Loyalty: from the Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter

We are witnessing a horrific fight for the keys to 10 Downing Street. A rabble of disloyal self-serving politicians is driving our country to hell in a handcart… they don’t know what loyalty is… and they don’t care…

We need loyalty right now. This was my address at The Unitarian Church last Sunday: I started as boringly as possible, so that everything that came afterwards was greeted enthusiastically

Online Etymology Dictionary says that: loyalty comes from the Old French loialteleaute and The Medieval Latin word legalitas. The earlier Middle English form was leaute (mid-13c.), from the older French form. …is about Allegiance … It’s a matter of principle and applies especially to conduct. (Apparently)Loyalty is a matter of both principle and sentiment, conduct and feeling; it implies enthusiasm and devotion.

This deadly dry explanation from cyberspace just reveals that the use of a word in isolation doesn’t mean a thing, but when it’s woven into poetry, literature, conversation and life-experience it’s is a great deal more beautiful and meaningful.

Apart from the madnessof loyalty, the kind of loyalty that led nearly 2.67 million men to volunteer for the First World War, and other mistaken acts of human faith, the word means something very special. So, when I think of loyalty in its most simple sense, I have an almost visceral feeling about it, that is even stronger when I recall those films and books where loyalty has been a key part of the story. I am an enthusiast for some popular literature: The Lord of the Rings, and The Fellowship of the Ring, and Harry Potter all lean heavily on loyalty as underlying themes. I draw the line at The Famous Five, but I’m sure you won’t mind about that. Interestingly it’s said that Agatha Christie held loyalty in low esteem. Maybe that’s why I feel a bit off about her, and I don’t think she likes me much either.

Tolkien was clearly a great enthusiast for loyalty, which may have come, in part from his gruesome wartime experiences. It’s not surprising that The Lord of the Rings is so deeply concerned with loyalty as a central part of its plot. It’s a strong characteristic of the Hobbits, who always insist on doing stuff together. Despite their diminutive size they are allowed to become four of the Nine Walkers chosen to counter the evil of the Nine Black Riders. Their powerful devotion to each other is evident to Elrond (Number one elf) who agrees to let them form the main representative group in The Fellowship of the Ring. 

In Rivendell, the home of Elves, Elrond outlines what the Company of the Fellowship can and cannot do. Later on, when the Company has undergone some terrifying adventures, it is in an act of weakness and disloyalty that upsets everything. A member of the fellowship, Boromir, who is a man (rather than elf or dwarf) breaks up the Fellowship by trying to use brute force to take the Ring of Power. And this is the point in the saga when we discover what can happen to people who are disloyal. It’s a moment that opens out the plot very effectively. In the space of just four short paragraphs…in a book of over 455,000 words, the chain of loyalty is broken with disastrous consequences:

            ‘Come, come, my friend!’ said Boromir in a softer voice. Why not get rid of it? Why not be free of your doubt and fear? You can lay the blame on me, if you will. You can say that I was too strong and took it by force. For I am too strong for you halfling,’ he cried; and suddenly he sprang over the stone and leaped at Frodo. His fair and pleasant face was hideously changed; a raging fire was in his eyes.

            Frodo dodged aside and again put the stone between them. There was only one thing he could do: trembling he pulled out the Ring upon its chain and quickly slipped it on his finger, even as Boromir sprang at him again. (Frodo was now invisible)The Man gasped, stared for a moment amazed, and then ran wildly about, seeking here and there among the rocks and trees.

            ‘Miserable trickster!’ he shouted. ‘Let me get my hands on you! Now I see your mind. You will take the ring to Sauron and sell us all. You have only waited your chance to leave us in the lurch. Curse you and all halflings to death and darkness!’  Then, catching his foot on a stone, he fell sprawling and laid upon his face. For a while he was as still as if his own curse had struck him down; then suddenly he wept.

            He rose and passed his hand over his eyes, dashing away the tears. ‘What have I said?’ he cried. ‘What have I done? Frodo, Frodo!’ He called. ‘Come back!’  A madness took me, but it has passed. Come back!’

Tolkien didn’t let Boromir get away with his act of betrayal. Wild with remorse and regret, he lets this tormented character sacrifice his life shortly afterwards, for the good of the Fellowship, now divided by his act of disloyalty. Meanwhile Frodo, believing that the power of the ring warps everyone around him, runs off to Mordor, to destroy the ring.

It’s a great evaluation of the massive potential effect of disloyalty, and how it can cause a chain reaction. Of all human emotions I have witnessed in my life, disloyalty sows the seeds of regret more than almost any other. Men who have left their wives and children, people who have said bad things about people they admire, all live to regret their disloyalty… Loyalty is both positive and powerful and is much better if honoured if one wants an easy life. And all this serves to remind us that love is almost surely the most important force in our lives (and whatever our belief system) is something sublime.

Another enthusiast for loyalty has to be JK Rowling. Despite a few personal doubts about the consistency of her writing, I have to admire her for her tremendous plot construction and portrayal of loyalty as revealed by Harry, Hermione and Ron Weasley in Harry Potter. These three all know exactly what loyalty is about, and very rarely waver in their support of each other. Like the Lord of the Rings, loyalty is a key component to the story. The loyalty of Severus Snape to Harry’s mother, and to Harry himself, is particularly beautiful and touching, given that for most of the book Harry is fairly unpleasant to Snape, in every way. Snape’s loyalty is almost angelic; through thick and thin he continues to be loathed by everyone, other than Dumbledore, yet still remains both loyal and brave in the face of great opposition. This is loyalty indeed, and it’s a wonderful study of loyalty at its most consistent and touching. As a study in fidelity, its almost worth reading for this alone. I like to think that its impact on the young people has been both profound and life-changing.

There’s not much doubt that loyalty and love are closely related in more than one way, and disloyalty and betrayal are also pretty well one and the same. Yet in the world of business some people use the idea and ideal of loyalty in quite a base way — the phrase ‘customer loyalty’ in all its cynical glory makes my heart sink…. For the time being let’s just bask in the light of faithfulness and kindness as revealed in this church and its congregation, and also another lovely quotation, this time from Cicero, ‘Nothing is more noble, nothing more venerable, than loyalty.” 

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