Apr 3, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 31: Flight to the Ford

When Frodo came to himself he was still clutching the Ring desperately.

Frodo wakes up next to the fire at Weathertop. He's been stabbed in the shoulder by a Black Rider, and Strider is gone. The ranger soon returns, reporting that the hobbit-stabbers are nowhere to be found. He thinks they believe that Frodo will soon succumb to his wound and fall under their control. To stop this from happening, Strider goes off in search of herbs. He returns after dawn, when he and the hobbits find the detritus of battle around them: a slashed black cloak, and a notched knife whose blade evaporates in the sunlight. The sartorial damage is all Frodo inflicted; Strider finds further support for this in the fact that Frodo's dagger survived. This is actually interesting if you know what happens later, but for now, suffice to say that I'll be getting back to this in about 2020 or so.

Unaware of the future, Strider does what he can for Frodo. He sings a song over the hilt of the knife - a possible nod to Finnish healing magic there - and crushes a herb (athelas) in water and bathes Frodo's wound with it. It helps, but Frodo is still too weak to stand, let alone travel. However, that's exactly what they need to do.

They quickly decided to leave Weathertop as soon as possible. "I think now," said Strider, "that the enemy has been watching this place for some days. If Gandalf ever came here, then he must have been forced to ride away, and he will not return. In any case we are in great peril here after dark, since the attack of last night, and we can hardly meet greater danger wherever we go."

Now that he's accepted that he won't find Gandalf, Strider finally realizes the massive danger in hanging out in pretty much the only place where anyone could possibly think to look for them. And so Frodo is loaded onto the pony, everyone else takes their share of the dwindling supplies, and off they go. They quickly cross the Road and lose themselves from the Black Riders in the thickets and the pathless country beyond - which is where they should have been in the first place. They trudge through the wilderness for days, keeping nervous watch at night, but there's no sign of the Black Riders.

Eventually, with Frodo's condition getting worse, Strider leads the hobbits up a ridge where they can see the Road, and two rivers ahead. The nearest, the Hoarwell, is crossed by the Last Bridge, and beyond it, the Loudwater, which the Road crosses by the Ford of Bruinen. With no other ways across the rivers, Strider expects they must find the bridge held against them. He's wrong, though: the bridge is deserted. All they find is an elven jewel, seemingly dropped in the middle of the bridge. Strider interprets this as a token that they can safely pass the bridge, and they hurry across.

Beyond the Hoarwell, Strider leads the hobbits into the hills north of the Road. They have a very weary time of it, with provisions running low and rain pouring down, but there's still no sign of pursuit. They spend five days making their way through the rough hill country, and are ten days out from Weathertop. When there's a break in the weather, Strider climbs one of the hills to orient himself, and finds they've come too far north; they have to head south in order to make it to the Ford. As they start picking their way southward, they discover a path, which they follow. It leads to a cave fronted by a crude door, which is unanimously identified as an abandoned troll lair. They continue down the path, with Merry and Pippin ranging ahead - which sounds like a terrible idea, by the way - and Strider, Sam and Frodo following. Soon enough, the intrepid hobbit scouts come running back, having seen trolls in a clearing below. Strider picks up a stick and goes to take a look.

Sure enough, there are three trolls in a clearing in broad daylight. Strider walks up to one and breaks his stick over it. The hobbits are shocked into silence, but when nothing at all happens, Frodo bursts out laughing as he recognizes the scene. These are the very three trolls that Gandalf had fooled into arguing for so long over how to eat Thorin and company that the sun turned them to stone. The hobbits enjoy a cheerful lunch in the shadow of the petrified trolls, and Sam even busts out some freestyle rhyme about Tom Bombadil meeting a troll.

In the afternoon, they reach the Road, but as night is falling, they hear a horse coming up behind. Frodo and company scramble to hide in a bush, but when they hear a faint tinkling of bells, they conclude it's very unlikely to be a Black Rider. In fact, it's an Elf-lord, Glorfindel, from the house of Elrond. Gildor, who the hobbits met in chapter 3, had sent word to Rivendell that some hobbits were being chased by the Nine and Gandalf was missing, and Glorfindel and others had been sent out to find them. Anxious to get to Rivendell, Glorfindel has Frodo mount his horse and leads the company on a forced march east. He's confident that his horse Asfaloth can bear Frodo away from even the Black riders; Frodo protests, but Glorfindel reminds him that his friends will be in no danger if he isn't with them.

After two days of exhausting forced marching, the company reaches the Ford, but the Black Riders catch up to them there. Glorfindel sends his horse forward, and although Frodo is reluctant, the horse knows better and makes for the Ford. The Riders thunder past Strider and the others, and race to cut Frodo off from the Ford, but Asfaloth is too fast for them, and Frodo makes it across. The nine Black Riders seem reluctant to enter the water, and Frodo feels them commanding him to stop. He refuses, and with his sword drawn, orders them back to Mordor. The leader of the Riders raises his hand, and Frodo's sword snaps in two. The Black Riders ride into the ford, and as they do, a sudden flood rises, sweeping them away except for a few remaining ones, who are driven into the roaring waters by Glorfindel and the rest of the company with torches. As the Riders fall, Frodo loses consciousness and the chapter ends.


And with that, Book One of the Lord of the Rings comes to an end. It's been almost a year since I got started, so we'll be doing this for a while yet! In terms of form, this chapter is very similar to the previous one: Frodo and company have to set off into the wilderness, hampered by an unexpected burden; they have a miserable time of it, until they reach a landmark, where they're attacked by Black Riders and Frodo is knocked out.

Speaking of hobbit-stabbing ghosts, if I have opinions about Strider's choices along the road to Rivendell, the Black Riders come off worse. After they find Frodo at Bree, they let him vanish into the wilderness with Strider. When they get an unexpected opportunity at Weathertop, they're content to stab Frodo and then apparently completely lose his tail again. Strider may well be right in thinking that they believe Frodo must succumb to the wound, but still, it seems negligent to just leave him to his own devices and take some time off to wait. When Frodo resists, they're stuck with mounting an ambush at the Ford of Bruinen, where they're foiled by Glorfindel and the river. So while Strider may not have made the best choices, his opposite number, so to speak, clearly did worse.

In both cases, though, the failures are understandable in the context of the story. Strider seems to have been motivated by his desire to find Gandalf, while the Black Riders, if anything, were simply arrogant. This, at least, is the explanation we're given; at Bree, the Riders know exactly where the Ring is, but fail to take advantage of their position, with "all the long leagues of Eriador" to come. Of course, that doesn't work out because of Strider, and when they get their opportunity at Weathertop, they're so sure that their ingenious hobbit-stabbing ploy will work that they pull a disappearing act. I wonder where they went?

They may seem excessively incompetent villains, but their inability to finish the job and recover the Ring can also be seen as the first occurrence of a major theme of the Lord of the Rings: the failure of evil. The Black Riders fail because of their arrogance, or in other words, the mortal sin of pride. They're not the first to succumb to this - one recalls a boasting dragon inadvertently revealing his fatal weakness - and they won't be the last. Or maybe the Witch-king was a sadist and wanted to not only recover the Ring, but also transform Frodo into a wraith and subdue him to his will. I mean, I don't imagine you become Witch-king by being nice to people. Or maybe that's what Sauron told him to do. Whatever it was, it didn't work. This, if you like, is the Boëthian view of evil: ultimately, evil defeats itself. However, as Frodo's wound testifies, this by no means implies that it can't do terrible damage while failing, or that it doesn't need to be fought at all.

To move from wraiths to trolls, the encounter with the petrified remains of Bilbo's trollish escapade is a nice touch, and Sam's freestyle verse is one of my favorite pieces of Tolkien poetry. The only unfortunate thing about it is that, as the late Karen Wynn Fonstad demonstrated, there's really no way to square the travel times here: while Bilbo and the dwarves stumbled into the trolls almost immediately after crossing the Last Bridge, Strider and the hobbits spend almost six days wandering through the wilderness before they happen on the same clearing. Even with the injured Frodo, it beggars belief that Aragorn could get so thoroughly lost as to effectively lead them on a five-day loop that ends up back where they started. Frodo even recalls Bilbo's adventure when they cross the bridge.

If we really wanted to harmonize the two accounts, I suppose the likeliest explanation would be that Bilbo simply misremembered where the trolls' campsite was, and the account in the Lord of the Rings is correct. But I have yet to lose any sleep over this.

Finally, there's the matter of Glorfindel. Originally, there were two elves called Glorfindel: one a High Elf who fell in battle with a Balrog while escaping Gondolin, the other another high elf by the same name who belonged to Elrond's household. Apparently Tolkien later became dissatisfied with the idea of two elves having the same name, and came up with the idea that Glorfindel had, in fact, been killed by the Balrog, but was sent back from the Halls of Mandos for, um, reasons. Frankly, it makes no sense whatsoever, and actually cheapens the tale of Lúthien: only she could move Mandos to pity, except then there was that other time they also sent a dude back. The idea that the two Glorfindels are the same is an unpublished nonsense retcon, and it should be cheerfully ignored.

On the whole, this is quite a dramatic chapter; the desperate struggle to get to Rivendell before Frodo succumbs to his wound is conveyed well, and the moment of levity with the trolls breaks up the rising tension effectively before the dramatic finale with the Black Riders. It's a bit of a deus ex machina ending, but Frodo's brave resistance still makes it a pretty good scene.


That was Book One, then! We've gone from a hobbit birthday-party to a harrowing near escape from the Black Riders at a flooding ford. After the birthday-party and its aftermath, this has more or less been a travelogue through Tolkien's Middle-earth, with the Old Forest, the Barrow-downs and the wastes of Eriador, punctuated by the occasional pleasant interlude of some fairly genteel middle-class recreation. The story has constantly been moving in both space and scope: we started in a hobbit-hole and ended up with an Elf-lord and the Witch-king at the gates of Rivendell. I don't know, I must've read this a couple of dozen times by now, and I still enjoy it.

Next time, book two!


Leon said...

I think you've got it wrong. The Nazgul are the ultimate sullen McEmployees. They've done what they're technically required to do. Frodo will eventually turn. Leave me alone I'm on my mandated 15 day smoke break, man.

If you visualize the 13 black riders slowly ambling along the Great Road hissing "man I hate Sauron' and "our health benefits suuuuuucks" it would go along way in explaining things.

Michael Halila said...

I have no substantial counter-arguments to this. =D