Jul 3, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 34: The Ring Goes South

Later that day the hobbits held a meeting of their own in Bilbo's room.

After the massive conference in the previous chapter, Bilbo and Frodo recuperate, while Merry and Pippin insist they be allowed to go with Frodo. First, though, Elrond sends out scouts to gather information, and the hobbits spend two months hanging out in Rivendell.

Eventually the scouts return, with little news except that the Nazgûl are gone, though probably not destroyed. So it's time to leave for Mordor. But who's going?

Elrond makes the very reasonable point that since the idea is to sneak into Mordor rather than assault it, the Company of the Ring will be small. He sets the number at nine, apparently because there are nine Nazgûl, which doesn't really strike me as particularly sound logic, but hey, I'm not an elf-lord, what do I know. Obviously Gandalf is going, and as representatives of their peoples, Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn are going as well. Boromir is heading back home, so he joins the Company as well. So, two more are needed to make it nine, and Merry and Pippin insist on coming along. Perhaps surprisingly, Gandalf defends them, arguing that trusting friendship is better here than trying to reason everything out. It's all a damn dubious basis for mounting what is probably the most significant expedition in the history of the world since Eärendil set sail for the Undying Lands, but this is what they're going with.

As for material preparations, the elves reforge Aragorn's sword, and Bilbo privately gives Frodo Sting and his mithril-coat. The pony the hobbits bought from Bill Ferny, now named Bill the Pony, goes with them as a beast of burden. Eventually, toward the end of December, they leave, with Boromir sounding his horn as they go. Elrond's last words with them touch on the duties of the Fellowship. Frodo, having volunteered to bear the Ring, is charged with not handing it over to the Enemy, but beyond that, Elrond stresses that each companion is free to do as they like, and turn aside from the path if they want to. Again, they cross a symbolic bridge over a river, and they're off.

The first leg of the Fellowship's journey is miserable. They sleep by day and travel by night through the barren country south of Rivendell, heading southward parallel to the Misty Mountains. It's cold, made worse by the fact that they light no fires. Eventually, after a fortnight's walk, they make it to Hollin, which is old elf country next to Moria. Gimli rhapsodizes about the nearby mountains, and Gandalf reveals that they'll be trying to cross the mountains by the Redhorn Gate. For now, though, they rest, narrowly avoiding the attentions of some crows from the south which Aragorn thinks are spying on them. It must sometimes be hard to tell the difference between a ranger and a paranoid.

Traveling at night again, the Company bears east for Caradhras, the Redhorn. On the way there, Frodo overhears Gandalf and Aragorn debating the road ahead. A winter crossing of the mountains is obviously hazardous, but the Redhorn Gate is the last pass before the Gap of Rohan far to the south - perilously close to Saruman's fortress of Isengard and the uncertain loyalties of Rohan. Gandalf reminds Aragorn of a third way, but the latter refuses to talk about it. At Boromir's initiative, they collect firewood for the crossing.

As the Fellowship start to climb toward the pass, a heavy snowfall begins and eventually grows into a blizzard. Soon, they begin to hear screams and laughter on the wind, and rocks fall from the heights. They can't go on, because the path leaves the minute shelter of the cliffs where they'd be totally exposed, nor can they go back, so to the best of their ability, the Fellowship camps out of the cliff-face. As snow keeps falling, the barefoot hobbits are well on their way to freezing to death, so a fire has to be made. When everyone else has tried and failed, Gandalf finally casts a spell on the wood to set it on fire, remarking that if anyone is watching, now they'll definitely know who's here.

The fire keeps the Fellowship from dying overnight, but when the snowfall eases off a little before dawn, they're trapped between massive snowdrifts taller than the hobbits. Aragorn and Boromir manage to clear a path through, but the company's only realistic alternative is to retreat back down the pass.


So, the traveling circus is on the road. In true Tolkien fashion, the going is miserable and keeps getting worse, until the Fellowship suffers its first proper reverse at Caradhras.

The way the Fellowship is assembled seems a bit odd. Given that they spend two months waiting for scouts to return, you'd think someone would've given the matter some thought. I can't tell if Elrond came up with the idea of the Nine Walkers on the spot; if he did, it seems bizarre that no-one had given it any thought before; if he had, then the offhand "I dunno I'll think of two other dudes later, I guess" is just weird. Maybe Tolkien was suffering from writing fatigue after slogging through the previous chapter!

The brief exchange in the early part of the chapter between Gimli and Elrond on vows and loyalty is significant as another reminder of Tolkien's antiauthoritarianism. When he has Elrond disclaim oaths ("let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall"), it's hard to not recall that Tolkien participated in one of the most monstrously destructive wars in human history, where people were forced into suicidal attacks and shot as traitors if they refused. Again, this insistence that one can't demand unreasonable things from people or try to coerce loyalty is completely irreconcilable with the idea of Tolkien as a fascist. Surely in The Führer of the Rings or whatever Moorcock et al imagine they've read, the Fellowship would swear allegiance to Elrond and Gandalf, on pain of death if they fail. Again, Tolkien expounds the opposite view.

This refusal of loyalty oaths is also a key point with regard to Tolkien's "northern theory of courage": the acceptance of a battle that you can't win, because fighting it is the right thing to do. When Frodo volunteers to bear the Ring, he's demonstrating exactly this kind of courage. Because it's based on individual dedication and initiative - Bilbo creeping down the tunnel toward the dragon - this "northern courage" can't be compelled by oaths or discipline. Elrond recognizes that some will have it and some won't, and it would be wrong to demand it of the latter. In a time of rampant jingoism and white feathers, this was very much a minority view.

The red star Frodo sees from his window at Rivendell piqued my interest with its almost Lovecraftian burning glare. Given Tolkien's footnote about the Big Dipper in Chapter 10 of Book 1, the night sky in Middle-earth is more or less the same as ours. Astronomically, the likeliest candidate for the bright red star low in the South would be Aldebaran. In terms of symbolism, though, Mars (Carnil in Middle-earth): war rising in the south fits the theme! I was also quite entertained by a suggestion in a discussion thread that the red star is actually Morgoth, peeping over the Walls of Night. With Tolkien, of course, it could well be all of these things.

On the Fellowship's attempt at the Redhorn Gate, they have rocks dropped on them from above. Presumably these are Stone-giants like the ones Thorin and company encountered in Chapter 4 of the Hobbit, or something similar, and the discussion the Fellowship has about them is one of my favorite exchanges in the book:

"We cannot go further tonight," said Boromir. "Let those call it the wind who will; there are fell voices on the air; and these stones are aimed at us."
"I do call it the wind," said Aragorn. "But that does not make what you say untrue. There are many evil and unfriendly things in the world that have little love for those that go on two legs, and yet are not in league with Sauron, but have purposes of their own. Some have been in this world longer than he."
"Caradhras was called the Cruel, and had an ill name," said Gimli, "long years ago, when rumour of Sauron had not been heard in these lands."

Especially when coming back down the mountain, everyone basically agrees that Caradhras didn't want them to pass and intentionally stopped them. It's not clear if they're incorrectly attributing agency to weather or if they're right and the mountain just hates them. There's an intersection of two things that I think make Tolkien's world-building so succesful here. First, Caradhras and the Redhorn Gate are another example of Tolkien's animate landscapes, like the Old Forest earlier: both are very effectively depicted as being alive and malicious. Secondly, and in my mind more importantly, these places have stories and identities of their own, completely separate from the main plot of the book. This really makes the world feel much more alive and much less reducible to functional plot elements.

In general, trying to cross a hazardous mountain pass in midwinter seems like a terrible idea, especially if you've brought along a quartet of fucking hippies with no shoes on. Gandalf has to use magic to save them, and I should say that I also really like the way magic works in The Lord of the Rings. Now, we know Gandalf can cast spells; recall him setting wolves on fire in the Hobbit. So why doesn't he solve every problem by blasting it with magic? Because magic is loud and spectacular, and announces to everyone that Gandalf is here blasting on some fools. The old Middle-earth Role-Playing game had a pretty good mechanic for this, where using magic meant a chance that nearby enemies would detect the characters. As with Gandalf's remark to Elrond earlier on how even an elf-lord like Glorfindel couldn't storm the Black Gate to get the Fellowship to Mordor, these are all reminders that this isn't Harry Potter and the Ring of Power, and the problem of evil won't be solved by brute force.

So, the Fellowship is on the move, and the quest of the Ring has properly begun. After all the talking in the last chapter, it's good to read a little travelogue again. Not only does Tolkien make the trip seem appropriately dreary, but the battle against the elements is decently executed as well. The feeling is conveyed that this is going to be a long and arduous journey even without orcs or Ring-wraiths.


Next time, spelunking.


Leon said...

I think it's time to question his title of "Elrond the Wise" to maybe "Elrond the Pulls-Shit-Out-Of-His-Ass-That's-Mostly-Correct".

I always thought of Caradhras in the ancient spiritual sense, that everything (especially big natural things) has a spirit and in this case a malign one. They should have sacrificed Bill and offered his entrails to Caradhras and the mountain would have let them pass. Next thing you know Frodo's dropping a ring in Mount Doom while Sauron's wondering where the fellowship is and looking at Moria and the Gap of Rohan.

Michael Halila said...

Yeah, I have to admit I remembered the sending of the Fellowship being a little more deliberate. And I definitely agree about Caradhras being another example of a place with a spirit of its own. Maybe the giants are to Caradhras what Tom Bombadil is to the Old Forest?