(Updated on 30/09/22)
On the road again. “The Ring Goes South” is a deceptively long chapter, where a lot gets covered, so I hope people will be OK with my attempts at brevity. There is much worth talking about in these pages.
We start off with the aftermath of “The Council Of Elrond“. The four hobbits hold their own meeting, and it is touching in many ways to see the continued commitment to each other and to Frodo: “We have come a long way with you and been through some stiff times. We want to go on…We hobbits ought to
stick together, and we will.” Gandalf, who shows up, is in a bit of a bad mood, something that’s going to repeat for the rest of the chapter. He takes some more swipes at Pippin, further ingraining that relationship with the audience. It might seem that the wizard just hates him, but he unexpectedly supports him (and Merry) later when choosing the members of the Fellowship. The reasoning for this isn’t especially clear, and at the time might be perceived as nothing more than Gandalf being a little contrary. Throughout the chapter Gandalf displays an arrogance and a cranky persona, like a pissed off Granddad sick of having to deal with the kids’ problems suddenly. It’s rather odd and not what we’re used to from the wizard so far in the story, but at least he hasn’t been saddled with just a one-sided personality I guess. Pippin deserves some claps over the head anyway, describing going on the quest as a “reward”, much to Frodo’s chagrin. Gandalf also helps us to get round his bad mood by declaring that he himself will be joining the hobbit fellowship, as the motley band of adventurers starts to take shape.
Bilbo nods to some of Tolkien’s own opinions on stories in an interaction with Frodo:
“‘What about helping me with my book, and making a start on the next? Have you thought of an ending?’
‘Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant,’ said Frodo.
‘Oh, that won’t do!’ said Bilbo. ‘Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?’
‘It will do well, if it ever comes to that,’ said Frodo’”
Tolkien appreciated happy endings, something he outlined in his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories”, where he remarked that such tales should have a “piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through“. Such things, for Tolkien, provided moral and emotional consolation, and were a critical aspect that he saw in numerous stories, narratives and even in the Christian religion. In this exchange, Bilbo acts as a surrogate for Tolkien, who does not shy away from happy endings, even if to get to them he has to take some twists and turns that some dislike.
In the days that follow, Frodo notices a curious astrological sight:
“The Hunter’s Moon waxed round in the night sky, and put to flight all the lesser stars. But low in the South one star shone red. Every night, as the Moon waned again, it shone brighter and brighter. Frodo could see it from his window, deep in the heavens, burning like a watchful eye that glared above the trees on the brink of the valley.”
What this is, is not especially clear. From a rational perspective it makes one think of Venus or Mars, or perhaps the star Aldebaran. From a less rational view, it is perhaps symbolic of the distant threat of Sauron, typically identified with the image of a “watchful eye“. It’s certainly foreboding, and not just because it is Frodo’s view of it that brings it to our attention. It also calls to mind Bilbo’s words in “A Long Expected Party“: “It has been so growing on my mind lately. Sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me.”
There follows some bits setting up the travel that’s to come. The “scouting” of the area allows Tolkien to do some foreshadowing and tension raising, from the discovery of the Ringwraiths’ dead horses to the brief mention of an unnamed land visited by the sons of Elrond, which is obviously Lothlorien, though we’ll only learn that later. It’s more of the kind of stuff designed to flesh out the universe and it works, much like the last chapter did. Things are in movement, even if the party isn’t.
Of course, the hobbits are just hanging around it seems throughout all this time, with most of the planning being left to Gandalf and Aragorn (more on that in a second). I suppose there is little for them to actually do, but this kind of behaviour is hardly ingratiating to the audience, especially, as we learn later, some of them have barely done anything at all, not even looked at a few maps, to prepare themselves for the coming journey. I feel as if Tolkien should have used these sections to at least give a semblance of the hobbits improving themselves a bit, especially Merry and Pippin.
As the Fellowship is picked, Elrond gives the usually unhelpful advice that elves tend to do, non-committal, oxymoronic and generally confusing. They can go, but come back, but they probably shouldn’t. Thanks Elrond, who really makes his line “Then I cannot help you much, not even with counsel” come true. The Lord of Rivendell also seems to be testing Merry and Pippin to an extent in this section, maybe trying to ascertain if they have what it take to go on the journey. This would mean that he was already in a mind to send them. Gandalf’s support for this idea leads me to a belief: we’re supposed to guess they think that Merry and Pippin could have a purpose, though they probably wouldn’t go so far as to say they know Merry will be helping slay the Witch-King and Pippin save Faramir from his crazed father. Elrond clearly knows more then he’s letting on though. It’s not the best story-telling really, with Tolkien essentially asking his audience to just go with it and not ask too many questions.
At least the goodbye between Frodo and Bilbo is better, sweet and understated, the elder hobbit speaking wistfully of just wanting to finish his book if he is spared to do so. This is probably the saddest moment in Bilbo’s whole Middle-Earth tale, as he can only stay behind and sing mournfully, about days he may never see and endings yet to be written. Bilbo gives Frodo Sting, positing that the younger hobbit will have far more use of it than he will at this stage. Bilbo started the story handing something incredibly important to Frodo, now he does the same again as he exits the tale for a second time: indeed, we could look more darkly into the manner in which he is giving away things here, as an acknowledgement that his part in the story is coming to an end. Certainly some parts of his farewell poetry give that sentiment:
“I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know”
Speaking of swords, Aragorn has the shards of Narsil reworked into a new blade, as he takes his first firm movements towards the claiming of his birthright: he makes it clear that his plan is to go to Minis Tirith. And Tolkien worked overtime at his description of this new weapon:
“The Sword of Elendil was forged anew by Elvish smiths, and on its blade was traced a device of seven stars set between the crescent Moon and the rayed Sun, and about them was written many runes; for Aragorn son of Arathorn was going to war upon the marches of Mordor. Very bright was that sword when it was made whole again; the light of the sun shone redly in it, and the light of the moon shone cold, and its edge was hard and keen. And Aragorn gave it a new name and called it Andúril, Flame of the West.”
Some more foreshadowing of trouble in the Shire also occurs in this section, the last we’ll be getting for a while, as Elrond enunciates worries that things might not be well there. It’s clear to me now that Tolkien was setting it up for the finale of the book for a while already even if it’s not immediately clear on a first reading.
As for the Fellowship itself, let’s take a look:
Frodo is our Ring-bearer and VIP, the guy willing to step up and take the Ring when no one else will. Gandalf is the wise old man, leader of the party. Aragorn is the champion, the King in waiting undertaking his dangerous quest to win the crown and his “heart’s desire”, re-forging the great sword for the journey. Those three are the holy trinity of the story from now on, with a common perception being that they serve as a sort of Christ allegory: Frodo as the poor man taking on the burden of the world’s sins, Gandalf as the wise miracle worker and Aragorn as the King of Kings.
Who else? Sam is the batman, Frodo’s servant and helping hand. Merry and Pippin are nothing yet, little more than a burden, and it may be surprising that they are being permitted to come along at all. They can’t fight, they don’t have any noticeable skills, they have to be looked after. The hunt for them is going to split the Fellowship up (more so) in a few chapters time. Yet Gandalf’s words that they should trust to friendship over the choice of some mighty warrior ring true for this kind of story.
As for the others, it’s the rainbow of Middle-Earth. Legolas and Gimli get their inclusion in the previous chapter explained by being thrown in with the others, but in truth we know nothing much about them yet at all. The elf/archer and the dwarf/axe-wielder have rounded off our stereotypical party (yes, I know it started the stereotype). They get only basic characterisation in this chapter, but it’s enough to start: Legolas as the fleet-of-foot guy, and Gimli with his steadfast determination. And lastly there is Boromir who really might just be included because he’s going in the same direction, though having a warrior like him is no bad thing.
The Fellowship prepares to head off and Boromir blows his horn: “‘Loud and clear it sounds in the valleys of the hills,’ he said, ‘and then let all the foes of Gondor flee!’“. Every character has some kind of object that marks them out: Frodo/Ring, Sam/Cooking gear, Merry&Pippin/Arnor swords, Gandalf/Staff, Aragorn/Sword, Legolas/Bow, Gimli/Axe and Boromir has this horn, a symbol of military authority (better than his sword, notably described as “in fashion like Anduril but of less lineage“). Elrond sticks on his foreshadowing pants again to an almost ridiculous degree as he warns Boromir to not blow it again unless he is on the borders of his own land and “dire need” is upon him. That’s exactly what will happen (barring a brief blast in Moria as I recall), so I begin to wonder just how much of what is about to happen Elrond knows. Galadriel has some “sight” powers, why not Elrond?
Elrond himself gives a last speech to the Fellowship, where he makes clear that the only bond is on Frodo: the others are “free companions“, while Frodo is charged with not giving away the Ring or willingly handing it over to the enemy. This heaps the pressure on Frodo really, and I recall we will come back to this bond more in Book Four, and how it plays on Frodo’s mind. Elrond also has a very interesting exchange with Gimli, where the two engage in a quick back-and-forth over the best way to enact a leave-taking, neither willing to let the other have the final word:
“For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each
may meet upon the road.’
‘Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,’ said Gimli.
‘Maybe,’ said Elrond, ‘but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.’
‘Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,’ said Gimli.
‘Or break it,’ said Elrond. ‘Look not too far ahead!”
Aragorn’s part in the adventure is played up nicely, as he nervously awaits the beginning with “only Elrond” knowing “what this meant for him.” It’s a simple way to up the epic, but it works. That being said, the lack of interaction with, or dialogue for Arwen at this point, is hard to really understand, especially during a subsequent reading.
Off we go travelling, and two weeks fly by quick with no dialogue and a very downbeat atmosphere, Tolkien’s typical ploys to portray a bleak wilderness that they are travelling through. Gimli and Legolas start to come out of their shells here for the first time: Gimli gives the nearing mountains some dwarf names and starts telling us about various dwarven structures in the area, while Legolas does the same for his people, but in a more mysterious, typically-elvish fashion – he “hears” the rocks of a lost elvish country speaking. Both Gimli and Legolas do the same thing here, fleshing out the universe, but in equally good ways.
The bird appearance is more subtle than it was in the Jackson adaptation and gives the impression that nature itself is against the Fellowship, a theme that will sum up the rest of the chapter: Aragorn himself will note that nature in Hollin is palpably off, with the usual wildlife missing. I do like how the party starts to get irritable and unhappy at this point, something that continues for the rest of this section and beyond. First it was Gandalf/Pippin, then it’s Gandalf and Aragorn arguing about the route and then Gandalf arguing with Boromir in the snow, being as snarky as possible, really showing himself as the grumpy old man. What this is, is the beginning of a process that will last until the final chapter in this book, with the Fellowship strained, and eventually broken. It’s subtle now, but the signs are there. This isn’t an excursion with a united front.
Sam, in this section, gets shown up as a bit of a country bumpkin, apparently thinking that the quest will soon be over and that Mount Doom should be around the corner: “‘But I’m beginning to think it’s time we got a sight of that Fiery Mountain, and saw the end of the Road, so to speak’“. It’s a really weird bit, not good at all, because Sam has not been portrayed as so idiotic before. He’s been naïve but not stupid: I would have expected the character to at least understand the very basics of the quest and Middle-Earth geography. Earlier in the chapter he had an odd moment with the pony, Bill, which seemed to indicate, perhaps, a subconscious regret that he himself was going on such a journey: “‘Bill, my lad,’ he said, ‘you oughtn’t to have took up with us. You could have stayed here and et the best hay till the new grass comes.’” I suppose there is a tie to The Hobbit and “A Short Rest“, where Bilbo similarly mistakes the Misty Mountains for the Lonely variety.
There is one thing that I do quite like about this chapter, and some of the following ones, in that the Fellowship has no clear path. They argue about the route to take, and none of them are good. They have no set plan beyond the next landmark. It does heighten the tension a little, knowing that the Fellowship is unable to plan very far ahead, having to deal with the dangers that are directly in front of them before they do anything else, with no easy choices to be made.
Boromir has little to do in this chapter, but he does show his smarts with his suggestion of carrying wood up the mountain, and shows concern for the hobbits, creatures that have not been much of anything but a burden so far. This is all a sharp contrast to what will follow, and that makes it that much better. Boromir might have a secret desire, but it hasn’t engulfed him just yet, it’s a gradual thing. He remains a capable man.
The chapter reaches its climax with the attempt at a mountain pass, suggested by Aragorn, who is unwilling to take a darker road that is only vaguely hinted at. But terrible weather defeats the party, who suffer a very real setback by being forced to retreat and scramble back down the mountain, or die. It’s left unclear if the mountain itself, like the Old Forest before, has some evil kind of sentience, attacking the “invaders”, or if the weather is a result of Sauron/Saruman. I’d wager the first one, as it ties into the universe effectively, though the film went the other way (all the same, Gandalf hints Sauron is involved – “‘His arm has grown long’” – even if Aragorn indicates otherwise: “There are many evil and unfriendly things in the world that have little love for those that go on two legs“). Boromir gets to look good as he takes charge of the floundering situation – indeed, one could say that his preparations ahead of the attempt and then his manner of getting the Fellowship out of trouble are his finest hour in this story – but it’s somewhat more interesting to see the distraught reaction of Gandalf and Aragorn to their troubles, which even has Sam joining in on the griping: “‘Shelter!’ muttered Sam. ‘If this is shelter, then one wall and no roof make a house.’”
Gandalf’s hopes lay in tatters as the Fellowship arrives back at the foot of Caradhras, and suddenly, it is in no way clear what they are going to be able to do now. The final line of the chapter is one of the bleakest yet: “Caradhras had defeated them.” Much like the Old Forest, and like Shelob later, the mountain is a force of nature neutral in the larger struggle between good and evil, happy just to lash out at whoever tries to cross over it. The defeat of the Fellowship is a made clear to be a major setback, and the consequences will be terrible also.
This chapter needs to get the reader back into the swing of real adventure, as the Fellowship sets out, beginning the true quest and immediately grasping with the dangers of the outside world. And there are good moments when it succeeds, not least with the spying birds or the failed expedition to try and get over the Misty Mountains. It’s good that things don’t progress easily: unlike Book One, where obstacles were encountered and then overtaken, the party actually has to turn back and re-think in this instance. That adds a nice sense of realism to the story in a way, as we confront the reality that things can go seriously wrong. And they will only get worse.
But in other ways, I was never that satisfied with “The Ring Goes South”. The Rivendell section is filled with some frustrations, not least the lack of logical reasons why Merry and Pippin are brought along at all. The travelling sections in this chapter are also rather dull, and to an extent the attempt on Caradhras seems rather rushed, considering it’s the party going up and down a mountain and facing a serious primordial force of nature. Tolkien needed to create a situation where Moria was the logical choice for the party, and that is done, but I do feel that it could have been done a bit better, with some tweaking here and there.
Of course, we aren’t at Moria yet.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.