Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “A Journey in the Dark” and “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm”

As we rejoin the Fellowship, they have now decided to attempt to make their way through Moria, the abandoned Dwarven kingdom. There, they find not only the tomb of Bilbo’s dead friend Balin, but also the fearsome demon known as a Balrog, a servant of Morgoth that has made the old kingdom its lair.

After watching the recent Hobbit films, I have a renewed fondness for the Dwarf Balin, and so the scene at his tomb strikes me much more powerfully than it once did. This was the Dwarf with whom Bilbo had the most intimate and cordial relationship, and it is, in my view, somewhat devastating to see of his death and to read, in the tattered book that is all that remains of his attempts to retake Moria, the rather anticlimactic manner of his death.

In some ways, the revelation of Balin’s death is in many ways a commentary on the relationship between The Lord of the Rings and its predecessor The Hobbit. The Hobbit, for better or worse, was largely optimistic in its worldview (though it, too, is tinged with tragedy, as the death of Thorin, Fili, and Kili makes clear). Here, that tragedy is brought to the fore,  as we learn that all of the Dwarves who set out with Balin also met their doom here, including some who were among the Company that set out for Erebor those many years ago.

As with so much of The Lord of the Rings, the ancient Dwarf kingdom has fallen under the sway of the dark and the evil. We also get the sense that Dwarves, like so many of the peoples that inhabit this fallen world, are fated to move inexorably into the shadows. The Lonely Mountain is but a dim shadow of the terrible beauties of Khazad-dûm, itself an Eden of sorts toward which the Dwarves always aspire but which they will ultimately never attain. Balin’s failure to establish a colony with any staying power serves as the final reminder of the futility of such attempts.

One of the things that have always stood out to me in this portion is the way in which it articulates Tolkien’s essential view of history. It could, I think, be argued that Pippin’s dropping of a tiny rock into the well precipitates the world-altering events that come after, most notably the sacrifice of Gandalf (and his later rebirth). As the novel makes clear again and again, it is often the incidental events–the chance meetings, as it were–that shake the very foundations of the world and unsettle the counsels of the Wise. Would the Orcs, the Troll, and the Balrog have appeared anyway? It’s impossible to say, of course, but the fact that it is his action, so seemingly innocuous, that leads to Gandalf’s fall and ultimate resurrection (and it is also worth noting that a similar event occurs when he looks into the palantir).

And so we come at last to one of the most important moments in the entirety of The Lord of the Rings, the sacrifice of Gandalf. He knows from the beginning that this journey may well lead to his downfall, and he is unfortunately proven correct. However, it also provides him the opportunity to show his true powers, and to show the intensity of his devotion to both the Company’s quest and the members of the Company itself. I remember being particularly devastated when I read this section of the text many years ago, and there is still something profoundly moving about Gandalf’s willingness to stand and face a spirit that is his equal in stature, despite his immense weariness. Truly, he is one of Tolkien’s most profoundly heroic creations.

Next up, we move into the melancholy realm of Lothlorien, which contains some of the most profoundly devastating lines I have ever encountered in literature.

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