This is a set-up chapter, and as such, it could be very boring. A lot of action will be found in the next chapter, the most action so far in the whole plot, but in order to get there, we have to go through this chapter. On the face of it, this section is just more travelling, with the added decoration of it being travelling underground for the second half.
But, with a guy like Tolkien behind the pen, we get a lot more than that.
Bridges have been burnt big time and it’s made clear in the opening few pages of the chapter. There is no going back to Rivendell at this point, unless they want to accept failure. The mood here is excellently portrayed, that of a malaise following defeat on the mountain. Things really aren’t going well at all.
Gandalf is an open enough leader and is willing to discuss the next moves with the whole fellowship. The group take the time to discount, logically, all of the available paths, which is crucial in order to emphasize how bad the one remaining path is.
Boromir is continuing in his role as opposition here, clashing with Gandalf big time. The wizard shoots down his suggestions of taking a longer path to the south, and the two argue again at the gates of Moria later. Boromir’s aggression and ill temper is growing, though he’s controlling it for the time being. Right now it’s Gandalf, soon it’ll be Aragorn (again) and then it’ll be Frodo.
Aragorn is penitent enough following the near disaster on the mountain. At least he’s sorry about it, willing to admit a mistake.
The decision is made to take a path through the mines of Moria, and the Chekov’s Gun from “Many Meetings” gets fired. Moria’s been built up a lot already and here, its revealed even the hobbits are aware of the place. Definite sense of foreboding, as Aragorn eerily predicts trouble ahead if Gandalf takes the path (and again later when he says the hobbits should appreciate the wizard as a guide “while they still have one”). Gandalf gets in his own bit of foreshadowing here, telling us he and Saruman are going to be meeting up again at some point.
The party is then attacked by wolfs/Wargs, in one of the first proper action scenes of the whole book. It comes a little out of nowhere (though the bird spies of the previous chapter kind of set it up) with the surprise of the party being excused by them being unable to tell the difference between the wind and the wolves howl. Seems a bit of a weak explanation, there is a chasm of difference between those two noises after all. Boromir suddenly becomes open to going through Moria, the signal that the opposition is over and with it, the discussion. A neat bit here as Aragorn and Boromir exchange short rhymes on the nature of Wargs and Orcs, the kind of homebrew, rural poems that flesh out the universe that little bit.
Pippin is in his usual awful form during this chapter, acknowledging that he is completely useless. He’s going to go from useless to a burden very quickly.
The attack is short and sweet, a regular old Zulu-style moment. Its standard fantasy fighting – The two men swing their swords, the Elf fires off his arrows and the Dwarf has his axe. It’s Gandalf who steals the show, lighting the surrounding area on fire. This harks back to Gandalf’s reputation as a master fireworks expert, his actions here seeming little more than a different application of that skill. Is Gandalf actually a magician? Or is he just really good with gunpowder? I know people who would believe so. This was also something he did in The Hobbit chapter “Out Of The Frying Pan”, so a good callback to that as well.
On the Wargs, the idea of intelligent wolves with evil intentions is well established from The Hobbit though there seems to be more of a terrorising nature from them here. They seem content to cause fear and panic before they attack and won’t be seen during the day. That, and their dead bodies disappear.
With supernatural wolves suddenly a threat, the party legs it to the Moria gate, a minor chase scene, one dependent on the tone of desperation from the party, who are racing towards a greater danger just to get away from an immediate one. Gimli steps up to provide a greater role from this point, helping Gandalf in his directions. It’s only natural and it reinforces the fact that we’re heading into proper Dwarven territory.
But its territory that’s changed, and it leads the party to a stagnant pool of water, one that the group continually refers to in varying terms of creepiness. Jeez, you think something will come of that? The door of Moria allows us some more brief snippets of Dwarf/Elf antagonism, which helps set up the coming Gimli/Legolas relationship more. We’re visiting the heart of Dwarvish country right here, and its Legolas thats uncomfortable. Soon enough, the roles will be reversed.
The actual riddle is stupid enough, seemingly included just to give the hobbits a reason for being in the chapter (Merry giving Gandalf the answer, in a roundabout way). This is only after Gandalf has totally failed to open the door, in a rare moment of ineptitude from him. This little section also has him suddenly announce to Sam that his pony is being cut loose, with only a slight prayer/blessing to protect him in wolf-laden country. The whole manner of that seems a little heartless, if necessary, and it gives Sam his lone bit of character development in this chapter, that of a hobbit who gets very attached to some things.
It’s interesting as we reach the climax of this scene. The Fellowship begins to panic, all expressing some form of doubt (except, in an important note, Aragorn, who knows better). It’s the hobbits in the Old Forest all over again, losing it when things start to go wrong. This leads to the “Watcher” attack, and the sealing of the party inside Moria, a convenient way to cut out the possibilities of other paths and absolve Sam of the guilt of letting his pony go. This attack plays into traditional “Kracken” imagery, that of the tentacled sea-monster, and its horrifying enough. This gets magnified with the realisation that it was more than just a random beast, and that it targeted Frodo deliberately. Combined with the birds and the wolves, it’s very clear that the forces of nature are being turned against the good guys.
Onto Moria itself. It’s dark, its long and its massive – everything we hear about the place emphasises the point that it is truly gigantic. It’s an entire kingdom inside a mountain range after all, with untold depths and passages. The atmosphere is very dark and oppressive, the Fellowship plodding along without speaking, another occasion when the lack of dialogue is supposed to be a telling sign.
The other thing being heavily hit upon as the party moves through the caves is the Fellowships dependence on Gandalf. He is, very literally, lighting the way for them. This is all set-up for the next chapter of course. Much more important are things related to Frodo. He begins to feel the pull and weight of the Ring again for the first time since the end of Book One, a feeling that will be explored at much greater length in subsequent books. The continuing pain of the wound from Weathertop, another recurring plot point, is mentioned here as well.
And, then, we find out that someone is following the group. It’s Gollum of course. Who else could it be? The identity of the “footpad” is not revealed until later, but only the more stupid readers won’t guess it. The former Ring-bearer won’t be having a direct effect on the story for a while, but here he is. For now, he’s just the creeping doubt in Frodo’s mind. In fact, much like the later face-to-face interaction with Gollum will coincide with the larger effect that Ring has on Frodo, now his shadowy presence matches the way that the Ring is just beginning to weigh down Frodo.
Like I said earlier, Pippin becomes a burden, stupidly drawing attentiont to the group. He actually makes a disaster here, one that he never really gets called up for later: it’s very possible that the party could have made it through the mines without notice but for his little rock throwing stunt here. Gandalf is forgiving after being honestly blunt but it’s bad news for the wizard. He’s feeling the strain too, losing sleep at a crucial intersection of the mines.
We come to a sentimental moment as the glory of Moria is recalled amid the splendour of the “Dwarrowdelf” the former living area of the Dwarfs. It is, as stated before, a standard lost civilisation story, a mighty empire brought low by its own hubris, one that will be reclaimed in time to come. It’s still a sad story, one that first mentions “Durin’s Bane” an, as-yet, formless threat. Gimli is in his element as the story teller and poem reciter, and his refusal to speak further after finishing his song simply lends weight to the feeling of Dwarfish regret over the place. Frodo’s mithril coat gets a mention, and its price, another Chekov’s Gun that will be going off next chapter.
The Ring-bearer wishes he was at home. He’s still not totally committed to the venture, but these seem more like lingering thoughts if nothing else.
The chapter ends with the discovery of Balin’s tomb, a powerful moment that connects the story vividly to The Hobbit. The reader can connect to Gimli, Gandalf and Frodo’s sorrow very effectively here, much more than if it was just some random dwarf. Balin is a former main character after all, so it’s an important moment to discover his last resting place (and in the next few pages, find out what happened to him).
Tolkien stopped here. When he was first writing the story, he took a lengthy break after getting to this point. It is interesting to wonder just where he saw the story going from Balin’s Tomb.
The movie cuts the Wargs out, but does throw a Rohan cavalry battle with them into The Two Towers. The Watcher fight gets a bit of an extension from the rapid ambush of the book while the opposition to the Moria path never really comes up. Gimli pushes hard for it, and it seems to be a road that is not necessary for the Fellowship to travel, but which they choose to anyway. Frodo justifies the hobbits place here, guessing the right password while Merry gets shown up as a bit of a bumpkin (One line “What do you suppose that means?” being delivered with a definite country twang).
Gimli is horrified at the discovery of dead Dwarves inside Moria, a little strange considering the amount of time that has passed since he last heard from Balin. Moria itself is closeted and dark, the exception being the memorable reveal of the Dwarrowdelf with a perfectly suited orchestral set. The movie, all in all, takes its sweet time with this chapter when it doesn’t really have to, setting up the fight scene of the following pages.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.