We continue the Lord of the Rings re-read with Book II, Chapter 3 of Fellowship, “The Ring Goes South.” The usual spoilers and comments follow after the jump.
Searchers look for the Riders for nearly two months after the Council, and find eight horses and a cloak. Deciding that it’s safe, Elrond names the Company of the Ring: Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf; Gimli and Legolas; Aragorn and Boromir; and, reluctantly, Merry and Pippin. (And Bill the pony.) In preparation, the Sword that was Broken is re-forged, and Bilbo gives Frodo his sword Sting and, quietly, his mithril mail coat.
They leave on December 25 (per Appendix B) and journey by night without incident until they reach Hollin/Eregion, where they discover that black crows are overflying the land. Gandalf has misgivings about the winter weather, but Aragorn has stronger ones about a secret route Gandalf has suggested, and so they attempt the pass of Caradhras. A blizzard forces them to stop partway up, and while an Elven cordial and a fire started by Gandalf keep them alive through the night (also revealing Gandalf’s presence to anyone who can read the signs), the morning shows more snow on the way. Boromir and Aragorn force a way through the drifts blocking their retreat, and they stumble wearily down the slope as crows again circle in the distance.
I was surprised at how long this chapter is. My mental shorthand for the chapter after the Council is “a lot of faffing about waiting to leave,” and while there is that, I’d forgotten that the chapter actually takes them all the way up to Moria.
So, the faffing about. Gandalf says that “We hope that (the Riders) were all unhorsed and unmasked, and so made for a while less dangerous; but we must find out for certain.” Well, they find out for certain very quickly, as far as I can tell: three horses are found immediately, and another five are found on the rapids, which cannot be very far from Rivendell, certainly not two months’ travel from it. And it seems to me that the horses are the key thing, since none other will carry them; the cloaks are just cloth, and presumably if they had horses and no cloaks they’d manage just fine, since there’s no one around to interact with anyway.
I don’t think this delay ever seemed sensible to me. And then when I recognized that the Company (which, incidentally, is not called the Fellowship until Chapter 10’s title) left Rivendell on Christmas, well, I feel that Tolkien let his desire for symbolism override his sense for logistics.
(I have also heard it said that this is one way you can tell Tolkien was English, because no-one who lived around actual mountains would think you could travel across them in January, even without ill-will.)
The preparation does at least contain the reforging of Narsil, which is a paragraph I always thrill to:
The Sword of Elendil was forged anew by Elvish smiths, and on its blade was traced a device of seven stars set between the crescent Moon and the rayed Sun, and about them was written many runes; for Aragorn son of Arathorn was going to war upon the marches of Mordor. Very bright was that sword when it was made whole again; the light of the sun shone redly in it, and the light of the moon shone cold, and its edge was hard and keen. And Aragorn gave it a new name and called it Andúril, Flame of the West.
I love the rhythm, and the different kinds of light in the blade, and the—well, not personality, but feel, conveyed by the description and its new name.
* * *
I found Bilbo’s song after passing Sting and his mail coat on to Frodo to be surprisingly, revealingly bleak, with its talk of “how the world will be / when winter comes without a spring that I shall ever see” and waiting for those who’ve gone on without him to return. Because it’s a song, I’d skimmed over it before, and while it’s clear that Bilbo is worried and upset when the Company leaves, the song adds another layer to it. I forgive him his insistence that the book have a happy ending, now, which I’d previously found jarring.
* * *
The composition of the Company: symbolic at least as much as practical, in its strict limit to nine and eschewing of horses—I remind myself that horses would not have been useful for much of their route and so this isn’t a case of taking symbolism too far. I think that the inclusion of representatives of “the other Free Peoples of the World” is, conversely, as much practical as symbolic, as a quiet theme throughout the book is that cross-group friendships are good (Merry & Pippin and the Ents, Men and Dwarves at Dale, and Legolas and Gimli and their peoples later on).
I also like Gandalf’s recognition that friendship, and thus emotional strength and support, can be as important as other kinds of strength when he supports Merry & Pippin’s going.
* * *
The departure of the Company:
Aragorn is said to sit “with his head bowed to his knees; only Elrond knew fully what this hour meant to him.” Which is another place Tolkien could have mentioned Arwen—surely she knows, too?—and did not.
A very peculiar interjection from the narrator, when Sam mentally reviews his pack’s contents, including “a good supply of pipe-weed (but not near enough, I’ll warrant).” Unless that's supposed to be his thoughts?
(Also, how much time could it possibly take for Sam to pull an Elf aside and say, “Is there any rope right at hand that I could have before I leave?” Only in Sam-dialect, of course.)
Because we’ve talked so much about handling the Ring or not, I noticed this time that Elrond charges Frodo “nor indeed to let any handle [the Ring], save members of the Company and the Council, and only then in gravest need.”
* * *
The “action” sequences:
The silence of Hollin, broken only by a single croak from the masses of birds? Creepy.
The first hint of the winged Nâzgul, roughly two and a half months after their horses are killed at the Ford.
Does Aragorn really “think no good of our course from beginning to end”? That’s a . . . remarkably dour statement, whether read narrowly (the planned travel route) or broadly (the plan to destroy the Ring). Come to think of it, he’d said basically nothing about that at the Council. Huh.
I have the impression that, throughout the world, it’s not uncommon to attribute personalities to mountains? They loom, they affect the weather, they are natural boundaries, they loom . . . So it doesn’t give me any pause that Caradhras is thought to be acting independently, whereas I at least wondered at the significance of Old Man Willow, back last book.
Also, I would prefer the house to be at 72 F year-round if money were no object, and so I particularly shiver the description of being caught in the blizzard, but I think that
A red light was on their tired and anxious faces; behind them the night was like a black wall.
But the wood was burning fast, and the snow still fell.
is effective writing regardless.
And the chapter’s last sentence, “Caradhras had defeated them,” is the tersest and darkest yet, I’d say—it’s similar to the ending of Book I, “(Frodo) heard and saw no more,” but that at least was preceded by the Riders being caught in the flood; here, they just stumble along with a cold wind at their backs.
* * *
Overall it strikes me that this chapter has very little characterization of the Company members outside of what comes through for plot-necessary conversations and actions.
Merry and Pippin continue their prior roles, with Pippin speaking more lightly and Merry explaining what Pippin really means, in the opening section of the chapter.
Though the narrative now calls him Aragorn, he’s still Strider to the hobbits.
Boromir is practical and not afraid to speak up when it comes to areas of his expertise: he is the one to suggest they bring fireword for the attempt on the pass, to point out that the hobbits are going into hypothermia, to suggest a fire, and to suggest forcing a path back down the mountain. I also read a little wryness in his statement, “though lesser men with spades might have served you better.” (Also, he must be crazy strong. Forcing a path through chest-high snow? Just through knee-high is no picnic.)
(Conversely I find Legolas slightly annoying when he runs off over the snow and comes back, but maybe that’s just jealousy.)
The first real interaction with Gimli is in a section I love for its evocation of a passionately-remembered history, when he sees the mountains—the whole thing, all the way from “I need no map. There is the land where our fathers worked of old” to “Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram.” He’s otherwise practical and perhaps a touch dour, but I feel warmly toward him because of this section.