One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters.

(Two Towers, p. 203)

Aragorn’s words to Pippin on returning a Lórien brooch to the Hobbit reflect one of the fundamental concepts of the whole Tolkien Legendarium: it is dangerous to become unhealthily possessive of something as it can lead a character to either death, or moral downfall, or both. Fëanor grew proud and possessive of the Silmarils and turned into a rebel, who led himself and his people into dire perils and the wrath of the Valar. Morgoth became addicted to Arda in his desire to control it, and dissipated his powers only to be reduced to a pitiful, weakened state. The One Ring ensnared the wills of most of those taking it into their possession and changed them beyond recognition. Inability or, in some cases, unwillingness to disentangle from all these treasures when necessary caused the ruin of many characters.

Pippin, on the other hand, acted wisely. Though the scale of an object in question is totally different, and we cannot measure a small brooch, however precious and beautiful it is, and the whole of Arda in similar terms, it is the attitude that matters. If Pippin had not cast away his small treasure, Aragorn might have never been able to trace him and Merry. So by parting with what was very valuable and dear to him, risking to never have it back, Pippin saved the Hobbits’ lives.

Most possessors are not like Pippin at all, though. They do not wish to be separated from their treasures, nor do they understand that their addiction is unhealthy and poisonous. Unsurprisingly, most characters guilty of a possessive attitude to someone or something do not repent. But some do. And even if sometimes repentance comes too late, it still makes a great difference. For this we should turn to the story of the fall of Gondolin.

The Fall of Gondolin was among the earliest stories to be composed by Tolkien for what would become the whole new world of Arda. Together with the stories of Beren and Lúthien and the children of Húrin, it was to form the three greatest tales of Middle-earth. Presented in a very compressed version in the published Silmarillion, The Fall of Gondolin appeared in its expanded version in The Book of Lost Tales II where its tragedy and drama show in their entire magnitude.

Inspired and prompted by the Vala Ulmo, Fingolfin’s son Turgon built the hidden city of Gondolin, which became the longest-standing and the best-concealed Elvish kingdom of the First Age. But before Turgon moved from Nevrast to his newly built city, Ulmo warned him:

But love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart; and remember that the true hope of the Noldor lieth in the West and cometh from the Sea.

(Silmarillion, p. 144)

The Vala’s words were to haunt Turgon in later years. In showing the understanding of Ulmo’s warning the Elf demonstrated incredible sensibility: having received the message and being under the Doom of Mandos, he perfectly realised that Gondolin could not be hidden from Morgoth forever. The first signs of Turgon’s own creeping foreboding began to show in his conversation with Húrin and Huor, who had previously dwelt in Gondolin for a year, on the battlefield of Nírnaeth Arnoediad – the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, when the Gondolindrim for the first and only time issued forth from their city:

Not long now can Gondolin be hidden; and being discovered it must fall.

(Silmarillion, p. 230)

When many years later Tuor son of Huor appeared in Gondolin with yet another warning and in the armour Turgon had left in Nevrast upon Ulmo’s instructions when he was leaving to Gondolin, Turgon realised that the doom of his kingdom was drawing nearer. He again showed exceptional sensibility in being aware of the approaching danger, so it is even more surprising that when Tuor bade him depart from the city, Turgon chose to shut his ears to all the warnings and remain in Gondolin.

Just as Ulmo foreboded, Turgon grew too fond of his fair city and too proud to leave it. Even Tuor is describe as being “enthralled” by Gondolin – so majestic was the city. Ulmo’s warning and Tuor’s words scared Turgon, but the King seemed to be hoping to try and solve the problem by causing the entrance to the tunnel leading to Gondolin to be blocked. Turgon ignored the world without and continued to live in his small bubble which, to a certain point, had been a very safe place. Possibly the Elf grew too content and self-assured in his impenetrable secret city, that he had become lulled into the false sense of security. Because of this self-deceit and the misleading confidence in the city’s impregnability, Turgon hearkened only to the council which was in accord with his own thoughts, and that was to stay in Gondolin. He simply closed his eyes to the truth, which cost him his kingdom.

However, even in the most dramatic moment when, betrayed from within by Maeglin, Gondolin was attacked by the forces of Morgoth and besieged beyond salvation, we do not see Turgon swear blasphemous oaths or cause further ruin. He put himself in fetters, but he did not fall morally. Nor did he expect the Gondolindrim to remain in the same fetters that affected every person living in the city. When hope was lost and there was no way Gondolin could be saved, Turgon repented and acknowledged his mistake:

Evil have I brought upon the Flower of the Plain in despite of Ulmo, and now he leaveth it to wither in the fire. Lo! hope is no more in my heart for my city of loveliness, but the children of the Noldoli shall not be worsted for ever.

(Book of Lost Tales II, p. 184)

Though one might argue that this too-late repentance did not save the city from ruin, Tolkien indicated that such decisions make a difference on a deep and unseen level. When Fëanor refused to give the Silmarils to Yavanna to restore the Two Trees of Valinor destroyed by Morgoth and Ungoliant, this decision sealed his further course of actions:

The Silmarils had passed away, and all one it may seem whether Fëanor had said yea or nay to Yavanna; yet had he said yea at the first, before the tidings came from Formenos, it may be that his after deeds would have been other than they were.

(Silmarillion, p. 84; emphasis mine)

Repentance might not save things from ruin, but it can save one’s soul from ruin. Fëanor’s refusal to give the gems because of his unhealthy obsession with them was a very selfish choice: he put his own creation and interests above everything else. It shows how selfish and corrupt he grew in his heart and was already treading the path of destruction. Had Fëanor agreed to surrender the Silmarils, even regardless the fact that by that time they had already been stolen by Morgoth, there still could have been a way back from ruin for him: Fëanor’s spiritual salvation could have been a possibility, his future actions might have been very different and, thus, many woes might have been prevented.

Turgon’s repentance did not save Gondolin from ruin. But it did influence his decision to entrust the escape mission to Tuor rather than force his people to stay in the city and fight for it until the bitter end. By bringing destruction on his own city Turgon chose to perish together with it having let other Gondolindrim go to save their lives. Still, he and, most importantly, his spirit remained unconquered: the King’s fair treasure put bonds around him, but did not corrupt his soul to the state of total selfishness and madness. And as a true captain Turgon chose to sink together with his beautiful ship.


Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Book of Lost Tales. Part II; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.

Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.

8 thoughts on ““One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters”.

  1. This is a lovely essay and I agree entirely with your assertion in the title. Of course, when Aragorn says these words to Pippin he has just proved them true by his own deeds. He has put all his dreams at risk in his pursuit of the orc band who took Merry and Pippin. But, of course, he would never burden Pippin with the guilt of knowing that.
    It is a lovely meditation on Fëanor and the Silmarils and Turgon and Gondolin as well. Is it the tragic flaw of the Elves that they find it so hard to give up their own creations. They may be Immortal except for violent death but their creations are not.
    How important it is to the whole of Tolkien’s legendarium that Elrond and Galadriel allow the work that they have achieved through the Elven Rings to pass away so that the Ruling Ring may be destroyed. It is a wonderfully redemptive action. Tolkien only leaves us with the sadness of loss and departure and the hope of renewal through the restoration of Gondor and of Arnor. Is there more that he does not directly tell us?

    1. Thank you, Stephen!
      In many ways letting go of something valuable and important is a valiant deed. We should find the courage to do so. It seems to be even more difficult for the Elves as they wish to carry their creations through their eternal lives. Mortals, I think, are different in this respect. I really like your mention of Galadriel and Elrond! They realised there was no other way, and the choice between losing a realm and falling under Sauron’s dominion is clear.

      1. Experience has taught me that it is easier to judge what needs to be let go in retrospect. In other words it is obvious that Rivendell and Lothlórien should be sacrificed in order that the Ring should be destroyed and the threat of Sauron be removed but after centuries of loving care to create those islands of beauty and peace it must have been so hard. And Galadriel does not even know if she will be welcome in Valinor. The song that she sings as she bids farewell to Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring is one of the most heartbreaking that I know. And the same must be true for us. We only know if we are letting go of something really significant if it has the capacity to break our hearts.

      2. So true. In this respect I feel really sorry for Fëanor when he’s asked to give the Silmarils to restore the Trees. He says exactly this: it will break his heart. On the other hand Aulë was ready to destroy the Dwarves when Ilúvatar reproached him for creating them behind His back, and they were alive and, undoubtedly, very dear to him.

  2. All this does make me think of Ol’ Fred N., who so poignantly penned: “Wahrlich, wer wenig besitzt, wird um so weniger besessen: gelobt sei die kleine Armuth!” – Truly, who possesses little is that much less possessed: blessed be the small poverty. All the characters in Tolkien’s world that have a hard time giving something up, like you sum up so well, Olga, show signs of possession as in “being possessed”, maybe most obviously Fëanor and the Ring Bearers (minus Sam). To me it throws a particularly special light on Bilbo’s act when he leaves the ring behind: He truly is ridding himself of a demonic possession, with Gandalf acting as a sort of gentle exorcist, if you will.

    1. These are great and wise words. Abundance can make us possessed, and your comment made me think of dragon sickness, too. Being in possession of some treasure and so attached to it that even disappearance of one small thing, like that of a cup, for instance, causes great wrath of the possessor.
      Being able to rid of a treasure or at least to acknowledge one’s mistake is indeed cathartic.

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