Elrond's Meeting Strategy: Bad ... or Brilliant? (Also, a case for the relevance of the squirrel.)


I'd like to offer a defense of Elrond's pensive rambling, including his shout out to the squirrels of yore.

I didn't read Elrond's monologue as a non-sequitur so much as a re-framing of the whole preceding discussion, in which he first recaps the Tale that's been told and then zooms out to put it in a broader (and more Elf-friendly) context. This approach seems to be effective, because it breaks what seems to be a fairly significant silence that someone needed to step into (Flammifer has some really helpful reflections on this in another thread). Furthermore, it leads into a mini brainstorming session in which the most plausible alternatives to destroying the Ring (give it to Bombadil, send it West, cast it into the Sea) are briefly considered and quickly dismissed. This sets things up for Elrond to make a forceful case for destroying the Ring just a few pages later.

In my reading, Elrond's first paragraph is a recap. In just a few lines, he manages to do the following:
  1. Sum up the significance of Saruman's betrayal ("This is grievous news...");
  2. Point out that they need to be careful to avoid Saruman's mistakes by, say, hanging onto the ring and thinking they can master it ("It is perilous to study...");
  3. Remind the listeners of previous Ring-bearers' downfalls ("such falls and betrayals, alas, have happened before...");
  4. Redirect attention to the striking/exceptional nature of Frodo's role and story ("the tale of Frodo was the most strange...");
  5. Suggest that there's a lot more to hobbits than meets the eye ("perhaps not so alone and singular...");
  6. Reinforce the historic "endgame" moment they're in ("The world has changed much...");
  7. Recall his own longevity and testimony and transition to a new temporal and geographical perspective ("...since I was last on the westward roads").
All this is done very swiftly and subtly, primarily through indirect allusion. But Elrond does a pretty impressive job of drawing together the key points from the last 20-odd pages and nudging his audience toward a conducive interpretive approach.

(This probably goes without saying, but everything we see Elrond doing for his listeners, Tolkien is doing for readers. It's like Tolkien is saying, "okay, if you're feeling a little swamped by alllllll the story I just threw at you, here are the main takeaways" ... but much more elegantly.)

As for the second paragraph, I read this as Elrond's gloss on the Tale from his own perspective as an Elf living in northern Middle-earth. This is well-deserved because, apart from Gloin's brief account early on, most of the preceding discussion has centered on Men, Wizards, and Hobbits, and on southerly regions (Gondor, Rohan, and environs).

It seems to me that Elrond's rhetorical walk along the "westward roads" functions almost like an aerial time-lapse view of northern Middle-earth, emphasizing its landscapes and notable inhabitants (friends and foes), and the changes the land has undergone over time. He gives a nice nod to other regional cultures by mentioning the many names of Tom Bombadil, but to me the whole paragraph has a distinctly Elvish flavour. There's a deep sense of place, an emphasis on slow but inexorable change, and a sort of split focus on the very large and very small. (The last point is hard to express, but I'm thinking of Tolkien's comment in the Ainulindale about the Valar holding together "immeasurable vastness" and "minute precision.") In this sense, I think it can be seen as a sort of translation, or at least a bit of cross-cultural outreach, for at the Elves who are present.

Here's the best thing about this reading: the squirrel totally fits! To me, the seemingly random squirrel cameo captures something so unique about the Elvish perspective: in one image, Elrond brings together a sweeping landscape of a continent-spanning forest from millennia past, and a portrait of a single, tiny creature bouncing along a tree branch. It brings together the majestic and the homey in a way that feels natural to the people who brought us both hymns to Elbereth and "tra la la lalley."

In summary, then, I see Elrond's speech not as an off-topic ramble, but as an extremely clever gambit to move the conversation forward to his desired outcome. In essence, he takes a long story that's full of details about people and places that probably don't matter much to the Elves of Mirkwood, the Havens, or Imladris, distills it to its essence, and recasts it in a form that's more congenial to Elvish perspectives. This puts the ball in his own people's court -- and, indeed, it's Erestor, Glorfindel and Galdor who pick up the conversation and start bouncing around ideas. From that point, it doesn't take much to set up Elrond's main point: "We must send the Ring to the Fire."

All in all, it seems to me that Elrond isn't bad at leading meetings. He might actually be kind of brilliant at it.
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