(Updated on 17/5/15)
Book One ended on a very tense cliff-hanger: Frodo in peril, the Ring in danger of being retaken by the enemy, and then a mysterious flood sweeping the Ringwraiths away even as Frodo seems close to dying himself. Book Two begins with one of the longer conversations in a few chapters as we get reintroduced to Gandalf and do some story recounting, in a way that “Flight To The Ford” didn’t do for “A Knife In The Dark”. Frodo is quickly established as alive and well, and moreover the wizard is back in the narrative.
Gandalf only teases some info on his absence. The real story is coming in the next chapter, where the info-dump will be immense, though his revelation that he was imprisoned is concerning. And the Ring-bearer is alive and recovering, an indication of how tough Tolkien is trying to show him and the hobbit race to be. He has survived carrying the Morgul wound and a piece of the blade inside him for 17 days and treatment/surgery for four days. Not too shabby.
Frodo has a mental recollection of the disasters that have befallen the group so far, which is a grave list. Gandalf refers to their actions as “absurd” but recants this a moment later…though I don’t think he really means that. Certainly, a lot of mistakes have been made so far. Gandalf’s description of what would have happened to Frodo if he had not gotten aid is fairly horrific -“you would have become like they are, only weaker and under their command. You would have became a wraith under the dominion of the Dark Lord; and he would have tormented you for trying to keep his Ring, if any greater torment were possible than being robbed of it and seeing it on his hand.” – and there is an excellent little bit where Gandalf recounts the strength and diversity of Sauron’s forces: “There are orcs and trolls, there are wargs and werewolves; and there have been and still are many Men, warriors and kings, that walk alive under the Sun, and yet are under his sway.” We also have the first mention of the name this war will take – “The War of the Ring”. Interesting name, considering the majority of combatants don’t even know such a thing exists.
Only after this extensive bit of preamble does Gandalf give Frodo, the audience surrogate for this section as he was in “The Shadow of the Past“, the rundown on what really happened at the ford. Considering the universe that has been established, what he tells is decent enough, dispelling a little bit of the deus ex machina feeling we may have gotten. There was a combined effort to overcome the Nine, which Frodo wasn’t entirely conscious of. We get confirmation that the Wraiths are gone, as well as more information about them generally, though the reader should probably have figured a lot of it by this point. They’ll turn up again briefly in Book’s Two, Three and Four, but won’t be directly interacting with the main characters again until Book Five. For most of the rest of the story, the enemies will be less spooky and more tangible. We also read the first set-up for the Bilbo reveal later, as Frodo fondly recalls his Uncle and his own journey to Rivendell: “I wish he was here and could hear all about it!”
Gandalf is just as friendly and vague as ever. We learn he can read minds and memories, and create images of horses within roaring water. It’s good to remind people that he is a wizard capable of such things. The mind reading also lets him know about some of the braver things Frodo has done, notably the incident with the Wight, described as “the most dangerous moment of all”.
A very interesting moment towards the end of this conversation takes place as Frodo declares, happily, that they’re safe now. Gandalf gives him what is described as “a flicker” before agreeing. It’s a clear and effective sign: no, they aren’t safe. Gandalf, like Aragorn before, is also seen to be superstitious, expressing anger when Pippin mentions “the Lord of the Ring”. This also starts the standard Gandalf/Pippin interaction, something that will last for a very long time and be a cornerstone of the events of Book Five. Merry/Pippin get brief bits in this chapter, being portrayed as the cheerful, boastful hobbits that they are. They’ve come through fire to get here, and it seems like they’re on a bit of a survival high.
Sam gets his Book Two introduction next, after we learn that he’s spent most of the previous days at Frodo’s bedside. His opening scene in this chapter is actually quite creepy – he strokes Frodo’s arm without saying anything – but Sam is in his element here, in the bastion of Elven power in Middle Earth.
Anyway, the theme of this chapter is one of relief and safety from the storm outside. Rivendell is a sanctuary in an increasingly dark world, one that is imbued with that feeling of protection and seclusion, something that is no natural trait as those who delve into the hidden back story of the saga will discover (or the subtle hint given by Gandalf here). It showcases the best of the elves and inevitability of their fate: a place of rest and comfort, but one that is but a chink of light in a sea of blackness, a temporary holdout from the “long defeat”. It’s a welcome break from the danger and tension of the previous few chapters. In many ways “Many Meetings” is matched up with “A Long-Expected Party”, in that they include a fair amount of character (re)introductions and scene setting, with most of the exposition to come in the following section.
The centrepiece of the chapter is an evening’s feast and entertainment at the table of Elrond, the latest character to turn up from The Hobbit, and little changed for it. More whiffs of xenia here, as the hobbits and guests are honoured with the best of Elrond’s food and drink. Elrond himself is shown as a master of healing and has mystical command over nature, especially the waters of the Bruinen River. He is a great Elven Lord, portrayed as holding court at this feast, surrounded by immortal royalty on all sides. It’s an occasion of pomp and grandeur, one meant to show off the power of the “firstborn” race of Middle Earth. The description of Glorfindel’s wrath when facing the Ringwraiths is another example of this in “Many Meetings”. It’s all about the Elves and how awesome they are, though that awesomeness might be limited in many ways.
Gandalf is also described in lordly terms at this table, perhaps as a connection to the fact that he is, revealed only in the appendices, a Ring-bearer himself (like, spoiler, Elrond). Glorfindel gets a long flowing description, indicating that he’s going to be an important character. This does not come to pass, as he appears only in the following chapter and nothing else. You might think it odd that Tolkien does this, but I believe that it’s mostly lantern-hanging for the character, who is supposed to match up with an Elf of the same name from The Silmarillion, who was killed fighting a Balrog in the famous “Fall Of Gondolin” story. Tolkien never gets into it within the pages of The Lord Of The Rings properly, but both figures are meant to be the same person: Glorfindel was so important and powerful that the demi-Gods of the universe sent him back to the living world as a sort of emissary, an Istari-lite. Why Tolkien would introduce him and then aggrandise him, before dropping him from the narrative completely, is more confusing. The film even swaps him out for Arwen, a wise choice really. I wonder if a more prominent Elf might not have been a better choice in the book as well, such as Legolas or even the sons of Elrond, who will be turning up again later in the story.
The feast also serves as the occasion to introduce Arwen, Aragorn’s romantic interest, your stereotypical beautiful faerie queen. Not much to say here apart from the flowing descriptions of her beauty and grace, which will later help us understand why Aragorn is so headlong in love with her: “…a lady fair to look upon…the braids of her dark hair were touched by no frost, her white arms and clear face were flawless and smooth, and the light of stars was in her bright eyes, grey as a cloudless night; yet queenly she looked, and thought and knowledge were in her glance, as of one who has known many things that the years bring”.
Unfortunately, despite her grand importance to Aragorn, Arwen will get little characterisation going forward.
Having spent an inordinate amount of time telling us where everyone at the table is sitting (it really isn’t that important) Tolkien gives us another callback to The Hobbit, the biggest one yet, in the form of Gloin, one of Bilbo’s companions. This is the fourth character (Bilbo, Gandalf, Elrond), not counting the Trolls, to be included from Tolkien’s first trip to Middle-Earth, so the connections are strong.
In fact, the conversation between Frodo and Gloin serves as somewhat of an epilogue to The Hobbit, where we learn how some characters, Dale, Esgaroth and the Lonely Mountain have been getting on (very well, though the next chapter reveals some problems). It’s nice to get that kind of information really, a reminder that, there are such things as happy endings…of a sort.
The mood is relaxed for the most part, but some strain can still be detected. Frodo is at pains to hide the Ring and not mention it: “I think we will not speak of it”. Gloin’s reason for being in Rivendell is described in ominously vague terms: “I think we will not speak yet of that either” he says, though some scant details do come to life. Balin, another of Bilbo’s companions has “gone away” and has not been heard from in a while. Hmm. This foreshadowing serves as the beginnings of the story’s inevitable route to the darkness of Moria.
And we get some more Bilbo foreshadowing which comes to fruition…straight away? It’s been painfully obvious what has been coming and here we are. It is a joyous reunion and it’s the same old Bilbo, outspoken, jolly, and lackadaisical about everything. He really is sort of the odd man out here at Rivendell, the weird old hobbit amongst all the Elven Lords. Doesn’t seem to bother him though.
The reintroduction of Bilbo gives us one of the more memorable moments of “Many Meetings”, as he temporarily changes form upon seeing the Ring again, becoming a “little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands“. It’s about time we got some more reinforcement of the Ring’s dark power, and it isn’t hard to see the deliberate allusions to Gollum in that bit of descriptive writing. In this case, it’s clear that the Ring’s effect never goes away, and that it can recur, just like a drug. It’s a lasting addiction, only handled by abstinence and avoidance. Bilbo has avoided the Ring for decades, yet is still being affected by it. This may also plant a seed of doubt within the readers mind: If Bilbo has gone through this despite giving it up, how can Frodo bring himself to destroy it? Of course, the alternative is just as good: maybe most of the vision is in Frodo’s head, a perception brought up by the Ring itself, which tries to muddle Frodo’s thoughts by presenting Bilbo to him as a greedy charlatan. Whatever it is, it is very unsettling.
Bilbo also gives us another of my favourite lives from the book: “Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.” It’s a recurring idea, one we’ll come back to at a later time.
Aragorn is only in this chapter for a short period, but we learn plenty. We get confirmation that he’s of a kingly line, though no mention of Gondor just yet. Frodo captures what we’ve seen of him so far by calling him “grim” yet someone likeable and trustworthy. Despite that, he gets some time for “mirth” later in an effective little diversion with Bilbo, which is a nice touch just to show us that Aragorn is more than just the dark Ranger (though the resulting poem is one I always found rather dull, notwithstanding the cheeky nature of it). His connection to Arwen, though not explicitly clear yet, is highlighted later. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on there, since Arwen is the only female character of real note so far in the story (bar Goldberry) and Aragorn is the only one you can pair her with. The very first time I read the book, around 1999, I first assumed Tolkien was setting her up with Glorfindel, but boy did I miss the mark.
If the depiction of Elrond’s magical healing abilities and power to control water wasn’t enough to fill the “weird stuff Elves can do” quota for this chapter, their music acts as a kind of hallucination/projection device with effects not far outside that of a drug. Pretty sure that’s not what Tolkien meant, but there it is, Frodo going into a haze and seeing unbidden things while listening, an effect that will be seen again in Lothlorien. Bilbo’s verse is an interesting one in some ways despite its length, but far more fascinating for the response it gets from Frodo: “…the enchantment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him”. He sees some connection between the song and himself. It’s obviously, with foresight, the songs mention of the sea and Valinor, but it’s clear Frodo is having some kind of premonitions.
This chapter needs to be a moment when the reader catches their figurative breath. It gets the reunions and the relief out of the way in as relaxed a manner as possible, so we can focus on much more important and dramatic things in the next chapter. It’s not a terribly plot relevant chapter, meant more as a break between bouts of crises, which have been piling up in the narrative since “In The House Of Tom Bombadil”. Those reunions are handled mostly fine, though some might be a bit put-off by the elongated nature of the opening Frodo/Gandalf conversation, or how late it is that Frodo and Bilbo are put into the same room as each other. But still, it’s a nice diversion, and a new area to drink in: “…the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, `a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep, or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all’. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness…Shadows had fallen in the valley below, but there was still a light on the faces of the mountains far above. The air was warm. The sound of running and falling water was loud, and the evening was filled with a faint scent of trees and flowers, as if summer still lingered in Elrond’s gardens.”
Anyway, next up, the longest chapter in the book.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.