Aug 7, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 35: A Journey in the Dark

It was evening, and the grey light was again waning fast, when they halted for the night.

After a failed attempt on the Redhorn Gate, the Company of the Ring discuss their options. They can't go back to Rivendell and abandon their quest. Gandalf suggests passing under the mountains, through the Mines of Moria. Nobody wants to; even the hobbits are vaguely scared by the name. Boromir suggests heading south, either to the Gap of Rohan or even further, to the shorelands of Gondor. Gandalf argues against this, citing both the proximity of Isengard to the Gap and both the great distance and open ground on the way to Langstrand. He reckons they'll be hunted by the Enemy after their repulse at Caradhras, and Moria offers the only chance of eluding pursuit.

The argument is left unresolved when the Company hear the howl of wolves on the wind. Quickly retreating to a hilltop and lighting a fire, the Fellowship gets into its first fight as they defend their position from the attacking Wargs. Gandalf eventually casts a spell, setting the wolves and surrounding trees on fire. In the morning, they find no dead bodies, which according to Gandalf confirms that they were no ordinary wolves.

Led by Gandalf and Gimli, the Company heads for the walls of Moria. Looking for the old road to Moria that once ran by a stream, they at first can't find it until they encounter the dry riverbed. What happened to the stream is a mystery, but they strike the road and soon find out: just below the massive cliff that is the western wall of Moria, the river has been dammed. It forms a still, stagnant lake, which the Company skirt as widely as possible on their way to the cliffs. There they make preparations to enter the Mines, which include saying goodbye to Bill the Pony. Over Sam's strong protests that he'll surely die on his own, Gandalf lays an enchantment on him to help him home.

Next, the Company needs to find their way into the Mines. As Gimli explains, "dwarf-doors are not made to be seen when shut". A search by Gandalf reveals the doors, which are guarded by a riddle in elvish, which he translates as: Speak, friend, and enter. Everyone except Aragorn is thoroughly dismayed to hear that Gandalf doesn't know the answer.

As the wizard starts trying various passwords to get the doors open, Boromir grumbles about the foul lake and throws a rock into it. Frodo wishes he hadn't. Just then, Gandalf finally solves the riddle. He had mistranslated the text: it actually reads say "friend" and enter. When Gandalf says the elven word for friend, the doors swing open.

As the Company is entering Moria, however, they're attacked by tentacles from the lake. Frodo is grabbed, and Bill the Pony flees in panic. Sam rushes to hack the tentacle off Frodo, and everyone runs inside. The tentacles slam the doors behind them and jam them shut. The Fellowship is stuck in Moria.

Gandalf, aided by Gimli, leads the Company through the passages and pitfalls of the Dwarrowdelf. Seeking the East-gate, they descend further into the silent mines. As they go, Frodo begins to think he hears soft footfalls following them.

They pause for a rest at a junction of passages that Gandalf doesn't recognize. There's a room just off the junction, thought by Gimli to have originally been a guardroom, with a well-shaft in the middle. The Company beds down there, and as they're doing so, Pippin, on a whim, drops a stone down the well. After a long fall, the rock falls into what sounds like water. Soon, faint hammer-blows are heard in the depths, like a signal that soon fades away.

On their next day of traveling, the Company finds a passage that starts to rise, and thry reach what Gandalf calls "the habitable parts": a huge pillared hall with smooth, black walls. They rest here, and Gimli gives them some poetry on the past greatness of Khazad-dûm. Gandalf explains to a curious Sam that the greatest wealth of Moria was mithril, a beautiful and incredibly durable metal that could be made into jewelry or practically impenetrable armor. Gimli is shocked when he hears that Thorin had given Bilbo a mithril-coat, although not half as shocked as Frodo is to hear that he's walking around wearing a coat of concealed armor worth more than the entire Shire.

Frodo sleeps, and imagines two points of light like eyes in the dark. He wakes to find daylight shining into the hall through a deep shaft, proving that they must be on the east side of Moria. A corridor leads east, but first they enter an arched doorway to the north, where a light also shines. Inside, a beam of light falls on a tomb, where an engraving tells them Balin lies buried.


From the reverse at Caradhras, this chapter takes us through wolves and tentacle monsters to Balin's tomb. The Fellowship's first battle is a rare instance of Gandalf using spectacular magic. In a direct parallel to the Hobbit, it's against attacking wolves, although he seems to have worked on his technique since the previous time. Like I mentioned in the previous chapter, I like that magic in Tolkien's works tends to be somewhat subtle and underplayed; this definitely unsubtle instance is brought about because clearly Sauron, or whatever intelligence is directing the wargs, already knows where they are. It's to escape this situation that they head into Moria for.

The hidden doors of Moria, of course, are very much reminiscent of the secret door into the Lonely Mountain, albeit with differences that make sense. The western doors of Moria, we're told, were usually open and guarded; in olden times, after all, they opened on the elf-country of Hollin. One supposes that they could be shut for the night, when the moon-writing would be visible so that anyone staying out late could still get in, but only if they could read elvish. I think Gandalf's failure of translation is a nice touch.

It's interesting that we don't really get to know anything about what was in the pool and why it attacked. Gandalf is kind of ambivalent on this, pointing out that "there are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world", and leaving unsaid that the creature attacked Frodo first. Was this because of the Ring, or did Frodo just happen to be the closest target? Did the creature attack because Boromir threw a rock at it, or was it a deliberate ambush? Based on the text, it's impossible to tell. Personally, I think this kind of uncertainty is one of the strengths of the Lord of the Rings; not everything always needs to be thoroughly explained.

Moria, of course, is the fantasy dungeon. Given that Dungeons & Dragons has its origins in what was more or less historical miniature wargaming meeting Tolkien, I don't think it's a massive exaggeration to say that the dungeon in Dungeons and Dragons is, ultimately, Moria. It also had a big influence on me; it's hardly a coincidence that one of my first major projects in Minecraft was a pillared underground hall and a bridge over a chasm. From D&D through the Warlock of Firetop Mountain to Dragon Age, Moria is here to stay. The abandoned dwarven halls, with their deep darknesses, unexplained noises and, of course, orc hordes, became a fantasy fixture. It really is one of the most evocative places Tolkien ever created.

The possible significance of two ill-considered stones, Boromir's and Pippin's, escapes me. But the discovery of Balin's tomb is one of the most powerful scenes in the Lord of the Rings; no-one had expressed any real hope of finding Balin, but his grave is still an unexpected tragedy. The whole of Moria, in its ruin and darkness, is reminiscent of a tomb. I'm unsure if this, along with the cautionary tale of the dwarves delving too deep, is intended to convey a moral of some kind. Personally, I don't think it is. But Balin's grave more or less closes out the last threads of the Hobbit - other than the Ring! - winding through the story.

Overall, I still find the Fellowship's journey through the dark splendor of Moria awe-inspiring. Next time: Durin's Bane.


Leon said...

Moria was always my absolutely favourite part of this book, the sheer scale of it, the creepiness of a dead city, just fantastic storytelling.

Michael Halila said...

In this context too, I can't help thinking that Tolkien suffers from the fact that so many of the things he came up with have become such fantasy cliches that we don't appreciate them any more.