Reading “The Lord of the Rings:” “A Knife in the Dark” and “Flight to the Ford”

We’ve now reached the point where Frodo and his companions, including the enigmatic Strider, have at last set out from Bree and prepare to make their dangerous way to Rivendell.  Full of suspense and terror, these are two of the finest chapters in The Fellowship of the Ring.

These two chapters toggle deftly between the vast and rather bleak sweep of the vastness of time and the rather droll and humdrum normality of the everyday.  While ruins of the past loom all about them–perpetual reminders of the deeps of time and the profound history of Eriador–they also encounter vestiges of a much more pleasant (or so it seems) journey, that of Bilbo and the Dwarves on their journey to Erebor.  The stakes for Bilbo were comparatively low; those for Frodo are incredibly high.

Of course, this chapter is also notable for its inclusion of Sam’s delightful poem about the troll.  And as we come to know, it is actually a work of his own composition.  There is indeed something quintessentially hobbitish about this piece of poetry, in marked contrast to the other large piece of poetic flourish.  That, of course, is the very brief recitation of the tale of Beren and Luthien, which even Aragorn admits is but a small part of the much larger and more elaborate lay.  With the advantage of hindsight, we now know that indeed the tale of the Ring, as important and popular as it has become, was but the last great gasp of the high period of Middle-earth.

We get the distinct sense in these chapters of an unforgiving and largely unpopulated landscape, one that has been devastated by the decades of war and the breakup of the Kingdom of Arnor.  Of course, this is the result of a multitude of social, political, and cultural forces.  While Eriador is painted as an austerely beautiful land–indeed, these chapter possesses many notable examples of Tolkien’s remarkable ability to paint landscapes with an almost sublime sense of detail.  It is precisely these vast vistas that seem to bear down upon both the hobbits and the readers, engendering a pervasive sense of the vastness of time and, somewhat paradoxically, the fleeting nature of human accomplishment.

“Flight to the Ford” ends in an entirely appropriate place, with Frodo at last having escaped from the Ringwraiths yet trembling at the very boundary of their world.  There is something deeply sinister about the fact that he has come so close into slipping into the very darkness from which they have all been so desperately fleeing.  And yet even the Wraiths have a certain cold and terrible beauty, though it is only revealed when Frodo puts on the Ring in the valley beneath Weathertop.  As Tolkien makes clear and again, they were once powerful and mighty men, and there is a faint whiff even of tragedy at how far they have fallen, ensnared by the very power that they sought to master.

Thankfully for the anxious reader, we are about to enter one of the film’s most peaceful moments, as the fledgling company at least reaches Rivendell.  Yet even there, we know at some level, the peace that they so desperately seek will not really be found.  The evil that they have set out to battle against is poised to start knocking even on the doors of the last hallowed places in the West of Middle-earth.  And yet we also know that if Frodo can pull through this first strenuous stage of his journey, we can rest assured that his peculiar brand of hobbit-strength will allow him to survive whatever the dark forces array against him.

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