Study Guide

The Fellowship of the Ring Strength and Skill

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Strength and Skill

[T]he old man was Gandalf the Wizard, whose fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fires, smokes, and lights. His real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Shire-folk knew nothing about it. To them he was just one of the 'attractions' at the Party. Hence the excitement of the Hobbit-children. 'G for Grand!' they shouted, and the old man smiled. They knew him by sight though he only appeared in Hobbiton occasionally and never stopped long; but neither they nor any but the oldest of their elders had seen one of his fireworks displays - they now belonged to the legendary past. (1.1.27)

We first meet Gandalf in <em>The Hobbit</em>, when he is instrumental in helping Bilbo and his Dwarf friends find the dragon treasure they seek. His appearance at the outset of this book is important because it highlights how out-of-the-way the Shire truly is. In some ways, the Shire seems almost like Eden: the people who live there are completely innocent of the broader world. They suffer very little crime, and life seems lavish, easy, and good. The Shire-folk are so sheltered that they know nothing of Gandalf's "real business," which is "far more difficult and dangerous" than making fireworks. We get hints of Gandalf's skill as a Wizard in this passage, but we don't know the full extent of his abilities. This deliberate withholding increases our sense of suspense over exactly how much Gandalf might be capable of.

"A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he <em>fades</em>: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later – later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last – sooner or later the dark power will devour him." (1.2.43)

When it comes to the Ring, it truly does not matter whether or not you are a good person: eventually, it will overwhelm you with evil, no matter how hard you try to resist. Compare the overwhelming challenge of an evil ring that <em>cannot</em> be resisted forever, that <em>possesses</em> its carrier, with the relatively more manageable threat of J.K. Rowling's Horcruxes. In the Harry Potter series (spoiler alert!), the evil Wizard Voldemort puts a piece of his soul into seven things, including one ring (sound familiar?). But while Voldemort's soul can tempt or twist people's minds, possession is not inevitable. Rowling's Horcruxes seem like a reference back to Tolkien's Rings of Power, but the Rings of Power are much more, well, powerful. The stakes seem higher in the <em>Lord of the Rings</em> series than for Harry Potter. What differences do you see between the two series? How does the world of Harry Potter seem influenced by the <em>Lord of the Rings</em>?

"Fair lady Goldberry!" [Frodo] said again. "Now the joy that was hidden in the songs we heard are made plain to me.
<em>O slender as a willow-wand! O clearer than clear water!
O reed by the living pool! Fair River-daughter!
O spring-time and summer-time, and spring again after!
O wind on the waterfall, and the leaves' laughter!</em>
Suddenly he stopped and stammered, overcome with surprise to hear himself saying such things. But Goldberry laughed.

"Welcome!" she said. "I had not heard that folk of the Shire were so sweet-tongued. But I see you are an Elf-friend; the light in your eyes and the ring in your voice tells it." (1.7.5-6)

Frodo is remarkably good with words (for a Hobbit). We've already seen Gildor remark on his skills with Elvish, and now we have Frodo sweet-talking the River's daughter. The grace of Frodo's tongue is another way for Tolkien to underline the association of Frodo's character traits with the Elves. This aspect of Frodo's characterization only becomes clearer as <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em> continues and Frodo winds up in Lothlórien. How does Frodo's skill with words help him through his quest? Why might this be an important skill for the Ring-bearer?

In the dead night, Frodo lay in a dream without light. Then he saw the young moon rising; under its thin light there loomed before him a black wall of rock, pierced by a dark arch like a great gate. [...]

At his side Pippin lay dreaming pleasantly; but a change came over his dreams and he turned and groaned. [...]

It was the sound of water that Merry heard falling into his quiet sleep: water streaming down gently, and then spreading, spreading irresistibly all round the house into a dark shoreless pool. [...]

As far as he could remember, Sam slept through the night in deep content, if logs are contented. (1.7.28-31)

In some ways, Tolkien's portrayal of Sam seems quite dismissive: he's the comic relief. While Frodo, Merry, and Pippin are all having deep dreams, Sam sleeps like a log. Frodo is actually dreaming of the future, while Merry and Pippin are at least affected by the events of the day. But Sam sleeps "through the night in deep content." Good old Sam: even watching his friends nearly get swallowed by a tree can't disturb his sleep. But while Sam occasionally seems unimaginative in the early pages of <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em>, his calm practicality makes him a good balance for high-strung, sensitive Frodo. And he really comes into his own as the series progresses.

There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid Hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow. Frodo was neither very fat nor very timid; indeed, though he did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) had thought him the best Hobbit in the Shire. He thought he had come to the end of his adventure, and a terrible end, but the thought hardened him. He found himself stiffening, as if for a final spring; he no longer felt limp like a helpless prey. (1.8.31)

When Frodo wakes up in the Barrow-downs, he thinks he's going to die. But he finds the courage to deal with his situation, against all odds. Hobbits may not look impressive, but they have hidden reserves of courage. And Frodo is apparently (according to Bilbo and Gandalf) the best of the Hobbits, so he has even more courage than most. But while Frodo looks the part of the hero a little better than most Hobbits, being a bit taller and a bit braver than some, he's still not Superman. Why does Tolkien focus his adventures on characters with hidden strength rather than obvious skills? What would the <em>Lord of the Rings</em> series be like if it started with Aragorn or Legolas instead of Bilbo and Frodo?

In the early night Frodo woke from deep sleep, suddenly, as if some sound or presence had disturbed him. He saw that Strider was sitting alert in his chair: his eyes gleamed in the light of the fire, which had been tended and was burning brightly; but he made no sign or movement.

Frodo soon went to sleep again; but his dreams were again troubled with the noise of wind and of galloping hoofs. The wind seemed to be curling round the house and shaking it; and far off he heard a horn blowing wildly. He opened his eyes, and heard a cock crowing lustily in the inn-yard. (1.11.10-1)

In the buildup to Frodo's confrontation with the Ringwraiths at Weathertop, we get indications that he has special insight into where they are. While Frodo is at Tom Bombadil's cottage, he dreams of the Ringwraiths galloping out of Mordor, and in <em>The Prancing Pony,</em> Frodo sees them attacking the house at Crickhollow (though he doesn't know that's what he's looking at). We know that the Ring makes Frodo particularly vulnerable to the Ringwraiths, but it also gives him some extra knowledge of what they are doing. These prophetic dreams on the way to Weathertop also build the reader's suspense about the Ringwraiths' power: we know that they have some kind of magic tie to Frodo, but we don't yet know the full extent or power of that link.

"You were beginning to fade," answered Gandalf. "The wound was overcoming you at last. A few more hours and you would have been beyond our aid. But you have some strength in you, my dear Hobbit! As you showed in the Barrow-downs. That was touch and go: perhaps the most dangerous moment of all. I wish you could have held out at Weathertop." (2.1.10)

Once more, we learn that Frodo is stronger than he looks. But beyond Gandalf's admiration for Frodo's unexpected toughness, we are struck by this suggestion that the <em>Barrow-downs</em> were the most dangerous part of this whole enterprise. Do you agree with Gandalf's assessment? Why might the Barrow-downs have been particularly dangerous? What role does the history of the Barrow-downs (as related by Tom Bombadil in Book 1, Chapter 7) play in their danger to the Ring-bearer, if any?

"Slow should you be to wind that horn again, Boromir," said Elrond, "until you stand once more on the borders of your land, and dire need is on you."

"Maybe," said Boromir. "But always I have let my horn cry at setting forth, and though thereafter we may walk in the shadows, I will not go forth as a thief in the night" (2.3.66-7).

Even at the start of Boromir's adventures with the Company, we can see signs of the fatal flaw – pride – that is going to bring his downfall at the end of <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em>. He is a good man, but he also believes absolutely in his own strength. He sounds his war-horn even though they are trying to set out in secret, because his pride will not permit him to "go forth as a thief in the night." The fact that he will not listen to counsel from men like Elrond suggests that he is too headstrong to follow the wisdom of people like Aragorn and Gandalf – to his peril, later in the novel.

Gimli took his arm and helped him down to a seat on the step. "What happened away up there at the door?" he asked. "Did you meet the beater of the drums?"

"I do not know," answered Gandalf. "But I found myself suddenly faced by something that I had not met before. I could think of nothing to do but to try and put a shutting-spell on the door. I know many; but to do things of that ind rightly requires time, and even then the door could be broken by strength. […]

"What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge. The counter-spell was terrible. It nearly broke me!" (2.5.53-4, 56)

Gandalf is not a particularly flashy Wizard, and we don't often see him doing obvious magic. Even so, in The Hobbit, he seems mostly invincible. By contrast, The Fellowship of the Ring really starts to explore the limits of Gandalf's power, first in his confrontation with Saruman, and now with the Balrog. Not only does he not recognize the Balrog, but he also honestly fears that he has met his match. His magic, which has proved so useful against Orcs and Wargs in both The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, appears to have run out of usefulness in Moria. We'll come back to this theme in The Two Towers, but for now, we will just say that it is necessary to the narrative of The Fellowship of the Ring that Gandalf has to fail. Otherwise, his superior skills would hold the Company together, and there would never be a need for Aragorn and co. to go one way and Frodo and Sam to go another. The whole later structure of the book depends on the loss of Gandalf's superior leadership; if Gandalf survived Moria, the rest of the Lord of the Rings would change profoundly.

[Celeborn and Galadriel] stood up to greet their guests, after the manner of the Elves, even those who were accounted mighty kings. Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory [...]

Her voice was clear and musical, but deeper than woman's wont. (2.7.10, 17)

Here, we get a nice snapshot of what Tolkien values in leaders: they should be beautiful, grave, and filled with "the wells of deep memory." Galadriel is one of the only major women characters in over a thousand pages of the <em>Lord of the Rings</em> series; it's a remarkably woman-less series, really. And even Galadriel, superwoman that she is, appears ambiguous in terms of gender: she is "no less tall" than Celeborn, with a voice "deeper than a woman's wont." So she is a woman, but not in the same way that Rosie Cotton, Sam's sweetheart, is a woman; her responsibility and power almost appear to move her beyond gender. Galadriel's power also shines in contrast to Lord Celeborn's, who (though great in his own way) seems noticeably less wise than his wife, even though she reassures us that he is "accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-earth."