War of the Ring

[This piece was written around 2004-5. I have given it a light edit, but otherwise left it alone.]

While the fans have been bickering over the changes which Peter Jackson made to the Book when he adapted Tolkien’s epic for the screen another small, but no less passionate, group of people have been comparing the adaption not with a fantasy novel written by a middle-aged Oxford don but with the real events which are slowly being untangled from the myths which have gathered around them.

‘It’s been an interesting three years,’ is the restrained view of Conrad Windward, reader in Middle Earth studies at University of British Columbia. ‘The Tolkienists are very strong on his text, but weak on the history, Jackson has had to work within that tradition, but there are signs he has been engaging with the scholars, but in a quite a subtle way.’

‘We respect for Tolkien as a writer and a linguist, but we are realistic about his skills as a historian. No one reads Tolkien for the facts any more than classicists would take their view of ancient Rome from  Robert Graves’ I Claudius.’

Windward is one of a growing band of academics for whom Middle Earth is not just a few hours entertainment, but a life’s work: ‘Like most other people in the field I was first attracted to Middle Earth by the Lord of the Rings, but unlike my friends I wanted to know what was behind this massive edifice.’

Windward was fortunate in his choice of university: in his final year the third age of Gondor was offered as a specialist subject in his history degree. Windward went on to his doctoral research on the relations between Gondor and Dol Amroth.

Windward is clear that Tolkien’s achievement has to be judged against his period. It is very much a book of its time, reflecting its author’s concerns which are most clearly visible in his anachronistic portrayal of hobbit life in the Shire as a green rural idyll. (One recent re-translation of the text suggests that what Tolkien read as tobacco seems more likely to be betel nuts; which conjures a very different picture of Merry and Pippin waiting at the gates of Isengard.)

When Tolkien wrote the book, Middle Earth studies were barely tolerated in the Universities: it was ten years after the publication of The Lord of the Rings that the first dedicated academic post was established in the University of Alberta and a further five years before the University of Birmingham created the Gamgee chair. Windward sees Tolkien as a solitary, but gifted, amateur, ‘strong on philology, but ill-equipped to tackle the innate biases of the sources’.

Not all Middle Earth scholars are as generous: George Cumborne’s keynote address to the Vancouver Middle Earth conference referred to Tolkien as a ‘pernicious influence who has only done the subject harm and held us back through the association with fairy tales and wicked witches’.

For Andrew Fox at East Midlands University the situation is more complex: ‘Tolkien was writing at a time when the majority of sources we have today were unavailable. Virtually the only documents available in the nineteen-thirties were those from the Shire – all found in the notoriously partisan Red Book of Westmarch. He had no access to the collections in Germany, nor to the sites and documents being uncovered in Russia. If he had seen that material he would have written a substantially different book.

‘We can only speculate on the book he would have written had he access to the collections held in Germany and, more significantly, the Soviet Union. The fall of communism has provided a huge boost to the subject.’

One of the key discoveries made during Soviet excavations near Samarkand in the 1950s (but only published in 2003) were copies of manuscripts from the archives of Dol Amroth, dating originally from early in the fourth age. As the princes of Dol Amroth were of elvish blood and had little connection with Aragorn and his dynasty the documents tell a different story to the one we are accustomed to reading.

‘The Dol Amroth archives have made seismic changes to our understanding of the “War of the Ring”,’ says Windward. ‘Particularly the part played by Aragorn. If we follow the Red Book of Westmarch, Aragorn is a hero, the last of the heroic resistance to Sauron. With the Dol Amroth papers we meet Aragorn the politician and Aragorn the failure.’

Windward believes Tolkien unconsciously expressed the truth when he described the suspicion with which Aragorn and his were viewed the inhabitants of Bree.  The raggle-taggle rangers, who were tolerated but not trusted by the elves of Rivendell, rarely gave an account of themselves or their wanderings in Middle Earth; hardly surprising when we discover that by the last centuries of the Third Age the rangers had allied themselves with Sauron.

It is impossible to determine exactly when this alliance began, but the reasons for it are clear enough. The Last Alliance of men and elves which had put an end to Sauron’s second empire was long gone. The Northern kingdom had fallen to the assault of the Witch King of Angmar and Gondor was fighting its two thousand year retreat. The dwarves and orcs were locked in their destructive wars and the elves took no thought for anything outside their woods The only hope the rangers could see for an orderly future was with the efficient but admittedly brutal empire of Sauron.

Because Sauron’s diaries and papers were lost in the destruction of Barad Dur – a matter of continuing regret to historians – no copy of the protocols of this agreement exist, but we now know, with some certainty that the rangers threw themselves into Sauron’s search for the ring. In return they expected to receive the rule of the Western lands from Forochel to Umbar, independent, and free of Sauron’s interference. The implications of that discovery are staggering.

Aragorn’s search for the ring took him to Mordor, where he tracked down Gollum and received the information that Bilbo’s ring was the One Ring. Together with Sauron, Aragorn drew up a plan to return the ring to its master. Aragorn was to befriend the hobbits and use them to deliver the ring to Sauron, without incurring any suspicion of his own motives. As Boris Volonovsky, put it ‘he could no more take the ring than leave it with the hobbits.’ Aragorn needed the hobbits to carry the ring because he could not carry it himself without exposing his plans to Gandalf and the elves.

Careful herding by the Ringwraiths threw Aragorn into the hobbit’s company at Bree and kept them together until Rivendell. At the Council of Elrond Aragorn let Gandalf propose the Fellowship, apparently only volunteering as an afterthought. Gandalf’s disappearance in Moria was not an accident: thanks to Aragorn the Balrog knew he was coming.

The Red Book makes much of Boromir’s obsession with the ring: the historians agree about the obsession, but not the object. Boromir’s suspicions of the ranger had been planted by his father Denethor. Somehow, Boromir realised what was going to happen and confronted Aragorn, who murdered him and blamed the orc band which was waiting to accompany him and the ring to Mordor.

But why, having gone to all that trouble to get ring, did Aragorn let Frodo and Sam trudge to Mordor instead of taking it there himself? Andrew Fox believes the answer is obvious. ‘No one, except perhaps Gandalf, imagined two hobbits, who only months before were newcomers to the wild, could escape capture when the armies of Mordor were looking for them. As far as Aragorn was concerned his job was done as soon as Frodo and Sam wandered into the orc-infested wilderness of Emyn Muil. All there was left for him to do was to wait for Sauron to find the ring and win the war.’

Suddenly Aragorn’s more puzzling decisions make sense: by chasing orcs across the plains of Rohan and then taking the Paths of the Dead he was trying to stay out of the war. Even the desperate last stand before the Black Gate was an attempt to deliver the surviving army of the West into Sauron’s hands.

What did Aragorn think as the tower of Barad Dur fell and he became de facto overlord of the West? As Windward puts it, ‘The final irony was that the failure of his own plans, through the hobbits’ unexpected success, gave him a prize greater than the one he had plotted for, and a reputation he did not deserve.’

A reputation he was very careful to promote through symbolic act and monumental statuary. The near-cult status of the Frodo and Sam comes out of this distraction with the victor’s privilege of writing the history.

Most of the reign was dedicated to covering his tracks by almost ceaseless warfare against the Easterlings and Southrons, not to mention the campaigns to wipe out all the orcs who survived the fall of Mordor. But despite the bloodshed, a whisper of the truth came to the unknown scribe at Dol Amroth.

And has Windward watched the films? ‘Of course. They are a beautiful crafted version of a modern myth which, like many myths has its roots in real events. That I know about the history should enhance the experience, rather than diminish it.’