‘Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,’ said Gimli.
‘Maybe,’ said Elrond, ‘but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.’
‘Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,’ said Gimli.
‘Or break it,’ said Elrond.—The Lord of the Rings, Book II, chapter 3
It occasionally happened in mediaeval Europe that a man, especially a knight or noble, would make an extravagant and boasting promise, apparently out of sheer unmotivated bravado, and then risk his life to fulfil it — or lose it rather than fail. Such promises were often called vaunts: not an unmixed compliment, for the word is related to vanity. But the heroic vaunt became a fixture in mediaeval literature, where it was glamorized and taken up into the standard equipment of the hero. The mediaeval hero was supposed to be a man of infinite honour, who, having once pledged his word to any cause, would die rather than see it fail. We find a similar quality in ancient Sparta, where a man was shamed beyond redemption unless he returned from battle ‘with his shield or on it’. But the mediaeval vaunt was highly individualized, where the Spartan military code was the same for every citizen; and the mediaeval version was at least partly Christianized.
But only partly. The ancient Germanic peoples, to judge by their poetry (and their curious manner of making war), were much addicted to this practice of making outrageous boasts — often in their cups before a battle — and then risking everything, not only life but victory, in reckless deeds to achieve what they had recklessly sworn. In a preliterate society, without banks or credit agencies, criminal records or background checks, a man’s word had to be his bond: and the more difficult the things he vowed to do, the higher his standing would be if he achieved them. This attitude existed (and exists) among many peoples besides the Germans; the very history of the word credit shows it. In Latin it was creditum, ‘that which is believed’; it was the measure of a man’s willingness to fulfil his obligations as much as his capacity to pay his debts.
Useful as it was in societies without sophisticated record-keeping, this kind of credit was not an unmixed virtue. In his essay ‘Ofermod’, Tolkien observes:
For this ‘northern heroic spirit’ is never quite pure; it is of gold and an alloy. Unalloyed it would direct a man to endure even death unflinching, when necessary: that is when death may help the achievement of some object of will, or when life can only be purchased by denial of what one stands for. But since such conduct is held admirable, the alloy of personal good name was never wholly absent.
In early modern times, the spread of literacy and the monetization of wealth reduced the need for such punctilious attention to personal honour; and a certain sluggish and bourgeois smugness, born in part from the sneers of Enlightenment philosophes, derided the old codes of honour as anachronisms, and made them objects of ridicule. For a while in the twentieth century, when the world was threatened by the greatest horrors it had yet seen, even smug and ‘philosophical’ people could appreciate the need for heroes, and for people who talked like heroes — people who promised to do great things, and could be trusted to do their utmost to keep those promises. The histories of the Second World War and the Cold War are filled with vaunts that were, indeed, at least partially lived up to. Thus Winston Churchill:
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. . . .
It is no accident that John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, with its archaic turns of phrase (such as Ask not), contained a vaunt that would have adorned any knight’s speech from a mediaeval romance:
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
It is the exact tone of Roland swearing to defend the pass at Roncesvalles. If a mediaeval audience had heard Kennedy speaking this words, it would demand their fulfilment, even in the long nightmare of Vietnam; would, indeed, criticize his successors only for fulfilling the vaunt half-heartedly, trying for a stalemate instead of full-blooded victory. Any friend included even so unsavoury a character as Nguyen Van Thieu; any hardship included sending half a million soldiers halfway round the world, and seeing fifty thousand return in body bags. It may have been unwise in the extreme to make such a promise, as even a mediaeval audience could readily see; but according to the code of the vaunt, Kennedy gained standing (what Malory would call worship) by making it, and would lose all honour by breaking it.
Sometimes the vaunt is short and simple, without any high-flown rhetoric, but with the blunt force and plainness characteristic of military men. One of the most famous vaunts of the twentieth century came from Gen. Douglas MacArthur:
I came out of Bataan and I shall return.
A promise which he amply fulfilled. It fits well with Tolkien’s observation in ‘Ofermod’ that MacArthur’s superiors asked him to modify his promise to We shall return, and he refused. For him, it was not only a matter of policy, but of personal honour. In the end, like Beowulf fighting the dragon single-handed, he took on a foe beyond his measure and led his command to disaster in the Yalu campaign of the Korean War; his military career ended in the ignominy of a vaunt unfulfilled.
A frequent feature of literary vaunts is that the hero not only promises to achieve a superhuman task, he places needless restrictions on himself; he fights, as it were, with one hand voluntarily tied behind his back, because that more clearly shows off his superiority. Such things, as the mediaeval poets well knew, often led to disaster. One of Tolkien’s most important scholarly works was his commentary on The Battle of Maldon. The English leader, Beorhtnoth, not only promises to defeat the invading Danes, he offers to make it an even contest by letting them disembark from their ships and form up for battle on dry land:
Ða se eorl ongan for his ofermode
alyfan landes to fela laþere ðeode.
So wrote the poet; and it used to be translated ‘Then the earl in his over-boldness gave too much ground to the hated people’. Tolkien pointed out that the phrase to fela, in Old English texts, is always used with a strong tone of condemnation. On his reading, the phrase should be translated, ‘Then the earl in his overweening pride gave ground to the enemy, as he should not have done’. The result, predictably, was disaster. Beorhtnoth lost his life and threw away his army in a foolhardy attempt to make the victory over the Danes ‘sporting’ and therefore more glamorous. Beowulf (said Tolkien) commits the exact same error as Beorhtnoth, and with as little excuse:
Yet he does not rid himself of his chivalry, the excess persists, even when he is an old king upon whom all the hopes of a people rest. He will not deign to lead a force against the dragon, as wisdom might direct even a hero to do; for, as he explains in a long ‘vaunt’, his many victories have relieved him of fear. . . . He is saved from defeat, and the essential object, destruction of the dragon, only achieved by the loyalty of a subordinate. Beowulf's chivalry would otherwise have ended in his own useless death, with the dragon still at large.
A few characters in The Lord of the Rings operate on this moral level. Denethor and Boromir make no vaunts that we hear of ‘on stage’, as it were; but both of them fight and die in the manner of men who cannot bear to survive the downfall of their honour. However, The Lord of the Rings is not really a tale about pagans or mediaeval Christians; it is a tale chiefly about virtuous and idealized pre-Christians, animae naturaliter Christianae, who have preserved a vague knowledge of the one God (such as Melchizedek had, according to the Bible) and at least have resisted all the blandishments of foul cults and idol-worship.
(Indeed Melchizedek, who was a king as well as a monotheistic priest, may have served as a model for the priest-kings of Númenor; just as the ancient Semitic languages influenced the Adûnaic language that Tolkien invented for that country. When the kings of Númenor broke their friendship with the Elves, they began to take Adûnaic names: Ar-Adûnakhôr, Ar-Zimrathôn, and so on, down to Ar-Pharazôn the Golden. Purely in terms of sound, Ar-Melchizedek would make a perfectly plausible Adûnaic king-name.)
As we might expect, these virtuous pagans, these pre-Abrahamic monotheists, have their own equally idealized and purified version of the vaunt. Nearly the whole plot of The Lord of the Rings is adumbrated in the form of vaunts by various characters, which take the place that in fantasy is often held by prophecy. It is part of the ‘fey’ tradition that Tolkien brings with him from The Silmarillion (and thence from his sources), where a character’s dying utterances, or speeches made in other moments of white-hot passion and clarity, have special meaning and significance: as with the dying words of Fëanor, or some of the rash pronouncements that Túrin made and would live to regret. In what we might call the providential economy of Middle-earth, the vaunt is a glimpse of the future; what Aristotle would call a final cause — a goal that will shape and determine the actions of the speaker from that moment forward.
The vaunts begin exactly when the book begins to use what I have called the neo-archaic style: with the arrival of Aragorn at The Prancing Pony. His first vaunt is still in the voice of ‘Strider’ rather than ‘Aragorn’ or ‘King Elessar’, but it strikes a note of gravitas that we have not previously heard from any of the characters; not even, quite, from Gandalf. In the very same sentence where he first acknowledges his true name to Frodo, he pledges himself to an unlimited liability:
‘I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.’
No time limit is stated; no conceivable danger is excluded. Aragorn has given Frodo a blank cheque for whatever help he needs, wherever and whenever he needs it. Later, indeed, Aragorn’s efforts to save Frodo and the Quest by diverting Sauron’s attention will dictate the whole course of the war in Gondor.
Later, when that war has reached a critical stage, Aragorn makes another vaunt, to Éomer this time, whose fulfilment changes the whole strategic map and creates the victory of the Pelennor Fields. He is about to lead Legolas and Gimli (and the Rangers) into the Paths of the Dead, and Éomer fears he is throwing away all these lives for nothing:
‘Alas! Aragorn my friend!’ said Éomer. ‘I had hoped that we should ride to war together; but if you seek the Paths of the Dead, then our parting is come, and it is little likely that we shall ever meet again under the Sun.’
‘That road I will take, nonetheless,’ said Aragorn. ‘But I say to you, Éomer, that in battle we may yet meet again, though all the hosts of Mordor should stand between.’
So indeed it falls out, when Aragorn brings the black fleet up the Anduin to help the newly arrived Rohirrim break the siege of Minas Tirith; and he duly reminds Éomer of his vaunt. It is, perhaps, the closest any non-Hobbit character comes to saying ‘I told you so’.
The Rohirrim, who have just the kind of preliterate culture in which personal honour and the vaunt mean most — ‘heroic’ in the anthropological sense — naturally have developed vaunting into a high art form. Théoden’s speech to Gandalf, previously discussed, contains as good a vaunt as anyone could make: ‘I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be.’ This promise he keeps to the letter, and though he dies, his death purchases an indispensable victory.
The role of honour as credit is manifest in Rohan on every level. Háma admits Gandalf and company to King Théoden’s hall because he is a good judge of character, and considers them worthy of such trust. Sauron steals horses from the Rohirrim, but despite great pressure they refuse to buy safety by paying a tribute of horses. Boromir rightly dismisses that rumour with scorn: ‘They love their horses next to their kin.’
The realm of Rohan itself is founded upon a bond of honour; for Eorl the Young promised undying alliance with Gondor in exchange for the land that the Stewards gave him. At the time of the War of the Ring, the alliance has already lasted five hundred years: longer than almost any alliance recorded in the real world, but not an impossible length of time. England and Portugal are allies to this day under a treaty signed in 1386; but even that alliance was regrettably interrupted for a time, when Portugal came under the rule of the Spanish crown.
In Middle-earth, where the vaunt is both prophecy and destiny, Eorl’s words have the power to bind his whole nation without any such tergiversations. No Rider of Rohan would so much as think of going back on this national commitment to the Men of Gondor, though it was made centuries before he was born. This is one of many points that Peter Jackson’s films not only ignore but positively contradict: the Théoden of the films has to be coaxed and coerced into aiding Gondor. Jackson does not understand the vaunt; this whole layer of meaning in the story is absent from his version. The only man of Rohan in the book who could have behaved so basely is Wormtongue.
On a slightly lower rhetorical level, we have Treebeard’s resolution to deal with Saruman, even if it means the last march of the Ents; and Merry and Pippin’s vow to stick with Frodo through thick and thin, which leads them to follow him on the road to Mordor, and eventually to their separate heroic roles in the War of the Ring. And of course there is Sam’s promise, which leads him to jump into the Anduin without knowing how to swim, in his desperation to prevent Frodo from having to face Mordor alone:
‘It would be the death of you to come with me, Sam,’ said Frodo, ‘and I could not have borne that.’
‘Not as certain as being left behind,’ said Sam.
‘But I am going to Mordor.’
‘I know that well enough, Mr. Frodo. Of course you are. And I’m coming with you.’
Like so many things in Middle-earth (and in real life), the vaunt has an evil shadow or parody — the threat. Sauron’s messengers are capable of couching threats in the most elegant rhetoric, at once menacing and diplomatic. They use both the carrot and the stick, and the promises of the ‘carrot’ are as extravagant as the vaunts of the heroes. When Sauron sends his ambassador to King Dáin at Erebor, the language recalls the idiom of the Norse sagas (on which the cultures of Dale and the Mountain are largely based). Here the vaunt takes a grim political form:
‘. . . It is but a trifle that Sauron fancies, and an earnest of your good will. Find it, and three rings that the Dwarf-sires possessed of old shall be returned to you, and the realm of Moria shall be yours for ever. Find only news of the thief, whether he still lives and where, and you shall have great reward and lasting friendship from the Lord. Refuse, and things will not seem so well. Do you refuse?’
At that his breath came like the hiss of snakes, and all who stood by shuddered, but Dáin said: ‘I say neither yea nor nay. I must consider this message and what it means under its fair cloak.’
‘Consider well, but not too long,’ said he.
‘The time of my thought is my own to spend,’ answered Dáin.
‘For the present,’ said he, and rode into the darkness.
The price offered is an extravagant one, and a Dwarf-king, of all people, will be shrewd enough to know what this means: the thing demanded is a harder matter than it seems. The threat at the end, vague and open-ended but clearly ominous, is more than enough to confirm Dáin’s suspicions; so he sends Glóin off to consult Elrond, and with him his son Gimli — and thereby hangs a tale.
Still it is characteristic that evil, while it can parody the good, cannot achieve its ends: Oft evil will shall evil mar. Sauron’s blandishments fail to win over the Dwarves of the Mountain. Saruman’s spell does not convince either Gandalf or Théoden. When the Mouth of Sauron dictates terms to Aragorn’s apparently defeated army, and makes them sound magnanimous, Gandalf rejects them with scorn, complete with a dissection of the language to show just how hollow the offered terms really are. And the Orcs, while they do a good deal of bragging, never connect it with any kind of action at all. Their bold words are only hot air, which is an atmosphere poisonous to the vaunt. You cannot even have the fun of making a vow unless you are in the habit of meaning what you say.
Hobbits, as a rule, are not given to high-flown rhetoric or extravagant promises; but each of the principal Hobbit characters makes a vaunt, in characteristically lighthearted and low-key language, and all but one, in the end, keep their vows. The only exception is Bilbo, moved by the plight of the West to make an offer beyond his power, which is gently refused by the Council of Elrond. After all the high-minded and ‘romantic’ debates (in Northrop Frye’s sense of the word), Bilbo tries to take up the burden of the Quest with an ‘ironic’ version of a vaunt:
‘Bilbo the silly hobbit started this affair, and Bilbo had better finish it, or himself.’
The words, as Gandalf points out, are lightly spoken but seriously meant. But this is too great a task for Bilbo, weakened by old age and already partly corrupted by long years of keeping the Ring.
So instead Frodo volunteers, in a ‘mimetic’ vaunt of his own, the most plainspoken of all. It is hard to conceive of a vaunt being made timidly, but Frodo manages it: ‘I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.’ He is not making a boast; he is not trying to claim superiority over any of the great and wise people present. He is only offering to bear the burden to the end, until either he or the Ring is destroyed. In the terms of ‘Ofermod’, he has the gold of the ‘northern heroic spirit’ without the alloy. He will endure even death unflinching, if that is necessary (as it nearly is); and he will do so without regard for his personal good name. When he returns to the Shire, he does not even talk about why he has been away, and Sam is saddened to see how little honour the Ringbearer has in his own country.
If each character’s vaunts codify his actions and fill them with purpose, Frodo’s vaunt drives the whole story of The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, one could say, it was the vaunt that made his success possible; or rather, his vaunt and his success both sprang from his essential humility. Bilbo took so little harm from the Ring, says Gandalf, because he began with pity. Frodo bore the burden to the bitter end because he began with the unalloyed gold — the willingness to do great deeds, unmixed with the desire for fame. He took up the Quest without boasting, without pride, without self-aggrandizement; he went to the cannon’s mouth for reasons that had nothing to do with the bubble reputation. His was the hardest vaunt, the least boastful, the most reluctant; and in the end, by steadfast help and the gift of grace, it was achieved.