Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 5

Originally published at Part Time Monster on Feb. 20, 2014 as “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.


1. Fellowship of the Ring p. 256

2. Fellowship of the Ring p. 256

3. The Silmarillion p. 294