(Updated on 25/2/16)
Frodo goes to see the new royal couple of Gondor, who are just relaxing now, apparently, enjoying all that fulfilment of labours. Aragorn doesn’t even need to hear Frodo talk to know what’s up. It is long past due for the Fellowship to head home. Aragorn has known this has been coming, but you get a sense of his genuine reluctance for it to happen, which was part of the previous chapter. He just wants to cling onto this moment for just a bit longer. Maybe he has become a Tolkien proxy in that way.
Frodo is clearly a little troubled, something we’ve had glimpses of before. Something – several things – are gnawing away at him, and the joy and relief of a completed quest haven’t been shining brightly through. Tolkien belabours this point over the last few chapters, and it is one of the last real sub-plots.
Arwen actually gets to talk here for a page or so, a rare sounding from what is nominally one of the most important female characters in the story. She perceives Frodo’s disquiet, as every other Elf character along the way will. Frodo misses his Uncle and wants to see him again before what must be an inevitable end. But more than that, Frodo is sick at heart over his very existence in a way. He isn’t suicidal, though he is depressed. He seems to be suffering through something we can relate to post-traumatic stress disorder thanks to his numerous horrific wounds – knife, sting and tooth – and Middle-Earth does not really have the means of helping him. Even a return to the Shire will be a temporary reprieve, nothing more. Arwen gifts Frodo his solution, a place on one of the last boats out of the land.
That’s our endpoint, as seems obvious on this, what must be a tenth reading. It did not seem so much the first time, but Tolkien has hung a lantern on where the story is going. Frodo is going to spend most of the time between here and there trying to avoid this inevitable conclusion. It doesn’t matter. Arwen reaches out to him, seeing that he is in crisis, in need of aid. She gives him a chain to wear, a notable form for such a comfort: “’When the memory of the fear and the darkness troubles you,’ she said, ‘this will bring you aid.’”
Gimli and Eomer interject in the middle of all this gloom with some humour, calling back to what seems like their ancient argument over Galadriel in “The Riders Of Rohan”. This little sequence is an excellent rounding off to the tiniest of insignificant sub-plots, that the reader most likely forgot seventeen chapters ago. That Eomer is able to jokingly laugh off the matter by placing Arwen on a pedestal is good in that it shows off the friendly camaraderie of the good guys, but also in the way that it portrays Arwen. It isn’t just Aragorn mooning over her, and lots of other peoples are very enamoured. Arwen really needed more of this kind of thing, aside from more direct appearances, to make her a better character.
The journey home begins, or perhaps if we’re counting the trip from Cormallen to Minis Tirith, restarts. This chapter is essentially some of the books greatest hits in reverse, as Tolkien guides us past numerous landmarks and areas that we have seen already.
Tolkien takes a paragraph to talk about the order of this procession, Théoden’s last trip. Merry gets prominence as the guy with the actual body, while Frodo and Sam get to ride next to Aragorn. It is all somewhat overdone from the author here, it seems so artificial. Pageantry yeah, but it’s like Aragorn is beating us over the head with all of his symbolism.
A stop off is made at the Druadan forest, the first of many past locations we will see in this chapter. Aragorn, having just come into the ownership of two Kingdoms, starts giving bits of it away, declaring the forest now belongs to the wild men who inhabit it. He gets some cheerful drums in response, but if we remember the mannerisms and behaviour of Ghan-buri-ghan and his folk back in “The Ride Of The Rohirrim”, we know that this kind of grand pronouncement should have meant absolutely nothing to him. His people have owned this forest for longer than Gondor has existed.
The troop reaches Edoras, and there Théoden is laid to rest as the mighty hero that he is. In typical Rohan style, his final ceremony is no depressing funeral, but a wake, almost a party atmosphere, with singing and the like. Our first proper description of Rohan included the info that it is a land of songs, and as we prepare to say goodbye to them for good, we get a clear glimpse of that, in the dirge that Théoden receives, all epic symbolism and glorious death:
“The slow voices of the Riders stirred the hearts even of those who did not know the speech of that people; but the words of the song brought a light to the eyes of the folk of the Mark as they heard again afar the thunder of the hooves of the North and the voice of Eorl crying above the battle upon the Field of Celebrant; and the tale of the kings rolled on, and the horn of Helm was loud in the mountains, until the Darkness came and King Théoden arose and rode through the Shadow to the fire, and died in splendour, even as the Sun, returning beyond hope, gleamed upon Mindolluin in the morning.”
This is Rohan right here, the barbarian Kingdom singing to celebrate their last King’s life and death, while preparing to do the same to welcome the new one properly, putting their whole history into one lay.
It is left to Merry to provide some actual real sorrow to the occasion, as he bids his farewell to the man who took on the role of a father to him, albeit briefly. It is good that some regret and sadness is mixed into this entire affair, so that the reader is reminded of how much the victory in the war has cost. Rohan may laugh and sing, but it is hiding some tears.
Eomer is given a formal crowning shortly after, which amounts to little more than a recitation of all the previous Kings and a toast to him. That’s an excellent image to compare to Gondor, who had a gigantic elaborate ceremony to give Aragorn a crown, whereas Rohan just gets on with it. The betrothal of Faramir and Eowyn is announced to give the whole scene a bit of proper joy (and these two characters their last part in the story). A happy ending for Rohan then, though Aragorn’s jokes with Eomer about the whole thing may certainly raise feminist ire. Moreover, Eowyn acknowledges Aragorn as her “liege-lord” a rather odd way to close off this little sub-plot, showing the dominance that Gondor (Aragorn) has over Rohan.
The next few goodbyes round off our time in Rohan. Arwen takes her leave of Elrond, a bitter passing that is portrayed well without any dialogue, a moment so intimate it is beyond description. The Rohirrim bid farewell to Merry, and to the story, with words of praise and friendship, a suitable ending to that arc. Merry has found himself in his service to the Mark and goes home a much better man for it. And all of that experience will stand to him in a large way in the second last chapter, when he and the last gift he receives go into battle again.
The Gimli/Legolas friendship starts in on its last glimpses, as the two make good on their vow to see sights related to the others culture. This was a thread that Tolkien again wove ages ago just to bring it back into our minds now, and it is a nice way to round off those characters and their inclusion in the story. Gimli and Legolas have been marked by their relationship with each other, so it is only fitting that their final passages should be together.
On they travel, next to Isengard, now the home of the Ents. Treebeard is in a happy mood anyway, and serves up some vital plot points and exposition. First though, he takes some time to praise Gandalf for all of his works. The wizard has been pretty quiet in this chapter, and it is only in this scene that he will actually get to talk much. First, we have to listen to some praise for him that we haven’t heard in a while, but at least it is somewhat fitting coming from such an ancient character as Treebeard.
Turns out the Ents have been doing a pretty vital job of their own accord. The mention of Orcs raiding into Rohan was made ages ago, way back in “The Muster Of Rohan”, and it is here, again, that the author ties up that little plot thread, as Treebeard recounts his and the Ents actions against them, not to mention some battles that were fought in and around Lorien as well. It is good to note that the war was not solely confined to Rohan and Gondor, and that other places had troubles as well.
However, Treebeard shows himself up as a bit of a dolt in the same regard, as he reveals that Saruman (and Grima) are gone, let go by the Ent. Treebeard claims to have done so out of sheer pity for a man who is no threat: but the words are barely out of his mouth and we know that it is not true. Saruman’s voice has ever been his biggest weapon and it has worked its wonders again, it’s power not as diminished as we might have thought. Even Treebeard, emphasised as such a wise and dominant character, has been overthrown by it. Gandalf see’s this immediately, and the danger – “…this snake had still one tooth left” – but, what’s done is done. The war is over, it would seem, and Saruman is no longer, hopefully, a threat to the world.
More goodbyes follow, as Treebeard speaks to the Elves present. The long defeat is coming true all around them, and all see it. Such a gathering like this will not happened again. The Elves will soon depart, the Ents will soon die out, Treebeard’s depressing reaction to claims that the search for the Entwives may have new hope all the evidence the reader needs. Treebeard’s sums up the long defeat and the new ways of things succinctly: “…the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air. I do not think we shall meet again.” They are lines so powerful that Peter Jackson felt it appropriate to open his adaptation with them.
Aragorn hands him and the Ents the dominion of Isengard, but it does not alter the new reality of the world. This is Aragorn’s time, and it is the Age of his kind, with the old Ent even balking at travelling in lands populated by men. The Elves and the wizards are soon to leave, and the Ents no longer have a place in this world. Treebeard previously wondered if their attack on Isengard was to be their last act, a “last march”. He was right, but not in the way he intended. Just like the Elves, his race has been swept up in the winds of the long defeat, and they too will pass into legend.
Gimli and Legolas turn aside to continue their own wanderings, the unlikely friendship that is a triumph over Middle-Earths’ real strain of racism. They leave now to combat the long defeat for a little while. The goodbyes are coming hard and fast, as Merry and Pippin also take their final leave of Treebeard, a peculiar relationship that really carried a large part of Book Three. Treebeard, watching two people who have been almost surrogate children to him leave, seems to be more struck by this parting than he was with Gandalf or the Elves. It is a moving moment.
The Fellowship is coming to a real final end on these pages as it is now Aragorn’s turn to say his goodbyes. The King has come into his own, and the future is his to rule. It is time for him to turn back into his own lands and into that new future. The bond between him and the four hobbits is one of the longest in the Book, but it is good that this final goodbye is so understated. The reader knows how much it all means from Sam’s reluctance to say goodbye to the man he was once so suspicious of back in Bree. Aragorn is seen as one last flash from his titular Elfstone, “a green fire in his hand”, and is gone, almost as mysteriously as he was first introduced.
On they walk, and who else would they bump into, but Saruman and Grima, stumbling towards…somewhere. The White Wizard is as bitter and taunting as we remember, easily unnerving even the stoutest of hearts with a sentence.
“I did not spend long study on these matters for naught. You have doomed yourselves, and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine. And now, what ship will bear you back across so wide a sea?’ he mocked. ‘It will be a grey ship, and full of ghosts.’ He laughed, but his voice was cracked and hideous.”
Insidious is the term. Only Gandalf and the Elves seem able to resist his words, but Saruman doesn’t seem to care, choosing to place his ire on the hobbits, who just about deal with it. Saruman really is a very well written villain, and his words simply ooze with stinging poison.
Saruman references the long defeat again, mocking the Elves for their “victory” but it is his words about the Shire that are far more concerning. His hints at something dark happening up north are not the first time that we have heard such things. Of course, the tone here is of a man who is just lashing out in what little way he can, and the reader, the first-time reader anyway, is not meant to take it too seriously. He’s completely broken, so he can’t actually be much of a threat anymore right?
Another thing that’s broken is Grima, who is like some kind of mongrel dog following at Saruman’s heels. That’s very important in just a little while, even if it seems like just desserts at the moment: “How I hate him! I wish I could leave him!”
Another goodbye comes as this pass Moria, this time between the older guys, the last of the White Council I suppose, who spend a few days talking under the stars before going their separate ways. A temporary parting of course. This little sequence adds that sense of mystery and age to these characters, who are essentially reminiscing over their lives in Middle-Earth that are coming to a rapid conclusion. It is still a strange moment:
“If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands. For they did not move or speak with mouth, looking from mind to mind; and only their shining eyes stirred and kindled as their thoughts went to and fro.”
The final four reach Rivendell, a place whose time is drawing to a conclusion along with its occupants. Bilbo has aged even further then when we last saw him, to a huge degree. It seems to have been more than a year to him. Perhaps his connection to the Ring, which he carried for so long, was still working to an extent after he gave it up. Now that the thing has been destroyed, its power and hold over anything done at last, Bilbo’s lifetime is really catching up with him as he appears slow and dull-witted in these passage like, well, someone who is over 129.
Rivendell is a place of peace and recovery, but Frodo can find no peace here, which is telling, a direct contrast to Sam:
“There’s something of everything here, if you understand me: the Shire and the Golden Wood and Gondor and kings’ houses and inns and meadows and mountains all mixed. And yet, somehow, I feel we ought to be going soon. I’m worried about my gaffer, to tell you the truth.’
‘Yes, something of everything, Sam, except the Sea,’ Frodo had answered; and he repeated it now to himself: ‘Except the Sea.’”
He won’t be able to find peace anywhere really. He is not Bilbo with his happy ending. The time draws near to go home, pressed by Sam who has had to overcome more than anyone in terms of personal blocks just to get to the point where the Shire is on the horizon. He wants to go back to his old life, but Frodo seems oddly reluctant, as if he does not want to face something in Bag End. His mind is focused elsewhere. We may cast our minds back to his dreams in Book One at this point, and the image of the sea that was evident in some of them. The dreams were an odd plot point, but they appear to have been something akin to premonitions.
The last goodbyes of the chapter take place as the hobbits and Gandalf set out for the last stretch to the Shire. Bilbo is back to his old self for a moment, though he occasionally forgets the Ring is gone, evidence of its lingering influence perhaps. More concerning in that regard is Frodo’s reponse, not that he destroyed the Ring, but “I have lost it”, a much more regretful answer. Bilbo moves past it fast, and hands out some gifts to all of the hobbits, calling back of course to the events of “A Long-Expected Party”. He is back to being a normal country hobbit in these scenes, handing out advice and good humour with equal measure, much more like the character from the very first chapter which is comforting, a change from the slightly dark tone that the narrative had taken. He adds on a new verse to his famous “Road” song as a sort of coda to his own tale, talking about his decision to turn away from their journey, adventuring and “at last with weary feet, will turn towards a lighted inn, my evening meal and sleep to meet”. And, in a moment of author surrogacy perhaps, he offers his own commentary on the events that have taken place, and his own happy irrelevance to them:
“But it is all so confusing, for such a lot of other things seem to have got mixed up with it: Aragorn’s affairs, and the White Council and Gondor, and the Horsemen, and Southrons, and oliphaunts – did you really see one, Sam? – and caves and towers and golden trees, and goodness knows what besides.
‘I evidently came back by much too straight a road from my trip. I think Gandalf might have shown me round a bit. But then the auction would have been over before I got back, and I should have had even more trouble than I did. Anyway it’s too late now; and really I think it’s much more comfortable to sit here and hear about it all. The fire’s very cosy here, and the food’s very good, and there are Elves when you want them. What more could one want?”
His last act is to hand over his history of their lives, the Red Book, and trust to Frodo to finish it. This is Bilbo’s great work and his legacy, the symbolism of handing it over to Frodo obvious.
Elrond has some parting words for Frodo that echo what Arwen has previously said to him, indicating that he and Bilbo will only meet once more, and that he knows when this time will be. The last three chapters have this heavy sense of foreboding from all this kind of talk, and we look forward to the conclusion with relish.
Reading back on my words here, it seems so clinical, but this is a chapter that consist of one emotional blow after the other, as characters we have come to know and be engaged by depart forever from the tale. Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Faramir, Eowyn, Eomer, Arwen and Treebeard will not be encountered again, while Bilbo, Elrond and Galadriel have only brief moments remaining in the last stage of the narrative. Tolkien draws it out in a way, but when it comes to the final sundering, he doesn’t belabour the point too much with specific people. There’s a certain sameness to a lot of the farewells – both Aragorn and Galadriel shine lights from a distance for example – but I think the chapter ticks along well enough, considering that it is a quick re-tread of so many places already visited.
And there are two set-pieces of real note: the farewell to Théoden, and the conversation with Saruman. The first is a grievous final parting, and the second is a nice bit of foreshadowing for things still to come. Providing the chapter’s spine is a morose Frodo, ever and ever drawn more to the sea, evidence that, sometimes, you can’t just go there and back again.
Next, it’s been a long road, getting from there to here…
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.