In the fifth chapter of the second book of The Fellowship of the Ring, everyone is unprepared forever and ever. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.
CHAPTER FIVE: THE BRIDGE OF KHAZAD-DÛM
J.R.R. Tolkien, you are a genius. I am so sorry I ever doubted you. I am sorry that I never gave this book a chance, that I avoided you for decades, and that I expected The Lord of the Rings to be a stuffy, boring fantasy.
I was so wrong. And in the worst way possible.
It’s easy to see just how influential this book and Tolkien has been to almost everything I’ve read before. Obviously, his contribution to fantasy is bar-none, but you can see the effect he’s had on science fiction and drama. (Of course, my mind immediately goes to George R.R. Martin for one particular detail, but we’ll get there in time.) This sets a benchmark for thrillers, for adventure epics, for so many things, and I thought it was going to be boring.
What a pretentious wanker I am.
The end of chapter four is just as depressing as I thought it was, as the surprise of finding Balin IN A GODDAMN TOMB is the worst possible thing the Company could discover. EXCEPT NO IT’S NOT EVEN CLOSE.
Truthfully, this is some somber shit to open this chapter with. Tolkien does a fine job of conveying the silent sadness that permeates the chamber they are in as the Company quietly begins to look for any sort of sign that might explain how Balin died. I actually really enjoyed that Tolkien didn’t try to replicate the book in the pages, and instead gave us the contents through Gandalf’s point of view. He’s got this fatherly way about him, and the method in which he reads out loud to the group is very matter-of-fact; the lack of any strong emotional tone makes the facts he picks out so much more real to me. I can sense the pain of Gimli, for instance, because the words plainly detail how the Mines of Moria were taken over by the orcs.
I think I’m going to have to wait to see the orcs in the film because I think that Tolkien might be relying on the reader knowing what they are. (Did I genuinely miss a description of them? You can answer that!) They were an established thing by that point, perhaps? Even when we get to them later in the chapter, Tolkien makes reference to their size and what they’re wearing, but he never outright explains THIS IS WHAT THEIR FACE LOOKS LIKE or THEIR ARMS LOOK LIKE THIS or anything.
Anyway, the record left behind (probably by Ori, it seems) was distressing enough on it’s own, especially describing the death of Balin. There’s references to the “Watcher in the Water,” which I imagine is that tentacled thing from the lake, but there was one particular thing that just fucking destroyed me:
‘The last thing is written is in a trailing scrawl of elf-letters: they are coming. There is nothing more.’
It is absolutely brilliant that it takes this for Gimli and Gandalf to realize that they are in a chamber that has greatly reduced their ability to escape. Like the dwarves of Moria, they cannot get out. At this moment, the drums of the orcs sound, and I was utterly blown away at how this chapter turned into one of the more thrilling passages I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The use of sound to not only announce the coming of the orcs, but to provide a narrative threat and sense of suspense, is a clever and frightening technique of Tolkiens. The fact that they are drums in an enclosed space is even better; the way they might reverberate off the walls is terrifying to me. But is Tolkien content with this? HELL NO.
‘There are Orcs, very many of them,’ he said. ‘And some are large and evil: black Uruks of Mordor. For the moment they are hanging back, but there is something else there. A great cave-troll, I think, or more than one. There is no hope of escape that way.’
CAVE-TROLLS? CAVE-TROLLS EXIST????? Oh my god, this is a disaster. Wait, nope, not it’s not. Because the troll is the one to arrive first, sticking it’s huge, green, scaly arm and shoulder through the chamber door. Boromir’s sword does all of nothing to the arm, but Frodo, suddenly feeling “a hot wrath blaze up in his heart,” attacks the troll’s foot with Sting, actually drawing blood. But then battering rams burst the door down, and orcs come streaming into the room, and I just want to curl up in my blankie and never come out. But surprisingly, the Company gruesomely handles thirteen orcs, sending the rest running. I was shocked just how violent and gory this was. I don’t know why I expected this not to happen? It sort of makes no sense.
Then I find out there’s such thing as an orc-chieftain, and after he disarms both Boromir and Aragorn, he makes straight for Frodo, thrusting his spear into him and throwing him into the wall. Truthfully, though, I wasn’t surprised that the blow didn’t kill him; I remembered he was wearing the mithril mail under his clothes and knew it would protect him. Still, that doesn’t mean that this scene didn’t electrify me with excitement. It helps that Tolkien moves from one event to another with a contagious speed; there’s almost no time for reflection for the Company, which says a lot when you think about how many scenes in the past involve them stopping to talk about their current situation. That was a luxury, though, because they weren’t trapped in the Mines of Moria.
The group then heads down a narrow staircase in near-total darkness as Gandalf stays behind to assure that the door leading down does not open. It’s unexplained at first, but Frodo keeps looking back to see what’s going on, and after a flash of white light, Gandalf is thrown down the stairs a considerable distance, and then promptly gets up and is like, “YEAH, LET’S GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW.” He says he “met [his] match” up there, but….they’re orcs? How can orcs counter a wizard, and Gandalf at that?
‘What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge. The counter-spell was terrible. It nearly broke me. For an instant the door left my control and began to open! I had to speak a word of Command. That proved too great a strain. The door burst in pieces. Something dark as a cloud was blocking out all the light inside, as I was thrown backwards down the stairs.’
Yeah, okay, what the fuck is that? Is it the darkness they saw floating by at night? Is it the thing that Frodo her pattering about the mines in the last chapter? HOW DOES IT KNOW SPELLS?
Again, as if every detail before this is not enough to satisfy Tolkien’s desire to make us all suffer, when the Company finally makes it to the lower level, it’s on fire. Like, some sort of EVIL FLAMES are ahead of them, just on the way to the exit. GREAT. HOW CONVENIENT. But as long as the cross the Bridge to the staircase on the other side, it’s a straight shot out of the mines. Did I have hope? Of course not! I am learning! IT WASN’T ENOUGH, THOUGH. Because the group reaches the chasm and the Bridge, and Gandalf waves them along to rush across it. However, two giant trolls appear, an entire wave of orcs, and then:
Something was coming up behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.
YEAH, WHAT IS THAT. WHAT????
Legolas and Gandalf finally name it as it comes into view: a Balrog. It’s some demon-like creature made of fire and it carries a blade and a fiery whip.
WHAT IS GOING ON??? WHAT THE HELL????
It is here that the true glory and power of Gandalf the Grey just overwhelms me. It’s not that I ignored how powerful he was, but the wizard faces the most horrific demon beast I could imagine, and he stands on the other side of the Bridge, and he simply tells the Balrog that it cannot pass. Sure, Gandalf does command some sort of authority, but seriously. HOW AMAZING IS THIS? He just told a demon NO. He destroys the Balrog’s sword and tells him NO. YOU CANNOT PASS. Oh my god, Gandalf, you are so terrific.
The Balrog, furious at Gandalf’s resistance, jumps on to the Bridge itself, falling right into Gandalf’s trap: Gandalf smotes the bridge with his staff. FUCK YES.
With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and it’s shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.
I had to read this three times. It hadn’t happened. I read this wrong. He wasn’t really gone, right? But…but wait.
Along this they fled. Frodo heard Sam at his side weeping, and then he found that he himself was weeping as he ran.
WAIT WHAT THE FUCK. YOU CAN’T KILL OFF GANDALF. This is the first book, there are HUNDREDS OF PAGES LEFT TO GO!!!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO ME. WHAT THE FUCK.
They looked back. Dark yawned the archway of the Gates under the mountain-shadow. Faint and far beneath the earth rolled the slow drum-beats: doom. A think black smoke trailed out. Nothing else was to be seen; the dale all around was empty. Doom. Grief at last wholly overcame them, and they wept long: some standing and silent, some cast upon the ground. Doom, doom. The drum-beats faded.
Just fuck everything.