In the ninth chapter of the second book of The Fellowship of the Ring, I am so astounded that I did not figure out that one thing because now I realize it’s not even like it was hidden from me. I feel like a fool. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.
CHAPTER NINE: THE GREAT RIVER
Oh, we’ll get there, my children. But let me get there before you make fun of me!
There’s a lot of traveling and pretty scenery in chapter nine, though it’s now by boat instead of walking! That sounds a lot more harsh than I intend it to be. The events of the last few chapters cast a pall of doom and fear over everything that’s in these pages, and it’s one of the more impressive aspects of chapter nine. This is not like before; we are finally aware of the great stakes of this journey, of the possible ramifications of destroying the Ring, of the uncertainty that still remains, and the force that’s still pursuing them. Before, there was a direct purpose to their movements. They had an end location, and they knew what was there. Now, things feel slightly aimless. Even if they might be heading to Minas Tirith, it’s still a might.
Oh god, Gandalf, where are you? Oh, right, you’re dead. Thanks for that, Tolkien.
The fact that nothing eventful happens for a few pages is honestly the worst part of this for me. I know it’s because something else is going to come bursting out of the pages. It works so well as a technique to develop tension. I’ve said it a few times, but the amount of tension that’s built up so far is unbelievable to me. WE ARE STILL IN THE FIRST “BOOK” AND I CAN BARELY HANDLE THIS. In a way, it’s a neat use and commentary on the nature of suspense as a narrative device. I think most stories use this in some form, even if we are familiar with the trope or archetype at hand. Sometimes, it’s entirely possible that because we are so familiar with a certain type of story, we derive that suspense because we come to expect a certain ending, and we are therefore interested to see if things end that way. (I think that, by and large, this is a subtext to A Game of Thrones as a single book, which takes a very specific version of the fantasy trope of a moral character in an immortal world, and then destroys us forever when that does not play out as we think it should. But I could spend a couple years talking about trope inversions when it comes to that man, so allow me to end this parenthetical and move on.)
Tolkien is operating on a different wavelength for me, and it’s an example of one of the more pure forms of suspense that I’ve come across: I genuinely have no clue how this is going to be resolved. I think this relies on a couple things, namely that this book is the blueprint for a lot of fantasy tropes that follow after it. But I am not entirely sure what those tropes are. Killing off Dumbledore and adding in the entire Galadriel/Lórien plotline has skewed my whole view of this book because it complicates what I thought would be a much more straightforward narrative.
At the same time, Tolkien isn’t afraid to constantly develop the other seven characters who make up the Company aside from Frodo. Now I’ve got to keep Boromir’s weird behavior in mind, as well as Sam’s reluctance and sadness, as well as Aragorn’s unknown history with Arwen, as well as the possibility that Miras Tirith is going to derail the whole story, as well as the fact that if Gandalf can die before we’re even a third of the way through the story, so can anyone else.
I know it’s a constant joke about how unprepared I am all the time, but it’s this obsession I have with narrative suspense that this is based on. There’s nothing quite like the experience of feeling unprepared, especially since we rarely want to feel this way outside of a fictional world. The beauty of fiction is in crafting a believable scenario, one we immerse ourselves into so fully that we forget details and foreshadowing, one where we are completely lost in for days and days.
I am so lost inside the world of Middle-earth, and I loving every second of it. Also, can y’all just get a bunch of pillows and tissues ready for me? If there’s anything that this chapter does for me, it acts as a giant warning that the future of this is going to destroy me forever. SEE I AM TRYING TO PREPARE MYSELF OKAY.
wait can i make a joke i desperately need to make
‘Swans!’ said Sam. ‘And mighty big ones too!’
‘Yes,’ said Aragorn, ‘and they are black swans.’
LOOK SORRY I HAD TO. IT WAS TOTALLY NECESSARY AND PROBABLY LEGALLY REQUIRED AS WELL. So let me now turn my attention to actually discussing this chapter in some substantive way. This all feels so new precisely because it’s not characters walking along some path or dirt road in the forest, and sticking them on a river injects a new energy into the prose. As I said before, it’s a neat way to keep the reader on their toes as well, especially as the landscape changes:
Sam looked from bank to bank uneasily. The trees had seemed hostile before, as if they harboured secret eyes and lurking dangers; now he wished that the trees were still there. He felt that the Company was too naked, afloat in little open boats in the midst of shelterless lands, and on a river that was the frontier of war.
What a fantastic sentence, and what an effective way to make us afraid. Claustrophobic, uncertain spaces are often used to frighten us, but I adore the idea that wide open space can do the exact same thing. Here, though, it’s the threat of orcs, who we haven’t seen in a long time, that add yet another layer of awful to the already-ridiculous frame of that story. And after a couple more uneventful days pass by, that’s when I just feel…silly.
The creature with the glowing eyes, the one that’s been following the Company for DAYS, appears again. As I spent actual energy and time trying to figure out what this thing was, reading over passages to determine if the physical description gave any clues to what new creature this is, and then getting excited when Frodo finally decides to discuss this weird occurrence out loud with another character, I get this passage, and then I just feel ridiculous.
‘I don’t like my thoughts; but thinking of one thing and another, and Mr. Bilbo’s stories and all, I fancy I could put a name on the creature, at a guess. A nasty name. Gollum, maybe?’
I’ll just spell this out now: I have never felt, in all my experience of writing Mark Reads in the last seventeen months of my life, this embarrassed about missing a plot detail or a “mystery.” I have never felt so clueless and then so foolish in such a rapid space of time. TOLKIEN WASN’T EVEN REALLY HIDING THIS, WAS HE? I mean, it’s so terribly obvious that now I imagine the bulk of the rot13 in the comments is just y’all shouting at one another. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS GUY, I FIGURED THIS OUT A HUNDRED PAGES AGO. Or: LOL I HAVE NEVER SEEN A MORE DENSE PERSON IN MY WHOLE LIFE. Or: LET US PREPARE A SLEW OF GIFS AND IMAGES TO SHAME HIM FOR MISSING OUT ON THE EASIEST LITERARY “MYSTERY” OF ALL TIME. Straight up, I’m not gonna feel bad if you do this.
Honestly, it makes so much sense it hurts. Gollum once had the Ring. Why wouldn’t he go after it again? Why wouldn’t he act as a spy for the Dark Lord? WHAT IF HE HAS ANOTHER MOTIVE? But what other creature could possibly be so good at hiding, climbing, and being creepy? I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS.
Given that, these particular lines just made me laugh:
‘Yes, that is what I have feared for some time,’ said Frodo.
IT’S LIKE TOLKIEN IS SPECIFICALLY TEASING ME FOR MISSING IT. Because even his own characters in the novel knew it before I did. Oh god WHAT.
‘Ah!’ said Aragorn. ‘So you know about our little footpad, do you? He padded after us all through Moria and right down to Nimrodel. Since we took to boats, he has been lying on a log and paddling with hands and feet.’
Even Aragorn knows. WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME? I feel so left out. NO ONE IN THE COMPANY ACTUALLY LIKES ME.
I jest! Now I’m intrigued as to why Gollum is following the group so determinedly. We don’t get an answer to this, since he seems to disappear after being spotted. Smart move, Gollum. Instead, Tolkien almost immediately shifts tone in a neat way. Again, he combines this relaxed narrative style with the threat of the unknown; he is, at heart, describing characters paddling down a river. It’s not the most fascinating concept of all time, but he uses small things to designate the change that is about to come. The scenery changes. The cliffs rise up alongside the river. There’s a hunting eagle in the distance. Is it a possible warning?
Sort of, but not for the threat I was anticipating. The eighth night, during Sam’s watch, the Company comes upon rapids and sharp, jutting rocks in the River. They’ve come upon the Rapids! (Can I just say that as someone who arbitrarily decides when to capitalize things, I love how many words are capitalized in this book? It’s certainly not arbitrary here, but I still love it.) Unfortunately, it’s in the middle of the night, so it’s incredibly difficult to see, adding yet another complication to their task.
Actually, no, there’s another:
At that moment there was a twang of bowstrings: sever arrows whistled over them, and some fell among them. One smote Frodo between the shoulders and he lurched forward with a cry, letting go his paddle: but the arrow fell back, foiled by his hidden coat of mail.
SWEET BABY LUCIFER WHAT THE HELL. Orcs! ORCS! Sam surmises this is Gollum’s doing, and I honestly don’t doubt him. That means the threat of orcs from here on out is going to be constant. That little creature could very well have been following them this whole time just to report back to the orcs. AHHHH WHY MAKE THEM GO AWAY. Fortunately, the attack doesn’t last too long, which….that’s kind of weird, isn’t it? We’ve read about how skilled the orcs are with their bows, so why such a brief assault on them? I DO NOT LIKE THAT THIS SUGGESTS SOME ULTERIOR MOTIVE.
Can we just talk about Legolas and his whole jumping/running thing? In my head, this is one of the funniest things imaginable. Like he just “sprang ashore” and the guy prances about and he’s just good at everything and what a diva I swear. I mean, don’t get me wrong! He is endlessly entertaining to me and I want to know more about him! He’s just so hilarious as a concept.
Oh, right, we’re not done with the horrors.
‘Elbereth Gilthoniel!’ sighed Legolas as he looked up. Even as he did so, a dark shape, like a cloud and yet not a cloud, for it moved far more swiftly, came out of the blackness in the South, and sped towards the Company, blotting out all light as it approached. Soon it appeared as a great winged creature, black than the pits in the night. Fierce voices rose up to greet it from across the water. Frodo felt a sudden chill running through him and clutching at his heart; there was a deadly cold, like the memory of an old wound, in his shoulder.
HOLY SHIT IT’S HIM! IT’S ONE OF THE BLACK RIDERS. IT’S A RINGWRAITH ISN’T IT. THAT’S WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE. IT HAS TO BE! oh my god help me WHAT IS GOING ON?!?!??!?! oh sweet summer child the night is dark and full of terrors.
It’s also full of TIME TRAVEL. Okay, not in actuality, but after Legolas takes care of the thing that I think is a Ringwraith, Sam observes that based on where the moon is, it seems more time has passed than two weeks. Legolas casually reveals that time moves different for Elves. Apparently this also affects anyone who is in their cities? I don’t really understand the logistics of it, but this particular line stood out to me.
‘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.’
So is this constant for them, wherever they are? Is it just the perception of it? Frodo reckons that it’s because of Galadriel that this happens, and then he just TELLS ALL OF THEM THAT SHE HAS A RING. FRODO WHAT WHAT WHAT ARE YOU DOING? DUDE, THAT IS SUCH A MISERABLE CHOICE TO MAKE. Oh god, this is not going to end well. So all I think I’ve learned is that the Elves live VERY long lives? That would explain why Elrond was so much older than I thought he could be, and why I was confused about that. But they’re not actually immortal, right?
I don’t know what the Amon Hen or the North stair are, but Aragorn decides for the whole party they are going there first just so he can….stand there? It seems to be something he must do before he decides what the Company will commit to. Um….cool? Boromir’s not too happy with this choice, but he decides to remain with his friends for the time being. He’s getting kind of restless, isn’t he? He’s anxious when Legolas and Aragorn go scouting, he’s anxious when they decide to leave their boats and head for land, and he is making me so nervous.
But nothing comes of it for days. The group successfully transfers to foot, gets to the Gates of Argonath uneventfully. It’s clear, though, how importance this place is for Aragorn. Like with Galadriel, Tolkien uses this concept of a “dual” identity to explain it:
Frodo turned and saw Strider, and yet not Strider; for the weatherworn Ranger was no longer there. In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skillful strokes; his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes: a king returning from exile to his own land.
Now, obviously he is not physically morphing into another person. Tolkien’s using this to talk about Frodo’s perception of this character, to demonstrate how a location or a ring or an event might cause him to perceive someone in a new light. In this case, it’s almost like a rejuvenating power for Aragorn. He is finally returning home.
But there’s one thing at the very end that is totally messing with me:
They could go no further without choice between east-way and the west. The last stage of the Quest was before them.
And there is still two-thirds of this book left. SOMETHING IS WRONG. I DON’T LIKE IT.