Tolkien fact 68 – Purpose; Pt. 4: The Three Keys

At long last we come to the conclusion of the mini series that was started over a year ago. The first, second, and third parts can be found at these links if you need a refresher, but as for me I won’t spend another minute getting to the goods; it’s been too long.

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This finale to the series on Purpose in the Fellowship of the Ring focuses on what I’ve deemed the “Three Keys” referring to the primacy of each of the characters we’re looking at. These are the three “main characters” as it were (though doubtlessly there is debate about who the true main character(s) is (are). Let’s take a look at the remainder of the Fellowship and see just how they each contribute to the story and how much weight they really carry, narrative-wise.

The Three Keys

Any reader of Tolkien is able to see the strength he gives to certain characters. I don’t just mean physique or magical power, but the shear force of will some characters possess. Some strong and wise characters, like Elrond, are merely there to move the plot along a fixed point or give some expository dialogue about something. They are “strong” characters, but not strong characters, if you take my meaning. Other examples may include Tom Bombadil, Glorfindel, Círdan the Shipwright, Celeborn and others. Many of these could have been replaced with other characters or taken out entirely and the story would run almost unchanged otherwise. Don’t get me wrong here: I know somewhat of the depth of Tolkien’s backdrop to The Lord of the Rings and am aware of just how rich the history of some of these characters is, but my point is that we see very few “strong” characters as actual strong characters in a narrative sense. Tolkien not only knows how to give even the smallest character strength, but he also knows how to write “strong” characters as strong characters. The three “key” characters we’re focusing on now are three of those character who are not only “strong” but also strong narratively speaking: Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn.

Gandalf

What he does: It would take a post roughly the size of the actual book to write out in detail everything Gandalf does to contribute in the story of The Lord of the Rings. Therefore, as I did when discussing Sam Gamgee’s role in the narrative, I’m going to break Gandalf’s contributions down into three categories and hone in on just a few of the more crucial aspects of his dealings in Middle-earth:

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  1. The strategist: As I’ve stated before, Tolkien’s take on wizardry is extremely mature, subtle, and tactful. Gandalf is not one to charge into battle shooting lightning bolts and waves of fire onto his enemies (although you get the impression he possesses abilities like those). The primary attribute he utilizes throughout the story is his wisdom. The Istari came to Middle-earth to combat Sauron but not through strength of arms (or spells). Gandalf is a mover of Men (and other races for that matter). It’s not Gandalf who slays Smaug and restores Erebor back to Durin’s Folk, but he does set in motion a series of events to accomplish this by encouraging a group of dwarves and a hobbit to unite and undertake the task. Gandalf is not the one who takes the One Ring to Orodruin, but he does convince another small hobbit to do so and literally gives his life to help that hobbit on the quest. Gandalf does not single-handedly rescue Rohan from Saruman, destroy Isengard, or defeat the Witch-king and his armies at Pelennor, but as sure as a fell beast is naked he’s the chess-master setting those pieces up for success and doing his part to ensure their victory as much as he can. He is a behind-the-scenes playmaker; the Great Strategist of the Third Age. His one job was to contest Sauron and he accomplished this by not just winning a war, but by humbly supporting the strength possessed of those already fighting that war, even if they weren’t aware they possessed such strength.
  2. The meddler: If there is one thing you can count on Gandalf doing consistently, it’s sticking his nose in other people’s business. He is, oddly enough, considered a nuisance in just about every location he appears throughout the story. He has a bad reputation in the Shire for whisking respectable hobbits away on dangerous and troublesome adventures. Gríma Wormtongue of Rohan names him láthspell, “ill news,” as he’s always the bearer of some word of dire threat or bad omen. Wormtongue obviously rubs off on the king of Rohan as Théoden has a similar distrust of the Grey Pilgrim whenever he comes around. Denethor of Gondor plainly dislikes Gandalf from before he even takes up the position of Ruling Steward, and his distrust carries over through the years into the War of the Ring. Gandalf is a meddler, but he meddles because he cares. As the first bullet above noted, he’s a planner and a playmaker. To make those kinds of decisions you have to have information, and to get information you have to do a little snooping around in Middle-earth. Fortunately for the rest of the entire continent, Gandalf does not shy away from befriending smelly Rangers, “stealing” prized stallions, and making connections with colossal Eagles and skin-changing bear-men.
  3. The White Rider: Finally, not only can Gandalf get around, get information, and get people moving, he can also hold his own end of his bargains up. (I use the title “White Rider” to describe this trait he possesses but it’s clearly true of his prior Grey form as well.) By this, I simply am referring to his ability to get stuff done. He’s Gandalf, and Gandalf means… him. He’s the wielder of Glamdring, the Foehammer. Círdan entrusted Narya, the Ring of Fire, to him. He goes toe-to-toe with the Necromancer (who is Sauron himself), a Balrog, and Saruman. He rides what is essentially a bullet in the shape of a horse that no other man is able to ride (except the king of Rohan). He is buddies with some of the oldest and most wise beings on the face of Arda including Galadriel, Bombadil, Treebeard, and Glorfindel. He has a host of Eagles at his call, a line of valiant hobbits in his trail, and knowledge of every tongue of Elves, Men, and Dwarves at his disposal. What can’t he do? He’s honorable, courageous, dependable, and strong (in every sense of the word). I think Aragorn says it best in The Two Towers, after he is first reunited with the White Rider:

“The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider. He has passed through the fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads.”

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Why it matters: Honestly, this section seems kind of moot to write for any of the Three Keys. Is it not obvious why the actions of these guys matter to this story? Without them there is no story. Nonetheless, I’ll say that Gandalf’s implementation into the structure of the narrative is so intricately woven that it’s difficult to conceive how Tolkien even wrote it in the first place. You get the sense that Gandalf’s always on some kind of mission and has at least some sense as to what’s going on or what’s about to happen. Huge swaths of the story take place with him behind the scenes and then you are filled in on what took place at a later point. His concealment of both his power and his deeds deepens the mystery of his character and adds a weight to the plot that can’t be described. You don’t really know everything he’s contributed until after the climax of the situation is reached and by that point it’s too late to thank him for it; he’s already on to the next task and crucial plot point he’s needed at. Gandalf is the humble hero Middle-earth doesn’t even know they have half the time.

Frodo

What he does: Unlike the other two characters discussed here, Frodo Baggins’ list of contributions to the story is short, though immensely important. Everything he does is tied to the Ring and every action he takes is more critical and dangerous than even he probably realizes throughout his journey. As with the other main characters, I thought it would be easier to break down his contributions into a couple of categories and focus on the most crucial aspects of his character:

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  1. The Ring-bearer: By “Ring-bearer” I’m referring to the idea that Frodo has been chosen almost beyond his will to do what he does. I say “almost” because there is clearly an element of freedom and liberty within the story that he has in dealing with the Ring and Its fate, but there is also a sense of destiny and “doom” (in the original meaning of the word) as well. By no decision of his own, Frodo finds that his odd, yet eccentric uncle has left him a large inheritance and also a heavy burden with the One Ring. Danger and intrigue tails him as he makes his way into strange lands to meet strange people and do strange things. Most of his circumstances are beyond his control and he finds himself relying on the support of his friends and allies and also on this apparent “fortune or fate” that surrounds him. He was chosen to complete the task of destroying the Ring and yet he also chose it at the same time, it would seem. The Watcher outside the Doors of Durin grabs him first of the Company for some reason. He and Sam just so happen to arrive at the location of the ambush by the Ithilien Rangers at the right time to be “captured” by Faramir. The orcs of the tower of Cirith Ungol just so happen to squabble over their prisoner enough to basically kill each other entirely before Sam enters the tower. Sam and Frodo are just fortunate enough to be in the right line of orcs at the right time when the masses of troops are thrown into chaos outside of Udûn so they can escape. Lastly, the entire Free World is lucky enough for Gollum to dance just ever so slightly too close to the edge of the Crack of Doom so he falls in. These are things that are certainly, without a doubt important in the life of Frodo that appear to be out of his control, and yet, as the next bullet will show, these are things that his choices really affect as well. It’s fascinating to see both working in tandem throughout the story.
  2. The Baggins: By “the Baggins” I mean the idea that Frodo is himself a leader and decision maker. It’s unfortunate, in a way, that we live in a time where many people’s ideas of Frodo are so heavily influenced by the movie version of him that they miss the “real” hobbit of the books. Frodo Baggins is a mature, wise, and capable person. Though small in stature, he proves to be no push over (more on this in Tolkien Fact 60). Perhaps my favorite instance of this is when Frodo sits atop Asfaloth and challenges the Witch-king himself in The Fellowship of the Ring:

“‘By Elbereth and Lúthien the Fair,’ said Frodo with a last effort, lifting up his sword, ‘you shall have neither the Ring nor me!'”

Obviously this is a futile gesture, but a real gesture nonetheless. Frodo’s “seed of courage” that all hobbits have is very much a part of him and helps him make difficult decisions along the way to the Black Land. Time after time he resists the call of Ring. Time after time he rights a misconception that Sam or Gollum has about something crucial to the success of the Mission. Time after time Frodo seems to know what to do or say in a dire situation, though he is not perfect. He sees very little combat and has to do very little persuading as well. His only real challenge is in many ways much more difficult than either of those: he has to get the Ring to the Fire. The details and descriptions in the chapters “The Land of Shadow” and “Mount Doom” are simply depressing as we see Frodo feebly and pitifully crawling and slogging through the plain of Gorgoroth and up the slope of the Mountain. Yes, he does ultimately fail in the end to complete his task, but the task is completed and it could not have been accomplished without him. His real choices and fate were woven in such a way that it hard to consider any of the details of the story in isolation. While the quantity of things Frodo does is low, the quality of those decisions and actions are so vastly important and critical to the story taking place that the subtitle of the book could be The Story of Frodo Baggins.

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Why it matters: As with Gandalf (and judging from what I just said at the end of the previous section), there is no doubt Frodo’s part in the War of the Ring is immeasurably crucial. As stated in Part 1 of this series, the hobbits in the Fellowship give us a way of learning about Middle-earth from the perspective of people that also do not know much about it. Frodo is slightly more cultured than the other hobbits but is still a very small fish is a huge and dangerous pond. But this fish has a mithril mail shirt, an ancient, spider-slaying knife, and an Elven “cloak of many colors”. He’s the piece of the puzzle Sauron misses right up until the very end. It’s likely that literally no other creature would be capable of accomplishing what Frodo did. While Sam is an admirable character, his naivety would likely have been his demise before he got out of the Shire. A Man would certainly have been hopeless against the lure of the Ring. An Elf or Dwarf? Equally unlikely. A Wizard would have succumbed and become a more terrible tyrant than Sauron probably. Any other person would also likely have slain Gollum outright and would have been without a guide and a scapegoat to fall into the Fire. There is so much fate wrapped around Frodo that things could have been otherwise but would not have been otherwise, as confusing as that sounds.

Aragorn

What he does: The last, but not least character in this series is a crowd favorite, I’m sure. Aragorn son of Arathorn is known by many names in Middle-earth but I’m going to use only two to describe what it is this Ranger from the North contributes to this complicated narrative web:

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  1. Strider: The hobbits first meet Aragorn in Bree at the Prancing Pony and are introduced to him under the name Strider; this name fits so wonderfully with the Ranger side of his character that it’s difficult to top. He’s also somewhat of a behind-the-scenes guy, like Gandalf, walking on his “long shanks” through bogs, forests, riverlands, mountains, and other strange lands in search of odd creatures and rumors of news about his enemies. When the story starts, he’s in the business of leading the Northern Dúnedain against the evil of the North, protecting the unknowing folk of the Shire and Bree-land. Although we don’t get this information until later in the story, Aragorn is immediately irreplaceable and heroic, sacrificing his own livelihood and comfort for that of people who don’t even know he exists. I could stop here and be justified in my other conclusions about him but that’s just scratching the surface. His tracking and hunting skills are invaluable throughout The Lord of the Rings in tracking the Uruk-hai across the plains of Rohan and finding information about Merry and Pippin in Fangorn (and ultimately Gandalf). I also will include in this category his mighty prowess on the battlefield as he proves time and time again that he truly is the master of combat. He stands confidently against any enemy whether it’s a warg, an orc, an army of orcs, or trolls. He even makes a move to go back and help Gandalf against the Balrog of all things. Maybe less exciting, but no less important, his skills in the outdoors allowed the Company to carefully and (relatively) comfortably cruise down the Anduin for a few days as he knew his way around a boat. He’s a jack of all trades… and also a master of pretty much all.
  2. Elessar: The usage of “Elessar” (meaning “elf stone”) is meant to convey Aragorn’s kingly demeanor and leadership. Not only is he a valiant fighter, but he’s also one that others rally around to fight beside as well, even when the fight is seemingly hopeless (as it often appears to be in the War of the Ring). The name of the third volume is a spoiler for his character arc, for crying out loud. He’s the King! It’s about his return! This guy is Isildur’s heir; he’s the only one that can and will unite the Northern and Southern realms of the Dúnedain. He’s the guy that can muster up the courage of hundreds of soldiers at Helm’s Deep  when there are literally thousands of enemies at the gate. He’s the guy that has an “in” with the most powerful and beautiful Elves in Arda and is betrothed to one; the favor of Galadriel is not easy to come by, by the way. He’s the one that will not only dare to tread the Dimholt Road, but also summon a dead army to the Stone of Erech to fight for him. This is the guy who wields the Flame of the West, Andúril and cuts people’s helmets in half in a flash of fire. (That’s not necessarily kingly, I just felt like throwing that in here because it’s cool.) This dude even convinced about six thousand people to approach the Morannon on a suicide mission just to by time for a little hobbit that they weren’t even sure was alive at that point. This guy is a leader, and I only use that word because I can’t think of a better one in English to use instead and Thesaurus.com is failing me at the moment. Aragorn II, Elessar, Telcontar, Long-shanks: whatever you call him, he’s the guy you want at the head of your army and in the war room making your plans.

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Why it matters: Try to imagine The Lord of the Rings without Aragorn. Obviously you can’t, that’s the point. This story is just as much his as it is Frodo’s and he has just as much to contribute as the brave little Shireling if not more. Without him, Frodo would likely not have made it across the plains of Mordor. Without him, Rohan would have been overrun by Saruman. Without him, the ship at Pelargir would have been filled with Corsairs and then Gondor would have fallen like a grass hut in a hurricane before the Witch-king. Not that Aragorn accomplished any of this alone, but it is likely nothing would have had a happy ending if he was not around to sacrifice his own comfort and safety for those that needed it more than himself.


 

There it is. After a year of writing and a long hiatus this mini series on Purpose in the Fellowship of the Ring is over. By way of conclusion, there’s not really much else that I’d like to say. Each race has a lot to contribute to the narrative and each character has a unique role to fill as well when it comes to specifics. Perhaps the most interesting trio to think about in all of this for me is this last group, the Three Keys. The way their roles are woven together in such a long and complicated story is what draws me back into another reading every time I finish the book. Tolkien knows how to create characters that are both strong and yet relatable; or if they’re not relatable they’re enviable. You want to be as good of a leader as Aragorn. You want to be as wise and powerful as Gandalf. You want to be as committed and determined as Frodo. We may never be those things but that’s what Tolkien does best and why he’s considered the father of fantasy: he makes a world you want be in and people you want to be with.

I’ll just put it this way: without Gandalf, nobody would know there’s something that needs to be done; without Frodo, nobody would get it done; and without Aragorn, nobody would want to get it done.

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