Now, at long last, we come to one of my favourite chapters in the novel. Now we at last learn what has kept Gandalf away for so long, as well as the long and tragic history of the Ring.
Certainly, Saruman is one of the chapter’s most compelling characters, for he reveals the extent of the corruption wrought by Sauron and the temptation of the Ring for the powerful and the Wise. As Tom Shippey noted some time ago, Saruman is the consummate politician, willing and able to bend words so that they suit his purposes, attempting to lure Gandalf into rebellion against their sworn purpose. As a man of craft and skill, he desires everything to be ordered, and it is this impulse that has at last seduced him into the Ring’s orbit. What always strikes me about this is that Saruman has been led astray not by the proximity of the Ring (he has never seen it), but by a combination of his own inherently flawed nature his pursuit of the arts of Sauron, and his glimpses into the palantir.
This chapter also enlarges upon Gandalf’s character, revealing both his strengths and his weaknesses, his successes and his failures. He openly acknowledges that fell unwittingly into Saruman’s delicately laid trap, and that he was remiss in not challenging Saruman earlier and in being content to wait. Yet this chapter also reveals that he is both more thoughtful and more ethical than Saruman, despite the latter’s ostensible leadership of the White Council. He also has a stronger sense of his own limitations, and it is this, perhaps more than anything else, that renders him one of the novel’s most ethically complex characters.
You know, it takes a great deal of literary skill to make what amounts to one long chapter of exposition into a compelling read, and yet somehow Tolkien manages to do exactly that. Part of this has to do with the ways in which the Council is concerned with the fate of the Ring. We learn in the process that Bombadil may be unaffected by the Ring, that the Elves cannot and will not actively partake in the quest to destroy it, for their day is ending. The key, then, is responsibility and the taking of an action, even when they all know that they will most likely meet their deaths along the way. It is precisely because they know this and yet choose to do it anyway that the sequence has such evocative power. And yet, nestled within this forward thrust of movement and action there is still a twinge of backward-looking melancholy, as all there–Men, Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, and a Wizard–realize that the world they have known is coming to an irrevocable and inevitable end.
And what of the Dwarves? Though they remain largely in the background, the fact that even Dain, and his neighbors in Dale, have begun to feel the bite of Sauron’s teeth, alerts us to the gradually expanding scope of the coming conflict. While the Elves may choose not to partake in the action that is about to take place, both they and the Dwarves will eventually find themselves besieged, islands in a world of turmoil and impending darkness. Here, the novel suggests that no one, no matter how much they may desire to be left in peace, will be allowed to remain impartial.
In narrative terms, the chapter skillfully weaves together past, present, and future in a complex skein (Tom Shippey refers to this as interlacement). We not only get a broad glance at the vast sweep of the history underpinning the current emerging conflict, but also the immediate threats in the person of Boromir, who even at this early stage has begun to fall prey to the same sickness that seduced Isildur and Saruman. As a result, we know that the past shall once again repeat itself, though this time with more tragic, but also more eucatastrophic (to riff off Tolkien himself) results.