On the Long Strands of History

The Council of Elrond

The Council of Elrond (Source)

Memory possesses a certain fantastical power over the living. The verbs of remembrance – to reminisce, to sigh, to recall, to harken, to rouse, to waken – evoke within us a blend of nostalgia, passion, and sadness. The stories of the past hold us in awe and wonder. Hence the beauty and weight of Elrond’s words, murmured in pining for what good once was:

“I remember well the splendour of their banners. It recalled to me the glory of the Elder Days and the hosts of Beleriand, so many great princes and captains were assembled. And yet not so many, nor so fair, as when Thangorodrim was broken, and the Elves deemed that evil was ended for ever, and it was not so.”

The hierarchy of memory permeates even memory itself. The defining moments of life, whether viewed or experienced, remain with us forever. The rousing emotions of happiness and joy, sorrow and suffering, smolder enkindled within our hearts. For the Elves, the promise of a final victory over evil inflames the bitterness of the present: as Elrond notes, “I have seen three ages in the West of the world, and many defeats, and many fruitless victories.”

For the long strands of history constrain the actors and opportunities of the present, yet do not control them. The decisions made at the Council of Elrond depend in part on the past choices of elves, dwarves, and men. All the free peoples of Middle-earth are to blame for the bane of the Rings of Power: for the Elven-smiths of Eregion fashioned them with the materials and friendship of dwarves of Moria, while Sauron’s one ruling Ring ultimately endured because of man’s weakness embodied in Isildur. Only the hobbits were generally innocent from the affair, but no longer. “This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great.” For good or for evil, the halflings now add their wills to time’s tapestry. The unfolding days of Middle-earth will be impacted by their decisions.

Yet, history is an offspring of the long arcs of the world. As Gandalf offers to the Council, “it is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world.” One cannot foresee the future: one cannot muse upon a length of the hereafter longer than hereafter’s measure of history. We choose in consolation with the past, but also in spite of time itself. Our decisions should not be made with a view to only the unfolding of the future, but instead to the universal and timeless truth at each moment’s core.

Hence, the power of the memory. To recall the glory of past days need not sway into fantastical escapism or luddite single-mindedness. We spend our days performing on a stage constructed on the planks of the past: it falls to each actor and actress to decide whether to speak or sing, monologue or converse, jump or dance. In reminiscing on the splendor of banners and the fair assembling of hosts, we instead harken to the wonder of history. Just as we now, so to they then lived in happiness and joy, sorrow and suffering, and their decisions resounded down the passing ages. The stories of the past hold us in awe and wonder because they waken us to the evil that has always threatened the true and the beautiful. The long strands of history possess the power to remind us of the good that once was and, by our free actions, may yet be again.

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