‘It is Precious to Me, Though I Buy it With Great Pain’

I was going to take the Council of Elrond as it was presented in the book, discussing each speaker as they took turns. But I think it would be best to cover a bit about what Gandalf said concerning Isildur, which happens a bit later in the chapter.

This is the first we hear any detail about Isildur’s life after taking the Ring (but before it betrayed him to his death). According to Boromir, “All know in Gondor that he went first to Minas Anor and dwelt a while with his nephew Meneldil, instructing him, before he committed to him the rule of the South Kingdom. In that time he planted there the last sapling of the White Tree in memory of his brother.”

Even if we didn’t know the story, we could assume that once Isildur got the Ring, the Ring would be pretty much all he cared about. But that wasn’t so – he wasn’t Smeagol. He cared enough to plant the new White Tree before departing. Why he didn’t do that before the great battle, I have no idea. But he didn’t, so there we are.

Gandalf then explains that while Isildur was at Minas Anor, he wrote out an account of taking the Ring and what he planned to do with it.

He began by saying that the Ring “shall go now to be an heirloom of the North Kingdom,” which was his own. This is yet another excuse for keeping the Ring. As I discussed before, he first wanted it as weregild for the death of his father and brother. Then he wished to treasure it. Now, it would be an heirloom.

This is an interesting statement. When (as we’ll see) Boromir lusts for the Ring, he wants it for power. But Isildur didn’t seem to care much about that. But, he was already pretty much the most powerful man in Middle-earth – by default, anyway. And it was in this power and privilege that he wanted the Ring for an heirloom, a status symbol for his family line.

Now, Isildur already had an heirloom of sorts. He was very well known as being the guy who nicked the fruit of the White Tree out from under Sauron’s nose. But when he decided to leave the new White Tree behind and instead carry with him the Ring, he was essentially saying good-bye to all of that.

But Isildur wasn’t finished writing, and went on to explain the moment he took the Ring.

“It was hot when I figure took it, hot as a glede, and my hand was scorched, so that I doubt if ever again I shall be free of the pain of it.”

Isildur was talking about physical pain, of course. The Ring was hot – apparently really hot. But it cooled and seemed to shrink “though it loseth neither its beauty or shape.” The writing upon it also began to fade, and he copied it down before it was gone completely, though he didn’t know “what evil it saith.”

At the time when he wrote this, which was not too long after taking the Ring, Isildur seemed enamored by it – he noted its beauty – but also was curious about it. He seemed to be studying it in objective ways, and even seemed to know that it was (or at least said something) evil.

He speculated that maybe it missed “the heat of Sauron’s hand, which was black and yet burned like fire.” And here is where we learn that Gil-galad was killed by Sauron’s burning hand. He also speculates that if the Ring were to be heated again, “the writing would be refreshed.”

In closing, Isildur reveals his heart, and it’s not good:

“But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing: of all the works of Sauron the only fair. It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”

Let’s pick the hell out of this last sentence. “But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing…” For his part? This seems like a call back to when Elrond and Cirdan begged him to destroy it. Now, rather than thinking the Ring was something evil that he was going to keep anyway, he was openly protecting it when others would have it destroyed.

And why? Even though the script on it might say something evil, and even though it was forged by Sauron, it was the only thing Sauron ever did that was good. He has convinced himself of this, just as he convinced himself to keep it in the first place.

“It is precious to me…” Well, that’s a pretty loaded statement. “You’re not the first to call it that,” Gandalf would say – though, I guess Isildur was the first to call it that. He had taken the Ring to treasure it, and now it was his precious.

The last phrase – “though I buy it with great pain,” might be the most pitiful. Isildur lost his father and his brother during the battle. This was certainly sad, but in the end, his armies had won. The land was saved, his family, including his four sons, was otherwise unhurt. His kingdom was intact, and even in good hands. The victory was bought with the great pain of losing his father and brother – not the Ring.

But that victory was not enough for him. That he saved his nation and his family and actually reestablished the exiled kingdom of faithful Numenoreans on Middle-earth was not enough for him now that he had the Ring. If he had not kept the Ring, then it’s pretty obvious that his victory would have been enough – after all, it was why he was fighting.

Now, however, he had bought the Ring rather than taken it (as Elrond said). The difference between buying something and simply taking something is obvious. He now felt that he deserved the Ring as a sort of ‘spoils of war’ kind of deal. It was a rationalization of the most self-deceptive kind. The Ring was his. It was supposed to be his. He bought it, and the price was his father and brother. This was his victory, not the salvation of his kingdom, but the Ring.

Camera: Kodak Brownie No. 2, Model D (1914) || Film: Kodak Portra 160NC (expired 10/2006)

Camera: Kodak Brownie No. 2, Model D (1914) || Film: Kodak Portra 160NC (expired 10/2006)

A Few Notes

  • A “glede” as in “hot as a glede” means hot coals in a fire. From now on, I’ll be using that term instead of “coals” whenever I’m camping.
  • When he says that he doubts if he’ll ever again be free from the pain of it, he is talking about a physical pain. I think it’s really important that this is stressed (and we’ll see why in a few days). Tolkien was talking about a mystical object (the Ring) causing lasting physical pain – not mental anguish or anything like that. At this point, Isildur felt no other effects.

About the Photo
These were the effects of the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens thirty some years after. It’s not exactly Mordor, but it’s had time to heal.

  • Day 124
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 621 (167 from Rivendell)
  • 300 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,158 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Still marching south along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. Seventh night out from Rivendell. January 3 – 4, 3019 TA. (map)


4 thoughts on “‘It is Precious to Me, Though I Buy it With Great Pain’

  1. I think you’re missing something here, which may be considered small or could have great import.

    Look at the sentence again. He does not say “I *bought* it with great pain.” He says, “I *buy* it with great pain.” It’s not like he paid a price in the past (the loss of his family, etc.), but that he is currently paying a price. It’s more like he has rented the ring or purchased it on credit and must continually pay for it, with “pain” as he says. You indicate the physical pain of his initial contact with the ring, which is there. And though he says that he thinks he will never be rid of it, I don’t know if that’s the “pain” that he speaks of when he talks about paying for it.

    I have to feel that there is basically the torture of addiction and the mental anguish (pain) of wanting to have something that you know is bad for you. Like an addict he hates himself for loving it. Gollum is the personification of this in the extreme. And while Isildur is far nobler and stronger, and so less liable to the kind of ultimate corruption with Gollum undergoes, surely the ring is working its effects on him from the start. And that is the pain that he pays with.

    Just my perspective…

    • Hm.. That’s true enough, about tenses. He’s still carrying with him all of the pain from the battle. He doesn’t seem to be displaying the same addiction that Gollum did, at least not yet.

      Tolkien is really ambiguous about the kind of pain, but returns to the idea in UT in a really spectacular way. Maybe I’m looking too hard for differences and contrasts between the two versions, but the scroll seems to be focused mostly on physical pain, so I ran with it.

      The Ring is definitely working on him from the start. I don’t think he came up with the weregild thing on his own, etc. And that’s pretty instantaneous.

      So I suppose that what I said is still true. He did buy it will great pain. But he is also still buying it. Maybe? I’d like to think that I wasn’t totally wrong.

  2. I certainly wouldn’t say you were ‘wrong’ at all. Just a different view. Of course it’s hard (even with all the sources, or maybe because of all of them) to discern what Tolkien meant by pain. But as readers we can interpret it in whatever way makes sense and gives the most resonance. For me, that inner personal anguish seems to be a more powerful sort of misery than physical pain (but then I’m lucky to have lived a fairly pain free existence…). I see that internal conflict as more dramatically interesting than dealing with physical pain.

    • All true, but I guess I’m trying to figure out what Tolkien meant here and how it changed when he rewrote it for ‘Of The Rings of Power and the Third Age’ as well as ‘Disaster at the Gladden Fields’. Isildur’s transformation is fascinating to me, but I want to make sure Tollers and I are on the same page.

      I was worried that missing the tenses might throw a big ol monkey wrench into my entire thought process, but I don’t think it has. I guess we’ll have to wait and see though.

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