For Isildur's Bane shall waken

Beech27

Member
The structure of this line in the context of the poem was discussed extensively last night, but I wanted to ask briefly about the literal meaning. (I know that discussion is coming next week, so apologies for jumping the gun.)

That is, in what sense shall Isildur's Bane waken?

1) As we sit in the council, is it woken now? Or is that still (potentially) to come?
2) If it isn't yet awake, what will it "do"--bringing us back to the Ring's agency--when that happens? If it is awake, what is it doing now that it wasn't before?
3) If/when it wakes, who/what triggers it? Or if it is done, who/what did it? Is this caused by Sauron actively seeking it? Or does it do this itself?
 
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Anthony Lawther

Active Member
I'd suggest the dream poem is speaking metaphorically, as is not unusual for poems.

So, the One Ring has been dormant in Anduin, under the Misty Mountains, and in the Shire, mostly because no-one knew what it was or what it was truly capable of.
At this meeting it gets its first 'public' exposure with an explanation of what it is, and now is the subject of desire and speculation.
Boromir doesn't appear to be drawn to Frodo before the reveal of the Ring, which you'd think he would be if the Ring had true agency.

It seems to me that it is knowing what the Ring is that leads to the temptation to use it for its purpose. Neither Gollum, Bilbo, nor Frodo before Chapter 2 seem to have classic Ring temptations to take over the world or their part of it.

What temptations do we see presented to Ring bearers who don't know what they carry?
For Gollum: murdering Déagol to possess it, using it to gather information about others, and maybe to go under the mountains. None of these seem very Ring like.
For Bilbo: mostly utilitarian temptations - hiding from spiders, Elves, a Dragon, and annoying Hobbits. A classic Ring temptation would probably see him using the gold from his adventures to try to manoeuvre himself into a position of power in the Shire in the six decades available to him.
For Frodo: much the same - hiding from annoying Hobbits and less than Bilbo.
This is after Gandalf's recommendation to not use it, but once he knows what it is his temptations to use it increase dramatically, even given Gandalf's warnings to avoid using it.

When the bedraggled Nazgûl report in at Mordor after the fiasco at the Ford, I'm sure they would be making it clear that they at least located the Ring, even if they didn't secure it. 'Points for trying, boss'

So I'd suggest that the 'waking' of Isildur's Bane is reference to the trouble it will cause now that many people know what it is and where it is.
 

Beech27

Member
Thanks, Anthony--I think that's a satisfying reading. Perhaps my reticence to read that line metaphorically had--and somewhat, still has--to do with how heavily literal the rest of the poem is. Boromir--or Faramir--needs to actually go to this place, where there is an actual broken sword, etc. But I suspect that there's no way around that. The Ring, not being an active agent in the way we typically understand, is as yet going to "do" a lot of thing. So metaphorical language likely strikes the right balance.
 
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I take "woken" as meaning, "woken" to the people who know about it. This may seem odd. What I mean is:
Yes, the ring has been actively trying to get back to Sauron. Bilbo (and Frodo, until recently) had no idea what it was, let alone anyone else. Now they know what it is and what it's trying to do. It may have something to do with the effect of the ring - it seems to make some difference whether the bearer/uses knows what they've got, and whether they're actually trying to do something with it.
Also, this is the first time that any number of people who could actually wield it effectively (at a minimum - Elrond, Glorfindel, Gandalf, and Aragorn) are all in the same place debating it openly. The Ring must have been trying really hard to get someone to claim it; in a sense this is a moment of awakening for the Ring that hadn't happened before.
 

Anthony Lawther

Active Member
Michael, you seem to credit the Ring with more agency than I am comfortable with.

The evidence seems fairly consistent that when people surrounding the Ring are ignorant of its nature they appear to be unaffected, but when they become aware, the temptations begin.

Any agency in regard to the return of the One to Sauron is perhaps better explained as interaction between the will of Sauron and the will of others. Sauron is described as actively seeking it, so if Sauron is broadcasting a mental or spiritual interrogation that all minds respond to in some regard you can have the following options:

1. Never heard of it - no response.
2. Heard of it, but it's not here - inexplicable desire to locate it.
3. Heard of it, and it's here - desire to possess it, claim it, and therefore expose it. Most claimants would fail and be swatted like a bug. Given the small number of people who might successfully do this and the in-fighting it is likely to cause amongst that group, this is a reasonable gamble. The victorious claimant to the Ring is probably weakened by the conflict, has eliminated a number of their own allies themselves, and is now ripe for crushing by Sauron's forces.

This is supported by Sauron's actions after seeing Aragorn in the Palantír of Orthanc: He seems to assume that Aragorn has claimed the Ring and used it to crush Saruman, as no-one has factored in the Ents and there is no other plausible explanation. He rushes to war against this new claimant to the One before they can fully establish themselves, with the aim to recover the Ring or go out swinging.
 
I think you misunderstand me. I’m not talking about the Ring’s own agency. I’m talking about the knowledge and intent of the bearer and the agency that person brings to it. Key difference.
One data point that supports my view is this: when Sauron first put on the ring, Celebrimbor and his fellow elf-bearers were immediately aware if him. Yet when Frodo or Bilbo put on the ring, none of the elves are aware. I think the difference is the matter of knowledge and agency of the user. Also, Gandalf 2.0 seems aware that Frodo has used the ring on Amon Hen, which could be down to Frodo’s increased knowledge and agency in how used the ring at that time vs earlier times.
When I say “woken to the people who know” I mean what you describe- the knowledge of the bearer and the knowledge of immediately available potential bearers is key.
However I think we must credit the ring with some agency of its own. It is said to be seeking its master actively, and it is described as being awake.
 
Another way to say this is:
Perhaps the ring has a kind of limited agency which is activated (awoken) by a person’s knowledge of its nature. It must have something to have betrayed Isildur and abandoned Gollum, both of which are attributed to the ring itself. Gandalf for one explicitly believes the Ring was actively trying to find a way back to its master. If he is right, it failed because people didn't know what it was when they had the chance.
One might say that Isildur’s bane wasn’t the ring itself, it was his knowledge of and desire for it. That knowledge and desire has been awoken in others now. I know the Wise (and Boromir) all refer to the ring as Isildur's Bane, but perhaps they misinterpret slightly, seeing as how none of them ever actually possessed and used it themselves.
 
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Anthony Lawther

Active Member
I was responding primarily to the emphasised portions of your statement:
I take "woken" as meaning, "woken" to the people who know about it. This may seem odd. What I mean is:
Yes, the ring has been actively trying to get back to Sauron. Bilbo (and Frodo, until recently) had no idea what it was, let alone anyone else. Now they know what it is and what it's trying to do. It may have something to do with the effect of the ring - it seems to make some difference whether the bearer/uses knows what they've got, and whether they're actually trying to do something with it.
Also, this is the first time that any number of people who could actually wield it effectively (at a minimum - Elrond, Glorfindel, Gandalf, and Aragorn) are all in the same place debating it openly. The Ring must have been trying really hard to get someone to claim it; in a sense this is a moment of awakening for the Ring that hadn't happened before.
Another way to say this is:
Perhaps the ring has a kind of limited agency which is activated (awoken) by a person’s knowledge of its nature. It must have something to have betrayed Isildur and abandoned Gollum, both of which are attributed to the ring itself. Gandalf for one explicitly believes the Ring was actively trying to find a way back to its master. If he is right, it failed because people didn't know what it was when they had the chance.
One might say that Isildur’s bane wasn’t the ring itself, it was his knowledge of and desire for it. That knowledge and desire has been awoken in others now. I know the Wise (and Boromir) all refer to the ring as Isildur's Bane, but perhaps they misinterpret slightly, seeing as how none of them ever actually possessed and used it themselves.
I don't think we can take any character's description of the agency of inanimate objects too much to heart.

I think the part you are referring to is:
‘There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master. It had slipped from Isildur’s hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Déagol, and he was murdered; and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him. It could make no further use of him: he was too small and mean; and as long as it stayed with him he would never leave his deep pool again. So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!
I see Gandalf's perspective here, but he isn't omniscient and in this case I don't think his claims of agency are adequately supported.

In this passage, the most active agency that can really be attributed to the ring was slipping off the fingers of Isildur and Gollum at appropriate times and places. If these actions were in support of getting back to its master they failed spectacularly on both occasions, and there would have been better options in both cases (e.g. slip off near an orc or goblin; any resulting fight for possession draws attention to the Ring from the hierarchy.)
However, if motivated by a higher power (e.g Eru) they are an extremely subtle means of getting it away from those who would use it for evil and into the hands of those who would actually take steps leading to its destruction once they knew what it was: Frodo getting it to the cracks of Doom, and Gollum taking it from Frodo at his point of failure, carrying it into the fire. Gollum biting off Frodo's finger for the Ring is a classic example of evil being turned to good purposes, yet remaining evil still.

I can understand how a character, without knowledge of the external actor, could interpret these actions as evidence of inherent agency.

I find the concept of the knowledge of and desire for the Ring - rather than the Ring itself - being Isildur's Bane intriguing, but I'll need to think some more about it.
 
I know this has been debated for decades. I’ll just say that the idea that the ring was actively trying isn’t original - it’s stated directly by some of the most authoritative characters in the text. The exact mechanism is unclear, because nobody could know but Sauron, but the assumption is made by the Wise so I have a hard time saying it can’t have some truth to it.
 
Reading a little more closely in the daytime, I want to take a slightly different tack. We are all discussing the concept of "agency" in two potentially flawed ways:
1. Many people seem to think it's all or nothing, with no possibility of shades in between.
2. We are failing, at times, to invest belief in the secondary world. Is it possible that a world containing such powers as Sauron, Gandalf, and the rings of power might have differences in this regard? For example, Turin's sword "speaks" and acts at times as if it has agency of its own, but at other times as if it's just another cursed sword. This is just one example of how stories set in Faerie need not always conform to our preconceived primary-world notions of agency. There doesn't have to be a firm line between "inanimate object" and "totally sentient and free being." What I'm trying to do here is explore the shades in between that a story in the secondary world might reveal.
 
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