Saturday, August 27, 2016

Stephen Colbert is Brilliant (Frodo & the Ring)

So, I have Janice to thank for sending me this link, which I wd otherwise have missed.

Stephen Colbert has long been notable for being a self-confessed Tolkien fan (indeed, a Tolkien nerd), and proud of it.

Typically this has taken the form of his display of knowledge that shows he's not just read THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT but THE SILMARILLION as well and is conversant with the VALAQUENTA and AINULINDALE, able to recall facts about the books off the cuff. Now for the first time he's moved from being just a fan (albeit a famous one) to, I wd argue, being a Tolkien scholar as well.

In a recent segment Colbert offered up an insight into THE LORD OF THE RINGS I don't remember ever coming across before. In essence, he argued that Gandalf knew Frodo would fail in his quest to destroy the Ring, because he'd seen with his own eyes that Frodo could not throw the ring into his own fire at Bag-End. Letting that sink in, I think Colbert is on to something here, and that it's a major point that had never occurred to me.

If Gandalf sees for himself that Frodo is already too tightly tied to the Ring even before settting out on his quest, then he knows that Frodo will never be able to toss the Ring into the Fires of Doom. However good-intentioned Frodo is, he's already too far in the power of the ring.

Therefore, I think it's fair to extrapolate that Gandalf must have had a contingency plan: that another person (himself, Sam, Strider) would need to be there to take the final step after Frodo had accomplished the grueling task of getting the Ring to the right place at the right time.  That is, unknown to himself, Frodo's quest was never to destroy the ring: it was to bring the ring to the place where it could be destroyed. And he achieved his task, at great cost, and was duly honored for it, but privately haunted for failing in the second test (a bit like Gawain's hyper-honor at the end of SGGK).

That's where my cogitation on Colbert's observation led me, anyway; I'd be curious what others make of it.

--John R.
currently in: Magnolia, Arkansas



Eosphoros said...

I rather think Gandalf assumed from the outset that no sentient being would be able to willingly cast the Ring into the fire, and that the outcome of the quest, in the end, would be in the hands of higher powers. Hence the only thing they had to decide was – not only what to do with the time given to them – but how to get as far with the quest as ‘human’ly possible. Not seeing Frodo excessively greedy and possessive over the Ring in Ch. II was probably the best Gandalf could ask or hope for.

Paul W said...

I was happy to see I was not the only person who had not had that insight before. It really is remarkable. It sort of a shame that nobody in the audience really knew what they were seeing.

It is almost worth the crass commercialization of the movies, without them he never would have been able to turn his passion for Tolkien into a schtick on his schow, nor passed on that insight

N.E. Brigand said...

That's a good insight on Colbert's part, but he's not the first to make it. I've definitely seen that idea put forward before, but I can't remember where--maybe online. Doesn't Tolkien himself say something similar in his letters, about the inevitability of Frodo failing, citing his actions at Bag End? (I've also seen that connection between Frodo and Gawain previously suggested, I think somewhere in the published scholarship of approximately 2008-2010.)

Marcel R. Aubron-Bülles said...

Depending on how positively you'd like to describe Gandalf will determine your idea of the development of the story :)

Simply put he is the perfect puppet master, planning his master coup for hundreds of years. He knew that if the Ring was to be brought to Mordor none of the Free Peoples would have accepted one of the others to take it - what Peter Jackson so horribly overdid in the films with Gimli's "in the hands of an elf?" The only option would have been a compromise and an innocent hobbit would be just that.

Gandalf did not plan on being killed, I am pretty sure, but except for that minor glitch he would have made sure to have the Ring brought to Mount Doom.

Deniz Bevan said...

Hmm, not entirely sure I agree. Gandalf remarks more than once that hobbits have more in them than meets the eye. He chooses Bilbo for the quest of the mountain with a sense that, in a pinch, Bilbo will have the ability to justify Gandalf's faith in him.
Gandalf himself does not even want to touch the ring - nor does Elrond. None of the wise wish to wield it (even Galadriel when the pinch comes proves strong enough to resist it). Would he really then imagine that at the last moment he could wrest the Ring from Frodo?
No one knows what Gandalf's plans were for after Lothlorien, and Aragorn himself says he maybe could have guided Frodo towards Mordor if they had set out together (from Parth Galen) but that in any case, the more of them that went that way the more dangerous it would be. Of all of them, he was the one who'd come the closest to Mordor; he certainly would have advised Gandalf that it was fruitless to try to enter. No one can really know what Gandalf might have imagined for the end, but he almost seems relieved, looking out towards them from Rohan, to know that Frodo and Sam and the Ring are beyond his reach.

Now where do I go to have this debate with Stephen Colbert? :-)

Jeff_Grubb said...

John, you are closer to the text (and its various drafts) than I am, so Colbert's analysis asks the question of how Frodo treated the intended destruction of the ring. I seem to remember him saying "I will go to Mordor" or "I will carry the ring", but I don't have a quick reference to him saying "I will destroy the ring". A lot of other characters say it, so maybe that's where I missed it.

If this is the case, then it is an excellent bit of misdirection by the author.

Troels said...

Actually Tolkien addressed this several times himself - e.g. in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien nos. 181, 191, 192 and 246, where he is quite clear that “Already Frodo had been unwilling to harm the Ring before he set out” (#181), and “The Quest was bound to fail as a piece of world-plan, and also was bound to end in disaster as the story of humble Frodo's development to the ‘noble’, his sanctification. Fail it would and did as far as Frodo considered alone was concerned.” (#181)

Letter no. 191 starts
“If you re-read all the passages dealing with Frodo and the Ring, I think you will see that not only was it quite impossible for him to surrender the Ring, in act or will, especially at its point of maximum power, but that this failure was adumbrated from far back.”

And in letter no. 192, Tolkien explicates
“In this case the cause (not the ‘hero’) was triumphant, because by the exercise of pity, mercy, and forgiveness of injury, a situation was produced in which all was redressed and disaster averted. Gandalf certainly foresaw this. See Vol. I p. 68-9.” (emphasis added) The reference is to Gandalf's words that “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.” (Book I ch. 2)

Over the years, I have been a part of many discussions of these passages, stressing that the attentive reader (this ideal fellow, whom none of us probably could match at our first reading :-) ) would have seen the inevitable fault of the plan long before Frodo set out from Rivendell.

Gandalf, it would appear, did what he felt was right, what he was meant to do, and simply trusted providence. However unsatisfying such behaviour may seem to us, I do not doubt that this is exactly what Tolkien wanted to convey: There was no back-up plan.

John Hancock said...

Interesting. I think it was Gandalf who said "Even the great cannot see all ends".

I have given much through to how much of the future the various peoples could see. Clearly the Valar had the most insight being so intimately involved in creation as they were. They then imparted some of this to the elves and maiar (being Gandalf being a maiar) but even though some of these peoples demonstrate some insight it is always limited.

Thinking about it I am not sure that Gandalf would have "known" since Frodo's reaction was reflexive. If you recall Bilbo had a hard time relinquishing the ring but did in the end give it up. I am not sure that we can say for sure that Gandalf knew that Frodo could not part with the ring in the end but we can say that he believed that Gollum would play an important part in its destruction.

It is sometimes difficult in Tolkien to know which part of knowledge comes from foresight and which part comes from wisdom.

Paul W said...

This is an excellent collection of comments. So glad to see them!

winston lemming said...

i think there is another stream of influence, and hope, not here mentioned. it finds its full flower in Faramir, who spent time under the influence and wisdom of Gandalf. Faramir was not tempted by the Ring and is told that he has somewhat of the air of Wizards about him. This to me suggests both a process and an effect similar to the work of the Holy Spirit upon a person, as does much of what Gandalf does and says... he comes alongside and inspires and confronts and cajoles, but more than all those. Faramir, by his reverence for and formative study of Gandalf and the truth Gandalf revealed to him was in a sense inoculated against the folly of ring-lust. During their journey Gandalf is a comforter, again a HS role, to Frodo, but is often pouring both wisdom and wise courage and grace and strength into him for the task. Foresight of failure is no excuse to fail to prepare for success.