Skip to comments.[ Daily Tolkien / Lord Of The Rings ] Count, count, weigh, divide
Posted on 12/02/2002 1:46:01 AM PST by JameRetief
Count, count, weigh, divide
It took a miracle to overthrow Sauron, and Iluvatar's intervention in the War of the Ring may have come on the heels of successive pre-emptive moments which served as warnings to Sauron that his time in Middle-earth was about to come to an end.
Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. Count, count, weigh, divide. Those words are familiar to anyone who has studied the Biblical book of Daniel. Belshazzar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, was having a party when a mysterious finger appeared and traced those words on the wall. When the drunken Babylonians could not decipher the cryptic message, they sent for the aged Daniel, and he told them that their kingdom had been numbered, weighed in the balance, found wanting, and divided between the Medes and the Persians. That night, so the story goes, the Medes and Persians did indeed take the city of Babylon.
History hasn't been the same ever since. The Romans, especially, loved to decipher omens which appeared just prior to special events. Angelic armies have appeared in the skies prior to extended wars or massive battles. Reportedly, as the Nazi and Soviet representatives signed a non-aggression pact in Russia, Adolf Hitler and several guests were standing on the balcony of his private retreat. The sky turned dark red and thunder rumbled. One of the guests, a woman with psychic abilities, told her host that the phenomenon portended "blood, blood, and more blood." Hitler supposedly replied, "Good. Let it begin."
Although Tolkien's stories are filled with omens and portents, few characters ever make much fuss over them. For example, Aragorn warns Gandalf not to enter Moria, and then says little as they wander through the underground passages of the ancient Dwarven kingdom. Only after eight of the nine Walkers escape from Moria does Aragorn remember he had warned Gandalf not to enter the lost realm.
There is never any writing on the wall. Prophets do not wander in from foreign lands, warning the righteous to fear the fury of the Lord. Hedge priests don't crop up across the landscape, preaching about salvation and victory for the faithful in the next crusade. There are no visions on the road to Damascus. Middle-earth is devoid of all the trappings of religious prophecy and psychic phenomena.
Omens are almost always ill in The Lord of the Rings. When Merry says, "I will be ready, even if you bid me ride with you on the Paths of the Dead," Theoden replies, "Speak not words of omen! For there may be more roads than one that could bear that name."
The word "omen" occurs less than ten times in The Lord of the Rings, and it is never used of events such as birds taking flight, clouds moving in certain ways, or blood curling about entrails. Boromir says that Moria "is a name of ill omen". Eomer tells Aragorn that Saruman's "spies slip through every net, and his birds of ill omen are abroad in the sky".
Eomer does not mean that the sudden flight of birds is an omen, but rather that the birds, because of the purpose they serve, are themselves an ill omen. Their presence in the skies over Rohan portends of the war to come. But then, Eomer had plenty of similar omens to judge by: the marshaling of forces at Isengard, Saruman's sending of Orcs across Rohan, and the influence Grima wielded at Edoras. Men like Eomer did not need supernatural warnings to tell them something was wrong.
Faramir says it would be an ill omen if black squirrels from Mirkwood were to enter Ithilien. His ill omen is only an acknowledgement that the world would indeed be out of balance if Mirkwood's creatures were to cross hundreds of miles to reach Ithilien. It's doubtful the old wives of Gondor had pleasant rhymes foretelling doom and gloom when the black squirrels chewed the nuts of Ithil.
In the entire story, there are only a few events which may be safely deemed as supernatural omens. The first is the dream which is sent to Faramir and Boromir (presumably by the Valar, possibly by Iluvatar himself), although we don't actually hear about the dream until after another omen occurs. The second omen is Frodo's dream in Bombadil's house. He seems to dream about faraway Valinor, which in time he will visit, although it's not so clear at the time that is to be his fate.
Some people accept Frodo's dream about Gandalf as an omen, but it doesn't really portend anything. Rather, it seems to be a message, almost as if to say, "Gandalf has been detained, but he is alive and well."
The final supernatural omen seems to be the change in the wind which comes on the morning of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. But is that so much an omen as the breath of Manwe, pushing back the clouds of Mordor so that the Men of Gondor and Rohan can fight their enemies without the horror of Sauron hanging over them? On the one hand, the western wind gives hope to Men. But it is a little late in foretelling the end of Sauron's power in Middle-earth. That is, we've already seen the means of defeating Sauron is a viable plan.
On the other hand, the omen may have been intended for Sauron, almost as if to say, "Your time is at an end, and you have been found wanting. Your realm has been given to the Men of the West." Is that reaching too far? Perhaps, perhaps not. Gandalf advises Aragorn and the Lords of Gondor and Rohan, after the victory of the Pelennor Fields, that Sauron "studies the signs: the Sword that robbed him of his treasure re-made; the winds of fortune turning in our favour, and the defeat unlooked-for of his first assault; the fall of his great Captain."
In the struggle with Sauron, every action portends some further action to come. Aragorn revealed himself to Sauron, hoping to draw Sauron's attention away from the borders of Mordor, thus opening a path for Frodo. But Aragorn had to challenge Sauron, reminding him of his past defeat, and threatening another defeat. Sauron did not have to interpret the songs of birds chirping at his window. He need only analyze practical strategic information.
Yet, as an angelic being himself who had "fallen to Earth", as it were, Sauron was himself capable of playing the omen game. He understood that there were greater powers than Men and Elves, and that these powers knew something of the future. He, too, knew something of the future. The future must have looked pretty good to him. Why else continue on with his plans for world domination? Who would want to play out a game where they knew they were doomed not only to failure, but to a defeat so crushing they would be reduced to near-complete impotence?
Tolkien mentions in one of his letters that Iluvatar tipped the scales in the favor of the Valar. The Valar had sent emissaries to Middle-earth with the intention of guiding Men and Elves to a victory without actually directly intervening. The defeat of Sauron could not be brought about by the marshaling of an army. And, Tolkien suggests in an essay in Morgoth's Ring, there was no need for such an invasion. Elves and Men indeed had the power to defeat Sauron. Only when the Valar's plan backfired, however, and Saruman betrayed their trust, did Iluvatar decide to enter the fray.
Unlike the Valar, he could effect a precision timing and introduce exactly the right amount of new strength at the right point. The Valar had sort of aimed a shotgun at Middle-earth and fired blindly into the mists of Time, hoping they were on the right track. After all, they had a feeling this was sort of how Sauron could be defeated. That feeling would have come from their knowledge of the Music and their recollection of the Vision. Perhaps Manwe even communed with Iluvatar, asking advice.
Iluvatar alone would have known just how perilous the Valar's plan was. Sauron, on the other hand, would have just been awakening within Middle-earth after a long sleep. It should have been a nightmarish sleep, filled with dreams of anger and impotence. The unnatural death of the body which a self-incarnated Ainu experience was such a traumatizing experience they normally could not restore their composure sufficiently to continue interacting with Ea. Sauron beat that game by placing the greater part of his native strength in the One Ring. The Ring anchored him to Middle-earth. But it also made him vulnerable.
Iluvatar apparently did little or nothing in the War of the Last Alliance. We know so little of the war that we cannot say anything conclusively, but Sauron was only temporarily defeated. The Last Alliance failed to act responsibly with the Ring, and it fell to the Valar to inspire Elves and Men to work together again. Responsibility for defeating Sauron thus escalated: first it passed from Elves to the Last Alliance, then to the Valar, and finally to Iluvatar.
But if Iluvatar took a direct hand in events to ensure that Sauron would not be victorious, did he truly do so without warning Sauron? Even Melkor was warned about the consequences of giving into his arrogance and pride when Iluvatar grew angry with Melkor's discord in the Ainulindale. And should Sauron have received any warning, or was his status as fallen angel an exclusionary badge? That is, would Iluvatar have a reason to warn Men but not rebellious Maiar?
Omens played an important part in the psychology of the ancient world. They relieved men of responsibility for the dreadful acts of which they were capable of performing. An ill omen which portended the doom of an army seldom if ever persuaded leaders to stop and think about making peace with their enemies. Instead, they either ignored the omens and went down into infamy (their chroniclers always seem to find good omens which portended victory for them if they won), or else they withdrew from the conflict for a time, waiting for a better omen which promised victory. But either way, the outcome of the conflict was really in the hands of the gods.
Throughout history men have found inventive ways to shift the burdens of their moral responsibilities onto others. If the sky turns red portending blood, blood, and more blood, then is it really the fault of the people who witness the event if they issue the orders that bring about the bloodshed? Of course, asking the purpose of omens inevitably leads to asking whether man has free will. If God knows what we are about to do is so horrible that he sends warnings in the sky, is he not shifting the responsibility back to the men who do the deeds? Or is he merely telling everyone else, "Look out, here it comes again?"
Free will, however, does not exist in God's despite. That is, if he gave us free will he need not struggle with the conequences of that gift. Instead, he can turn the consequences of our choices to his own ends. Not by taking away free will, but by "hardening the heart of the Pharaoh". If a man makes a choice and follows through on it, the resolve he shores himself up with may not be entirely his own. He has made his choice, but now he has become a tool in God's greater plan.
Middle-earth doesn't require a meddlesome God, except in that he will ensure his plan is the one which plays out. That is to say, Tolkien's omens don't have to come from God because they do not relieve men of responsibility. Aragorn's warning to Gandalf was not an ill omen such as might be extended to a leader about to lead his army into disaster. Aragorn's warning was a personal message to Gandalf: Beware! You will pay a price for that passage greater than you expect.
The ill omens associated with Saruman's flocks of birds are not omens born from the will of a god, but rather are the portents which are inherent in the actions taken by Saruman. Anyone who parks an army on your border probably intends to invade, or at least to stir up some sort of trouble. It's a bad sign when the neighbors' troops begin taking lessons in Basic Rohirric. But it's not a sign from God.
And yet, it is not men who are acting irresponsibly in Middle-earth. There are men who diverge from the right path. In fact, many do so, including Bill Ferny, Grima Wormtongue, Denethor, Boromir, and others. They choose to behave in a morally irresponsible fashion, and only Boromir is missed, because in his case his fall was driven by the lure of the One Ring. Who mourns for the servants of Denethor whom Beregond slays or wounds? Instead of doing the right thing, they elect to continuing serving their obviously insane lord. Nonetheless, there are no prophets to call these wayward children back to Iluvatar.
The signs, such as are given at all, are given to Saruman and Sauron, and to Gandalf. It is necessary in the mythic time of Middle-earth to assert the greatest prerogatives to the angelic beings who are gradually withdrawing from Middle-earth, either through death or departure. Hence, when Gandalf and the Balrog confront each other in Moria, Gandalf warns the Balrog that he is no mere man: "I am a servant of the Secret Fire", he says. The Silmarillion tells us that the Secret Fire is the Flame Imperishable, which is with Iluvatar. Gandalf serves the Holy Spirit of God himself. The Balrog should know from past experience that opposing the good guys is not in its best interests.
Gandalf was the Balrog's writing on the wall. In a way, Aragorn's prescient feeling that something might happen to Gandalf was Gandalf's writing on the wall. And it's not that Gandalf was weighed in the balance and found wanting, so much, as that he was being asked to make a hard choice. And Gandalf made the correct choice, but in doing so he had to abandon the Valar's plan. It was the Valar's plan which was flawed, not Gandalf, and Iluvatar needed to make some changes. Gandalf therefore went willingly to the sacrifice, as he had been forewarned.
The warnings for Sauron may not have been quite so direct. In fact, he may not have received any warnings. He is more like the drunken king of Babylon, confident in his power and secure behind the walls of his fortress. But while he revels in his wealth and power, his enemies are burrowing under his fortress.
It is left to Aragorn to warn Sauron that, mene mene tekel upharsin, your kingdom (on Middle-earth) has been numbered (reached the end of its days) and weighed in the balance (has no further worth in the overall scheme of things) and has been divided (between your slaves and your enemies). Gandalf implies as much to the lords of the west when he says that Sauron is studying the signs.
The signs are very real signs. Can it be anything other than an act of divine providence that Merry just happens to be in the right place at the right time to help Eowyn defeat the Lord of the Nazgul? Now, that may raise the question of whether Bombadil was Iluvatar. In fact, Tolkien says that Iluvatar did not manifest himself in Ea (Time and Space). But as Iluvatar could make his will known to some servants (such as Manwe) and through others (such as Aragorn), it follows that he could give Tom (whatever he is) a helping hand in choosing swords for the Hobbits.
In a way, the incident with the Barrow-wight is a portent. The Hobbits are captured by one of Sauron's creatures and are almost dispatched according to his purpose, but instead an outside power intervenes and provides the Hobbits with the means of destroying Sauron's chief captain, the Lord of the Nazgul. Why, exactly, did Frodo awaken in time to summon Bombadil? Was it the Ring which wished to preserve him, or was a higher power acting to ensure that the Ring did not fall into Sauron's hands again?
The incident at Weathertop could serve as another portent. Frodo foolishly put on the One Ring, and that act was a result of the influence of both the Ring and the Nazgul who were present. But somewhere Frodo found the strength to lunge out at the Lord of the Nazgul, as well as the presence of mind (if one may call it that) to yell out the name of Elbereth. "More deadly to him was the name of Elbereth," Aragorn tells Frodo's companions soon after the encounter. How could Frodo have known that? He could not have.
By the time Frodo eludes Sauron at Amon Hen, it should be clear to Sauron that some power is working against him. The Wicked Witch of the West would have said, "Curses! Someone always helps that Hobbit!" Someone helped him in the Barrow-downs, someone helped him at Weathertop, someone helped him at Rivendell, and someone helped him at Amon Hen. In fact, in all four cases, Frodo was helped either directly or indirectly by powerful beings who may very well have been acting at Iluvatar's behest.
Tolkien says that Bombadil had taken a moral vow of poverty. He had impoverished himself with respect to control. That is, Bombadil elected not to impose his will on other creatures. Both Sauron and the Elves pursued control, though of a different fashion. Bombadil was a pacifist, in Tolkien's estimation. But pacifism, or a pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, does not eliminate Bombadil from Iluvatar's plans and purposes.
Bombadil's knowledge of the world is incomplete, but he seems to understand what is at stake and why it's important not to let the Ring fall into Sauron's hands. In terms of role-playing game moral alignments, Bombadil would seem to be a lawful good creature, although many people seem to feel he is a neutral or neutral good. Why shoudl Bombadil be lawful good? Because he does what is right, and he does not impose his own will upon evil creatures. That is, he doesn't enslave them, but he does restrict or prevent them from increasing their power.
In support of that thesis, I can point to the fact that Bombadil agreed to help Frodo before he met the Hobbits. Gildor's Elvenfolk had asked Bombadil to watch out for Frodo and his friends, and to help them on their way. Although Bombadil was unwilling to leave his land and take direct action against Sauron -- indeed, was unlikely to understand the need to hide the Ring in Gandalf's estimation -- he understood that there was good reason to help Frodo. That is, in the struggle, he could give non-violent help to the side which had the moral high ground. He just didn't necessarily share all their priorities.
Some people might argue this makes Bombadil more of a chaotic good personality. That is, his choices would seem random to a casual observer, unstructured and intuitive. But Bombadil acts with purpose in everything he does. He restricts the movement of evil creatures which dwell in his country but he does not take away their independence unless they step over some moral boundary he sees more clearly than others. A lawful good being sees the right and wrong more easily than a chaotic good being.
Like Gandalf, Bombadil serves a purpose in Iluvatar's plan. But unlike Gandalf, Bombadil is not charged by a higher authority with taking a more direct action against Sauron. Gandalf cannot use his power to overthrow Sauron, but he is obligated to work toward Sauron's defeat. Bombadil seems only obligated to preserve an enclave or two. That is, his function in Eriador seems to be that of a special guardian for the Shire and Bree. Gandalf suggests at the Council of Elrond that Bombadil had "withdrawn to a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waiting perhaps for a change of days, and he will not step beyond them."
Gandalf doesn't speculate on why Bombadil has withdrawn to that land, though Bombadil himself hints at the reason when he bids farewell to the Hobbits: "I've got things to do, my making and my singing, my talking and my walking, and my watching of the country. Tom can't be always near to open doors and willow-cracks. Tom has his house to mind, and Goldberry is waiting."
In a very Ent-like fashion, Tom explains that he has responsibilities. His singing, talking, and walking may serve more purpose than to amuse the local water-lillies and critters. Maybe he is keeping the evil forces which have permeated the land in check. Maybe he is helping preserve something of Eriador's ancient civilization by holding back the anger of the Old Forest from overwhelming the Shire. When Gildor promises Frodo that he'll ask others to help the Hobbits, he names "the Wandering Companies...and those that have power for good". Bombadil is clearly one of "those that have power for good", for all he does is good, and he opposes evil in his own way.
Bombadil's function in the story thus serves to show that all the world opposes Sauron, not just his philosophical opposites among the leaders of the West. Bombadil's intervention legitimizes Frodo's task and paves the way for clearer signs of warning to Sauron. He might not have been able to win pardon from either the Valar or Iluvatar before the end, but he might have been able to avoid the inevitable. Or perhaps he could simply have accepted his fate and not inflicted so much harm and suffering upon the lesser creatures of the world.
At every step, Sauron was given some sign of warning, but instead of acknowledging that he was in trouble, he reclined in the comfort of his arrogance and proceeded with his own designs. He ignored the writing on the wall and when the end came it was really his own fault and not because he had been outwitted. Sauron went up against a greater power than an alliance of Men, Elves, Hobbits, and Valar. He went up against Iluvatar, and there was never really any hope of victory for him.
So, by the time the west wind blew at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Sauron's fate was sealed. Frodo and Sam still had to cross much of Mordor to reach their destination, and they had perils yet to face. But wherever they needed help, there they found it. Sauron decided he could win the war by crushing his enemies before they learned how to use the One Ring against him. And he thereby lost everything, because he didn't stop to consider just exactly who might be helping the Hobbit slip through his fingers at every turn.
Author: Michael Martinez
Published on: July 30, 2001
Michael Martinez is the author of Visualizing Middle-earth
Coming from many sources, these articles cover many aspects of Tolkien and his literary works. If anyone would like for me to ping them directly when I post articles such as this let me know. Enjoy!
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13) Count, count, weigh, divide by Michael Martinez
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