Isildur’s Bane: Why did Isildur keep the Ring?

There are two accounts of Isildur and the Ring, one in Elrond’s own words, and another in Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age. Both accounts agree that Isildur cut the One Ring from Sauron’s finger and kept it even though Elrond and Cirdan implored him to destroy it. Here is Elrond’s account:

I beheld the last combat on the slopes of Orodruin, where Gil-galad died, and Elendil fell, and Narsil broke beneath him; but Sauron himself was overthrown, and Isildur cut the Ring from his hand with the hilt-shard of his father’s sword, and took it for his own.(1)

In the next paragraph, Boromir registers his surprise and makes it clear that this story is not commonly known. Then we get this:

“Alas! Yes,” said Elrond. “Isildur took it, as should not have been. It should have been cast then into Orodruin’s fire nigh at hand where it was made. But few marked what Isildur did. He alone stood by his father in that last mortal contest, and by Gil-galad only Cirdan stood, and I. But Isildur would not listen to our counsel.”

’This I will have as weregild for my father, and my brother,’ he said; and therefore whether we would or no, he took it to treasure it. But soon he was betrayed by it to his death, and so it is named in the North Isildur’s Bane. Yet death maybe was better than what else might have befallen him. (2)

Elrond’s story is helpful as an account of the event and the conversation. It doesn’t really tell us much about Isildur’s motive for keeping the Ring, but “he took it to treasure it” suggests the same desire for the Ring we see with other characters who are temped by it. The account from Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, which was authored in Gondor during the Fourth Age, is more useful:

“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 Cirdan who stood by. They counseled 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 a shadow of malice in the wilderness. But Isildur refused this counsel, saying: “This I will have as weregild for my father’s death, and my brother’s. Was it not I that dealt the Enemy his death-blow?” And the Ring that the held seemed to him exceedingly fair to look on; and he would not suffer it to be destroyed. Taking it therefore he returned at first to Minas Anor, and there planted the White Tree in memory of his brother Anarion. But soon he departed, and after he had given counsel to Meneldil, he bore away the Ring, to be an heirloom of his house, and marched north from Gondor by the way that Elendil had come; and he forsook the South Kingdom, for he purposed to take up his father’s realm in Eriador, far from the shadow of the Black Land.(3)

The clear statement that Isildur “would not surrender it” implies that they asked him to do so. I find it interesting that this detail is excluded from Elrond’s account, and that it occurs before they “counseled him to destroy it.” I think it’s clear from the passage that Isildur is under the influence of the Ring – that’s why he finds it “exceedlingly fair,” and why he rationalizes his decision by claiming the ring both as “weregild” and as a spoil of combat.

The thing I wonder about when I read these passages is whether or not Elrond and Cirdan are also influenced by the Ring in some way here. Does the Ring prevent them from being more forceful about destroying it; or is it simply that they are wise enough to know that trying to force Isildur to give it up would have worse consequences than allowing him to keep it? There isn’t enough evidence to say one way or another, so you’ll have to decide for yourself. But clearly, there is a lot more going on in this scene than you’d think from a casual scan of the text, and a lot more going on that we see in Peter Jackson’s adaptation:

This is part of an ongoing series; and I write about Tolkien regularly. You can find my previous posts here, and my Tolkien bibliography here.

Notes

1. Fellowship of the Ring p. 256

2. Fellowship of the Ring p. 256

3. The Silmarillion p. 294

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15 Comments

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  1. I realize this is basically a can of worms not related to the topic at all, and also that I’m a week behind on reading posts, but this whole discussion made me think of the Bible. Growing up, people were always telling me that one of the reasons the Bible was clearly divinely inspired was that it had so many layers of meaning and that everyone who reads it sees something different. Presumably they see “whatever God needs them to see at that time,” but subjectivity never seemed to be great evidence of divine inspiration to me. Neverending layers don’t either, especially the more I read of Shakespeare, and now Tolkien.

    Anyway, this series remains very interesting!

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    1. I don’t think it’s a can of worms, actually. This part of the story is pretty Biblical, and Tolkien’s Middle Earth work is thoroughly situated within the Catholic tradition.

      Tolkien himself says somewhere that what we now call worldbuilding (wasn’t called that then, and he didn’t call it that) can be an act of worship. He called it “creation within creation.” So, in a sense, if you take his own faith at face value, this stuff IS divinely inspired, even though it’s not a Christian tract and he disliked allegory.

      I’m behind reading some posts too, and I am glad you’re still finding it interesting. Probably won’t have an installment this week, but will be back next week with more of this stuff.

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    1. Thanks! I wasn’t as happy with this one as last week’s, but it moves things along nicely. We’re almost ready to turn the discussion to Gollum.

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  2. Weregild is really just a fancy name for ‘entitlement’ don’t you think? I’m OWED this.
    Which is one of those pesky eternal problems of thinking there is equity and reason in a chaotic universe.
    Nice post, btw.

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    1. Thanks very much, that is one way to look at it. You can also look at it as restitution to prevent escalating violence in societies that don’t have modern legal codes and sensibilities. It’s basically a form of restitution that’s owed for killing or property damage, and if not paid, the injured party has the right to declare a blood feud.

      My question with that word in particular in Tolkien, is whether or not Isildur is twisting the meaning a bit. He does seem to be saying that he is entitled.

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  3. Thinking more about why Elrond and friends didn’t try to force Isildor to toss the Ring… Remember, Isildor had just defeated Sauron. He didn’t just get in a lucky swing that lopped off the offending finger, he wiped the floor with the Dark Lord. After that, it can easily be concluded that maybe Elrond and his moody pals thought twice about forcing Isildor to do something he didn’t want to do. Also, he now had the Ring, so tread lightly.

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  4. Even if there isn’t a clear instance of the ring influencing others doesn’t mean it wasn’t true in this case. It’s just unlikely. Though I think there are a lot of cases of people who see the ring being influenced to try to touch it or take it or hold it. Either way, this instance was rather key to the ring. There it is about to be destroyed. It may have pushed a little harder against those against it. Just consider if that is what allowed it to be lost. It was weakened, having pushed too hard against those around it.

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    1. I like the way you think.

      I believe there’s ample evidence in the texts to say that the Ring can influence groups. I am just not sure if that is what went on there. Isildur is powerful, just influencing him would have to take a lot of energy.

      The Ring could have very well been weakened in some way by this encounter. I am willing to entertain that possibility.

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  5. Is there any other instance where the Ring influenced those near to the Ring-bearer? I can’t think of one, so to me, it wouldn’t make sense that Elrond and Cirdon were influenced at all.

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    1. I’d have to look very closely at some texts, I am honestly not sure, and you have a very good point 🙂 That is just what I always wonder when I read it.

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