May 8, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 32: Many Meetings

Frodo woke and found himself lying in bed.

Frodo, last seen fainting on top of a horse, wakes up in the House of Elrond (yes, it's a capitalized House). Gandalf is by his bedside, and they have an expository chat about the hobbits' trip to Rivendell. To his credit, Frodo reflects on some of their shall we say less inspired choices, like short cuts through the Old Forest, songs at Bree and so on. Gandalf quite forthrightly calls them "absurd", but walks it back, seeing as how they did eventually make it. Frodo credits Strider, but wonders where Gandalf was, to which the wizard replies that everything will be explained in due time, but that he was held captive. He also explains what the Black Riders are: Ringwraiths, the Nine Servants of Sauron. The flood that defeated them was called up by Elrond, who also healed Frodo of his wound. However, as Gandalf quietly observes to himself, Frodo will never be completely healed. The Morgul-knife that Frodo was stabbed with was intended to turn him into a wraith, and to Gandalf's eyes, he appears slightly transparent.

Frodo falls asleep again, but when he wakes up in the evening, he feels well enough to get up. Soon enough, he's reunited with Sam, and then Merry and Pippin. A feast is arranged to celebrate Frodo's recovery, presided over by Elrond himself. Glorfindel and Gandalf are seated at his side, and I think this is our first proper glimpse of Gandalf as something other than an itinerant fireworks specialist. Frodo, however, mostly gawks at Elrond's daughter, Arwen Undómiel or Evenstar, reputedly a second Lúthien by looks. He gets seated with slightly more prosaic company, namely the dwarf Glóin, one of Thorin's original company. After very polite greetings are exchanged, Glóin provides news of the Lonely Mountain and Dale at length. Also, hey, important announcement to readers: it has been three (3) chapters since someone was last fat-shamed. Glóin tells Frodo about the remaining dwarves of Thorin's traveling circus, including Bombur, who was comically fat but is now apparently comically obese. Attention readers, it has now been zero (0) chapters since someone was last fat-shamed. Of Balin, Ori and Óin, however, Glóin will not speak, stoking more anticipation of the great exposition to come.

After the meal, everyone moves over to the Hall of Fire, where Frodo is delighted to find Bilbo ruminating over some verse. They exchange news, and Bilbo comes off a little bit disconnected. He casually mentions the Ring, but doesn't really seem to understand its significance ("Fancy that ring of mine causing such a disturbance!", as if magic rings of invisibility were a dime a dozen), and even asks Frodo if he can see it. When Frodo takes out the Ring, he's horrified to see Bilbo as "a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands" - in other words, Gollum. Bilbo realizes his mistake and apologizes, and when Frodo puts the Ring away, everything returns to normal, and soon enough they're cheerfully talking about the Shire.

Strider shows up, only to immediately take off with Bilbo to work on a poem. Frodo stays behind in the Hall and zones out on poetry and singing, until at some point he realizes he's actually listening to Bilbo versifying on Eärendil the Mariner. In other words, there's a four-page poem on a dude with a boat. When Bilbo's finished and has bantered for a bit with the elves, he and Frodo leave for a long talk in Bilbo's room, eventually broken up by Sam strongly implying Frodo needs some sleep.


So Frodo finally gets some rest and recovery, and that's more or less what this chapter offers us as well. There are happy reunions, parties and poetry - but with the shadow of the Ring hanging over them. There's a repeating structure to the books of the Lord of the Rings: the first chapter sets up the book by orienting us to a new environment, while the second chapter is usually heavy on dialogue and serves to both foreshadow what's to come, and place it in the context of the larger story. I at least think this is true of all the books; certainly the first and second do exactly this. In this case, we get some background to the events of the previous book, including finally learning who or what the Black Riders are. We also get somewhat grounded in Frodo's new frame of reference: instead of nosy hobbits and Sackville-Bagginses, there are elf-lords amd dwarves with news from afar and songs about the Blessed Realm.

Speaking of songs, by the way, that is one really long poem. And if I'm honest, it's not even a particularly good one. I'm only an ex-philologist, so I'm sure there are all kinds of wonderfully clever things in it that I'm missing, but at my level of reading, , most of it just leaves me cold. Using words like habergeon and carcanet really invokes - anachronistically! - some of the worst mock-medieval excesses of fantasy literature, and even though it tells the story of Eärendil and the Silmaril, it's just dry. What a contrast to Sam's song in the previous chapter!

In a way, this chapter also completes the passing of the baton, so to speak, from Bilbo to Frodo. The Ring is now Frodo's burden, and while Bilbo can hang out at the Last Homely House, getting zonked up on elven poetry, Frodo gets stabbed by a ghost. But for a while, at least, they get to hang out again, and it's just nice. The heavy references to the Hobbit reinforce the idea that Bilbo is growing old and being left behind, and his momentary apparition as Gollum is a pretty heavy reminder of the fate he avoided.

Next time, Exposition II: lots and lots of exposition.

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