For those unfamiliar with this epic tale, this is a story of the inhabitants of Middle earth--men, elves, dwarves, hobbits, wizards--who are forced into a power struggles with evil forces, a struggle that will decide the fate of their world. The main character is The One Ring, forged by evil, which grants ultimate power to its bearer. But it is the Weapon of the Enemy. At no time, not even in the hands of good people, does it ever stop being the Weapon of the Enemy.
I am, by turns, amazed or aghast by how the characters thought about The Ring. What follows are my musings, as they were helpful to me in framing one of today's current debates. Please be patient with all the quotes. They add a potency that I could not duplicate.
For few, I deem, know of our deeds, and therefore guess little of their peril, if we should fail at last. Believe not that in the land of Gondor the blood of Numenor is spent, nor all its pride and dignity forgotten. By our valour the wild folk of the East are still restrained, and the terror of Morgul kept at bay; and thus alone are peace and freedom maintained in the lands behind us, bulwark of the West. (Boromir, Fellowship of the Ring, 295)The last free place in Middle Earth on the borders of Morgul, stronghold of evil, Gondor has served as a buffer between the evil lord Sauron and the free peoples of Middle Earth. Their men are valiant; they have spilled their blood in defense of freedom; they have kept the world safe for...well, whatever the free peoples of Middle Earth wanted to be kept safe for. So perhaps understandably, Gondor in general, and Boromir specifically, takes a rather utilitarian view of The Ring.
Why do you speak ever of hiding and destroying? Why should we not think that the Great Ring has come into our hands to serve us in the very hour of need? Wielding it the Free Lords of the free may surely defeat the Enemy. That is what he most fears, I deem. The men of Gondor are valiant, and they will never submit; but they may be beaten down. Valour needs first strength, and then a weapon. Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory! (Fellowship, 299)See Borormir's assertion here? The Ring doesn't have to be evil--even though it's always only ever been evil. In the hands of good men, the Weapon of the Enemy can be used for good. Ladies and gentlemen, his logic is lost on me. Boromir is a good and valiant man. But he is myopic. The question is...why?
For you seem ever to think of its power only in the hands of the enemy: of its evil uses, not of its good. The world is changing, you say. Minas Tirith will fall, if the Ring lasts. But why? Certainly if the Ring were with the Enemy. But why, if it were with us?
He continues, True hearted men will not be corrupted. We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of Wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause and Behold! in our need, chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say, a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, those alone will achieve the victory. (Fellowship, 468-69)And there it is, Boromir's strategy boiled down to one awful principle:
(This is important. Pay attention.) Since, first, true-hearted men cannot be corrupted (a position I find unteneble in the strongest terms) and, second, since said true-hearted men have possession of said weapon, it must therefore be a gift. (A 'gift' logically implies a 'giver.' What can we infer, then, about a Giver who gifts a Weapon of the Enemy?). And if it is a gift, then:
It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him.
Contrast Boromir with Aragorn:
If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, we have played another part. Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay. You know little of the lands beyond your bounds. Peace and freedom,do you say? The North would have known them little but for us. Fear would have destroyed them. But when dark things come from the houseless hills, or creep from sunless woods, they fly from us. What roads would any dare to tread, what safety would there be in quiet lands or in the homes of simple men at night, if the Dunedain were asleep,or were all gone into the grave? (Fellowship, 299)The real battle is not where Boromir thinks it is, and it is not what Boromir thinks it is. The reason Boromir is myopic--and Aragorn is not--is because Boromir's whole world is limited to Gondor, while Aragorn has the broader concern of Middle Earth at heart. Making Gondor great again has made Boromir short-sighted. In the end, that lack of discernment will distract Boromir from responsible alertness. And he will die for it.
But put aside simple Boromir and noble Aragorn, and we still have much to observe in the other characters. In fact, I saw for the first time a common thread running through each of these.
'Verily,' said Gandalf, now in a loud voice, keen and clear, 'that way lies our hope, where sits our greatest fear.' (Two Towers, 143) What could Gandalf possibly mean? It means that 'that way' where the Ring-bearer is headed, not to make use of the Ring but to destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom, that is where all the hope of Middle Earth lies, not in the using of the Weapon of the Enemy, but in the destruction of it. Further on, he says,
'I do not counsel prudence. I said victory could not be achieved by arms. I still hope for victory, but not by arms. For into the midst of all these policies comes the Ring of Power, the foundation of Barad-dur, and the hope of Sauron. This then, is my counsel. We have not the Ring. In wisdom or in great folly, it has been sent away to be destroyed lest it destroy us. Without it, we cannot by force defeat his force. But we must at all costs keep his Eye from his true peril. We cannot achieve victory by arms, but by arms, we can give the Ring-bearer his only chance, frail though it may be. (Towers, 171-72)Gandalf knows that the weapon of the Enemy must be destroyed. He knows that, by not using the Weapon of the Enemy, free peoples have no hope to defeat the Enemy by force. And he knows that something will inevitably be destroyed: either the Ring or the free people of Middle Earth. Knowing these things, Gandalf gives incredibly sagely counsel: Distract the Enemy from his true peril, and make sure the Ring-bearer has every opportunity to destroy the Ring. He does not counsel prudence, seizing opportunity, playing it safe, or going for the low-hanging fruit.
What a difference in wisdom between Boromir and Gandalf! But other characters wage private battles with the Ring. Sam, who finds himself in rather awkward possession of the Ring for a brief time feels thus:
No sooner had he come in sight of Mount Doom burning far away, than he was aware of a change in his burden. As it drew near the great furnace where, in the deeps of time, it had been shaped and forged, the Ring's power grew, and it became more fell, untameable save by some mighty will. As Sam stood there, even though the Ring was not on him but hanging by its chain about his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: to forbear the Ring, though it would torment him, or to claim it, and challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind: and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with flaming Sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be. (Return of the King, 195)Dear, guileless Sam. All by himself in the shadow of Mt. Doom, he felt the temptation of the Ring. Why, with the Ring, this little halfling gardener from the Shire could make a real difference! He could do something heroic! He could put on the Ring and overthrow Barad-dur!!! And yet
In that hour of trial, it was the love of his master that helped him most to hold firm. (Return, 196) Can anything be more beautiful than that?
Even regal and wise Galadriel, keeper of one of three Elven Rings, must stand down temptation.
'You will give me the Ring freely. In place of a Dark Lord you shall set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the sea and the sun and the snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth! All shall love me and despair!' She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark. She stood now before Frodo and seemed now tall beyond measurement and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded and suddenly she laughed again and lo! she was shrunken, a slender elf-woman clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad. 'I pass the test,' she said. 'I will diminish and go into the West and remain Galadriel.' (Fellowship, 432)I will diminish and go into the West and remain Galadriel. Here is one of the most incredible lines in the epic of the Ring. Surely, we cannot charge Galadriel with apathy. But she doesn't want any victory that comes via the Ring--for that would be no victory at all. In short, she chooses to fade; she chooses to die. Dying is a superior choice to dallying with the Enemy.
For dallying with the Weapon of the Enemy is the moral equivalent of dallying with the Enemy Himself.
And the rest echo her choice. (Are you still paying attention? This is still important.) Feel Frodo's nobility as he encourages Sam near the end: 'I do not think we need to give thought to what comes after that. To do the job as you put it--what hope is there that we ever shall? And if we do, who knows what will come of that? If the One goes into the Fire, and we are at hand? I ask you, Sam, are we ever likely to need bread again? I think not. If we can nurse our limbs to bring us to Mount Doom, that is all we can do. (Towers, 273)
And Gandalf, too. 'We must walk open-eyed into that trap with courage but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dur be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty.' (Return, 172)
Of course, I am going somewhere with this...