(Updated on 4/6/15)
On the road again.
We start off with the aftermath of the council. Gandalf 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 nothing more than Gandalf being a little bi-polar. 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.
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 lazing 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.
Frodo becomes fixated on a red star in the night sky, one that takes on the persona of an eye in his mind. It’s an obvious Sauron allusion, he being associated with the image of a red eye, now with that vision fixed on Rivendell and Frodo. It’s not the best metaphor, but it works well enough, at least enough to give us the impression that Frodo is still in trouble, still in danger from enemies seeking him relentlessly. Perhaps a bit of a “morning star/Lucifer” symbolism attempt as well.
As the Fellowship is picked, Elrond gives the usually worthless advice that Elves tend to do, non-committal, oxymoronic and generally unhelpful. They can go, but come back, but they probably shouldn’t. Thanks Elrond. 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:
“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 happily ever after?”
“It will do well, if it ever comes to that,” said Frodo.
“Ah!” said Sam, “And where will they live? That’s what I often wonder.”
Swords form a crucial part of this narrative section. 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. And Aragorn has the shards of Narsil reworked into a new blade, as he takes his first firm movements towards the claiming of his birthright. 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. It’s clear that Tolkien was setting it up for the finale of the book for a while already though 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 really is somewhat astounding that they’re being allowed to come along. 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.
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 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. It’s not the best group really. I might have gone a different way. Some of those Elf Lords might be handy after all. I mean, Legolas does have some mind-trippy powers, as will be demonstrated, but he’s no Glorfindel (we’ll never see that apparently important character again by the way).
The Fellowship prepares to head off and Boromir blows his horn. 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. 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, so I begin to wonder just how much of what is about to happen Elrond knows. Galadriel has some “sight” powers, why not Elrond?
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 Dwarfish 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. 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 its 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. It’s a really weird bit, not good at all, because Sam has not been portrayed as so idiotic before. He’s been naive but not stupid: I would have expected the character to at least understand the very basics of the quest and Middle-Earth geography.
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 wood suggestion, 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.
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. Boromir gets to look good as he takes charge of the floundering situation, but it’s somewhat more interesting to see the distraught reaction of Gandalf and Aragorn to their troubles.
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.
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.