(Updated on 20/7/15)
We’ve come to the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. The book has had its ups and downs in terms of tempo, and first time readers are bound to expect something special in its finale. But what the reader actually gets to enjoy is not an expected action-heavy set-piece (as the film version wisely decided to add to the chapter) but something much more character driven, based on the key decisions of three: Boromir, Frodo and Sam.
The Fellowship pitches camp next to the falls, but no decisions have yet been made by the group, the eight of them content to stretch it out as long as possible. A brief mention is made of Sting, Frodo’s magic sword, its glowing reminding us that danger is still near and that the Fellowship is getting quite close to the core territory of the enemy. This all just adds to the feeling that the Fellowship is in trouble, and are not helping their cause with all of this dithering.
When it comes right down to the decision, Aragorn definitively passes the buck to Frodo, washing his hands of all responsibility: “I fear that the burden is laid upon you. You are the Bearer appointed by the Council…Such is your fate.”. The future King might never have a worse moment as the designated chivalrous character. He seems to excuse it by claiming that Gandalf didn’t have a plan either, but that’s weak. Frodo appears strained, Aragorn’s words only adding to his pain. I’m not sure why this decision is being placed on Frodo’s shoulders alone, it’s not like he has the geopolitical experience to recognise the challenges. He doesn’t even know how difficult it is to get into Mordor, as the first few chapters of Book Four will show. He pulls his own Aragorn act, choosing to vanish into the woods for awhile rather then make the choice, a choice he has already really made. Aragorn, naturally, lets him go, probably delighted that he gets to put the decision off for another few hours. I think it is at this point that the weaknesses of the Aragorn character start to grate, but thankfully they’re already at their zenith.
Sam knows his master a bit better than the others, as Tolkien makes clear very well: ‘Plain as a pikestaff it is, but it’s no good Sam Gamgee putting in his spoke just now.’ I like that little bit of internal monologue, the beginning of Sam’s decision to join Frodo on his lone quest. He’s shown a lot more insight into Frodo’s thought process then the actual leader of the group, at any rate.
Frodo is running away again, but it is in a far less panicky way then what happened in “The Old Forest”. There, it was terror and stress combining to produce an almost childish rejection of logical thinking. Here, it’s stress again, and a measure of denial, but Frodo isn’t panicking. He’s grown that much.
Frodo has actually already made his decision at this point, but I think that we’ve all been in a similar situation – not anywhere near as important of course, but similar – where we have made a decision but still agonise, dither, hum and haw about its implementation. Frodo is a reluctant character and always has been. He was reluctant to see Bilbo leave and to become “the” Baggins of Bag End, he was reluctant to leave the Shire, to leave Bombadil’s home, Rivendell, Lorien. It’s just a continuation of that.
This is not Frodo’s most momentous choice, which was back at the council when he took the Ring in the first place. But it is another pivotal moment, another point of no return. I suppose one can forgive Frodo for his little retreat here. Every bad decision he has made so far, from leaving the Shire so late, blundering through the Old Forest, the drunken antics of the Prancing Pony, must be going through his mind all at once. These are all intangible problems of course, and do not matter in the long run. A much more physical obstacle is about to appear.
We’ve come to the defining moment of this opening part of the The Lord of the Rings, and it takes the unique form of a somewhat crazed Boromir, which is original enough when you think about it. It’s a gutsy call from the author, making this the climax of The Fellowship of the Ring, rather than some kind of fight scene. A lesser author would have put Boromir and Aragorn up against each other in some fashion I think, but what Tolkien produces is far more memorable.
Boromir’s conversation with Frodo is an excellent representation of his twisted mindset, one that starts off reasonable sounding, and then nosedives into craziness. The tipping point has come for Boromir, as he tries to convince Frodo with words, and then takes the easier option. He offers a way out to Frodo in the form of Minis Tirith, but the Ring-bearer is correct in rejecting this choice. Boromir’s thinking is incredibly transparent – all he wants is to stay close to the Ring, then bring it to a place where taking it would be easy. Boromir is clearly desperate, a man who is obsessed with finding the magic bullet that can save Gondor. This is his justification in all that he does over this encounter, a perverse nationalist sentiment.
His clumsy attempt to see the Ring, then his clumsier attempt to pass this off as aloof as possible – “As you wish. I care not” – must beyond all doubt send the alarm bells ringing in Frodo’s mind as it does in the reader. That subtle change in tone is enough to let us know that something quite bad is about to happen.
Borormir outlines a fantasy of him defeating Mordor with the Ring’s power, an utterly delusional vision that simply demonstrates the unnatural pull of the Ring on minds. We’ll see something similar with Sam when he gets a hold of the thing in Book Six, so it’s not just Boromir. Boromir has taken on an almost Hitler-esque persona here, outlining crushing victories and happy peace to follow, waving his arms about like a maniac. Looking back at “The Mirror of Galadriel”, it is clear that Boromir has faced a similar test that the Lorien Queen did, but Boromir has failed. Perhaps it’s because Tolkien is trying to reassert the “men are weak” theme, but the Gondorian doesn’t have the will to resist the Ring’s power.
Boromir’s ploy becomes farcical and somewhat pathetic as his friendly facade crumbles and he asks for a “lend” of the Ring. His attack on Frodo is a horrific moment as companion becomes enemy, which gives us echoes of the Bilbo/Frodo moment when he reveals the Ring to his uncle in “Many Meetings”. The Fellowship is broken: Gandalf’s fall was a wound, but Boromir’s betrayal is a sundering. Boromir’s thinking is a fascinating look at a man who has lost all grip on reality, temporarily convinced that Frodo is the bad guy about to doom his Kingdom out of spite, the kind of excuses that only someone off his head on an outside force could come up with. We come back to the ideas of the Ring like a drug of some kind, one that perverts the thinking of rational people and makes them say and do things outside of their control.
As Frodo takes his only option and vanishes, Boromir becomes regretful. I really like that moment, the horrible calm after the red flash, something I think we can relate to a little as well, as Boromir realises just how bad the situation is. One wonders though if he is truly regretful, or just regretful that he will never get his hands on the Ring now. Is he sorry, or is he sorry he was caught? Subsequent pages will answer that question for us. For now, it’s remarkable how sympathetic the reader might be for the Gondorian, about whom we have learned more in a few pages of dialogue than we have for characters like Legolas in the entire book. His is a tragic fall, one driven by a desperation to save Gondor initially, which is no unworthy goal. But the Ring twists and bends that desire into something more personal, gratifying and ugly, something that Boromir, pitiful, is left to regret in the woods.
Frodo runs to Amon Hen, where he receives a vision, a stunning description of Middle Earth and the coming war, the armies of evil on the march everywhere:
“But everywhere he looked he saw the signs of war. The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills: orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes. Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly strife of Elves and Men and fell beasts. The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lórien.
Horsemen were galloping on the grass of Rohan; wolves poured from Isengard. From the havens of Harad ships of war put out to sea; and out of the East Men were moving endlessly: swordsmen, spearmen, bowmen upon horses, chariots of chieftains and laden wains. All the power of the Dark Lord was in motion.”
This excellent scene sets up much of the following Books, and encapsulates the feeling of hopelessness as the small beacon of light that is Minis Tirith is surrounded by darkness, with war marching on all borders. All of this pales into the nightmarish vista of Mordor itself, where Frodo is headed. The conclusion of this sequence, “All hope left him”, is almost straight out of Milton, who so described the gates of hell – “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”.
Frodo, at a moment of deadly peril, pulls through, choosing to take the Ring off before he is discovered by Sauron. The urging for this course comes from a nameless voice, and many have pondered whether Tolkien was simply giving words to Frodo’s innate sense of peril or his conscience, or if the voice is meant to be some other entity, with Gandalf – because of that distinctive “Fool!” if nothing else – commonly cited.
For my own part, I always used to think this voice was just Frodo’s common sense peeping through, but reading around has pointed me to some of Gandalf’s words later, where he says “…I sat in a high place, and I strove with the Dark Tower; and the Shadow passed” when the Ring was near detection. So I’ve swung around to the line of thinking that Gandalf, that other “point of power”, interposed himself between Frodo and Sauron in a mental sense, to allow Frodo the chance to escape the eye. For a moment, Frodo gets clear of both the Ring’s machinations and the voices urgings, and knows himself, taking the Ring off. In the choice, he reasserts control that he has previously lacked, but it will be one of the last times. Frodo makes his choice, as he did at the council, though perhaps this one is braver, considering what it was that he just saw. The hero rises again, alone this time, claiming his own identity.
Back at the river, the debate continues. The group seems happy to leave the burden of choice on the Ring-bearer, but are all hypocritically quick to offer an opinion when he is out of earshot. Gimli and Legolas demonstrate a degree of loyalty to Frodo at least, happy to accept his choice and follow him wherever he goes, but the doubts are plain to see. You can’t wash your hands of making the choice, and then complain when the decision is not to your liking. That being said, I did really like this scene, the first time I read it and since, for no other reason than it might be the most extended moment of the Fellowship just talking to each other, everyone getting a turn, getting to be the kind of people who have spent a very long time in each others company.
Aragorn’s plan – just taking Frodo, Sam, Gimli and himself to Mordor – isn’t bad, and one wonders why he hasn’t raised it earlier. The hobbits, being kinsmen, are smarter about the whole thing and have guessed the truth first: Frodo is heading off on his own, or at least would prefer too. Sam is the wisest, seeing the truth like the best friend should. He knows that all of the hobbits have, in his words, “had a bit of schooling” during the adventure, and that Frodo is prepared to strike off on his own, even if the other hobbits won’t let him. Sam, on the other hand, trusts Frodo enough to accept such a choice, marking him out from the more unwilling Merry and Pippin. Sam is also the first to notice that Boromir has left the group, perhaps the last mistake the Fellowship as a whole makes. It’s brushed off here, but they should have had their suspicions raised by now.
Boromir suddenly returns, the guilty Judas. He relates what happens between him and Frodo, but he very noticeably doesn’t tell the whole truth, the mark of a guilty man. Sam, again, calls this straight away: “I don’t know what this Man has been up to. Why should Mr. Frodo put the thing on? He didn’t ought to have…”
What follows is a very strange hysteria within the Fellowship, with even the ones that should know better, like Gimli and Legolas, all running off in different directions. It’s very weird, but I suppose it might just be blind panic. Aragorn, who is supposed to be the leader of the group remember, future King, has a destiny, all that jazz, utterly fails to control them, which is a strange and, dare I say, poorly written aspect of this chapter.
Aragorn runs off and finds Sam, before quickly abandoning him to run up to Amon Hen. Sam, again, is the smart one, far smarter than Aragorn: “Your legs are too short, so use your head!”. He really is the standout of this chapter, as he logically deduces where Frodo actually is. What follows is a reaffirmation of their bond as Sam scrambles into the boat with Frodo, unhesitatingly joining him on a dark and lonesome trek to Mordor.
I suppose it was always going to be those two, the Ring-bearer and his batman. Frodo doesn’t need much convincing to take Sam along, so maybe he guessed what was about to happen. Their personalities at this point are well represented here, Frodo being pessimistic but determined, Sam remaining hopefully optimistic:
“‘We will go, and may the others find a safe road! Strider will look after them. I don’t suppose we shall see them again.’
`Yet we may, Mr Frodo. We may,’ said Sam.”
The Fellowship of the Ring ends on its own excellent little cliff-hanger, as two lone hobbits march towards hell, the fate of the world in the balance: “…they set off, seeking a path that would bring them over the grey hills of the Emyn Muil, and down into the Land of Shadow.”
I do think that “The Breaking Of The Fellowship” does the business as a closing chapter. Maybe it could have used just a bit more action, and one can appreciate Peter Jackson’s decision to meld “The Departure Of Boromir” into The Fellowship Of The Ring, with his Uruk-Hai attack, in order to facilitate this. I think something like that is a requirement for a film, with the book capable of getting away with it, but elements of the chapter are still a bit dry. The drama of the Frodo/Boromir conversation and the subsequent vision on Amon Hen are the highpoints, forming a climax that whets the appetite for the coming evolution of the Fellowship’s respective paths.
But then there are the other things. Aragorn’s flouncing around and the strangely panicked way that the Fellowship acts when they find out Frodo has vanished drag the chapter down a bit, the latter seemingly the only way Tolkien could contrive a situation where Frodo was able to successfully leave the group without detection. That a sudden Uruk-Hai attack could have done the same thing doesn’t really appear to have entered his thinking, and I do believe that this is a bit of a weakness in the story, because it asks us to swallow actions undertaken by characters that are a bit, well, out of character. The idea of Legolas, the calm capable Elf, galloping off alone into the woods at the first hint that Frodo has gone missing without any sort of plan, just doesn’t ring true, and the same can basically be said for Gimli as well. That Sam is the only character to think through the issue doesn’t really fit either. These are things that a reader can overlook I think, but their presence still detracts.
Beyond that though, “The Breaking Of The Fellowship” serves well enough as a final chapter, with some great dialogue moments and some wonderful descriptive wordplay for the Amon Hen scene. It may not be the most exciting moment of Book Two, but it does manage to make its mark, and provides a suitable leaving off point for The Fellowship Of The Ring, not quite a proper cliff-hanger, but with enough characters fates up in the air and things unresolved that the reader is immediately drawn to continue the story.
That’s what we’ll do next time.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.