The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: A Journey In The Dark

(Updated on 24/10/22)

This is, in many respects, 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 really, 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 in “The Ring Goes South” and that is made clear in the opening few pages of “A Journey In The Dark”. There is no going back to Rivendell at this point, unless the Fellowship want to accept failure, a scenario that Gandalf makes painfully clear:

If we go back now, then the Ring must remain there: we shall not be able to set out again. Then sooner or later Rivendell will be besieged, and after a brief and bitter time it will be destroyed. The Ringwraiths are deadly enemies, but they are only shadows yet of the power and terror they would possess if the Ruling Ring was on their master’s hand again“.

The mood of sombreness is excellently portrayed, that of a malaise following defeat on the mountain. Things really aren’t going well at all, not after the curiously titled “attack on the Redhorn Gate“. The announcement of the Moria path as a possibility leads to shock and unease, save for Gimli, “a smouldering fire…in his eyes“.

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. Going backwards, the Gap of Rohan, a westward course, they all have various insurmountable problems. We need to understand how unpalatable the alternatives to where we are headed are.

Boromir continues in his previously established role as opposition, clashing with Gandalf big time: “The name of Moria is black“. 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 he’s fighting with, soon it’ll be Aragorn (again) and then it’ll be Frodo, but for now Boromir sounds reasonable to the reader, albeit somewhat belligerent at the same time.

Aragorn is penitent enough following the near disaster on the mountain. At least he’s sorry about it, willing to admit a mistake, but his subservience to Gandalf will soon result in heartache. He interestingly notes, suitably without a great deal of elaboration (as it should be, it just makes it sound more mysterious, real “less is more”) that he himself has been in Moria before, an “evil” memory, but will follow Gandalf’s lead. As we move along in Book Two, Aragorn will make more mistakes and doubt himself greatly, and the failure of his first course is the beginning of this small arc.

The decision is obviously 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 it’s revealed even the hobbits are aware of the place, which is certainly noteworthy, “a legend of vague fear“. 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 doesn’t really bite on Aragorn’s quasi-prophecy, more concerned for the group. He does get in his own bit of foreshadowing here, telling us he and Saruman are going to be meeting up again at some point. Tolkien’s been doing an awful lot of precognition in the last few pages.

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 did 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 howling of the wolves. 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 follows 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: “The wolf that one hears is worse than the orc that one fears.’ `True!’ said Aragorn, loosening his sword in its sheath. `But where the warg howls, there also the orc prowls.”

The attack is short and sweet, taking only a few paragraphs of space. It’s 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 though:

In the wavering firelight Gandalf seemed suddenly to grow: he rose up, a great menacing shape like the monument of some ancient king of stone set upon a hill. Stooping like a cloud, he lifted a burning branch and strode to meet the wolves. They gave back before him. High in the air he tossed the blazing brand. It flared with a sudden white radiance like lightning; and his voice rolled like thunder.

‘Naur an edraith ammen! Naur dan i ngaurhoth!’ he cried.

There was a roar and a crackle, and the tree above him burst into a leaf and bloom of blinding flame. The fire leapt from tree-top to tree-top. The whole hill was crowned with dazzling light.”

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, and to his seeming ability to get bigger in “A Long-Expected Party“.

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 somehow.

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: “…the Company wandered and scrambled in a barren country of red stones. Nowhere could they see any gleam of water or hear any sound of it. All was bleak and dry. Their hearts sank. They saw no living thing, and not a bird was in the sky; but what the night would bring, if it caught them in that lost land, none of them cared to think”. 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, and perhaps make one think of the desolation of Smaug and the approach to the gate of Erebor in “On The Doorstep“.

But it’s 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. The door of Moria allows us some more brief snippets of dwarf/elf antagonism, which helps set up the coming Gimli/Legolas relationship more:

Those were happier days, when there was still close friendship at times between folk of different race, even between Dwarves and Elves.’

It was not the fault of the Dwarves that the friendship waned,’ said Gimli.

I have not heard that it was the fault of the Elves,’ said Legolas.”

We’re visiting the heart of dwarven country right here, and it’s Legolas that’s uncomfortable. Soon enough, the roles will be reversed, and this common thread between Legolas and Gimli will continue well into the rest of the story. Now they snipe a bit at each other, before Gandalf insists on some friendship, but this odd couple will work out splendidly.

The actual riddle is stupid enough, “Too simple for a learned lore-master in these suspicious days“, 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 something. Bill’s departure is a strange threshold moment in a way, since he is essentially one of Sam’s last links to a place very near to home. Ahead lie tentacles and balrogs, behind are ponies.

It’s interesting as we reach the climax of this scene, with the immovable nature of the stones made plain for the reader, with comparisons to the timeless elements of nature: “The cliff towered into the night, the countless stars kindled, the wind blew cold, and the doors stood fast.” The Fellowship begins to panic, all expressing some form of doubt (except, in an important note, Aragorn, who knows better). Boromir, notably, goes even further in petulantly throwing a rock into the surrounding water, to the annoyance of Frodo.

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. Tolkien set-up that something bad was in the water quite well, it was just a ticking clock to when it would turn up. This attack plays into traditional “Kraken” imagery, that of the tentacled sea-monster, and it’s horrifying enough, positively Lovecraftian in many ways. This gets magnified with the (secretly held) realisation that it was more than just a random beast, and that it targeted Frodo deliberately. Combined with the birds and the wolves, and maybe even the mountains themselves, it’s very clear that the forces of nature are being turned against the good guys, even if the good guys prevail twice against dark forces of nature in just a few pages.

It’s to be noted too, in combination with my first point, that a chapter that could just have been a dull journey to the action soon to come, has already come up with two really awesome action beats. Tolkien is keeping things ticking over nicely.

Onto Moria itself. It’s dark, it’s long and it’s massive: everything we hear about the place emphasises the point that it is truly gigantic, with bottomless depths the party must leap over, moments that the reader cannot help but get sucked in to, wondering if they would have the same courage to make such a jump. It’s an entire kingdom inside a mountain range, with untold complexity and passages: “Already they seemed to have been tramping on, on, endlessly to the mountains’ roots.” 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. Instead, Tolkien focuses on the creation of ambiance:

Already they seemed to have been tramping on, on, endlessly to the mountains’ roots… The Company behind him spoke seldom, and then only in hurried whispers. There was no sound but the sound of their own feet; the dull stump of Gimli’s dwarf-boots; the heavy tread of Boromir; the light step of Legolas; the soft, scarce-heard patter of hobbit-feet; and in the rear the slow firm footfalls of Aragorn with his long stride. When they halted for a moment they heard nothing at all, unless it were occasionally a faint trickle and drip of unseen water. “

The other thing being heavily hit upon as the party moves through the caves is the Fellowship’s dependence on Gandalf. He is, very literally, lighting the way for them. Aragorn, who wasn’t entirely onboard with the plan to come through Moria, backs Gandalf up big-time in these sections: “Do not
be afraid! I have been with him on many a journey, if never on one so dark…He has led us in here against our fears, but he will lead us out again, at whatever cost to himself‘”. This is all set-up for the next chapter of course, and seems more obvious on a second reading. 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 too. Frodo isn’t well, and is ever more isolated from the others: “…now a deep uneasiness, growing to dread, crept over him again…He felt the certainty of evil ahead and of evil following; but he said nothing.”

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 unimaginative 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, that “evil ahead and evil following“. In fact, much like how 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 its current bearer.

Pippin becomes a serious burden, stupidly drawing attention to the group through his own clumsiness in dropping something down a well (leading to that now famous exclamation of “Fool of a Took!”). 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. Gandalf is eventually 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, though he suddenly comes to his senses in optimistic fashion after a short time.

We come to a sentimental moment as the glory of Moria is recalled amid the splendour of the “Dwarrowdelf”, the chief living area of the dwarfs, with the hall so large that it engenders feelings of smallness in the company: “…they were oppressed by the loneliness and vastness of the dolven halls“. Moria’s history 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 similar in some ways to the retreat of the elves, insofar as Moria is a very definite sign that the dwarves are also in decline. It’s 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 poet, and his refusal to speak further after finishing his song simply lends weight to the feeling of dwarven regret over the place. The poem itself is wonderful, calling back to Bag End and a horde of dwarves recounting the fall of Erebor in The Hobbit:

The world is grey, the mountains old,

The forge’s fire is ashen-cold

No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:

The darkness dwells in Durin’s halls

The shadow lies upon his tomb

In Moria, in Khazad-dûm.

But still the sunken stars appear

In dark and windless Mirrormere;

There lies his crown in water deep,

Till Durin wakes again from sleep.”

Here are many themes of the story wrapped up together: the obvious contrast between dwarves and elves, one loving the dark places of the world, the other the light; the danger of seeking hidden things and knowledge; and the irrevocable destruction of grand civilisations, usually out of their own hubris. It’s a great way of getting across the history and myth of the dwarves, with Durin as both an Adam and “King-In-The-Mountain” trope, in an entertaining and engaging way,

Frodo’s mithril coat gets a mention, and its price, another plot reminder that will be getting its pay-off in the next chapter, and I like that Bilbo’s ownership of such a thing is enough to break Gimli out of his self-imposed silence on Moria after the song. The Ring-bearer is more concerned with wishing he was at home. He’s still not totally committed to the venture, but these seem more like lingering thoughts if nothing else. His mood matches that of Gimli, now that he has seen the fabled fortress of the dwarves: “I have looked on Moria, and it is very great, but it has become dark and dreadful…“.

The chapter ends with the discovery of Balin’s tomb, a powerful moment that connects the story vividly to The Hobbit. The visual is really powerful in this moment, with the chamber “lit by a wide high shaft” of light, falling square on a great stone slab, that is of course the final resting place of the last Lord of Moria. 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). The mood is brilliantly captured by another wonderful final line, as Gimli, in mourning, is left to “cast his hood over his face.”

When he was first writing the story, Tolkien stopped here, taking a lengthy break to envision the rest of the tale. It is interesting to wonder just where he saw the story going from Balin’s Tomb, and what he envisioned as being different. You can delve into his notes thanks to Christopher Tolkien, but it suffices to say it simply: very, very different.

This chapter needs to keep things moving properly for the Fellowship, show some bounce-back from the failure of the last chapter and ease the reader into a very different environment. It illustrates brilliantly Tolkien’s skill at fantasy world creation, descriptive writing and the establishment of a great tempo. The world of Hollin, the ground outside the gates and Moria itself in its grandeur and uneasiness are all described vividly and with skill, varying environments that all call back to a distant past, adding to the epic feel of the tale and the environment that the Fellowship are travelling through. There are included some great interactions between characters at the start and in bits throughout. And two great action sequences, brief but memorable, also mark “A Journey In The Dark” as one of the more impressive chapters of Book Two, with things set-up admirably for all that is to follow in the iconic moments of the next chapter.

Much time and effort is well expended on Gandalf and his vital importance to the party, writing that will have a suitable pay-off in just a few pages. This section see’s him face numerous obstacles – the objections to Moria, the riddle on the doorway, the three forked path he suddenly comes upon – but he overcomes them all, at one point essentially deciding that he just needs to relax in order to work a solution. We see various shades of Gandalf the Grey in this chapter then, but are mostly left with the impression of a tired, stressed being, “the old wizard huddled on the floor”, who is feeling the burden of being the chosen leader for this band of wanderers. Soon will come the time to lay down those burdens. But lest we think too ill of him, we should remember Gandalf stirred to wrath: “a great menacing shape like the monument of some ancient king of stone set upon a hill.

The stakes have been raised, the danger facing our heroes has been presented properly, and we have been suitably prepped for the larger battle to come between the forces of light and dark. “If you pass the gates of Moria, beware!”. Such a journey, in dark or no, will carry a cost, a sacrifice that must be paid in blood.

For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.

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5 Responses to The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: A Journey In The Dark

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