reminiscent of Edward I’s subjugation of Wales by such means, and it seems to have been the eventual lapse of Gondor’s ability to maintain this hold that gave Sauron the opportunity to develop an independent state power there.
Sauron, of course, is said to have been only present as a malevolent spirit, “a great eye, lidless, wreathed in flame”. This is mythologically ascribed to his death in Númenor’s fall and then revival as spirit, as a kind of counterpart to the various ‘incarnations’ of the wizards at different times. We need not believe this, but it may well be true that on him, too, his particularly powerful ring would have had a correspondingly powerful warping effect with prolongation of life. How else, indeed, do wizards live so long?(6) And we know Sauron used this ring for a long time and intensively, for he seems to have used it to relatively quickly develop a vast and powerful thriving kingdom in Mordor, and to build an alliance with various orc peoples from beyond this part of Middle Earth, and invited many to come and settle and work in this domain.
Of course, readers of LotR recall the rather apocalyptic industrial descriptions of Mordor as a land of dust and rocks, but that cannot be the whole story. There seem to have been considerable irrigation works and presumably a lot of agricultural development in the hinterland of Mordor as well, around the Sea of Núrnen (really a lake). Presumably this was the work of countless orc settlers and laborers, as well as perhaps of the unclear but apparently profound power of the rings to aid in large scale transformations of the environment – compare this to the works of the elves in Lothlórien, maintaining an artificial evergreen glade paradise. Of Mordor, the experience of the Hobbits is only that of the dry mountainous terrain on the Plateau of Gorgoroth, so that we should not be misled by this into uncritically accepting the presentation of Mordor as the land of evil, made apparent by its nature as a kind of medieval industrial wasteland.
Indeed, there is no doubt that part of the military-economic strategy of Sauron was to emphasize productivity and therefore larger scale manufacturing of arms and the like, which makes sense given that he had few allies and his orc troops were generally weaker fighters (and smaller) than the humans and elves they would mainly face. We are told by the editor, Tolkien, that hobbits had a dislike of industry and manufacturing on any scale larger than craftsmanship and the corresponding production of tools, so that we can take the hobbits’ horror at both Saruman and Sauron’s larger scale manufacturing with a grain of salt. It would have been shocking to them, certainly, and almost demonic, but should no more be so to us than the ‘dark satanic mills’ are compared to the ‘idiocy of rural life’. Both have their defenders, but for a historical-critical analysis we only need to point to the contrast in expectations and ideas about technology here, not judge the matter. The settler nature of Mordor did not at least (as far as we know) displace existing inhabitants and drive them to the fringes of the land – unlike for example the expansion of the Rohirrim into what would become Rohan, forcing out the ‘hill people’.(7)
There is not much else to be said about Sauron, partially because his role in the War of the Ring is evident enough from the LotR text, and partially because we do not know very much more about him. It is clear that the War of the Ring was experienced with an almost religious fervor on both sides, or at least on the side of the anti-Sauron alliance. Sauron and his allies were depicted as the ultimate evil and needed to be defeated to prevent the “coming of a second darkness”, which seems to have been predicated on the fear that the power of the three elven rings would be undone in his favor. (Although, see note 5.) They seem to have been very successful at enlisting the hobbit narrators into this narrative, but much less so with some old enemies of Sauron who were nonetheless wary of the plans of the elven-wizard coalition, like the stewards of Gondor. (Indeed, as I will discuss later, the steward perceived that part of the elven-wizard plan was to replace the ruler of Gondor with a more pliant leader, a far offshoot of a Númenorean branch.)
The role of elvish religion and The Silmarillion
Another example of the practically religious nature of the wars with Sauron is the story in elvish mythology of Sauron’s origins as one of the main assistants of the god of evil. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on the origins of these elven myths and stories, which form a major source of the ‘information’ the hobbit protagonists acquire from the various major participants in the War of the Ring they interact with. What is astonishing is again the naivete with which sometimes these holy stories of the elves – whether oral or scripture – have been taken literally by various commentators. The S-Manuscript has come to us in edited form as The Silmarillion but really appears to be a loose set of different stories of theogony and the mythical early history of the peoples of Middle Earth, seen from the perspective of later ‘high elves’, clearly living no earlier than the Second Age.
These stories have an obviously apologetic character, intending to establish the elves, and most particular a line of elves known as ‘high elves’, as the people closest to the gods and the carriers of the fate of the world. This is not just apparent from the immediately theological elements, but also from the structure of the narrative: the creation myth for example is unusually dispensationalist, so that the relations of the gods to the dwarves and the humans (hobbits do not appear) are different to those of the elves, and of less sacred significance. It is no coincidence of course that the origin of the dwarves is presented as eternal latecomers, sort of lesser elves, whereas the humans are the people of the future, barbarian but numerous (e.g. S50).
This reflects clearly the political attitudes of the high elves in the long period preceding the events of the War of the Ring. To take all this literally would be to take the Old Testament literally as a chronology of events in Mesopotamia before the Babylonian exile – as was indeed commonly done until the advent of critical historiography in the 19th century (Christian reckoning) of our era. Just as with the Bible, this is not to say that it is all explicitly false. We may take as a passing example the legend of the fall of the hidden fortress city of Gondolin – a stirring and impressive tale, it has all the hallmarks of realism and not least because it actually does not clearly serve the (high) elven interest to present the fall of their great city in this way. While much of the stories of the wars of the elves against the god of evil, Morgoth, are clearly of allegorical and mythological significance (one can think here of Job, or the struggle with the avatars of the gods on the battlefield in the Iliad), this is not necessarily true of all elements. When Gandalf tells of his sword Glamdring that it has its origins in Gondolin (H, 36; LotR, 500), there is no particular reason to doubt that it is of First Era elven make, even if the real existence and nature of Gondolin and its fall may well be as much a mixture of legend, compression of history, and real historical memory as the story of the fall of Troy.
So it is with the collection of stories known as the Silmarillion generally. Again, Tolkien has done great work in collating, editing, and translating this work into a language understandable to us today, but this by no means implies its complete accuracy as an actual early history of Middle Earth, and it is odd to take it so. Indeed, this effect has perhaps been generated by its clear cultural and religious significance for the high elves in Imladris and Lothlórien, which in turn had a strong impact on the hobbits when they visited these places. The serious treatment of many of these legends by the elves as well as the wizards, at least by passing reference, may have combined with the perceived urgency of their cause in the War of the Ring and the perils of the ring destruction quest for the hobbits. The effect of this would then have been to strengthen their impression of the (high) elven religious tradition showing them ‘the world beyond’, not unlike the way peoples relatively recently converted to Christianity in our own age gave their own heroic stories a Christian theological backdrop and significance.
In other words, interpreting the mythology of the Silmarillion legends as what they are removes much of what seems biased or implausible about the version of the Red Book of Westmarch that we have, insofar as the narrative has clearly been strongly influenced by the S-Manuscript’s set of religious tales, or some version of these tales that was current in the time of the War of the Ring. That they encountered this religious ensemble of scripture and song is absolutely well-attested in the book itself, from passing references by Gandalf and Elrond to the singing of songs from the old mythology by Aragorn and the elves of Rivendell. Aragorn’s own life story was remodelled in the narration of the LotR narrative to match the legend of Beren and Lúthien, because of the parallel with his relationship with Arwen and the need to establish his prestige for the claim upon the throne of Gondor (LotR 189-190, 1033-1034). We can respect this influence but treat it critically as a history of Middle Earth. Doing so gives us a much more open perspective on that time and place, just as historicizing the Bible does for the history of ancient Mesopotamia and the Levant, and it forces us to move ourselves away from an elf-centric worldview, mediated by the traditions and politics of the wizards (especially Gandalf), to a more objective viewpoint. What this does to the history of the War of the Ring itself, with which I began this analysis, we shall see in part II.
LotR: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (London 1995: HarperCollins).
S: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (London 1994: HarperCollins).
H: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (London 2009: HarperCollins Ebooks).
1) We know there was two versions: the Shire manuscript, the Red Book of Westmarch, and a different edition – copied from the Shire source – known as the Red Book of the Periannath. It is not entirely clear which element of Tolkien’s edition derives from which manuscript source, but his commentaries strongly suggest it is the former. This would also fit the following observations on the significance of the hobbit perspective from which it is narrated. See: LotR, 14.
2) One can think here of the fact that Bilbo’s own version of the H-narrative, later incorporated into the Red Book in Frodo’s edition, is known to have contained errors regarding his obtaining the ring of power. Incidentally, this also shows that the version Tolkien used was a later version of the Red Book of Westmarch than the one immediately written down by Frodo, who would not change Bilbo’s writings. This strengthens the impression of the manuscript that has come to us being the hobbit narrative as edited retrospectively by later commentators, Shire and human, and therefore perhaps sanitized somewhat in favor of the winners of the War of the Ring; though probably edited not much after Aragorn/Elessar’s death. LotR, 12.
3) A note on terminology here: I follow largely Tolkien’s translation and adaptation, but unlike him I pursue editorial consistency in writing the names of the various ‘races’ in lower case. Tolkien, reflecting his time, consistently writes ‘men’ for ‘humans’. Although clearly all the societies of this time in Middle Earth were strongly patriarchal, with the possible exception of the elves of Lórien, I vary ‘men’ and ‘humans’ to acknowledge that, in any human society, women hold up half the sky.
4) In the later commentaries, which give us but a vague and clearly retroactively conceived description of the origins of the Wizards and their role in the War of the Ring, we are told that Gandalf (or Mithrandir) was always closest to the Eldar, the ‘high elves’. LotR, 1059
5) LotR, 50. Note also that with the destruction of Sauron’s ring, the power of the three rings of the elves dissipates as well – indicating again that its main purpose was, one way or another, to subsume the power of the three under its own. Once made, the power of the ring could not be undone without also undoing what it was made to counter. The exact nature of this relationship, other than Sauron’s making of the ring as a kind of ‘aggressive defense’, is not clarified to the hobbits. See: LotR, 949-950.
6) Even the later (presumably human, maybe hobbit) commentators to the manuscript do not know this, saying only that “they were never young and aged only slowly” and “came… in the shape of Men”. Of course, the manuscript commentator is positive about the wizards and tells us they were forbidden from exercising power, which given the narrative of the War of the Ring seems implausible, so its reliability is unclear in any case (LotR 1059).
7) Alluded to, implicitly, in LotR 515, 1028-1029; other hillmen, supporting Angmar, are mentioned in LotR 1016, and see also the Wain-riders, LotR 1024. The author of this appendix is probably a hobbit commentator (possibly Frodo).