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Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “Farewell to Lorien,” “The Great River,” and “The Breaking of the Fellowship”

And so we come at last to the last stage of the first part of the journey. Now, the Company must not only bid farewell to the exquisite beauties of Lothlorien, but must also eventually make the terrible choices regarding the future of the journey.

These final chapters also seem to convey a great deal of the strangeness of this world. From the titanic statues of the Argonath to the powers of seeing that are granted to Frodo (and later to Aragorn) atop the peak of Amon Hen, we get a sense that there are powers that exist that have deep roots in the very essences of Middle-earth. While these powers might have faded with the passage of time and the declining of Men, they have deep roots that are not so easily done away with, and they call to Aragorn so that he can, for a brief moment at least, reveal the mighty king that dwells beneath his rough exterior.

This is also the first time that we get a definitive glimpse of the vastness of the powers arrayed against Frodo. As he sits upon Amon Hen, he sees the  armies that Sauron has begun to gather to himself, as well as the towering might of his vast fortress and the piercing horror of his Eye. This terrible fear follows closely on the heels of the threat posed by the newly mobile Ringwraiths, who have no taken to the skies as the power of their master grows ever greater.

However, we also get glimpses, though we will only realize it later, that other events are taking place that are for the good. The Company is not actually that far away from the resurrected Gandalf, who is the voice that calls to Frodo to take off the ring before he is discovered by the roving will of Sauron. And though they do not know it, the actions they take at this pivotal stage in their journey will ultimately prove essential to the success of the entire quest.

Boromir has always seemed to me one of the most conflicted (and thus most complexly drawn) of the novel’s primary characters (at least during this part of The Lord of the Rings). The novel clearly wants us as readers to understand Boromir as a man who genuinely wants what he says he wants:  the strength to protect his people. Yet he, like so many of his fellow Men, has fallen away from the path of wisdom into folly. The Ring has found the chink in his psychological armour and has already begun to exploit it, and it is this that is the seed of his undoing. His great strength, his martial ability, his nobility, and his desperate desire to save his people and his city are, concurrently, his greatest weaknesses. They are the the very thing the Ring seizes upon to destroy him.

It is also worth remembering that he is the only member of the Fellowship to permanently die. Unlike Gandalf, who is returned to his body in order to complete his task, Boromir ultimately must leave the world in order to escape the temptations of the Ring. Gandalf points out that it is Boromir’s sacrifice for Merry and Pippin that allows him to gain salvation for his betrayal of the Quest and his attempts to seize the Ring.

And yet for all of that it is Frodo and Sam who are the centerpiece of this final portion of the first part of The Lord of the Rings. They alone have the bravery to do what is necessary, to make what is (in my opinion), the second hardest choice, to leave the comfort of friends and the easy solution (going to Gondor) in favour of the perilous one (continuing to Mordor). And the fact that Sam choice to go with Frodo into that dark and terrible land is truly one of the most beautiful moments in the entire novel.

Here ends this year’s discussion of The Fellowship of the Ring. Next up, we begin our journey into The Two Towers.


Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “Lothlorien” and “The Mirror of Galadriel”

And so we come at last to the forest of Lothlorien and to that most enigmatic and compelling Tolkien creation, the Lady Galadriel.

Sadness greets us almost as soon as we enter the forest of Lothlorien. We as readers are still haunted by the devastating loss of Gandalf in Moria, and here we get a glimpse of the sadness that seems to permeate all aspects of the Elven way of life, when Legolas sings the melancholy song of Nimrodel. Sung as they hear the waters and their pure sound, the song nevertheless reminds the Company, and the reader, of the perpetual presence of sadness and mourning.

The last line of this first chapter is easily one of the most devastating that I have ever encountered. Aragorn (we learn the full details later), is clearly here remembering the days when he met Arwen, the love of his life and the Elf who will give up her immortality to spend her life with him. In this beautiful wood, he can reclaim, at least for a brief, heightened moment, the youth that he possessed in that faraway day. Yet this optimistic vision is quickly followed by the last line in the chapter:  “And taking Frodo’s hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as living man.” Truly, truly heartbreaking.

It is in the Lothlorien chapters that we get what is perhaps the strongest indication of the vast backdrop of the history of the Elves. Further, we also get a sense of the tense relationship between Elves and Dwarves, and while the causes of that rift are left largely alluded to rather than explicit, the Elves’ intense distrust of Gimli heighten the sense that this is a world that is harshly and sometimes irresolvably divided and fractured (though, of course, Gimli does gain the trust of Legolas and requests the three golden hairs from Galadriel’s shining head, so perhaps there is a glimmer of hope after all).

Just as interesting, however, is the fraught and complex relationship between the Elves and time. Verlyn Flieger (one of my all-time favourite Tolkien scholars) has written extensively on Tolkien’s relationship to time, and to that I will just add that these chapters bring to the fore the perilous and ultimately tragic nature of immortality. It is the one thing that humanity desires the most, and yet for the Elves, who possess it, it is a burden. They are condemned to watch the world they often love so deeply decline, and even the powerful among them must diminish and go into the West.

In that sense, the Elves seem to transcend history, or at least to live alongside it. Yet it is precisely their position outside of history that gives them such an acute awareness of the frailties of humankind. They possess the sense of vast perspective that their mortal counterparts seem to lack, for they remember much that even the highest of the races of men, such as those in Gondor, have lost in the mists of time. Yet this too seems to be a part of their curse, for though they seem to be some of the few that can learn the lessons of history, they also remain mostly powerless to change it. History, for Tolkien, is one long march toward defeat (a point that Flieger also makes).

And then we have Galadriel, in whom these issues of time find their fullest expression. As the one who has command of the Mirror, she has a stronger sense than almost anyone else of the power inherent in the commingling of past, present, and future. She warns both Frodo and Sam of the perils and potentials of this seeming mastery of time, and it is again one of those terrifying moments when we as readers suffer along with the characters, uncertain as to whether Sam would be better off leaving to return to the Shire or whether he should continue on with the Quest. As it turns out, either choice could have turned out ill, and it this sense of indeterminacy that gives time, and history, so much of its terrifying allure.

The intricate temporal construction of this chapter leaves us as readers feeling more than slightly bereft. Just as Frodo and Aragorn will never come again to this place where the spirit of the Elves of old still lives on, so can we not regain that original feeling we had upon reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. Or, to be somewhat more precise, while we can return to that world by re-reading the book (of course), we can never precisely replicate that same sense of wonder and joy that we had when we first encountered Tolkien’s wonderful creation (though we can, of course, find variants of it in our numerous re-readings). It is a large part of Tolkien’s masterful genius that he can give us new joys each and every time we read his work.

Next up, we continue the journey down the River Anduin and the tragic events that lead to the breaking of the Fellowship.

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.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings: “The Ring Goes South”

Having departed the peace and serenity of Elrond and Rivendell, we now make our way through the various realms that lie between Imladris and Gondor. At last, the Fellowship makes its way to the fabled Dwarven kingdom of Moria.

What stands out most to me about these chapters is the sense of ever-present danger that has little or nothing to do with any of the obvious adversaries. The entity that that forces them from off the peak of Caradhras is not Sauron or Saruman (despite what you might think from watching Peter Jackson), but some unnamed elemental spirit of the mountain itself. Like the powers that dwell in the deeps of the Old Forest, most notably Old Man Willow, Caradhras does not ally himself with the political entities of Middle-earth, and seems to have a general (rather than a focused) hatred of those that go on two legs. Here, Tolkien suggests that nature is largely uncaring about the lives and goals of those that go abroad in the world, which itself raises an interesting question about scope. Is the Ring, when all is said and done, such a big thing in the vast scope of natural history?

Likewise the Watcher in the Water, which seems to be a malevolent creature not necessarily related to Sauron, though perhaps drawn out due to his growing influence over Middle-earth. The creature does seem to be drawn to Frodo, but that may have more to do with the generally malevolent power of the Ring than a specified attack on the hobbit, as such. What makes the Water such a compelling, and frightening, figure is that no one, even Gandalf,

This is, after all, a part of the world far from tamed. The great wars that have swept across this landscape have ensured that the realm of Hollin is depopulated of its former Elven population and the Balrog and the Orcs have ensured that Moria is now empty of the Dwarves who have twice attempted to maintain a kingdom there. As in so much of The Lord of the Rings, one gets a sense of vast antiquity, of a realm that has known a period of grandeur and splendour but has now fallen into ruin and desolation (the latter being one of Tolkien’s favourite words). Even the stones, Legolas notes, have begun to forget the presence of the Elves, indicating the great span of years between the height of Eregion’s/Hollin’s glory and the moment the Fellowship inhabits.

As with so much of Tolkien’s legendarium, the land itself seems to protect the memory of the world. Kingdoms and realms may come and go, but rocks and stones and earth maintain their memory, for a time at least. Eregion, like Eriador, is a realm that contains within it echoes, faint now and distant, of the splendours of the past.

There is also a moment of genuine tenderness, when Sam is forced to release Bill rather than attempt to force him through the Mines. This is one of those moments at which Tolkien is so adept, showing us not only the grand scope of the action (the Quest), but also the smaller moments of personal drama, wherein the members of the Company must make wrenching decisions about the seemingly most mundane incidents. While this is one of those moments that are easy to gloss over in the heightened excitement of the attack of the Watcher and the wolves, it is nevertheless significant in that it shows the small, personal sacrifices made along the way of a greater Quest.

Next up, we continue our journey into Moria itself, where we will encounter the tomb of one of the most beloved figures of The Hobbit, and where the mighty Gandalf will find himself challenged by the creature of darkness that dwells in Moria’s ruined halls.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings:” “The Council of Elrond”

Now, at long last, we come to one of my favourite chapters in the novel.  Now we at last learn what has kept Gandalf away for so long, as well as the long and tragic history of the Ring.

Certainly, Saruman is one of the chapter’s most compelling characters, for he reveals the extent of the corruption wrought by Sauron and the temptation of the Ring for the powerful and the Wise.  As Tom Shippey noted some time ago, Saruman is the consummate politician, willing and able to bend words so that they suit his purposes, attempting to lure Gandalf into rebellion against their sworn purpose.  As a man of craft and skill, he desires everything to be ordered, and it is this impulse that has at last seduced him into the Ring’s orbit.  What always strikes me about this is that Saruman has been led astray not by the proximity of the Ring (he has never seen it), but by a combination of his own inherently flawed nature his pursuit of the arts of Sauron, and his glimpses into the palantir.

This chapter also enlarges upon Gandalf’s character, revealing both his strengths and his weaknesses, his successes and his failures.  He openly acknowledges that fell unwittingly into Saruman’s delicately laid trap, and that he was remiss in not challenging Saruman earlier and in being content to wait.  Yet this chapter also reveals that he is both more thoughtful and more ethical than Saruman, despite the latter’s ostensible leadership of the White Council.  He also has a stronger sense of his own limitations, and it is this, perhaps more than anything else, that renders him one of the novel’s most ethically complex characters.

You know, it takes a great deal of literary skill to make what amounts to one long chapter of exposition into a compelling read, and yet somehow Tolkien manages to do exactly that.  Part of this has to do with the ways in which the Council is concerned with the fate of the Ring.  We learn in the process that Bombadil may be unaffected by the Ring, that the Elves cannot and will not actively partake in the quest to destroy it, for their day is ending.  The key, then, is responsibility and the taking of an action, even when they all know that they will most likely meet their deaths along the way.  It is precisely because they know this and yet choose to do it anyway that the sequence has such evocative power.  And yet, nestled within this forward thrust of movement and action there is still a twinge of backward-looking melancholy, as all there–Men, Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, and a Wizard–realize that the world they have known is coming to an irrevocable and inevitable end.

And what of the Dwarves?  Though they remain largely in the background, the fact that even Dain, and his neighbors in Dale, have begun to feel the bite of Sauron’s teeth, alerts us to the gradually expanding scope of the coming conflict.  While the Elves may choose not to partake in the action that is about to take place, both they and the Dwarves will eventually find themselves besieged, islands in a world of turmoil and impending darkness.  Here, the novel suggests that no one, no matter how much they may desire to be left in peace, will be allowed to remain impartial.

In narrative terms, the chapter skillfully weaves together past, present, and future in a complex skein (Tom Shippey refers to this as interlacement).  We not only get a broad glance at the vast sweep of the history underpinning the current emerging conflict, but also the immediate threats in the person of Boromir, who even at this early stage has begun to fall prey to the same sickness that seduced Isildur and Saruman.  As a result, we know that the past shall once again repeat itself, though this time with more tragic, but also more eucatastrophic (to riff off Tolkien himself) results.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings:” “Many Meetings”

Having escaped from the menace of the Black Riders, at least for a time, we can now pause to take our breath, reflect and enjoy, along with the characters, the peculiar and particular joys of the Last Homely House.

Memory runs deep in the Homely House, and it is a fixture of temporal and spatial stability in a world that seems to remain in constant flux.  While the outside world continues to hurtle toward destruction, somehow this place, one of the last vestiges of the vaunted and hallowed Elder Days, manages to survive despite everything.  It is here, perhaps more than anywhere else except Lothlorien several chapters later, that the hobbits begin to gain a firmer grasp of the larger world that encloses their tiny little Shire.  Time here, as in so many of the Elven places in Middle-earth, is not bound by the forward thrust of chronos so evident in the world outside (i.e., the emerging world of Men).

This chapter also contains one of the most philosophically compelling passages, made all the more so in that it is touched on so briefly.  As Gandalf gazes at Frodo, he muses that there is something slightly transparent about the hobbit, but also reflects that he may become as a glass full of pure water for one who has eyes to see.  Verlyn Flieger has a compelling discussion of this in her book Splintered Light, and to that already nuanced discussion I would only add that it presages Frodo’s gradual divorcement from the pleasures of the humble Middle-earth.  And I don’t think I would be going to too far to also suggest that this moment also highlights Frodo’s status as a prefiguring of Christ (though not, I would emphasize, an allegory for Christ).

There are, of course, some lighter moments in this chapter, and there is a certain almost nostalgic pleasure in learning of the happenings among the Dwarves who formed party that set off to Erebor so very long ago.  It’s hard not to chuckle a bit at the thought of Bombur being carted to table by four stout young Dwarves.  Yet even here there is a troubling note of impending darkness, as even Erebor has begun to feel the menace of Mordor and the outstretched hand of Sauron.

And then there is Bilbo’s song.  Again, I’m quite familiar with the temptation to skip over the poem, for to a first-time reader it can be quite a slog, especially if you don’t have the knowledge of The Silmarillion upon which it so thoroughly draws.  Coming into it with that knowledge, one marvels anew at the sheer vastness of Tolkien’s genius, as well as the ornate nature of the beauty that he created.  The fact that it was, in terms of the diegesis, composed by the “humble” hobbit Bilbo Baggins adds another layer.

As with so much of The Lord of the Rings, sadness is never far from the surface of this chapter.  We are left in no doubt that Rivendell has become something of an island, besieged on all sides by those would bring the world under its own domination.  Just as importantly, we know that the peace and serenity here cannot last, and that the Company will have to eventually have to depart.  While we do not yet know that they will all be journeying forward together, there is enough to suggest that, whether they go forward, backward, or simply stay in place, there is no escaping the great evil that threatens the entirety of their world.

Join me next time as I discuss one of my favourite chapters (yes, I know I say that about each one), “The Council of Elrond.”

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.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings:” “”The Old Forest,” “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” and “Fog on the Barrow-downs”

We’ve now making some quite good progress through The Lord of the Rings, and since the three chapters of “The Old Forest,” “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” and “Fog on the Barrow-downs” seem to go well together, I thought I would discuss them of a piece.

Part of what makes the chapter “The Old Forest” so compelling is that it shows us that there is a great deal in the wider world that the hobbits can in many ways not even begin to fathom.  While the Black Riders might have been invaders from outside threatening the peace and quiet of the Shire, the Old Forest is something altogether different.  It is in many ways a liminal space, containing a bit of the danger of the outside world and yet also something of the world of the Shire.  It is a place that hobbits are familiar with in their tales and legends, but it is also part of the outside world that threatens their peace.

It is also, as the necessity of the Hedge indicates, a reminder of how much work goes into the maintenance of the Shire.  While the hobbits, particularly those in the interior, like to think that they are totally detached from the world around them, the wide world of Eriador presses against them on every side.  The trees are indeed perilous, and Old Man Willow stands as a reminder of how terrifyingly strange nature can be, especially toward those who go about on two legs.  It is not, however, that the forest is evil.  It might be more accurate to say that it is wholly other, that it operates according to a set of laws that existed before men and hobbits came into the land and will probably continue once they are gone.

Now, on to the hobbits’ rescuer from the wiles of Old Man Willow.  In all of Tolkien’s vast legendarium, perhaps no character has caused more controversy nor ignited more furious debate than Tom Bombadil (perhaps I exaggerate, but surely not by much).  As elusive and mysterious as he is jolly and powerful Tom, like the forest over which he rules, is a creature that seems to exist according to his own laws.  Older than Elves, perhaps even older than Treebeard (though that is a point that is up for fierce debate), Bombadil remains something of a riddle and an enigma.

When I was young, I used to dread getting to this section of the story, but now that I’m older (and hopefully a little wiser), I actually enjoy Tom’s antics.  There is a measure of brilliance in these scenes, not only in that Tom always remains something of a mystery, but also in the way in which Tolkien imbues even his non-sung words with a rhythm and tenor all their own.  We, along with the hobbits, find ourselves caught up in his tales and deep knowledge of this world, while also held something at a remove.  All we get are glimpses of those bygone ages, and we know little of the men who once dwelt in these ancient kingdoms, and it is precisely these gaps in our knowledge that keep us reading on, hoping for more revelations, no matter how small.

There is something noble and ultimately tragic about the barrows.  We know that the men who were buried there were, in their own way, brave warriors of old.  It remains unclear (to me at least), whether the wights are the inhabited bodies of those ancient men or whether they are some other sort of spirit, but either way it is clear that they are a corruption of something that was once good.  As with so much in Middle-earth, and especially in the ruins of Eriador, a once-glorious past has been reduced in stature.  It is, perhaps, a mercy that Tom is able to banish the wight from the barrow, releasing it from its bound servitude.

In many ways, these chapters mark the decisive turning point in the narrative of the novel.  From now on, the stakes of the quest to destroy the Ring will only grow higher, and the press of the danger all around them will only increase.  Such is the dangerous world to come in The Lord of the Rings.