III. C. Story Internal Questions: History and Happenings

  1. Why didn't they just have an Eagle fly the Ring to Mt. Doom?

    This debate is most interesting when limited to "story internal" arguments (i.e. "Otherwise it would be a dull book" is a cop-out). One possibility is that there were no Eagles available when they were needed. Another common argument is that Mordor was well defended, while the Eagles were wary even of shepherds with bows. It may have been an issue of secrecy: a group of Eagles far from the Misty Mountains flying toward Mordor might well have drawn Sauron's attention, and might have even hinted at the plan to destroy the Ring. Some suggest that like the Istari, the Eagles were forbidden by the Valar to help so directly. Another suggestion is that Frodo may have needed the long journey to (hopefully) develop enough strength of will to cast the Ring into the Fire. Many other explanations are seen repeatedly as well. In the end, most participants tend to agree that an Eagle taking the Ring to Mount Doom would not have worked.

    But that is not the end of the discussion. Even if those objections are valid, many believe that this topic should have come up at the Council of Elrond (after all, the book shows discussions of other flawed options there, like sending the Ring to Bombadil or throwing it into the Sea). And some people still think that making use of the Eagles would have been effective (even if only for part of the journey, rather than flying all the way to Mordor). These aspects of the question remain unresolved.

  2. Were the barrow blades magical? In what way?

    The swords that the Hobbits got from the Barrow Downs were apparently magical in some way: in "The Departure of Boromir", Aragorn says this of Merry and Pippin's blades:

    Doubtless the Orcs despoiled them, but feared to keep the knives, knowing them for what they are: work of Westernesse, wound about with spells for the bane of Mordor.

    Some have objected that Men could not use magic "spells", as Tolkien discusses in Letter #155: "'magic' in this story... is an inherent power not possessed or attainable by Men as such." However, against this in the margin Tolkien wrote, "But the Numenoreans used 'spells' in making swords?" (and he omitted the whole discussion of magic from the final version of the letter).

    The magic of the blades is confirmed in The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion by Hammond and Scull. In their final comment on the chapter "A Knife in the Dark", they quote from an unpublished portion of Tolkien's essay "The Hunt for the Ring". Explaining the Witch-king's thoughts after Weathertop, Tolkien writes that Frodo "had dared to strike at him with an enchanted sword made by his own enemies long ago for his destruction", and that a wound from a barrow blade "would have been as deadly to him as the Mordor-knife [sic] to Frodo (as was proved in the end)". Unfinished Tales indicates that all versions of "The Hunt for the Ring" were written between the publication of FotR and the completion of RotK, so this reflects Tolkien's view while writing the story.

    Even apart from this unpublished essay, there are several reasons to believe that the barrow blades were particularly harmful to the Nazgul. A major piece of evidence is the effect of Merry's blade on the Witch King, as discussed in question III.C.4 (which should be read as part of this entry). A related quote comes from Letter #210, where Tolkien compares that case to what would have happened if Sam had "[sunk] his blade into the Ringwraith's thigh" on Weathertop: "the result would have been much the same...: the Wraith would have fallen down and the sword would have been destroyed."

    In earlier drafts of LotR, the text itself was explicit that the Nazgul feared the barrow blades: in the chapter "At Rivendell" of The Return of the Shadow, Gandalf refers to them as "the one kind of sword the Riders fear." Although no such statement survived into the final text, it is apparent that this remained Tolkien's intent. Question III.C.3 discusses how the barrow blades were part of the reason the Nazgul did not take the Ring at Weathertop (and should also be read as part of this entry).

    We know almost nothing about whether the barrow blades had any special effect on other evil creatures. In "Flotsam and Jetsam", Merry says that Ugluk (leader of the Uruk-hai band) took the swords but then "threw the things away as if they burned him." However, this may just be a poetic description of the normal fear mentioned by Aragorn in the first quote above.

  3. Why didn't the Nazgul take the Ring at Weathertop?

    The Nazgul withdrew from Weathertop despite a five-against-one fighting advantage and with the One Ring almost within their grasp. Many share Aragorn's confusion about this: "I cannot think why they have gone and do not attack again." The true reason appears to have been a combination of several factors.

    Aragorn's analysis in "Flight to the Ford" is least in part accurate:

    I don't think they expected to be resisted... They will come again another night, if we cannot escape. They are only waiting, because they think that their purpose is almost accomplished, and that the Ring cannot fly much further.

    Many have considered this explanation inadequate: the Ring seems like too great a prize for the Nazgul to take such foolish caution. Some quote Letter #210 where Tolkien says that the Nazgul "have no great physical power against the fearless", arguing that Aragorn was able to drive them away. However, this quote does not preclude them from having "normal" physical power, and the Witch King was willing to do battle with skilled warriors at other times.

    Tolkien's most detailed explanation of this issue has recently been published in The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion by Hammond and Scull. In their final note on "A Knife in the Dark", they quote from a previously unpublished portion of Tolkien's essay "The Hunt for the Ring" discussing the Witch-king's thoughts after Weathertop (already mentioned in question III.C.2). The first factor mentioned is that "the Bearer has been marked with the Knife and (he [the Witch-king] thinks) cannot last more than a day or two". But more important, the Witch-king appears to have been afraid:

    Escaping a wound that would have been as deadly to him as the Mordor-knife [sic] to Frodo (as was proved in the end), he withdrew and hid for a while, out of doubt and fear both of Aragorn and especially of Frodo.

    The excerpt says that his fear of Frodo was a combination of several factors, including Frodo's ability to resist attack at all, his use of an "enchanted sword" (presumably gained after overcoming a Barrow-wight), and his use of the name Elbereth, "a name of terror to the Nazgul" that connected Frodo to the High Elves. Realizing for the first time that this mission to find the Ring "was one of great peril to himself", the Witch-king fled, until "fear of Sauron, and the forces of Sauron's will" drove him back to the hunt. (Unfinished Tales indicates that all versions of "The Hunt for the Ring" were written between the publication of FotR and the completion of RotK, so this passage does reflect Tolkien's belief while writing the story.)

    Evidence for much of this can be found in the text itself. After remarking that Frodo's sword had not harmed the Witch King, Aragorn says, "More deadly to [the Witch King] was the name of Elbereth." This idea is clearer in an early draft: in The Return of the Shadow ("At Rivendell"), a fragment includes Gandalf saying, "Not to mention courage - and also swords and a strange and ancient name. Later on I must be told about that curious sword of yours, and how you knew the name of Elbereth." (Presumably Gandalf is discussing this very question.) However, the name was probably not a major factor on its own: in the final text it is Aragorn who comments on "Elbereth", but he did not attempt to use it during the attack himself.

    As discussed in question III.C.2, the danger to the Nazgul from the barrow blades can also be guessed from the text, though it is by no means clear. The description of the attack on Weathertop is consistent with the idea that they fear such weapons: after Frodo put on the Ring, three of the wraiths

    rushed towards him. Desperate, he drew his own sword, and it seemed to him that it flickered red, as if it was a firebrand. Two of the figures halted. The third... sprang forward and bore down on Frodo.

    All of the wraiths seem to have left immediately after the Witch King stabbed Frodo. As Frodo was seeing into the "wraith world" with the Ring on, some read the description of his sword flickering red as an indication that its magical power was directly visible there. Later, as half-faded Frodo faces the Nazgul at the Ford, he draws his sword "with a red flash". This evidence is not entirely convincing on its own, but in light of Tolkien's writings in "The Hunt for the Ring" it appears to be quite solid.

  4. Who killed the Witch-king, Merry or Eowyn?

    Most agree that Eowyn's stroke was the immediate cause of the Witch-king's death: she certainly struck something, and his death cry and disappearance followed immediately after her blow. The primary debate is whether Merry's role was simply to provide a distraction, or whether his sword (taken from the Barrow Downs) was necessary to break some "spell of protection" that would otherwise have guarded the Witch-king from harm.

    Question III.C.2 discusses the magical nature of the hobbits' barrow blades and their effect on the Nazgul. In the context of Merry's encounter with the Witch King in "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields", the crucial statement is that

    No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.

    (See question III.C.2 for a related quote and further discussion.) Most read this quote as a direct statement that Merry's sword was especially harmful to the Nazgul, which is confirmed in other writings (as discussed in the earlier question). It is less clear what "spell" is being broken: some read this as a poetic description of a (nonmagical) collapse due to (possibly magical) great pain, while others take it to mean that the Nazgul had only indirect, magical control over their physical bodies. Based in part on this quote, some go even farther and suggest that the Witch King was immune to physical weapons before being hit by the barrow blade. No clear answer is known.

    It is worth taking particular note of the quote from portions of "The Hunt for the Ring" first published in Hammond and Scull's Reader's Companion (and discussed in questions III.C.2 and III.C.3), indicating that a wound from a barrow blade "would have been as deadly to [the Witch-king] as the Mordor-knife [sic] to Frodo (as was proved in the end)". The parenthetical remark must refer to Merry's blow, and could be read in a wide variety of ways. It might mean that Merry's blow was indeed the "deadly" one, or that it would have proven deadly within hours or days if Eowyn had not made the point moot, or simply that it provided a deadly distraction.

  5. Did Frodo and the other mortals who passed over the Sea eventually die?

    [This updates question V.C.1 of the Tolkien LessFAQ.]

    While he seems to have been initially unsure, Tolkien eventually made it clear that mortals who sailed to the West would remain mortal. In Letter #154, he explains this:

    ...the mythical idea underlying is that for mortals, since their 'kind' cannot be changed for ever, this is strictly only a temporary reward: a healing and redress of suffering. They cannot abide for ever, and though they cannot return to mortal earth, they can and will 'die' - of free will, and leave the world.

    He makes a similar comment in Letter #246, saying that

    Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over Sea to heal him - if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to 'pass away': no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time.

    An interesting addendum to these statements can be found in the appendix to the "Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth" in Morgoth's Ring. After explaining that the spirits of dead mortals go to the halls of Mandos, and that only Mandos and Manwe know where they go "after the time of recollection in those silent halls", Tolkien makes the following comment on Frodo:

    The sojourn of Frodo in Eressea - then on to Mandos? - was only an extended form of this. Frodo would eventually leave the world (desiring to do so). So that the sailing in ship was equivalent to death.

    This leads to the fascinating (if uncertain) suggestion that Frodo and the other mortals who went West may have gone to Mandos while still physically alive.

  6. Did Sam follow Frodo into the West?

    While LotR strongly implies that Sam eventually sailed West, it never says so explicitly. In "The Grey Havens", Frodo says to Sam, "Your time may come." Appendix B says that in S.Y. 1482, Sam was last seen by Elanor in the Tower Hills, and that "the tradition [was] handed down from Elanor that Samwise passed the Towers, and went to the Grey Havens, and passed over Sea". However, Letter #154 makes Tolkien's intent clear. In it, he writes that

    certain 'mortals'... may pass with the Elves to Elvenhome. Thus Frodo ... and Bilbo, and eventually Sam.

    Whether Frodo was still alive when Sam reached Elvenhome is uncertain, but it does seem possible: in the same letter, Tolkien says that mortals in the West "can and will 'die' - of free will", so Frodo may have waited to pass on until Sam arrived.

  7. What is known about the Blue Wizards?

    [This supplements question V.E.2 of the Tolkien FAQ.]

    The Tolkien FAQ discusses most of what is known about the other two Istari (out of five). As explained there, the essay on the Istari in Unfinished Tales tells us that their names in Valinor were Alatar and Pallando, and that they went into the east of Middle-earth and did not return. In that essay and in Letter #211, Tolkien suggests that they may have failed in their missions, though he never said that was certain.

    A small amount of new information on the Blue Wizards appeared in the "Last Writings" section of The Peoples of Middle-earth. One interesting point is that Tolkien seems to have considered the idea that Saruman "was letting out a piece of private information" when he revealed their existence by mentioning "the rods of the Five Wizards" in The Two Towers.

    In another passage, Tolkien gives other names for the Blue Wizards, "Morinehtar" and "Romestamo" ("Darkness-slayer" and "East-helper"), and suggests that the Blue Wizards came to Middle-earth in the Second Age (much earlier than the other Istari) in the company of Glorfindel (for which possibility see question III.B.7). In this writing, he is considerably more optimistic about their success:

    They must have had very great influence on the history of the Second Age and Third Age in weakening and disarraying the forces of East ... who would both in the Second Age and Third Age otherwise have ... outnumbered the West.

  8. Who was aware that a Balrog lived in Moria?

    Sauron almost certainly knew of the Balrog, at least through his Orcs and very possibly more directly. The Dwarves knew that "Durin's Bane" was still in Moria when Dain saw it inside the gate at the battle of Azanulbizar, but they may not have known what it was: at the Council of Elrond, Gloin calls it simply "the nameless fear."

    In "Lothlorien", Celeborn tells the Fellowship, "We long have feared that under Caradhras a terror slept." This indicates that he wasn't sure anything was there, and suggests that he did not know the nature of the "terror". Similarly, in "The Bridge of Khazad-dum", Gandalf clearly does not know what to expect: after confronting the Balrog through the door of the Chamber of Mazarbul, he says, "what it was I cannot guess". When the company finally sees it, he says, "A Balrog. Now I understand." If neither Gandalf nor Celeborn knew of its presence, it seems unlikely that any of the White Council did.

  9. Did Elves and Dwarves generally get along?

    In general, Elves and Dwarves were allies against Morgoth and Sauron. However, their attitudes toward each other seem to have varied substantially at different times and places. In some cases, they were great friends, while in others they viewed each other with substantial mistrust. There are indications of the latter in the Sindarin/Silvan kingdoms at the time of the War of the Ring, while something approaching the former held in Rivendell, where Gloin and Gimli were warmly welcomed.

    Opinions on the frequency of each attitude cover the entire spectrum. When Bilbo first meets Elves in The Hobbit ("A Short Rest"), we read that "They were elves of course. ...Dwarves don't get on well with them", but that statement is certainly a broad generalization. One of the more direct statements on the issue can be found in the introduction to the Second Age in Appendix B of LotR:

    The Noldor were great craftsmen and less unfriendly to the Dwarves than the Sindar; but the friendship that grew up between the people of Durin and the Elven-smiths of Eregion was the closest that there has ever been between the two races.

    In general, this passage seems to imply that unfriendliness between Elves and Dwarves was common and that true friendship between them was relatively rare. However, it also demonstrates that such friendships did exist.

  10. Where was the Ring when Numenor was destroyed?

    [This updates question V.E.3 of the Tolkien LessFAQ.]

    This question is answered in detail in Letter #211. Tolkien says that when Sauron was taken to Numenor as a prisoner, "he naturally had the One Ring". He goes on to say that at the time of the Akallabeth, "Though reduced to 'a spirit of hatred borne on a dark wind', I do not think one need boggle at this spirit carrying off the One Ring, upon which his power of dominating minds now largely depended." We know that Sauron could (eventually) rebuild a physical body even in spirit form, so carrying the Ring to safety seems plausible as well. (In fact, the Valar and Maiar must have used this sort of ability to shape the world in the first place.)

    A passage from "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age" in The Silmarillion is sometimes cited as evidence that, contrary to the statements above, Sauron left the Ring in Mordor before going to Numenor. In that essay, after Sauron returned to Middle-earth and rebuilt his body, "He took up again the great Ring". However, this is not a contradiction: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, one definition of "take up" is

    c. With special obj., implying a purpose of using in some way: as, to take up one's pen, to proceed or begin to write; to take up a book (i.e. with the purpose to read); to take up the (or one's) cross (see CROSS n. 4, 10): to take up ARMS, [etc.]

    Some have also argued that Ar-Pharazon would have demanded that Sauron give him the Ring, but (again in Letter #211) Tolkien says that "I do not think Ar-Pharazon knew anything about the One Ring."

  11. Who was the oldest inhabitant of Middle-earth?

    The answer depends on exactly what the question means. Below are listed a number of possible answers (as of the end of the Third Age), starting from the oldest.

    1. Eru Iluvatar, the Creator... but he never inhabited Ea itself.
    2. The Ainur (including Sauron, Gandalf, etc.): they existed before the Music that gave Middle-earth form.
    3. Tom Bombadil. In addition to his direct claim that he is "Eldest" (confirmed at the Council of Elrond), he says that he "was here before the river and the trees", and that he "remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn". If he is one of the Ainur, this implies that he was the first of them to enter Middle-earth; if not, it probably means he was the first "native" inhabitant.
    4. Some trees in Fangorn (and maybe elsewhere): Treebeard says that in some parts of his forest, "the trees are older than I am."
    5. Treebeard. Gandalf tells Theoden that he is "the eldest and chief of the Ents, and when you speak with him you will hear the speech of the oldest of all living things." (Given #4, Gandalf must actually mean something like "speaking living things", and given #2 and #3 he must be using a specific definition of "living".)

    If any of the Fathers of the Dwarves were alive (having been "reincarnated"), they might fall between #4 and #5. As any living Elf would certainly be one of Gandalf's "living things", all of them must be younger than Treebeard. (Although the Ents awoke only after the Elves, this does not prove that none of the "First Elves" remained alive: Treebeard could conceivably have existed as a normal tree before awakening as an Ent.)

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