Tolkien and the Fuzzy Distance



“The Council of Elrond,” the longest chapter in The Lord of the Rings, may be the most ambitious and at the same time most opaque and depressed chapter of the book. It is ambitious not only because it is long —  by far the longest in the book, 32 pages of small print — but because in it Tolkien attempts to give the core of the “back-story,” weaving accounts by Elrond, Gandalf, Gloin, Aragorn, and others. Elrond and Gandalf have lots to say: Elrond because he has lived a long time and seen almost everything, Gandalf because he is wise and has learned much through study and investigation — and both are shrewd at making connections. This is the chapter in which large amounts of background information are gathered before the main action can really begin. This action could have been given by the narrator at the beginning, but Tolkien has chosen to delay it until now and to voice it through different characters — as if to signal that the picture of the background we are receiving is not beyond question, since it does not come through an omniscient speaker but instead comes fragmented, through the minds of characters who are themselves struggling to comprehend. Even after reading it a few times it is very hard to give a coherent summary.

Elrond in particular is difficult to grasp; he speaks as though his vast longevity has filled him with a different sense of time than we have, one that makes compactions, obscurities, and extravagations in the telling because he can no longer grasp how mortals need to comprehend events:

“There in the courts of the King grew a white tree, from the seed of that tree which Isildur brought over the deep waters, and the seed of that tree before came from Eressea, and before that out of the Uttermost West in the Day before days when the world was young.” (238)

We get lost in the seed of the seed of the seed, and what is the “Day before days,” and does “when the world was young” modify “Day” or “days”? It doesn’t seem to matter because it sounds beautiful and mysterious, but it also sounds like a rambling super-grandfather who speaks as if everyone knows the friends of his youth.

In trying to do so much Tolkien sometimes dozes off, especially when describing martial characters — for example, the introduction of Boromir, who comes across as a plastic made-in-China action figure: And seated a little apart was a tall man with a fair and noble face, dark-haired and grey-eyed, proud and stern of glance. (234) Also, when Gandalf inexplicably launches into the strange language on the Ring, it is hard to take the cartoonish solemnity seriously: The change in the wizard’s voice was astounding. Suddenly it became menacing, powerful, harsh as stone. A shadow seemed to pass over the high sun, and the porch for a moment grew dark. All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears. (248) This is unnecessary and juvenile melodrama.

Moreover, Tolkien always has a hard time doing group conversations. Compare, for example, with almost any story in Balzac that has a frame conversation: characters don’t only sit there, but in the conversation they get up, move around, gesture, provoked by a thought or other inner impulsion; individuals are looking at each other all the time, even when they are not speaking; there is food, drink, the sounds of movements in the room, and ambient sounds as of people coming and going. In Tolkien the configuration is much stiffer: everyone assumes their places and stays there for the whole discussion, which in this case lasts at least ten hours; there is almost nothing physical in the descriptions, very little movement, very little sense of bodies — and if Gandalf addresses Elrond, for instance, there is no intimation  of how Boromir or Legolas might be hearing differently what is being said. Tolkien has an astonishingly clear feel for the topography of a landscape, but a very impoverished feel for indoor settings; he does not notice how rooms are laid out, and is not really interested in things as things, or in bodies as bodies, which can be touched, smelled, heard. The overall effect is of talking heads, a disembodied conversation between representative figures that could have taken place on Skype.

Yet these failures contribute to the overall powerful effect of the chapter. This is a pervading sense of being mired in the past. For the Elves this involves being trapped in a memory too long for any being to handle: so many triumphs and so many failures, so much beauty and nobility. It can as a whole make no sense to anyone who is not an elf, and even for an elf it must be drain the ability to exist fully in the present. They are world-weary, even slightly bored; Elrond’s resistance to Sauron has a here-we-go-again feel. For the dwarves it means dwelling on loss, betrayal, resentment. For the wizards it consists of a kind of burial in books and old languages, a constant attempt to decipher the murk of the long-extinct: “And yet there lie in his [Denethor’s] hoards many records that few even of the lore-masters now can read, for their scripts and tongues have become dark to later men…” (246)  “It is fashioned in an elven-script of Eregion, for they have no letters in Mordor for such subtle work; but the language is unknown to me.” (Isildur, via Gandalf; 246) For the men, it is an obsession with the epic persona, with all its characteristic features of defending narrow places like bridges, fighting to the death, and infatuation with honor while at the same time confessing the practical hollowness of it:

“I was in the company that held the bridge, until it was cast down behind us. Four only were saved by swimming: my brother and myself and two others. 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.” (239)

This is of course Boromir, who contrasts with the more tired Aragorn in his more passionate investment in the frills of warrior glory. Boromir also has the egoism of the epic hero, eager to shoulder all burdens himself in order to outshine his peers:

“Therefore my brother, seeing how desperate was our need, was eager to heed the dream and seek for Imladris; but since the way was full of doubt and danger, I took the journey upon myself.” (240)

Boromir gets the only particularized portrait 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 about his knees…(234)

— and what this portrait emphasizes is his emblem, the war-horn, something that is in itself no aid to warrior prowess but merely an accessory of it, since its only role is to draw attention to the blower. Most traditional epic heroes are figuratively blowers: they can fight, but they must also blow, because in the end it has to be all about themselves. In contrast, Aragorn is more subdued, more functional in his dress, because he seems weary of the epic persona: Strider was sitting, clad in his old travel-worn clothes again…(233) In contrast, Boromir’s horn is a flamboyant fetish of masculine strength, just as the Ring is a fetish of infinite power: both are able to influence people because they can stir the deep-seated need to fetishize. Perhaps this is why Tom Bombadil, happy in himself and in the things around him, is untouched by it. Boromir, on the other hand, is imprisoned in a conventional mindset that too easily makes power the property of a thing, which we then have to possess: “Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory.” (260-1) The same applies to one of the more interesting characters introduced to us in this chapter, Saruman, who wants the Ring also because of its power, but this time with a more stereotypical Machiavellian frame of mind; he is also a type of the powerful technocratic scientist who knows how to make things happen and believes he can ultimately control all the forces of the universe. He may be the kind of inventor-scientist who can split white into a rainbow, but his thinking is still conventional, narrow.

All these figures are tired, bogged down, stultified. If we had only them, the chapter would be dreary, populated by figures capable of thinking only in old tropes and exaggerations. Perhaps this is why the narrative here has to be meandering, dimly lit, and oblique. In spite of their appearance of greater wisdom and authority, they are all actually lost — stuck within their old horizons, able to understand the conflict in front of them only in terms of the old tedious polarities, needing help. They are all incarcerated in the ancient cycle, and because of it the chapter feels like a pall of depression.

A friend of mine from Bolivia once told me that the best thing about his own country was the lack of a burden of greatness: no great literary tradition, no great wars won, not even a great soccer team — and with no crushing burden of expectations to live up to, they could just be themselves. The hobbits are like that. Elves, sorcerers, dwarves, men, all live under the shadow of greatness, and this shadow is as deadly as the shadow of Mordor: under it, they cannot truly live. This is one reason they need the hobbits.

Frodo has the mental freedom to dream, to seek for far horizons: “I feel ready for anything,” answered Frodo. “But most of all I should like to go walking today and explore the valley. I should like to get into those pine-woods up there.” He pointed away far up the side of Rivendell to the north” (233) It is characteristic of him to live partly here, partly in the distance: He wished he was far away (240) — for it is the distance that draws him, and that keeps him free from the paralysis of the past.

In the paintings of Renaissance masters of perspective, most adults are fascinated by the mathematical rigor of the receding parallels that organize the space of the painting: they are something to know, a stable set of techniques by which we can grasp the structure of the painting. The geometry makes the unfamiliarity of real space into the familiarity of known space; we already comprehend how triangles relate, so how wonderful and comforting it is to be able to capture the Annunciation in parallel lines and triangles. Most of the characters in “The Council of Elrond” are like most adults in this respect: they live in the remembered and habitual, but are also depressed in the sterility of this. There is too much focus and direction in the mastery of perspective: vision has actually been dulled through technology. Most children, however, are like Frodo: when looking at a Leonardo, what attracts them are the blurry cliffs in the background, the vague castle, the extraordinary clouds — because there anything can happen, and there is hope of something new opening up.










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