And now for the second-to-last chapter of Fellowship, “The Great River.” Spoilers and comments, as always, after the jump.
The Company drifts down Anduin, the Great River, through increasingly-inhospitable lands. Sam sees Gollum paddling behind them on a log. He and Frodo keep watch in turns that night, and Gollum comes within two yards of Frodo before fleeing when Frodo stands and draws Sting. This wakes Aragorn, who says that he’s known Gollum was following them since Moria but has been unable to catch him.
Worried about Gollum, Aragorn directs the Company to start paddling, which combined with his unfamiliarity with the terrain almost leads them into disaster when they come upon the rapids of Sarn Gebir unexpectedly at night. As they try to paddle upstream, orcs attack with arrows, but they reach the west bank safely. When they land, Legolas shoots a great winged shape that brings with it a feeling of dread, causing it to fall from the sky.
The next morning, Aragorn and Legolas find a path on which they can carry the boats past the rapids, and the Company moves under cover of fog. The next day they pass through the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings, and into a long lake with, at the far end, three hills and the great falls of Rauros. They head toward the western hill (Amon Hen, the Hill of Sight), where they will have to decide which path to take for the rest of the quest.
This is a pretty low-key chapter, transitional, travel, landscape, you know the drill.
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Leftover from last chapter: there’s no moon in Lórien, and they spent a whole month there without realizing it.
I liked the description about the Elves’ experience of time: “For the Elves the world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by; it is a grief to them. Slow, because they need not count the running years, not for themselves.” It seems to me the inverse of something I feel all the time, most recently with SteelyKid: time goes quickly because she changes so fast—has it really only been nine months? She’s gotten so big!, etc.—and slowly because any given day can be long and tiring.
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Lots of birds. Besides your garden-variety ones, there are swans (black ones, as Aragorn points out, and I get a wrong-way-around but vivid flash to The Fionavar Tapestry; I don’t think there’s any further significance to the swans here); an eagle, probably the one that was helping Gandalf a couple days ago off-screen; and a Nazgûl on a winged beast, if we stretch the classification a bit. Legolas gets to use Galadriel’s present, Frodo discovers that his shoulder is a Nazgûl warning system, and Boromir again shows his over-eager attention to Frodo (first seen in erratic boat-handling).
(By the way, that great essay on Balrogs, wings, and dramatic adaptations mentions Gimli’s comment that the Nazgûl reminded him of the Balrog as a piece of evidence supporting wings. I’m inclined to say it was a reference instead to the feeling of dread rather than any physical similarity.)
Also, with regard to Boromir, he here displays more of the passive-aggressive attitude that he showed at the Council, saying that he will only go as far as the Falls and then “turn to my home, alone if my help has not earned the reward of any companionship.” And I want to smack him even though I know he’s under the influence at the moment.
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I’d forgotten that Gollum is so lurkingly present in this book. He comes “not more than a yard or two away” from Frodo? Yikes.
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The passage of the Argonath:
Travel descriptions are so symbolically useful: they “speed() along with little hope of stopping or turning, whatever they might meet ahead”; then pass through symbols of the past into a “chasm that was long and dark”; and eventually “sho(o)t . . . out into a clear wide light.”
Aragorn says, “Long have I desired to look upon the likenesses of Isildur and Anárion, my sires of old. Under their shadow Elessar, the Elfstone son of Arathorn of the House of Valandil Isildur’s son, heir of Elendil, has naught to dread!” And I say, “who are you and what have you done with the Aragorn that we’ve been traveling with all this time?” It just did not seem like him, even in the exultation of the moment.
(Also, I’ve double-checked the punctuation, but it seems like there ought to be several more commas in that long statement of heritage, or possibly it just should be rewritten completely.)
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Words I had to look up in this chapter: “eyot,” island; “thrawn,” apparently twisted or crooked, applied to trees.
And while I was looking these up, I came across a blog post from a couple of years ago called How to Critique Tolkien’s Prose Style, by Michael Drout, a Tolkien scholar. He says,
The second significant critique of Tolkien’s prose style, and one that is obvious when you read the story aloud, is the amount of space given over to description of landscape. Without doing tedious tabulation, I would venture to argue that something more than 50% of the novel is devoted to landscape description.
If I weren’t drowning in piles of work just now, I’d be highly tempted to fire up my electronic copy and start categorizing this chapter—this chapter is particularly landscape-heavy, but fifty percent still seems high to me.
Anyway, Drout closely reads a couple of passages from this chapter and concludes,
As you can see, it’s not easy to critique Tolkien’s prose style — which may mean that its much better than it is given credit for being. Most choices can, upon consideration and reflection, be seen to be contributing to particular aesthetic effects. I think critics sometimes displace their discomfort with other elements of Tolkien’s writing onto a prose style that they have not considered carefully enough.
I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed particular pieces of Tolkien’s prose in this re-read. On the other hand, I am (obviously) less engaged by lengthy landscape and travel sections, even when I can see that they are contributing to the story. This is probably just a matter of taste.
Next time, the conclusion of Fellowship.