28

A controversial question, I know, and I'm not asking gratuitously. I have no irons in this fire and haven't formed a conclusive opinion one way or another. I'm asking because I don't quite thoroughly understand the full nature of the One Ring and how it affects those who bear it.

I know we find out more about Isildur in The Silmarillion; however, I haven't read that yet. Regarding my question, I'm referring to the following two incidents.

First, the obvious. Isildur refused to destroy the One Ring following his defeat of Sauron in what I believe is called the War of the Last Alliance. He was in possession of the Ring for a very short period of time when Elrond took him to Mt. Doom, where he urged Isildur to destroy the Ring and Isildur refused.

Second, the other obvious. The Wikia refers to this as the Disaster at Gladden Fields and here Isildur is killed by Orcs that ambush him; his sons and the Dunedain traveling with them are also killed (except for three). The element of this that bothers me is the fact that Isildur ran away with the Ring. Yes, his son Elendur urged Isildur to flee, to save the Ring, but it occurs to me that most parents likely wouldn't abandon their children to death, no matter the motivation.

Was Isildur a coward? Or were his actions controlled (or at least influenced) by the Ring? Did the Ring control Isildur's choices, choices that could be interpreted as cowardly? Are these acts selfish and cowardly or are they understandable reactions?

What does canon have to say? By canon I mean the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Silmarillion, or J.R.R. Tolkien's letters and papers. Christopher Tolkien interviews are fine too.

I just finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring, and have begun reading The Two Towers.

  • 12
    He executed a strategic withdrawal – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 30 '12 at 1:51
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    The over-arching metaphor of the ring should serve to explain all behavior around it, but this sort of theme is outside of the fourth wall. The more a person is burdened with the ring the more they fall victim to it. For reasons outside of Isildur's natural mind he felt the need to protect and keep the ring. This wasn't out of cowardice, but lust for the ring. If you're really looking for canon here, there is no such passage describing Isildur's tragedy being because he feared anything. The ring was simply too strong. – Gorchestopher H May 30 '12 at 2:19
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    I'd also like to point out that it's not a controversial question, nor is it heavily contended. The whole "point" of the ring is exactly what you see happening to Isildur, which is why that very happening is used as a foreshadow and warning of the rings power, basically every time it's ever mentioned. – Gorchestopher H May 31 '12 at 2:34
  • It's a fine question from someone who doesn't know LotR canon like the back of their hand. Relax. – Gabe Willard May 31 '12 at 2:51
  • @GabeWillard I'm just saying, no need to worry about it being controversial. It's not. – Gorchestopher H May 31 '12 at 12:34
33

In The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age," we see this description of Isildur's desire to keep the Ring:

The Ruling Ring passed out of the knowledge even of the Wise in that age; yet it was not unmade. For Isildur would not surrender it to Elrond and Círdan who stood by. They counselled him to cast it into the fire of Orodruin nigh at hand, in which it had been forged, so that it should perish, and the power of Sauron be for ever diminished, and he should remain only as a shadow of malice in the wilderness. But Isildur refused this counsel, saying: ‘This I will have as were-gild for my father's death, and my brothers. Was it not I that dealt the Enemy his death-blow?' And the Ring that he held seemed to him exceedingly fair to look on; and he would not suffer it to be destroyed.

From this, we can see that Isildur seemed either largely ignorant of the true nature of the Ring, or he simply disbelieved that Sauron could return while the Ring was whole. It's power immediately entranced him, and he became enamored of it. He refused to yield what he saw as the "spoils of battle."

In Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond," we are told of what Isildur himself wrote regarding his feelings for the Ring:

And after these words Isildur described the Ring, such as he found it.

"It was hot when I first took it, hot as a glede, and my hand was scorched, so that I doubt if ever again I shall be free of the pain of it. Yet even as I write it is cooled, and it seemeth to shrink, though it loseth neither its beauty nor its shape. Already the writing upon it, which at first was as clear as red flame, fadeth and is now only barely to be read. It is fashioned in an elven-script of Eregion, for they have no letters in Mordor for such subtle work; but the language is unknown to me. I deem it to be a tongue of the Black Land, since it is foul and uncouth. What evil it saith I do not know; but I trace here a copy of it, lest it fade beyond recall. The Ring misseth, maybe, the heat of Sauron's hand, which was black and yet burned like fire, and so Gil-galad was destroyed; and maybe were the gold made hot again, the writing would be refreshed. But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing: of all the works of Sauron the only fair. It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain."

Isildur was entranced by the Ring; by its beauty, by its mystical nature. Again, he seems to be fully ignorant of the Ring's nature.

We are given a glimpse into the nature of the Ring's power from Gandalf in FotR, "The Shadow of the Past." Gandalf explains Gollum's relationship with the Ring:

'All the "great secrets" under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night: there was nothing more to find out, nothing worth doing, only nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering. He was altogether wretched. He hated the dark, and he hated light more: he hated everything, and the Ring most of all.'

'What do you mean?' said Frodo. 'Surely the Ring was his precious and the only thing he cared for? But if he hated it, why didn't he get rid of it, or go away and leave it?'

'You ought to begin to understand, Frodo, after all you have heard,' said Gandalf. 'He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself. He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter. 'A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. At most he plays with the idea of handing it on to someone else's care – and that only at an early stage, when it first begins to grip. But as far as I know Bilbo alone in history has ever gone beyond playing, and really done it. He needed all my help, too. And even so he would never have just forsaken it, or cast it aside. It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him.'

We must consider, the Ring is not just an ordinary piece of jewelry; it contains a portion of Sauron's power as a Maiar. Part of Sauron's power is the ability to dominate others wills. By creating the Rings of Power, he meant to instill each Ring with part of his will, and tie them all to the Ruling Ring, the One. Merely possessing the Ring was an invitation to that will of Sauron to control you. It was such a subtle control, that you would scarcely be aware of it. You would find it beautiful, or precious, and be unable to see the evil of it. Sauron was a great deceiver throughout his narrative; the Ring also possessed this aspect of its creator. Frodo was resilient to this power in two ways: he was a humble and good spirited Hobbit, and also he was aware of the Rings corrupting nature from the start of his possession. He willed himself to resist its siren song, whenever he could. Even with a strong, pure will, he gave in occasionally. By the time he arrived at Mt. Doom, his will was exhausted with struggling with Sauron's, and he gave in fully, although because of the desire of Gollum for the Ring, Frodo lost it, and it was destroyed. The prophecy of Gandalf about the Ring, that it "could not be willingly destroyed," proved true: only through a greed-fueled accident was the Ring finally undone.

In the end, I do not believe that Isildur was a coward. Isildur was well intentioned throughout his narrative. He simply fell victim to something he did not fully understand, and was not prepared to resist. He was so entranced by Sauron's will, he could not hope to risk losing it, even over the lives of his sons and men. For all his loyalty to it, The Ring decided it was time to disappear from the world's awareness, and it led to Isildur's undoing.

  • 1
    "For all his loyalty to it, The Ring decided it was time to disappear from the world's awareness, and it led to Isildur's undoing." ... sounds like an old girlfriend of mine. – Omegacron Feb 5 '15 at 21:43
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    So the Ring is sort of like Sauron's Horcrux? – Wallnut Jun 8 '18 at 14:47
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    @Wallnut it is, actually. – Ernest Friedman-Hill Jun 8 '18 at 14:49
  • @Wallnut No. If that were the case Sauron wouldn't have been reduced to an impotent shadow never to threaten the world again would he? Or did Voldemort 'die' when his last Horcrux was gone? No. That analogy I see time and again and it's invalid utterly: the purpose of each artefact is different. – Pryftan Jan 9 at 0:59
  • @ErnestFriedman-Hill No. It's not. See my comment to Wallnut: If that were the case Sauron wouldn't have been reduced to an impotent shadow never to threaten the world again would he? Or did Voldemort 'die' when his last Horcrux was gone? No. That analogy I see time and again and it's invalid utterly: the purpose of each artefact is different. There's a big difference. As for the answer it was pride. This is noted in Unfinished Tales as well as The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. – Pryftan Jan 9 at 1:00
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Isildur is a tragic hero, not a coward. Somewhat vilified at the Council of Elrond, especially in the film, it is easy to see how one could question his character. Isildur redeems himself shortly before his death in the Disaster of the Gladden Fields as told in Unfinished Tales.

The Dunedain are set upon by a host of overly aggressive orcs incensed by the Ring which Isildur carries:

And though it was unknown to them the Ring, cut from his black hand two years before, was still laden with Sauron's evil will and called to all his servants for their aid.

As the orcs press their attack Isildur finally understands the evil he carries:

"I cannot use it. I dread the pain of touching it. And I have not yet found the strength to bend it to my will. It needs one greater than I now know myself to be. My pride has fallen. It should go to the Keepers of the Three.

As it becomes clear that the Dunedain will be defeated, Elendur, Isildur's son urges him to leave the battle so that he can take the Ring to the elves. Isildur responds:

I knew that i must do so;but I feared the pain. Nor could I go without your leave. Forgive me and my pride which has brought you to this doom.

Isildur has finally realized his mistake in taking the Ring for his own. He is broken and humbled. Knowing that just the touch of the Ring causes him great pain, he puts it on, hopeful that he can escape the battle and take the Ring to Keepers of the Three (elven rings) who are better equipped, physically and morally, to destroy the Ring.

  • +1. I forgot about that passage. Would've made a good addition to my answer. :P – Gabe Willard May 30 '12 at 23:55
8

Coward is definitely not the right word. In fact, Isildur, among the faithful Númenóreans, tended to take the greatest dangers, though he didn't always seem quite up to the challenge and always fled in the end; but it was always some item that he saved thereby (or attempted so), rather than just his own life.

It was he who saved the fruit of the White Tree from Sauron. Though it's not quite clear what significance the White Tree actually has, it seems to be a very important symbol for the connection to Aman as well as the heirship of Elros, and Isildur was certainly famed for this heist. At the time, Sauron was virtually the dictator of Númenór, and entering the protected gardens in which Nimloth grew was quite a reckless action, if not comparable to the Fellowship's mission for Mount Doom.

Later, after the downfall of Númenór, he reigned in Minas Ithil, directly at the borders of Mordor – not exactly the place a coward would select I reckon; though sure enough, he fled from there when it was taken by Sauron and transformed into Minas Morgul. Once again, Isildur saved the seed of the White Tree, which was then planted in Minas Tirith.

His behaviour after the victory of the Last Alliance, saving the Ring, is perhaps somewhat analogue to these actions, though of course the Ring was much less worthy of being saved. But as Gabe Willard said, judging this was close to impossible for any human due to the Ring's own power.

4

Isildur and his men were outnumbered 10 to 1 in that ambush.

The Dúnedain were plainly many times, even to ten times, outnumbered. [Disaster of the Gladden Fields]

He was the High King after all with an important burden. I'll point out a moment of bravery to show that he was not a coward, at least not through and through, if you believe he was in this case while running away.

This event occurs on Númenor at a time when Sauron had most of the island in his hands and he wanted the King to cut down Nimloth the Fair. After his grandfather Amandil told him about the tale of the Trees:

Isildur said no word, but went out by night and did a deed for which he was afterwards renowned. For he passed alone in disguise to Armenelos and to the courts of the King, which were now forbidden to the Faithful; and he came to the place of the Tree, which was forbidden to all by the orders of Sauron, and the Tree was watched day and night by guards in his service. At that time Nimloth was dark and bore no bloom, for it was late in the autumn, and its winter was nigh; and Isildur passed through the guards and took from the Tree a fruit that hung upon it, and turned to go. But the guard was aroused, and he was assailed, and fought his way out, receiving many wounds; and he escaped, and because he was disguised it was not discovered who had laid hands on the Tree. But Isildur came at last hardly back to Romenna and delivered the fruit to the hands of Amandil, ere his strength failed him. [Akallabêth]

Let's not fail to mention that before he even took off he sent Ohtar off to save his father's sword, "Save it from capture by all means that you can find, and at all costs; even at the cost of being held a coward who deserted me." Then while the battle was going on he was found where the fighting was fiercest:

He was rallying the men on the east side where the assault was heaviest

His son advised him to go because of the burden that Isildur bore. I think that really is the big point in the exchange. This is the One. You've got to get it to a safe place or have the Orcs pick it from your corpse. It's not like he did not want to fight, for he was there in the thick of it where the fighting was heaviest. I do not think Isildur was a coward.

0

Isildur refused to destroy the One Ring, because he became corrupted by its influence in the end, like Frodo. His resolve abandoned him, and his dark nature took over. Isildur wanted power in the end. This was the corrupting influence of the Ring. . The Ring was spiritually tied to Sauron's essence, and had life of its own. The One Ring that was designed to rule all had used beings it possessed, because they were spiritually weak. The Ring exploits the weakness of its hosts, and uses them, until it moves onto the next one. The One Ring had only one true master, and that was Sauron himself...for no other--he Ring would accept as master. And all beings of wickedness and evil are drawn to its call. Cowardice had nothing to do with it.

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