(Updated on 13/06/15)
One of the shorter, but more action packed chapters, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum” marks a major point in the story, as we break off from the by-the-books nature of the quest so far and suffer some genuine loss. That’s not to say that the story thus far has been entirely straight forward, but in many ways it has been somewhat routine: the hobbit have reached Rivendell without loss, the multi-racial party has its quest, and a few different and contrasting environments have been explored, with a few dollops of action here and there. But the stakes of the story have never been as high as they might have been, save for maybe “Flight To The Ford”. That’s going to change.
The atmosphere in Balin’s tomb is downbeat and oppressive. One of the most well remembered parts of the whole tale occurs in these pages, as Gandalf reads from the “Book of Mazurbul”, recounting the last days of the Dwarven expedition led by Balin. It is kind of a staple of the horror genre, reading out or watching the last messages, distress calls whatever, a sort of “found footage” in literary form. The broken and distorted retelling aids in the atmosphere, as we get a sense of an ancient catastrophe having taken place, a military setback and last stand that seems almost fictional (if you follow) in the modern surroundings. I suppose it’s sort of like the feeling you get standing on an ancient battlefield or historical area, realising you’re standing in a place with a dark and bloody past. I mean, here we are, learning how Oin of The Hobbit was devoured by the very monster that assailed the Fellowship in the last chapter.
The Dwarves tempted fate, returning to Moria before they were supposed to. Hubris resulted in their destruction, as they became hopelessly trapped inside their retaken Kingdom. It’s a “curiosity killed the cat” moral, one that Tolkien likes to use a lot. The last lines – “We cannot get out…Drums, drums in the deep…They are coming” – does set up the rest of the chapter in nicely, as the reader suddenly realises that the recounting isn’t just ancient history, but a prophecy.
The attack comes almost immediately. The drum imagery, first seen in the last chapter with the tapping, then in the Dwarven book, comes to life, the defining descriptor of the attackers. The constant refrain of doom, doom, adds that dimension of fear. And then they come barrelling through the door, the party with barely enough time to prepare, given hope only by the presence of Gandalf.
This is the first time we see Orcs in The Lord of the Rings, the primary foot soldiers of the bad guys, whose laughter is “like the fall of sliding stones into a pit”. More than that though, we get our first mention of “Uruks”: we don’t really know yet, but they seem to be some sort of beefed up Orc, a Mordor veteran. So, here is the party’s first direct meeting with the forces of Mordor, or at least forces allied to them in some fashion. The fact that the party has to stand and fight, gain themselves a bit of breathing room, means we’ll have some action.
Just like the encounter with the wolves, it’s short and sweet. Boromir attacks what I assume is the cave troll and fails miserably. Frodo succeeds with the Elven blade. It’s another big “hero rising” moment for Frodo, showing a more conventional kind of courage in stepping up to attack the enemy directly. The hobbits have some bite, something that will be much clearer from now on.
What follows is the first proper sword fighting of the story, with Aragorn’s encounter with the Ringwraiths happening “off-screen”, and the wolves of “A Journey In The Dark” not having blades themselves. Again, the individual skills of the Fellowship are emphasised: Aragorn and Boromir with their swords, Gimli with his axe and Legolas with his bow. It is important to show this stuff, to make sure that the reader is convinced that the party aren’t just any old group of people out for an excursion. They can fight and they can kill.
Sam is a particular focal point, felling an Orc and getting slightly hurt in the process. He’s the wounded hero for a moment, a sword in hand and a fire in the eyes, “that would have made Ted Sandyman step backwards“. This continues the growth of Sam as the story’s real hero as he draws blood for the first, but not the last, time. The moment never gets any attention after the fact, and the killing of the Orcs seems akin to the killing of wild animals. For the second time in as many chapters, Frodo gets picked out of the crowd and attacked with a purpose. He survives, a nice sequence where his mithril is hinted at following, but it’s clear that the bad guys are being drawn to him, knowingly or unknowingly.
The battle temporarily won, Gimli has to be dragged away from the tomb, lingering near Balin’s last resting place. I really liked that moment, I think it adds a real empathy dimension to Gimli, a person with roots and familial ties, ties that are burdensome and sorrowful. Somewhat suitably for the friendship that is already growing, it is Legolas who drags him away.
Gandalf faces a dark terror before the chase begins. The identity of the creature he is dealing with – more than Orc or Troll clearly – adds that element of mystery and confusion to these pages as we remember those two fateful words “Durin’s Bane” from the previous chapter. A chase begins, a terrifying concept as the group stumbles through the darkness, with all the forces of hell behind them, and Gandalf drained of energy. And the words “forces of hell” is close to a literal thing, as the Fellowship emerges into a fire filled hall and the Balrog appears, after a short but tense number of periods of rising panic and peril.
I am not going to get into the Balrog debate too much. Those last few pages of “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum” are probably the most debated in fantasy, to the extent that you want to drive a nail through your brain reading about it. Is the Balrog man-sized or giant? Does it have wings? Do I care?
I suppose I always pictured, even before the film, that the Balrog was big, bipedal but not man-sized, and didn’t have wings, just “smoked” and blazed in a way where it looked like it had wings. In fact, I always pictured it as a column of flame and shadow with arms, with no recognizable features. Its appearance isn’t really the important thing. Unless you’ve read The Silmarillion, which expands on what the Balrogs are (Dark Maier, basically demons of the darkest power, entities on the same level as Gandalf and Saruman), you wouldn’t automatically know what to make of them other than “Big, fire, scary, bad”. Moreover, the fire “roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it…It’s streaming mane kindled and blazed behind it”. This is a creature that controls and embraces flames, as a characteristic of itself as well as a weapon. The debates over its appearance and the endless analysis of its description within the text are testament to the powerful effect that the creature has on the memory of a reader.
Tolkien does build it up, and has over several chapters. Ever since the conversation between Gloin and Frodo in “Many Meetings” we have been on a path to confront this monster. We know it destroyed the Moria Kingdom. We see Legolas, the Elf, being terrified for the first time, and Gimli crushed under the weight of just looking at this thing. It’s like the hope just drains out of them, even Gandalf full of foreboding:“And I am already weary”. He knows he’s facing a hell of a test, and he isn’t fully confident that he’s going to pass. That’s enough for the reader to know.
We come to the most dramatic moment of the story so far, as the Fellowship nears escape. The titular bridge is the scene, a narrow crossing over a seemingly bottomless chasm. What we have is a confrontation between two great, ancient powers, a clash between good and evil to match any that has happened so far. It’s high and epic, and it’s what fantasy should be all about:
“The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.
From out of the shadows a red sword leaped flaming.
Glamdring glittered white in answer.”
Gandalf stands at the bridge, rejects the shadow and casts it down. Boromir and Aragorn, alone among the rest of the party, turn and come running back to aid him, which is another telling moment, an example of Men trumping Dwarves and Elves as we reach the coming of the “Dominion”, but it’s just for show in this instance: in the end Gandalf faces the “flame of Udun” alone.
And, at his moment of greatest triumph, facing the epitome of darkness in this universe, he falls, his final words still showing him as protecting the larger group and not just himself, the sacrifice that had to be made for the Moria path. It’s a stunning shock to the reader. No other moment in the book, not Boromir later, or Denethor or Théoden, will bring that home: this is serious. Characters, ones that we love, aren’t going to make it. It’s a very dramatic and emotionally charged sequence, one whose effect is going to get tempered later.
The party escapes, with no more problems. Nothing is going to beat the moment on the bridge and Tolkien isn’t going to try, depicting Aragorn as smashing his way through a rapidly dispersed Orc company as if it is nothing, having instantly taken on the mantle of leadership. From there, all that is left is for the Fellowship to face up to the enormity of what has transpired, as the cursed drums, foreshadowing disaster through their sound, fade away: “Grief at last wholly overcame them, and they wept long: some standing and silent, some cast upon the ground.”
This chapter might be the high-point of the entire story for many. Not for me personally, but the confrontation between Gandalf and the Balrog, respective champions of ancient powers of good and evil, is an enthralling and captivating image, one that can count itself as an example of The Lord Of The Rings’ iconic fantasy plot points. But “The Bridge Of Khazad-Dum” is more than that. It contains an excellent opening that epitomises horror writing. The members of the Fellowship get their heroic moments, proving themselves capable in a physical sense, even the hobbits. And throughout, Tolkien displays his ever-present gift for descriptive writing, the creation of mood, and the design of a swelling epic feel to everything that is going on. Everything, from the account of Mazurbul and it’s “Drums in the deep” that echo in the readers head, to Gandalf’s character defining “You cannot pass!”, springs from the page and vividly invokes the imagination. The darkness and silence of the previous chapter are resoundingly replaced by clash of sword and the brightness of a terrible fire.
This is high fantasy at its best. In terms of the story as a whole, the events of this chapter are a heart-racing release, after many sections that were a bit more monotonous in a way. The Council, the march south, the failure to climb over Cahadhras, they were written well enough, but they weren’t the sort of scene to really get the blood pumping. The Lord Of The Rings has been lacking that since the conclusion of “A Knife In The Dark”, but Tolkien more than makes up for it in the action stakes here. Any fantasy epic needs excitement, and that is what “The Bridge Of Khazad-Dum” has. And with the loss of Gandalf, the stakes and the more general sense of danger have been altered for good.
It’s just as well, because the following trilogy of chapters will not exactly be excitement heavy.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.