(Updated on 15/11/22)
And so begin the Lorien chapters, a trilogy that is divisive among fans and casual readers. Are they just a side show? A distraction? A tempo killer? I’ve seen them described as all three, especially relative to the drama of the last chapter. Let’s have a look and see.
The party is in mourning following the fall of Gandalf in “The Bridge Of Khazad Dum“, yet a sense of urgency prevails from the possible danger of orcs still in the area. The group can’t stick around, much to Aragorn’s regret. He’s the man who would be King, but now he’s also in charge of this group. There is a call-back to Aragorn’s warning to Gandalf, a little obvious, but there it is, his own personal tribute to the wizard, and dismay that his warning was not heeded: “Did I not say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware? Alas that I spoke true! What hope have we without you?” He also adds a rallying cry at the same time: “At least we may yet be avenged“.
Gimli takes a look at the “Mirror-mere”, a dwarven monument, a moment that seems very out of place in the otherwise sombre atmosphere, though it does help to further the dwarven ties of the area. Gimli takes heart from the sight, though the experience of it is still somewhat ruined by the grieving that surrounds it. We’re actually moving away from all of that now into the “heart of Elvendom”. For now, I have always been strangely moved by the closing line of this section, reflective of the crushing burden of grief weighing on Sam: “‘What did you see?’ said Pippin to Sam, but Sam was too deep in thought to answer.”
Aragorn becomes straight minded and stubborn, his mind very firmly on the chase to the detriment of the company. Both Frodo and Sam could be seriously injured from their time in Moria, Sam’s cut being especially worrying. Aragorn is stepping up as the leader, but it is clear that he is a little flustered at this moment in time, missing very important things in his zeal to get clear of the mountains. It all works out, his skill in healing coming into play again, and the discovery of the mithril coat is a nice diversion, but it’s worrying: Aragorn is making mistakes and it won’t be the last time.
On Lothlorien, the new destination for the party, we learn little, which might rankle considering how it has suddenly come into view without much fanfare. It’s an elven kingdom, a mysterious place known far and wide as “perilous” for visitors. It’s more of that fear of outsiders stuff that was so evident in the Shire. Lorien is the country far away you know a bare smidgen about, and even that is distorted by time and lack of contact. But Aragorn remembers the place like it some kind of pleasant memory, so that’s enough to banish any fear the reader might be getting from the text.
Boromir is the obstacle again though, but he has some good reasons this time. He was the one dead set against Moria, and he was somewhat right. Now he’s being dragged into another place that he doesn’t like the sound of. Moreover, it does seem that, unlike Gandalf, Aragorn has made a kind of executive decision here, without consulting the wider group. Boromir’s whole attitude and character is summed up by his response to where else they could go: “A plain road, though it would led through a hedge of swords”. Boromir is a straightforward kind of guy, a leader of men who puts his faith in what he knows. He doesn’t like all of this mystery, the tramping through lost kingdoms. Boromir is beginning to tip further towards the dark place he’ll end up at the end of this specific book and the new leader of the group isn’t helping in some ways with his very testy response:
“‘But lore wanes in Gondor, Boromir, if in the city of those who once were wise they now speak evil of Lothlorien. Believe what you will, there is no other way for us – unless you would go back to Moria-gate, or scale the pathless mountains, or swim the Great River all alone.’
‘Then lead on!’ said Boromir. ‘But it is perilous.’
‘Perilous indeed,’ said Aragorn, ‘fair and perilous; but only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them.”
It’s spreading too, the Fellowship being strained by the travel and the grief. As they cross the Nimrodel River, another opportunity for elvish myth and magic to be expanded in the form of a poem, Legolas is suddenly very mean-spirited to Pippin, telling him to “dig a hole in the ground” when the hobbit expresses reservations about sleeping in a tree. It’s really harsh and it’s only the start of a very arrogant attitude being expressed by the elf in this chapter. Perhaps Gandalf was the only thing holding the group together in a useful way. That sense of troubled minds and party members feeling hopeless continues throughout, giving “Lothlorien” an ambiance that at times approaches an unsettling place: Gimli’s utterance “Now long shall I journey ere I have joy again” is just one example.
We get our introduction to the Lorien elves and they are a quiet bunch. You get that sense from them of being the watchful guard, almost special ops, in the way they smirk that they’ve had the Fellowship in their sights for a while without the party realising. The other major theme coming out of the interactions with the Lorien elves is the idea of the elf Kingdom being under a sort of siege, isolated and surrounded by evil forces: “We live now upon an island amid many perils, and our hands are more often upon the bowstring than upon the harp”. This might go some way to explaining the sheer amount of dwarven animosity on display.
It’s pretty much racist really, way worse than the mild mistrust that was displayed in “The Council of Elrond”. The reason for this distrust is outlined only in the most general of terms, but it’s not that hard to see past it: the elves think the dwarves stirred up trouble in the region, the dwarves think the elves are arrogant know-it-alls. It’s like the Coom Valley stuff from Pratchett: It’s where the trolls ambushed the dwarves or the dwarves ambushed the trolls, depending on who you believe. Here, it’s pretty vicious, with Haldir, the only Lorien elf with character so far, displaying open dislike and reasonless distrust of Gimli because of his race: “Have an eye on that dwarf!”. Elves aren’t looking so awesome now, and I find it worth noting that it is Frodo who defends Gimli’s honour before Legolas. Indeed, these elves seem very limited in their knowledge of the outside world in many ways, such as in how Haldir has to explain that they had begun to think that hobbits were extinct.
Haldir is our introduction to Lorien. He’s a strange elf really: full of suspicion of people, and later even casting doubts on the wonders of the Undying Lands far to the west. Even though he acknowledges that Sauron’s whole modus operandi is to sow discord between the peoples of Middle-Earth, he goes right on with the dwarf-bashing. Later, he softens as he gazes upon the city of Lorien. Haldir seems mostly a cipher for the attitude of Lorien as a whole, a place filled with some contradictions, but also with a great deal of light and splendour.
Following a hairy crossing of the river – where Pippin gets an unexpected high point, “for he was sure-footed, and he walked over quickly, holding only with one hand” – , an orc incursion lets the reader know that the group, contrary to what may have been presented so far, is not out of danger at all. But it’s the reappearance of Gollum that is the real threat. He’s getting astonishingly close to the Ring-bearer at this stage, and Tolkien’s focus on his eyes – “They stopped and gazed upward unwinking” – the common imagery that is associated with the Gollum character, is the most obvious clue to this creature’s identity. Who else could it be at this stage? Gollum is robbed of his apparent purpose again, but his growing sense of menace is matched to Frodo’s growing weight around his neck.
What is more confusing at this stage is why Frodo isn’t saying anything. Even if he hasn’t figured it out, it’s still a creature that is following them, covertly, getting closer. Why doesn’t he mention it to Aragorn? Or Sam even? As it is, we’ll find out that Aragorn is well aware of the threat, but isn’t saying anything either. Why not is never rightly explained and it is somewhat confusing.
Haldir leads the group into the heart of the forest, and more elf/dwarf trouble flares up. Haldir references the plan to blindfold Gimli “as agreed” which only calls more attention to the lack of agency that Gimli had to that agreement. This could be dismissed as Haldir simply enforcing the law, not unlike, say, Eomer later, but that’s not good enough really. The elves, especially Legolas, come off as the worst kind of people here, with the Fellowships’ resident immortal not even seeming to realise why it might be considered insulting for Gimli to be blindfolded while everyone else walks free. Aragorn’s solution, a better sign for his leadership abilities, is the natural choice, but Legolas still comes as a whiner. Still, it’s an important moment, as a sort of dwarf/elf reconciliation (kinda) is going to be an important part of the subsequent Lorien chapters, and I suppose that is what Tolkien was setting up in these pages. The whole affair is later sort-of passed off as a consequence of Sauron – “…in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him” – but that seems more like excuse-making to me.
The actual Kingdom gets some excellent descriptive writing here, as an isolated land, a piece of the elder days still alive on the Earth. A fantastic comparison is made with Rivendell, with Elrond’s home being a place where the old days are remembered, while Lorien is a place where they still “are”. There, Frodo and the others have thoughts of “far off great seas upon beaches that had long ago been washed away.” It’s the heart of elven magic in Middle-Earth, a place of exquisite splendour and grandness, a glorious epoch of nature:
“They were standing in an open space. To the left stood a great mound, covered with a sward of grass as green as Spring-time in the Elder Days. Upon it, as a double crown, grew two circles of trees: the outer had bark of snowy white, and were leafless but beautiful in their shapely nakedness; the inner were mallorn-trees of great height, still arrayed in pale gold. High amid the branches of a towering tree that stood in the centre of all there gleamed a white flet. At the feet of the trees, and all about the green hillsides the grass was studded with small golden flowers shaped like stars. Among them, nodding on slender stalks, were other flowers, white and palest green: they glimmered as a mist amid the rich hue of the grass. Over all the sky was blue, and the sun of afternoon glowed upon the hill and cast long green shadows beneath the trees.”
Lorien’s power is described in such a way that it appears to resemble a drug of some kind, with the best that Sam can do to describe it being to indicate that he feels as if he was “inside a song“. The party walks through a haze, an effect that is hard to quantify but is almost akin to a journey through time: “When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlórien”. Some rare flowers might point to this being a very tangible effect, like the poppies in The Wizard of Oz, but the emphasis appears to be on the places magical properties, especially that of its Queen. Haldir closes out the chapter by describing the forests conflict with Mirkwood, the battle of wills taking place between Lorien and Dol Guldur. Lorien has a “secret” according to Haldir, one not revealed yet (it soon will) and it’s an intriguing way to end the chapter. What is the enemy seeking in a place like Lothlorien?
The last part of the chapter is for Aragorn, caught lost in a dream of past times, something involving Arwen, but that is as far as the reader will get (it’s where they “pledged their troth” (got engaged) as they say, though only the Appendices would tell you that). It’s a nice moment, a reminder that Aragorn, for all of his heroics, is a man, a guy who fondly remembers the place where he fell in love. It’s tinged with sadness though, as Lorien is a place that is slipping away from Middle Earth, becoming a relic of the past, somewhere that Aragorn will not tread again “…as a living man”. The passing of the elder days, another of The Lord of the Rings key themes, is going to be a big one for the next few pages.
This chapter serves as a transition between the serious drama of “The Bridge Of Khazad-Dum” and the more mystical stuff that will occur next time, a deep breath after a sprint. It’s short enough and rapidly moving, though Tolkien does manage to squeeze in a good few notable moments, from the Mirror-mere to the reveal of Frodo’s mithril coat to the Nimrodel crossing to the introduction of Lorien itself. In a larger way, the chapter is about the beginning of the mourning period over Gandalf’s apparent death. Aragorn begins “Lothlorien” telling the Fellowship “We must do without hope”, but ends it in a far happier, more contented place, where he and the others can find rest and an outlet for their grief.
But you can’t escape a sense, that I will get into more in the following chapters, that a certain amount of padding is going on. “Lothlorien” could have been merged into the following chapter really, and there isn’t all that much plot-relevant stuff to be found within it, with certain points, like Lorien’s “timeless” qualities, repeated over and over. The beginning of Aragorn’s turbulent time as leader, another Gollum appearance and the growing unease of Boromir are the key plot points I suppose, but they are nothing that needed their own separate chapter to expand upon. I suppose that Tolkien was just getting back into the swing of things as he wrote these pages, after taking his post “A Journey In The Dark” break, but that doesn’t mean that some better editing couldn’t have been applied. As it is, “Lothlorien” has a few good character moments, some good world-building in regards the elves, and some nice descriptive writing for the titular Kingdom, but remains one of the more forgettable chapters in the overall story, mere set-up for the more plot pivotal events to follow.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.