(Updated on 12/05/2015)
We’re back and it’s clear, from the opening paragraph, that everyone’s alive. Tolkien isn’t interested, rightfully I think, in drawing that out at all. But it’s not clear exactly what happened, nor is it ever rightly explained in the coming pages. Seemingly the combination of Frodo’s words, established as more important than any physical weapon, and Aragorn’s heroics with fire drove the Wraiths off. It’s not the most satisfying conclusion to the cliff-hanger of before, but by focusing on Frodo’s POV in this way, the reader might feel a bit more attached to him, which is important for the mini-arc of this chapter.
And this is Frodo’s chapter. He’s in crisis, very directly. As Aragorn explains, somewhat unclearly, the wound from the Witch-King is turning him into a Wraith. Add to the fact that the group is lost in the wilds, many days away from relief, and the reader begins to understand just how much of a bind the hobbits and Strider are now in.
Frodo has to fight here and he does. It’s clear that his past experiences – in the Forest, in the Barrow-Downs and the horror on Weathertop – have hardened him a little. It’s crucial, because he has to fight this encroaching darkness personally, with the party only able to help him to a point. In the Barrow he stayed and fought to save his friends. Now he has to fight to save himself, against a much more insidious enemy.
It is clearly some sort of magic, but it’s not a very far cry from standard battlefield infection. Tolkien may have been inspired by his own war time experiences, as a close friend of his did perish in World War One from an infection sustained from a seemingly minor shrapnel wound. Frodo has a fear of being permanently maimed, and it’s not too unlikely, considering. That’s terrible fear to be carrying along with the realisation that the forces of evil are taking hold of him.
But, he holds on and keeps his nerve. His gradual slip into the Wraith world is well written, culminating in him being able to “see” the Wraiths as he falls under the spell: “He felt that black shapes were advancing to smother him… He almost welcomed the coming of night, for then the world seemed less pale and empty.” Frodo also comes to the realisation of what the Ring is capable of doing to him, affecting his thinking at crucial moments, even as it demonstrates its own sentience. We aren’t at the point where it’s constantly gnawing at him, but we are getting there. This experience with the knife wound isn’t going to help. It’s going to be a traumatic experience, one that effects him for the rest of his life, and it’s going to shape his thinking in the story from here on out. It’s something approaching a mortality crisis, and is the first of three terrible physical blows that Frodo, Middle-Earth’s sacrificial lamb, will have to sustain on his road to Calvary.
Sam starts out suspicious of Strider again, even though the Ranger just fought five Ringwraiths while the rest of them cowered on the ground. Sam has no problems shielding Frodo from human foes, but he’s sceptical of Aragorn for increasingly poor reasons. Aragorn seems to recognise this and speaks privately with Sam, takes him scouting, gets him more involved. That’s Aragorn. He’s doing the absolute best that he can, but he’s being forced to do an awful lot – protect the group, keep them fed, keep their spirits up, and most important, find Rivendell as quickly as possible.
He shows great leadership traits throughout this chapter, which partially make up for the rather significant blunder of earlier. He man-manages well, reassuring Sam privately, taking turns scouting with the hobbits. When confronted with the apparent Trolls, he’s smart enough and cool enough to recognise them for what they are. He is able to keep the morale up, at least to the extent that it doesn’t snap completely. But it’s clear that going to Weathertop was a mistake and Aragorn seems to have immense difficulty getting the group to the titular ford with an injured Frodo to account for. As it is, he tackles the problems one at a time, and displays an attitude and plan-making style to match. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just dealing with the problems in front of your face. Wraiths are one problem, but they still have to climb through some valleys first.
We do also some other titbits on Aragorn here, and Tolkien seems to delight in giving out minor details about the character very slowly. He’s the “heir of Elendil” and speaks of Rivendell as if its home, but one where he can find no rest: “There my heart is; but it is not my fate to sit in peace, even in the fair house of Elrond.” We’re building up to further revelations of the Aragorn character in the next chapter, but it’s obvious that he’s a man of more importance then we’ve realised so far. Like the denizens of Bree-Land, the reader initially doesn’t see much of Aragorn beyond what is initially presented, but “all that is gold does not glitter” and “the crownless again shall be King”. He also has a sense of humour, casually telling the petrified Trolls to “Get up, old stone!”
Aragorn uses “athleas” to help Frodo, a remarkable plant we’re going to be seeing more of. Later still we have a miraculous Elvish drink with awesome properties. Sort of a deus ex machina plot points to help the group out, but in this context it’s meant more to make Aragorn and the Elves look as amazing as possible. The athleas plant is going to be a crucial plot device much later and this is our introduction.
The bulk of the chapter is for travelling, but even that’s handled in a way that feels swift. Little dialogue, with brief, fleeting descriptions of half a week’s worth of travel is how “Flight To The Ford” proceeds, the company adrift in “a pathless country, encumbered by fallen trees and tumbled rocks”. But it’s far from boring: the whole chapter is on a knife edge with the Wraiths in pursuit, and the danger of encirclement is very real. Add to that the slow depletion of supplies and the slow progress, not to mention the injury to Frodo, and you have a chapter that’s just as good as racking up the tension as the previous one did, only in a slightly different way. “A Knife In The Dark” was about waiting for an inevitable attack from a shadowy, unseen enemy, and being unsure of how it would turn out. That was tense. But in a way it’s worse here, as the group gets tantalisingly close to safety even as the bad guys, whose abilities and purpose we are now more intimately knowledgeable of, close in. The evidence of allies in the area helps with this feeling, as we get the sense that the party is now walking the tight line between defeat and nowhere.
Merry and Pippin get little to do in this chapter, apart from panicking blindly when confronted with Trolls. It’s a measure of how freaked they are that they assume the Trolls are alive, despite the obvious reasons why they shouldn’t be: “Even now he looked at the stone trolls with suspicion, wondering if some magic might not suddenly bring them to life again.”
It’s a nice little callback to The Hobbit, finding the Trolls (also, what a difference. Two chapters in The Hobbit to get this far, 12 in The Lord of the Rings). We’re been following Bilbo’s path, just as Frodo wanted really, but we’re soon going to be changing direction rapidly. The meeting with the Trolls also allows the opportunity to read a little bit more about Bilbo. His entire character in the Shire, or at least his popular perception, was based off his hidden wealth. Yet, Frodo reveals he gave a lot of it away, as if it meant very little to him. Interesting stuff, indicating that the old hobbit was happy to be seen as the insanely rich guy, when he really wasn’t anything of the sort.
The Troll scene is a very badly needed lift after so much darkness, with even Frodo laughing. Combined with Sam’s poetry, it’s an interesting bit. The poem is a childish thing really, but it sort of suits the occasion. Sam is shown as creative, yet modest, more traits that will define him as we go along. Frodo foreshadows Sam’s evolution into a warrior (of a sort), though it won’t happen for a few books yet.
Another ally in an unexpected place appears, in the form of Glorfindel, our second Elf character. It’s good to get confirmation that the good guys are operating in the area, and that it’s not just four hobbits and a Ranger standing alone against the Ringwraiths. Hope springs: the party is so close to safety, and you really believe the joy this brings through the wordcraft:
“Strider sprang from hiding and dashed down towards the Road, leaping with a cry through the heather; but even before he had moved or called, the rider had reined in his horse and halted, looking up towards the thicket where they stood. When he saw Strider, he dismounted and ran to meet him calling out: Ai na vedui Dúnadan! Mae govannen! His speech and clear ringing voice left no doubt in their hearts: the rider was of the Elven-folk.”
The Elves get some good press from Tolkien, who emphases their healing skills and communications network. That last point, that they have a system of messengers set up that has moved far faster than the hobbits, is especially impressive. Glorfindel is a notable character, both to this story and to Tolkien generally, but we won’t really get into it for a time yet. It suffices to say that he must be someone special, to be sent out against the Nine alone. The tension rises sharply as Glorfindel confirms that for all of Frodo’s bravado in determining to stay with his friends, he is the one endangering them by his presence.
It’s the last gasp as the group approach the finish line tired, hungry and terrified. It’s a literary chase scene in the final moments, not the easiest thing to bring the life on the page. Tolkien makes a good go at it I think:
“Frodo looked back for a moment over his shoulder. He could no longer see his friends. The Riders behind were falling back: even their great steeds were no match in speed for the white elf-horse of Glorfindel. He looked forward again, and hope faded. There seemed no chance of reaching the Ford before he was cut off by the others that had lain in ambush. He could see them clearly now: they appeared to have cast aside their hoods and black cloaks, and they were robed in white and grey. Swords were naked in their pale hands; helms were on their heads. Their cold eyes glittered, and they called to him with fell voices.
Fear now filled all Frodo’s mind. He thought no longer of his sword. No cry came from him. He shut his eyes and clung to the horse’s mane. The wind whistled in his ears, and the bells upon the harness rang wild and shrill. A breath of deadly cold pierced him like a spear, as with a last spurt, like a flash of white fire, the elf-horse speeding as if on wings, passed right before the face of the foremost Rider.
Frodo heard the splash of water. It foamed about his feet. He felt the quick heave and surge as the horse left the river and struggled up the stony path. He was climbing the steep bank. He was across the Ford.”
It is a dramatic moment, Frodo narrowly avoiding capture, and then having to turn and confront the Wraiths, all of them, alone. It’s the moment of major decision for Frodo, for the quest and for Book One. The Wraiths are even more threatening than before here, assembled in full and operating in the full light of day, now no longer deterred by Elvish words (practically scoffing at the mention of Luthien) and breaking physical weapons with a look. There has been a gradual upswing in the Wraiths’ power as more of them assemble together, and nine united is a terrible prospect.
But, importantly, Frodo stands up to the Wraiths, fuelled by a righteous hatred of them and what they stand for, and wins (kind of). That’s a powerful image, when Frodo invokes the name of Elbereth again and rejects the Shadow: “…you shall have neither the Ring, nor me!” He’s got strength and courage and that is the clearest example of it yet. Moreover, it’s here that we really see why Frodo is – and perhaps, has to be – the Ring-bearer. He can endure things others can’t, and he can resist things others can’t.
That moment of decision is resolved by what can really be seen as another sort of deus ex machina plot device through the sudden flood, magically created as we’ll see, though at the time of reading the reader must be just as confused as Frodo between the suddenly rising water, the images of horses and the fiery figures on the other bank. It’s another cliff-hanger, as Frodo loses consciousness again, only this time it’s far from clear if he’s going to be waking up: “He heard and saw no more.” The POV has stuck with Frodo from the end of the last chapter to the end of this one, and the similarities- the Wraiths, the attack, the Elvish language and the falling into unconsciousness – are striking. But it is different enough that it doesn’t feel too similar.
This chapter needs to keep the quality and excitement of “A Knife In The Dark” going, while also providing a suitable conclusion to Book One, the opening sixth of the story that has fluctuated in terms of engagement and reader interest at times. It would be bad if the finale failed to pop. But pop it does, I think. The sense of tension and nerves is maintained throughout, Frodo gets significant character evolution, Aragorn joins him to a lesser extent and the chapter ends with another good cliffhanger. The other members of the party largely lose out, but that will be rectified in time. And, as with the last chapter, the intervening moments are also filled with good material, not least the interlude with the Troll remains, which reminds us of the progenitor story even as the current one takes a darker and darker road.
We’ve reached the end of Book One, which Tolkien dubbed “The Ring Sets Out” and so it has. Tolkien has introduced and established the characters of the four man band: Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, and added to the mix is Aragorn the Ranger (and Gandalf). The stage has been set for the more epic high fantasy stuff that will occur later. The hobbits needed to set out on their journey, but they also needed to grow up a little. They’ve come close to disaster on numerous occasions, largely through their own hubris, but it will stand to them. For what it was, Book One was classic “wandering” style fantasy, that had its ups and downs, reaching a low-point with Bombadil, and a high point with its final two chapters (especially with the attack on Weathertop). The reader should be fully engaged with the characters and their quest, ready to set out on an even more perilous journey after the first checkpoint has been reached.
Next up, reunion time.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.