(Updated on 11/7/15)
“The Great River” is a very episodic chapter. The Fellowship travels a great distance, with the journey split into specific incidents. If Tolkien was of the same mind that he had been when writing the Lorien chapters, you can well imagine the events of “The Great River” taking up two or more chapters, but thankfully Tolkien reined it in. The result is an entertaining series of vignettes, as Gollum, rapids, Orc archers, Fell Beasts, misty paths and giant statues pop up for their assigned moments.
As the three boats head down the Anduin, a serious malaise is evident in the Fellowship. Despite the fact that they can see a serious need for speed, they’re all happy to just drift along at the rivers pace. This isn’t supposed to be some pleasant excursion in the outdoors, and Aragorn’s dilly dallying over the coming choice is almost painful to read:
“Not that most of the Company were eager to hurry southwards: they were content that the decision, which they must make at latest when they came to Rauros and the Tindrock Isle, still lay some days ahead; and they let the River bear them on at its own pace, having no desire to hasten towards the perils that lay beyond, whichever course they took in the end. Aragorn let them drift with the stream as they wished, husbanding their strength against weariness to come. “
But soon enough, we get past that and into discussion on the Anduin itself.The Anduin is seen as a divider. On the western bank is life, forests, grassy plains, tributaries and the like. The east is wasteland, destroyed, rocky, desolate. We’re heading into the outer skirts of Mordor, the apex of which is coming in Books Four and Five. It’s good to see the effects of the bad guys in a tangible way finally, the only presence of life on the eastern bank being the Orcs who will soon be attacking the party. The “Brown Lands” is an area that will be coming up again, when we’ll see an example of the horrors that Mordor can inflict on an unprepared Middle-Earth.
The Fellowship is drifting though, some of them anyway, daydreaming the voyage away. Of course, this isn’t a military expedition but you would still expect them to have a longer attention span then this. Boromir is showing very obvious outward signs of paranoia and nervousness now – “…muttering to himself, sometimes biting his nails, as if some restlessness or doubt consumed him” – but aside from making Merry and Pippin a bit uncomfortable, no one deems it attention worthy. Aragorn especially is going to rue this lack of notice later and it is unforgivable in this context. The signs have been there since we were first introduced to Boromir in “The Council of Elrond”, and he has very gradually transformed into a different person, we’re simply reaching the climax of his not-so-secret desire.
Other threats abound to. Gollum is still following the group and, as far as Frodo is able to tell, he has been doing so for some days. Sam notices too and finally, finally, he actually speaks up. It is astonishing that members of the party have noticed a mysterious figure stalking them for so long and not said anything, but they can’t even keep their attention fixed on the voyage. Why should this be any different?
It gets even worse when Aragorn lets Frodo know that he has also known about Gollum following them and has known since Moria. He hasn’t mentioned it to anyone (if he did, it isn’t stated). This is, for me, an example of bad writing because it simply doesn’t make any sense. We are past it now, and Gollum will be a more substantial part of the story shortly, but it is hard to look away from this kind of stuff. It seems to me like Tolkien wanted to add layers of tension to his narrative, and that’s fine. But the manner in which he does creates this gaping plot hole, where dangers to the party that some of the party know about are not related to the others, evens weeks down the line. Gollum doesn’t even get the chance to really impress himself upon the reader yet, he’s just two creepy eyes in the blackness.
A bit better is the general actions of the Aragorn character. Like I said before, it’s actually good that he isn’t the all knowing commander, even if this is saddled with truly unlikely moves (or lack of them). Aragorn hasn’t been great at the whole leadership thing so far, and it nearly results in catastrophe in this chapter. His knowledge of local geography fails completely, as the three boats nearly sail head first into a treacherous course of rapids, a move that the reader can well imagine to be near suicidal. I can only surmise that Tolkien, in portraying Aragorn in the leadership role as bumbling, indecisive and blind in a lot of respects, is pulling him down in order to build him up to an even greater height in the coming Books. Book Three will see him improve all the way up to his own fateful moments in Book Five. Right now, the impression you get is of a man who is in way over his head, not unfit for command, but simply unready. “Would that Gandalf were here!” seems to be ever-present in his mind, along with the two options open to him: follow the “summons” to Minis Tirith, or go with Frodo to Mordor, a choice now symbolised by either bank of the very river they sail upon.
In-between all of that, this chapter also introduces us to what has become known as the “Fell Beast”, the winged steeds of the Ringwraiths. It’s not quite clear now, but they are described later as bird-like in a fashion, but giant and misshapen. The films go for more a dragon type look, and I sort of preferred that. Either way, they’re an impressive addition to the Mordor bestiary. We’ll talk more about them in later chapters, as it is not until the conclusion of Book Three that we really begin to see the effect that they can have on people. For now, Legolas takes one down, a major heroic moment for him, reminding the reader that he is a deadshot with the bow, though the whole scene passes by very fleetingly for what should be a more important event. It is the return of the Ringwraiths after all who, baring maybe the Balrog, have been the most notable antagonists of the story. Of course, there is no firm identification of them here, but the reader can infer enough from the general terror caused and the pain in Frodo’s shoulder.
Boromir’s slide continues, as his talk becomes strained with a note of bitterness: “…I shall turn to my home, alone if my help has not earned the reward of any companionship”. It seems, from his point of view at any rate, that everyone is against him. No matter what, he’s sticking to the Minis Tirith route even if he has to go out alone, a statement filled with a sneering tone, almost accusing the Fellowship of abandoning him before they’ve even made the choice. I think you can really see the wheels turning in Boromir’s mind at this point. He wants the Ring. Why? He’s the real heir of Isildur. It’s his by right. He’s being abandoned by his so called companions. He deserves it for all the grief. And so on and so forth. It calls to mind, deliberately of course, the way that Gollum justified his murder of Deagol and the seizure of the Ring from the Gladden Fields. And he is getting closer and closer to the object of his desire, in a physical sense as well as in terms of the will to try and take it.
The Fellowship is forced to take a quick land detour shortly after, a sequence that seems to be fraught with tension as Legolas and Aragorn vanish into the trees. But it all falls a little flat in the end, as they return and lead the others through the path without incident. The brief Orc attack a few pages before adds additional excitement to the chapter following the brush with the rapids, and one can really feel the desperate straining of the paddles as arrows fall all around, bouncing off mail shirts or landing with a splash just wide. But the following scene does reek of padding the chapter out, dangling the possibility of ambush and action in front of the reader before continuing on with the trip.
In that regard as well, there is relatively little dialogue in this chapter, another method of emphasising the sheer tedium of the trip and the loneliness following the departure from Lorien. There is plenty of space for some decent descriptive writing though, with Tolkien’s knack for making the environment match the mode abounding, and making clear how much the lands are changing as the party sail ever southwards:
“As the third day of their voyage wore on the lands changed slowly: the trees thinned and then failed altogether. On the eastern bank to their left they saw long formless slopes stretching up and away toward the sky; brown and withered they looked, as if fire had passed over them, leaving no living blade of green: an unfriendly waste without even a broken tree or a bold stone to relieve the emptiness.”
“Soon the River broadened and grew more shallow; long stony beaches lay upon the east, and there were gravel-shoals in the water, so that careful steering was needed. The Brown Lands rose into bleak wolds, over which flowed a chill air from the East. On the other side the meads had become rolling downs of withered grass amidst a land of fen and tussock.”
“The next day the country on either side began to change rapidly. The banks began to rise and grow stony. Soon they were passing through a hilly rocky land, and on both shores there were steep slopes buried in deep brakes of thorn and sloe, tangled with brambles and creepers. Behind them stood low crumbling cliffs, and chimneys of grey weathered stone dark with ivy; and beyond these again there rose high ridges crowned with wind-writhen firs.”
We come to the chapter’s conclusion and the arrival at the Argonath, the two colossal statues that mark the border of Gondor. The sense gleamed here in these passages is of relics of a lost age, cracked and broken, yet still magnificent and full of hidden power: “Then he saw that they were indeed shaped and fashioned: the craft and power of old had wrought upon them, and still they preserved through the suns and rains of forgotten years the mighty likenesses in which they had been hewn”.
In that way, they can be seen as the immovable guardians of a dying kingdom, one that is faded and hurt, but still strong in its own way. The area itself, with the statues, the falls, the opposing “seats” on either bank and the unreachable isle of Tol Brandir right in the middle, is as vivid as anywhere else that Tolkien comes up with in his entire story. Aragorn is the focus here, seen as Kingly for a brief moment, the heir of those statues, the lost Prince returning to his Kingdom in order to reclaim the throne. In that way, the statutes take an almost welcoming air, beckoning to Aragorn to turn aside from the quest and come to Minis Tirith even as they guard against unwanted intruders. His words at that moment are Biblical in their style, unlike most of what he has uttered so far in the story, to an almost jarring extent.
This chapter has different purposes. It’s another set-up chapter, extending from “Lothlorien”, and one feels like the two could easily have been merged into a single entity. Regardless, “The Great River” does a decent job of whetting the appetite before “The Breaking Of The Fellowship”, through the attentions of Gollum, the appearance of Orcs, the return of the Nazgul and the growing discontent evident within Boromir. While “The Great River” has its downsides, primarily that aforementioned plot hole, I think it does a good job with everything else that it has to accomplish, and there is actually, through Gollum and those Fell Beasts, some foreshadowing for The Two Towers evident also.
There are some decent character moments, a few smidgens of action, some excellent descriptive writing, and a sense, very important to create again after the way the last three chapters have shown the Fellowship sitting around, that the quest is once again moving along. This is still a transition chapter, much like the last three, but it is one with much more excitement and notice to it. Tolkien manages to create that looming threat in the readers mind, not least because we are now entering into the final pages of The Fellowship Of The Ring. There are enough dangling threads – the decision about which way to go, Gollum, and Boromir – to keep us engaged. The decision is the most important, as the final lines of the chapter make clear: “They could go no further without choice between the east-way and the west. The last stage of the Quest was before them.”
We have reached the point of decision for the Fellowship. But, that decision is about to be taken out of their collective hands.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.