May 18 2009 11:56am

LotR re-read: Fellowship II.9, “The Great River”

cover of The Fellowship of the Ring And now for the second-to-last chapter of Fellowship, “The Great River.” Spoilers and comments, as always, after the jump.

What Happens

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.)

* * *

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.

« Fellowship II.8 | Index | Fellowship II.10 »

Andrew Foss
1. alfoss1540
“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!”

To all the Unfinished Tales readers - When were the statues of Anarion and Isuldur built/Crafted? Before or after the end of the second age? I could not find it in the 3rd age Appendix.

All descriptions suggest they are more technical than Mt Rushmore, which was crafted with modern machinery and dynamite. I am imagining Egyptian Slaves building pyramids here with even more difficult topography and resources to deal with.

The Numenoreans were massively cool and lived a long time. And between Minas Tirith, Minas Arnor, Osgilliath, The Argonath, Osgilliath etc - pretty incredible engineers as well.

Am I forgetting to suspend my disbelief?
2. Radynski
@ #1

The notes from this entry should give you an idea of when the statues were constructed:
Jason Deshaies
3. darxbane
I don't think you need to suspend your disbelief, just not forget the "magic" of that world. Like the elves (but maybe not as strongly), they could imbue their "will" upon the objects they created, making them much stronger and more resistant to weather. It would also not be a stretch to assume that the tools they built were also much sturdier (the swords the hobbits recover from the Barrow-downs are an example of this).
4. DemetriosX
I don't think you need to suspend your disbelief too far. On top of Numenorian engineering and elven craftsmanship, you probably also have dwarves lending a bit of technical advice. They probably knew a thing or two about blasting.

What really always jumps out at me here and in the parts of the next chapter prior to the action is Aragorn's utter lack of leadership skills. Not only does he almost wreck the company on the rapid, but he spends most of his time dithering and wondering what Gandalf would do (WWGD). And yet he has spent years, decades even, not just wandering the wilderness on his own, but leading troops, organizing defenses, etc. He's not acting like a halfway decent corporal, let alone a king and a leader of men. Is he so rattled by Gandalf's death? Or maybe by his rapidly approaching destiny? He seems almost relieved by the disasters that culminate the next chapter. Good in a crisis when action is called for, but not so great when it comes to making tough decisions for long range planning. Not exactly the best qualities for a king.
5. Jon Meltzer
#4: Okay, Aragorn is at a loss here. But, when was Gandalf going to fill in even his second in command on what he was planning to do?

1. We're going over the mountains.
2. ?
3. The Ring is destroyed!
Michael Ikeda
6. mikeda
Jon Meltzer@5

The other thing is that the key question before the Company is which direction to head. And that is really Frodo's decision to make, not Aragorn's.
7. DavidT
I have no patience with people who criticize Tolkien's prose style, on grounds that are a thinly (or not) disguised variant of "it's not modern enough". I think it's a lot like people who can't enjoy music that is written in a deliberately anachronistic style.

There are substantive criticisms to make of Tolkien's prose; it isn't perfect, and there are some passages (I'll wait for the Shelob scenes to invoke them) that are pretty laughable. But overall, it's a masterful performance.
Andrew Foss
8. alfoss1540
Radynski @2 - Thanks for the citation. That helps.

Knowing that Numenoreans created Osgiliath out of 2001 Space Odyssey Obelisk material tells me they can do anything. But being so far out in the middle of no where makes one wonder how they did it.

As for Aragorn, though he is wishywashy as a leader, he really turns it on in the back of the boat as regal and deserving of the crown.

I also recall this chapter a lot from my first read of it - 20 odd years ago, and the things that bugged me - or were significant -

1) How close it is to Mordor - totally desolate - yet alive by the river.

2) I equated this area to Gladden Fields (misread of the maps by a young teenager) and was trying to figure where the orcs overtook Isuldur - my bad.

3) How creepy gollum is - and why don't they just kill him?

4) What the hell is that thing Legolas shot at (first time readers have no clue of the implications).

No wonder I read Fellowship 3 times before I completed the rest of the series.
Soon Lee
9. SoonLee
I liked the extensive scenery descriptions. Tolkien's ability to write such evocative passages go a long way to bringing Middle Earth to life.

Re: passage of the Argonath
I think it's here that Aragorn begins to believe in the possibility of mission success. His ancestors were capable of awesome achievements and he can draw inspiration from that. Of course, he then goes and makes a hash of it in his first leadership challenge.
10. DBratman
Tolkien's original idea was that no time at all would pass in Lorien, and the Company would resume, well refreshed, from the same instant. In the end he apparently decided that would be too blatantly magical, and changed it to a month mostly so that he wouldn't have to tinker with the phases of the moon later on.

Aragorn's declaration to the statues of his ancestors seems pompous or ridiculous to some. I find it grand and reassuring.

And Tolkien has gotten some grief for using obscure words like "eyot". Really, though, it means "small island in the middle of a river," and what briefer way is there to say that?
11. Confutus
When Aragorn saw the statues and faces of his ancestors, I imagine that it must have done something for him that nothing else could quite do. "This is who my fathers were. This is my heritage. This is who *I* am, the rightful heir of kings and mighty men." He's been waiting in the wings for decades now, because the time wasn't right for him to claim his heritage, but this is his cue.

Also, since before they entered Lorien, he had been torn between going with Frodo to Mordor and abandoning Gondor (which clearly needs better leadership than Denethor is providing) or going to Gondor to claim the kingship (and possibly provoking a a disastrous civil war while Sauron is already pressing on the defenses) and in the process abandoning Frodo and the Ring.

One of the prime characteristics of any effective leader is the confidence that what he is doing is the right thing to do. Aragorn doesn't really have that confidence until after the Fellowship is broken and he is able to declare "my heart speaks clearly at last".
12. legionseagle
Could Aragorn's indecisiveness be Ring-influenced? After all, Tolkien in a number of places attributes a sort of quasi-sentience to the Ring ("it was trying to get back to its master") and at this point the Ring has chosen Boromir as the best vehicle for its purposes; heading in the right (homeward) direction, ambitious, proud and head-strong. If - as Boromir is about to do - he makes a bid to seize the Ring from Frodo, Aragorn will have to stop him. Now, having travelled with Boromir for umpty-hundred miles, having had the benefit of watching him and his reactions to the topic of the Ring and, more to the point, having had experience of Denethor as a young man, whom Boromir closely resembled in temperament and who was responsible for Aragorn's leaving the service of Ecthelion Aragorn must know that this confrontation is coming up and that it will end in the death of one of them. While he is probably reasonably confident that he can take Boromir when he has to, the idea that he will have to do so is enough to affect his nerve and judgement in normal circumstances, and perhaps the Ring is seizing on to his natural self-doubt and enhancing it in order to make its task easier.

Apropos "eyot"; It isn't such an obscure word, since Chiswick Eyot is one of the key landmarks on the route of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, and knowing which crew is ahead at the Eyot is an important gauge to which is likely to win. Islands in the Thames are often called eyots and I suspect Tolkien's choice of the word is a symbolic linking of the great river of England with the great river of Gondor.
13. skinnyiain
'Thrawn' doesn't seem an especially unusual word to me, but that may be because I'm a Scot reared on the spooky stories of Robert Louis Stevenson. 'Thrawn Janet' is one of his best:
14. DemetriosX
@12 legionseagle

I don't think Aragorn's dithering is ring-related. For Sauron's purposes, Aragorn seizing the ring would be almost ideal. I think Confutus @11 got it right in his second paragraph. It's just that Aragorn ought to have already had that confidence.

As for the effect of the Argonath on him, I'm a bit dubious. After all, he has spent plenty of time in Gondor among the glories of his ancestors and he really ought to have seen the Argonath before, even if he says he hasn't. Maybe he's making a bit of a statement for Boromir, a not so gentle reminder that the House of Húrin are stewards and not kings.
Terry Lago
15. dulac3
DemetriosX @14: I don't know if Aragorn has never seen the Argonath before, but I think whether he has or not this is a different experience for him. All of his previous journeys to Gondor have been in preparation for what he now knows has arrived: the time for him to test himself against Sauron and see if he can revive the glories of the Numenorian kingdom. I think that's worthy of a little high-falutin' language on his part. The end game is at hand, and for better or worse he's committed to it. I think that his view of the Argonath here simply drives that home for him in a tangible way...this is his do or die time.
16. Confutus
Aragorn's uncharacteristic indecision could have been indirectly ring-influenced, if he were having to continually second-guess himself to be sure that he wasn't being subtly influenced by it in spite of his conscious decision not to take it for himself.
17. Elaine T
Also, since before they entered Lorien, he had been torn between going with Frodo to Mordor and abandoning Gondor (which clearly needs better leadership than Denethor is providing) or going to Gondor to claim the kingship (and possibly provoking a a disastrous civil war while Sauron is already pressing on the defenses) and in the process abandoning Frodo and the Ring.

One of the prime characteristics of any effective leader is the confidence that what he is doing is the right thing to do. Aragorn doesn't really have that confidence until after the Fellowship is broken and he is able to declare "my heart speaks clearly at last".

I'd been thinking of posting something much like this, but was beaten to it. I'll add, though, that Aragorn heard the call at the Council. Boromir's dream was a clear summons of him to Gondor; that's where he was headed, no question. He was going to split off from the Company somewhere along the way, along with Boromir and go to Minas Tirith (hopefully with Boromir's backing of his claim on the kingship, which would minimize the thread of civil war. Somewhere in the HoME, there are some writings where Tolkien tried to have Denethor and Aragorn come face to face & clash. He eventually decided it was too complex to be a 'bit part' and offed Denethor to solve the problem).

Gandalf's fall in Moria throws all such planning into arrears. Now Aragorn is stuck with

1) a mystical call from the Powers to go to Minas Tirith

2) revulsion at the idea of leaving Frodo on his own to go to Mordor. "Bye, Frodo, good luck! I"m heading to the White City....! Have fun crossing the Marshes and Morgul Vale. " No, he can't do that. But what can he do? What do the Powers want him to do?

He either leaves Frodo in the lurch (possibly also causing the whole Quest to fail), or ignores the Powers.

He's waiting for something to make it clear. When Boromir attacks Frodo, precipitating Frodo's decision to go it alone, he finally knows what he needs to do.
18. DBratman
legionseagle @ 12: "eyot" is only obscure in the minds of those who are criticizing Tolkien for it. I was being kind of ironic.

Tolkien used it because it was a known word to him. I doubt very much he was specifically honoring the Thames. There are eyots all over England, not just in the Thames, and the Thames is a tiddly-wink of a river compared to the Anduin.

Elaine T @17: "Boromir's dream was a clear summons of him to Gondor; that's where he was headed, no question."

Indeed; Aragorn says so, soon after the Council:

"I ask leave once again to be your companion, Frodo."

"I would have begged you to come," said Frodo, "only I thought you were going to Minas Tirith with Boromir."

"I am," said Aragorn. "... But your road and our road lie together for many hundreds of miles."

(I expect the plan was that Gandalf would continue with Frodo, and I think Aragorn says something about that somewhere where considering his options; but Aragorn takes that proposed responsibility on himself after Gandalf falls. "I would have guided Frodo to Mordor and gone with him to the end," he says when changing his mind again and deciding not to do it.)
19. legionseagle
DBratman@18 However much of a "tiddly-wink" the Thames is compared to the Anduin, it is, as I observed, the great river of England and, for that matter, flows about a couple of hundred yards from Tolkien's college. Also, unlike Anduin, it exists.

Actually, it's fairly difficult to think of eyots otherwise than in the context of the Thames because it is a word which specifically references an island in a river and very few British rivers are broad enough.

But it wasn't a very important observation; just a minor footnote.

With regard to the Argonath, do you suppose there was any sort of Gondorian pressure group when it was being planned, a sort of campaign against imposing aggressively militaristic and glorificatory statuary upon what is clearly an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty?
20. DemetriosX
dulac @15

Aragorn's words certainly seem to indicate that he hasn't seen the Argonath before (“Long have I desired to look upon the likenesses of Isildur and Anárion, my sires of old."). Regardless, he is really laying it on with a trowel.

legionseagle @19

I'm sure the government got around any pressure groups by portraying it as a health and safety measure. "The statues clearly indicate 'Stop. No shipping beyond this point. Massive waterfall. Extreme danger.'"
21. DBratman
legionseagle @ 19: I pursue this point only because I see a whole lot of incorrect assumptions about Tolkien's inspirations being made by other people along these lines of reasoning.

Of course the Thames exists. So do a lot of other rivers. Including the Severn, for instance, as much a "great river" of England as the Thames, and which drains the West Midlands, his native countryside.

The problem with the "great river" argument is that the scale is wrong. To the hobbits, the Brandywine is a great river, and that appears to be on the scale of the Thames or a little larger. Once they cross into Wilderland, they're in a land of a vastness and largeness like they've never seen. The Anduin is huge, and so are the Misty Mountains. An early commentator on Tolkien suggested that the Misty Mountains were an incarnation of the Headington Hills east of Oxford. This was a ludicrous mismatch of scale by someone who'd never been there. To identify the Thames with the Anduin isn't quite as ludicrous, but it makes the same kind of category error.

The thought that Tolkien must have been particularly inspired by the Thames to create the Anduin because it was only a few yards away also strikes me as very odd. Tolkien wasn't that provincial, and Gondor (which the Anduin flows to) is inspired by Rome or Byzantium or ancient Egypt (see Letters p. 281), not London which the Thames flows to. We know what happens when Tolkien is inspired by his own neighborhood, and he's thinking on a much larger scale than that: the "Little Kingdom" of Farmer Giles is the counties of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire; Tom Bombadil is the spirit of the Oxfordshire/Berkshire countryside; the Shire is inspired by West Midlands villages of the kind he grew up in. Nothing about anything in Wilderland suggests it had any of the same kind of resonance.

What Tolkien was inspired by was the idea (platonic archetype if you will) of River, which incarnates in one form as the Anduin, in another as the Thames, and in numerous others as other rivers both real and fictional.
22. legionseagle
Perhaps if you were slightly slower to rush to judgment about other people's "category errors" "incorrect assumptions" "ludicrous mismatches of scale" and so forth, and took the time to read what they had actually said it would pave the way for more fruitful and considerably pleasanter discussion. I said that the Thames was the "great river" of England not because of the volume of water which it carries but because of its historical and mythic significance - Old Father Thames, Magna Carta (reputedly signed on an eyot), London Bridge and all. At no point did I make the frankly preposterous suggestion that Tolkien was inspired to create Anduin by the Thames, nor that the two rivers had much geographically or physically in common. What I did observe - in the context of Kate's analysis of the use of landscape in this chapter - is that Tolkien's use of the term "eyot" may have been intended on one level to evoke an association between the mythic/historical Thames/Isis and the Anduin, down which Aragorn is being carried towards his kingly destiny.
23. DBratman
legionseagle @ 20: I did read what you wrote, and responded to it. I suggest that you follow your own advice. First, there is that vast difference in the physical magnitude of the rivers, which suggests, among other things, that their eyots have a totally different lay. Either the Anduin's eyots are far larger than the Thames's, or else they are far smaller in relation to the river.

Second, that the historic/mythic dimension of the Thames's importance bears no specific resemblance to that of the Thames. The Anduin's role in Gondor, as a frontier river to the Enemy's lands, and of flowing through a ruined city, is totally unlike that of the Thames in England; and there is no historic/mythic notion in England of kings coming into their inheritance by sailing down the Thames from the wilderness of the Cotswolds or anything like that. (Grand processions between Westminster and Windsor, in either direction, are a quite different thing.)

In short, as I said originally: Tolkien used the word eyot because he was familiar with the word eyot, probably indeed mostly from the Thames, but not because of any historic/mythic associations of the Anduin with the Thames specifically, which are nonsensical for all the reasons you dismiss as irrelevant, but which are not irrelevant if you're going to draw a historic/mythic association between them.

To repeat: What Tolkien was inspired by was the idea (platonic archetype if you will) of River, which incarnates in one form as the Anduin, in another as the Thames, and in numerous others as other rivers both real and fictional. And that includes the eyots and the historic/mythic "great river" stuff as well as anything else.
24. Firefly
Sparse punctuation in the Argonath speech is deliberate, I think. This is Tolkien the connoisseur of sagas wheeling out another archaic model: Aragorn is chanting his pedigree like a Celtic or Germanic hero. He does the same thing later in Rohan (albeit with more commas), deeply impressing Éomer, who understands that sort of thing.

There's nothing strange about his change to a high-flown style at this point. Tolkien makes it clear in the appendices that Westron comes in High and Low versions, the latter common in the north but considered eccentric in the more formal south. Hobbits never use the formal mode at all, and Strider the Ranger has been talking up to now mostly in their style; but he was brought up by elves and Númenoreans, and has spent half his life in Gondor and Rohan, so the High speech is just as natural to him. Aragorn makes this point himself, at Orthanc, when the availability of tobacco brings on a Strider moment: 'I am Strider and Dúnadan too, and I belong both to Gondor and the North.'

#4 & passim:
Criticism of Aragorn's leadership seems over-stressed. He's not running a military unit, only a disparate bunch of free-lance companions who don't have to do anything he says and may decide to go home in a huff if they get fed up.

And what decision is he supposed to make? He's eager to go to Gondor, but it's increasingly clear the Ring can't safely be taken there, and that Frodo whom he's committed to protecting means to go the other way. He doesn't understand how that plan is supposed to work, but trying to persuade or coerce Frodo is right out: Gandalf's pupil has tremendous reservations about interfering with anyone's freedom of choice (well, anyone who doesn't happen to be Gollum, or an orc, or similar). He's pretty much limited to acting as guide and trying to keep the peace until everyone else decides what they're going to do.

His eventual choices (next chapter) seem not to turn out well, but that's okay, he's not a slick movie hero cruising to invariable success. Tolkien knew from grim experience that even skilled professional leaders frequently screw up, and that things can always go horrifically wrong – as they do e.g. for most of the First Age.

No reason why Aragorn should have seen the Argonath before – and why would he bother to lie about it!? His travels haven't been just sight-seeing, he always has urgent business somewhere, and this place is way outside modern Gondor, on a river which isn't used for traffic any more. Can you imagine Aragorn taking time off from saving the world to hike through the Emyn Muil to look at a statue?
25. Confutus
Aragaron's claim that he had never down the Anduin past the Argonath before is entirely plausible. By the time he was there, Gondor seems to have fallen back to the Entwash, Cair Andros, and North Ithilien as its effective northern boundaries, with little call to go further north. Besides that, he seems to have been focused on Umbar to the south. He had gone down to Gondor from the north by way of Rohan, and when he left, he came back to Lorien the long way around south and east of Mordor.
He would have actually had a better chance to see the statues when was searching for Gollum from Mirkwood down through the vales of Anduin and Rhovanion (he caught him in the Dead Marshes) but that was an urgent mission on a cold trail and left no time for sightseeing, either.
Kate Nepveu
26. katenepveu
Hi, all.

I'm going to leave Aragorn and leadership to the next chapter, since most of what I want to say about it concerns events there.

As for "eyot"--stating that I had to look it up was an entirely opinion-free statement. Rivers are not a big part of my life.

DBratman @ #10, I highly approve of time passing while the Company is in Lorien.

Elaine T @ #17, I am disappointed that Tolkien discarded an Aragorn-Denethor confrontation as too complex, for all that I--well, "like" isn't the right word, find fitting Denethor's arc.

Firefly @ #24, yes, I appreciate the way Aragorn switches modes of speech, I just found that section really hard to read. If it's modeled on sagas then I at least understand what Tolkien was trying to do.

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