Weekly Tolkien: Break Your Heart

Filed under:Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on May 9, 2007 @ 11:14 pm

Tolkien threads are popular around here, largely thanks to faithful commenter Professor (not student) of Physics (not engineering) LagunaDave. I’ve taken note. Back to the roots, then: Tolkien exploration and commentary, once a week and shorter (hopefully also a bit pithier) than it used to be at the ol’ Green Books hacienda. I may get into some of JRRT’s contemporaries in future as well, like (of course) Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and others.

First up: a little tidbit in The Fellowship of the Ring as the Company sets out from Rivendell, emphases mine:

At that moment Elrond came out with Gandalf, and he called the Company to him. ‘This is my last word,’ he said in a low voice. ‘The Ring-bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom. On him alone is any charge laid: neither to cast away the Ring, nor to deliver it to any servant of the Enemy nor indeed to let any handle it, save members of the Company and the Council, and only then in gravest need. The others go with him as free companions, to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows. The further you go, the less easy will it be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will. For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road.’

`Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,’ said Gimli.

‘Maybe,’ said Elrond, `but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.’

‘Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,’ said Gimli.

`Or break it,’ said Elrond. `Look not too far ahead! But go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine upon your faces!’

A moderate amount of language to set up the short, pointy part: Sworn word may strengthen quaking heart/Or break it.

Tolkien generally reads very linearly. These people have a duty to do; some do it, to the benefit of the world; some don’t, to the detriment of their companions; but it’s generally taken for granted that Frodo will do what he said he would, right up until the devastating declaration at the lip of the crack. It’s fascinating to me, then, that Tolkien took the time explicitly to give Frodo’s companions an out. For a devout member of a religion so often accused of excess rigidity, of making unreasonable demands on people’s commitment, with all his book’s emphasis on the results of people doing or not doing their clear duty, this seems like something of a departure.

Note first, though, that even though a charge is laid on Frodo, it is not placed until after he freely accepts the duty. Though he is encouraged to believe the duty marked out for him, yet nobody commands him, for as Elrond says:

`But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right; and though all the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador, and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself were assembled together your seat should be among them.’

It’s so heavy that Elrond won’t tell Frodo to do it, yet what would he have said if Frodo had declined? “Your choice is wrong?”

Tolkien finesses the frustrating balance between judgment and personal relationships–how to tell somebody what they should do without spooking, demeaning, or angering them–by the fact that Elrond and Frodo belong to different classes of being. The distance between them is vertical; Frodo looks up to Elrond as almost a spiritual adviser. But there he is in the very next chapter giving Frodo’s companions, chosen for his aid, free permission to desert him. Why?

Because “not even the very wise can see all ends,” because “you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road,” and because Elrond knew, as Gimli did not, that the problem is not people who leave when the road darkens, but solely because it does. People may be drawn into their own path at the moment when you think you need them most, but still be helping your cause even though separated from you. Most notably, the fact that the Walkers did not vow to stay with Frodo absolved them from a probably fruitless, dangerous search for him when Frodo himself decided that to wait any longer for any member of the fractured Company would be counter-productive and deadly to his mission.

Ultimately, this one little passage plays out in miniature the theme which is expressed in the lives of each of Tolkien’s characters: each must follow his or her own road. I’ve remarked on it before in the context of Tolkien’s handling of female characters, and Tolkien here bears it out one more time: Frodo chose his road, and others agreed to help him on it to the best of their abilities, but even among a group all working toward the same ends, a time may come when each must help in ways that are most effective for him or her, and they may not be what he or she originally set out to do.

Leaving room for the theme of Iluvatar to operate in one’s life, for Tolkien, means to be very careful what one vows, as the song may intend to take you to other places that you may forfeit by your own vow. It has less to do with fear of commitment and more to do with caution as to what specific path you vow to take rather than what general goal you plan to reach. If the remnant of the Company still free after the attack above Rauros Falls had dared all to reach Frodo, they might not have found him, and if they had, they certainly would have been abandoning more important duties that would have helped Frodo’s goal more than their presence with him. I don’t have to spell those out for the Tolkien fans in the crowd.

In short: plan for the goal, but don’t vow the means, or you may find yourself abrogating the goal to keep the now-worthless vow.


  1. Woo-hoo! :-)

    A moderate amount of language to set up the short, pointy part: Sworn word may strengthen quaking heart/Or break it.

    I think there’s another relevant passage:

    ‘The Company of the Ring shall be Nine; and the Nine Walkers shall be set against the Nine Riders that are evil.

    As slaves to the ring and Sauron’s will, the Nine Riders (Nazgul) are under the strictest of compulsion, even though they made a free choice originally. But that choice effectively annihilated all future choices – once they had accepted Sauron’s “gift”, or very shortly thereafter, they lost the ability to make further choices for themselves.

    I think the contrast between the Nine Walkers and the Nine Riders is pretty important. Earlier in Rivendell, Pippin exuberantly refers to “Frodo, Lord of the Ring!” and is swiftly corrected by Gandalf.

    To swear an oath is to place oneself under compulsion – to cede the freedom to choose. Even if made with the best of intentions, this is dangerous.

    Elrond would have been well aware of the Oath of Feanor, which showed how “sworn word” can lead good people…err, elves…to do great evil when fulfillment of the oath trumps their sense of right and wrong.

    Then Feanor swore a terrible oath. His seven sons leapt straightaway to his side and took the selfsame vow together, and red as blood shone their drawn swords in the glare of the torches. They swore an oath which none shall break, and none should take, by even the name of Iluvatar, calling the Everlasting Dark upon them if they kept it not; and Manwe they named in witness, and Varda, and the hallowed mountain of Taniquetil, vowing to pursue with vengeance and hatred to the ends of the World Vala, Demon, Elf or Man as yet unborn, or any creature, great or small, good or evil, that time should bring forth unto the end of days, whoso should hold or take or keep a Silmaril from their possession.

    Thus spoke Maedhros and Maglor and Celegorm, Curufin and Caranthir, Amrod and Amras, princes of the Noldor; and many quailed to hear the dread words. For so sworn, good or evil, an oath may not be broken, and it shall pursue oathkeeper and oathbreaker to the world’s end.

    Suffice it to say, this was not such a good idea:

    Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the moutains. On the House of Feanor the wrath of the Valar lieth from the West unto the uttermost East, and upon all that will follow them it shall be laid also. Their Oath shall drive them, and yet betray them, and ever snatch away the very treasures that they have sworn to pursue. To evil end shall all things turn that they begin well; and by treason of kin unto kin and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass. The Disposessed shall they be forever.

    Of course, Frodo’s acceptance of “the burden” does essentially destroy him, to the point where the only way to escape the consequences is to leave Middle Earth. It was a terrible sacrifice, but a necessary one.

    Comment by LagunaDave — May 13, 2007 @ 12:23 pm

  2. It is an interesting passage. When I was younger, I did not really see the need for caution in Elrond’s comissioning address. Of COURSE the Fellowship was going to stand by Frodo as long as they could, as far as all Nine Walkers could walk without interference by the bad guys. After all, if they ran away or dropped out at when the going got tough, they wouldn’t be Frodo’s true companions, right?

    Twenty years gone by now, and I see things differently. It is quite natural for people to make pledges for causes that they intend to keep, as long as there is little price to pay for it. When things start to look as long & as difficult as the far-sighted had warned, then suddenly things are different. There are summer soldiers & sunshine patriots, and they will quit when the road falls under the Shadow. The oaths and promises given so boldly with confidence in the sunlit morning seem oppressive in the dark of night, with winter’s chill in the air.

    The real danger to any Cause is not from any external threat, it’s from the internal weakness caused by doubt & despair. Elrond warns the Fellowship that they will face many trials, all which must be overcome by first deciding to go forward, with or without Frodo. The plan may change, the road may lead into dangerous places, the enemies may grow in quantity & quality, the Ring itself may choose to intervene…. Better safe than sorry, perhaps. The Fellowship has already proved their innate worth by agreeing to set out on the road to Mount Doom with Frodo. Who can seriously call them chicken after that? If the other members of the Fellowship can’t finish the trip with him, then maybe it’s because they need to accomplish another task to help Frodo reach his goal. If they can’t make it another step, better to turn aside and find another deed within their capability, than slog on in dwindling resolve until disaster threatens.

    After reading LagunaDave’s excellent post, I have to say that Elrond is wise to not require any oath or pledge from the members of the Fellowship, beyond their own agreement. It actually does more than a formal oath, because the individual Fellowship members will probably go further, with more genuine resolve, if they need only say to themselves, “it’s to help Frodo”. Left to their own devices, seven of the Nine Walkers prove more than willing to voluntarily follow along, doing whatever they can to help, although in the end only Sam goes the whole distance.

    Comment by fallohide — May 15, 2007 @ 2:42 pm

Copy link for RSS feed for comments on this post or for TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace