The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Fellowship II.4, “A Journey in the Dark”

Another week, another chapter in the Lord of the Rings re-read, this time Fellowship II.4, “A Journey in the Dark.” (I keep trying to get the posts ready before Friday, and keep having Life get in the way. This week it was a business trip and a briefly unwell SteelyKid. But I live in hope.)

As always, spoilers and comments behind the cut.

What Happens

Gandalf suggests that the Company go through Moria rather than admit defeat and return to Rivendell. No-one but Gimli likes this idea, and Frodo suggests that they wait until morning to decide, but the howling of wolves makes the decision for them. The wolves surround them on a hilltop; Gandalf confronts the leader and Legolas kills it, and the wolves vanish. They return later in the night, however, and attack the camp. Gandalf uses fire, and the non-hobbits their weapons, to kill a number of wolves and drive off the rest. In the morning, no bodies are found, only the arrows of Legolas undamaged on the ground.

The Company hastens to the Gate of Moria. They find that the valley before the walls has been flooded by a blocked stream. Gandalf reveals the inscription and emblems on the Gate’s wall, but cannot remember the opening spell at first. Just as he does, a tentacle/arm comes out of the pool and grabs Frodo by the ankle. Bill the pony runs away. Sam slashes at the arm and it lets go of Frodo, but twenty more come out of the water. The Company runs through the Gate and the arms slam it shut and block it behind them.

They travel through Moria without incident until they stop for a rest and Pippin drops a rock down a well, after which they hear hammers from the depths—except that Frodo thinks he hears something following them, which happens throughout the rest of the chapter. The next morning, they find Balin’s tomb.


Action! Woo!

But I also just like Moria, the sense of grandeur and hidden menace, and imagining what it must look like—not very well, since I have a poor visual imagination, but still. I think I must be closer to a Dwarf than an Elf.

* * *

The debate about going through Moria:

What do we suppose happened to Aragorn on his first journey through Moria? Is it referenced in any of the posthumous works, or shall we just speculate?

Aragorn tells Gandalf, specifically, to beware if he passes the doors of Moria. Someone, probably Graydon but I cannot find the comment now, argued that this is genuine foresight on Aragorn’s part. I had never read it that way, and am still not sure what I think of it. But the more interesting question is what Gandalf thinks of it. He says nothing in response to Aragorn’s comment, and though the chapter is almost entirely exterior to him, shows no sign at all of reconsidering or hesitating in reaction. Even if there had been another option, which there isn’t, it seems to me very true to my gut-level understanding of Gandalf’s character that concern for his own welfare just isn’t very high on his priority list: not fey or reckless, just . . . not concerned.

Looking through the rest of the passages I have flagged, I see that Aragorn and the narration agree with me: Aragorn says that Gandalf will lead them out “at whatever cost to himself,” and in a usefully-symbolic description of Gandalf’s choosing a literal path, the narration says, “he knew whither he wished to go, and he did not falter, as long as there was a path that led towards his goal.”

* * *

The wolf attack:

Do Aragorn and Boromir really trade proverbs—rhyming proverbs—at each other? “The wolf that one hears is worse than the orc that one fears.” “But where the warg howls, there also the orc prowls.” Yeesh. That is an exchange I’m happy to have skimmed over all this time.

Gandalf’s command to set the trees on fire is the same as the one he used to start the fire in the blizzard. Yes, I checked.

(The unsuccessful opening spell at the Gate has the word “ammen” in common, but that’s all.)

The description of Legolas’s arrow catching fire and “plung(ing) burning into the heart of a great wolf-chieftain” strikes me as a rare cinematic image, or maybe watching cheesy movies has warped my mind. A less kinetic description, but still good, is Gandalf as “a great menacing shape like the monument of some ancient king of stone set upon a hill.”

It does not appear that the hobbits actually fought, just stood ready.

They were “no ordinary wolves” indeed, to leave behind no bodies, only the undamaged arrows that Legolas shot them with. This strikes me as a very different approach from The Hobbit, and even from anything else that I can think of in LotR proper: they were corporal, because the weapons struck them, and then . . . they weren’t, apparently. Creepy, but sensible? I’m not sure.

* * *

During the journey to the Gate, the narrative, after having seemed to come pretty firmly down on the side of the blizzard being Caradhras, then casts doubt on this conclusion by saying, “That day the weather changed again, almost as if it was at the command of some power that had no longer any use for snow” and wanted visibility instead. Of course we have the usual “as if” equivocation, but still, I found this rather odd.

* * *

I like the way tension is slowly built regarding the pool before the Gate. We first see it and are told that it’s “ominous,” but in a static way: “a dark still lake” with a “sullen surface.” Then the Company has to cross a narrow creek at its corner that is “like a slimy arm”—foreshadowing!—and generally icky. Right after, there’s the first hint that something’s in the lake, with a swish-plop, ripples, and bubbles. The lake continues icky as they go ‘round it, with trees rotting in the shallows. It then drops out of our sight as they find the Gate, but comes back to our attention even more strongly when Boromir throws a rock in, there are bigger ripples, and Frodo expresses fear. A brief respite, as Gandalf figures out how to open the Gate, and then bang! A new section starts and Frodo gets grabbed.

(I acquit Boromir of causing the arms to come out, as the swish and bubble come “at the same instant” as the stone vanishing, rather than in obvious response, and whatever-it-was had already been roused. Possibly by the Ring, since as Gandalf thinks to himself, it grabbed Frodo first.)

Sam is the only one to act; everyone else is frozen in horror, and who could blame them? Middle-earth had been very non-Lovecraftian to this point, and suddenly, many many pale-green luminous tentacles ahoy!

(Frodo says later that “I felt that something horrible was near from the moment that my foot first touched the water.” I would put that down to understandable hindsight, except that later the narration explicitly tells us that post-Morgul knife, “His senses were sharper and more aware of things that could not be seen.”)

* * *

Other bits about the scene before the Gate:

Okay, someone do the filling-in thing that y’all are good at, and convince me that Gandalf’s talking to Bill the pony would actually be any help. Because that passage looks like just statements that would match his instincts anyway—find grass and go where you want—so how is that going to give him “as much chance of escaping wolves and getting home as we have”? Unless that was a backhanded comment on their chances, and that feels wrong, since Gandalf is genuinely sympathetic to Sam’s concern.

Gimli & Legolas re: the split between Dwarves and Elves: I note that while Gimli flat-out asserts, “It was not the fault of the Dwarves,” Legolas says, “I have not heard that it was the fault of the Elves” (emphasis added). Which is a nice sum-up of the different ways the two species talk.

Until Gandalf identifies one of the emblems as the Star of the House of Fëanor, I’d forgotten that Celebrimbor was Fëanor’s grandchild (per The Silmarillion). But then I can never keep all of Fëanor’s descendants straight.

And I like the way this description uses contrasts with nature for emphasis:

Nothing happened. The cliff towered into the night, the countless stars kindled, the wind blew cold, and the doors stood fast.

It makes them feel so very immovable.

* * *

Bits about Moria proper:

Pippin has to summon up the courage to jump a seven-foot gap. Rather than jump around in my living room and try and guess how far I’d made, I looked around the Internet, which suggested that an average high school athlete can long-jump fifteen-ish feet. Since Pippin is shorter, seven feet strikes me as just plausible for him to make but be apprehensive about.

Sam laments the lack of rope, here, and I say to myself, didn’t anyone else think to bring some?

Pippin is “curiously attracted” by the well and drops the stone down it on “a sudden impulse.” I know exactly what he means, don’t you?—that awful fascination of cliff edges and the like. Though, being older than Pippin, I don’t give in to those fascinations. (Well, I mostly didn’t even when I was at his stage of life, either. Personality differences.)

When they get to the wide hall, Gandalf risks some light, not by a gradually-increasing brightness that would let their eyes adjust, but by a “blaze like a flash of lightning.” I disbelieve that this was useful or wise (surely a sudden flash would catch attention from outside as much or more?).

Like Sam (and how often am I going to write that, I wonder), I enjoy Gimli’s chant about Durin and Moria. Maybe it’s the nice straightforward iambs (she says, hoping that she’s properly identified the meter)?

I love this description of Frodo listening while on watch: “As if it were a breath that came in through unseen doors out of deep places, dread came over him.” Also the end of the chapter, which has a great thumping bleak quality to it:

“He is dead then,” said Frodo. “I feared it was so.” Gimli cast his hood over his face.

A very emphatic pause, between next chapter and next week. See you then.

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