Sunday, July 14, 2024

Lord of the Rings Re-Read: Flight to the Ford

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He lay down again and passed into an uneasy dream, in which he walked on the grass in his garden in the Shire, but it seemed faint and dim, less clear than the tall black shadows that stood looking over the hedge.

We’ve made it to the end of Book I! “Flight to the Ford” finishes off the first part of The Lord of the Rings as Strider and the hobbits flee from the aftermath of Weathertop and attempt to outstrip the Black Riders in their dash to Rivendell. Along with “A Knife in the Dark,” this is a self-consciously transitional chapter, looking back to the past and foreshadowing the future. Despite some occasional glimmers of hope and humor – lookin’ at you, Sam’s troll song – things are getting grim.

There are a few glimpses back to the past in this chapter, but it struck me how much more tenuous they felt when compared to “A Knife in the Dark.” When Strider and the hobbits were sitting on Weathertop, stories about the past felt like a talisman. There was a sense that they had real and tangible effectiveness against danger. That feeling isn’t entirely gone. Coming across Bilbo’s old stone trolls from The Hobbit seems genuinely restorative to everyone (Strider makes a joke!) and even the wounded Frodo feels that coming across them is “heartening.” But there’s a limit. When Frodo cries out and attempts to banish the Riders at the Ford, nothing comes of it: “he had not the power of Bombadil.”

Hints of Things to Come

More so than in the past I was struck by how much foreshadowing worked its way into “Flight to the Ford,” some clear and some more subtle. The hobbits get more hints of Strider’s goals and identity. He tells Pippin that his “heart” is in Rivendell, setting the seeds for both his family history and his relationship with Arwen. He also refers to himself as a “heir of Elendil” for the first time (which I would have expected to have caused a bit more of a stir among the hobbits?). And his use of athelas to help the wounded Frodo points to his future role as a healer. We also get another hint of prophecy when Frodo dreams that “endless dark wings were sweeping by above him, and that on the wings rode pursuers that sought him in all the hollows of the hills.” It’s a nice nod to the Ringwraith’s new mounts right before their horses are killed in the flood at the ford.

My favorite bit of foreshadowing, though, is for Sam. Sam’s been slowly built up since the start of the story. Despite his lower class and rather subservient attitude towards the other hobbits, the narrative keeps suggesting that there’s much more to him than meets the eye. We get a bit more of that in Sam’s song about the trolls. It’s a hit with the crowd, and Merry asks him where he’d learned it. Sam goes full Samwise, muttering and blushing all over the place, until Frodo interjects:

“It’s out of his own head, of course,” said Frodo. “I am learning a lot about Sam Gamgee on this journey. First he was a conspirator, now he’s a jester. He’ll end up by becoming a wizard – or a warrior!”
“I hope not,” said Sam. “I don’t want to be neither!”

It’s a nice character beat for Sam, though it doesn’t seem to add much at first. After all, Sam surprised everyone with his knowledge of songs last chapter, and it’s only a minor leveling-up for his character to be composing them in this one. But it’s charming how Frodo lays out his character arc so far – conspirator, jester – and suggests ways it could go in the future – wizard, warrior. It’s a clever little bit of foreshadowing that a wounded Frodo mentions two roles that Sam temporarily takes on when he saves Frodo (wounded again!) from Cirith Ungol.

Sam becomes a warrior when he fights off Shelob, a giant spider who is the offspring of a creature so powerful she drained the Two Trees of their power, and when, in The Return of the King, he self-deprecatingly calls himself an “Elf-warrior” as he breaks into Cirith Ungol. The role of wizard is not so clear-cut, but his ability to harness the power in the phial of Galadriel and make it past the watchers on two separate occasions at least pushes him in this direction. And when Sam is tempted by the Ring, he seems himself both as a Warrior and as at least a quasi-wizard figure who turns the world into a giant garden (oh, Sam). Sam’s character arc is rock-solid so far, and I love it.


The Ring and the Question of Power

I wanted to re-read The Lord of the Rings here in large part because I wanted to know, near a decade on, how I would perceive it differently. I feel like I have picked up on different nuances along the way, and there were small sections I’d largely forgotten. But Frodo’s wound at Weathertop is one of the first things that’s felt entirely different. As a kid I remember being worried for Frodo. He got stabbed, the wound was cold, it was probably going to make him evil? Reading it now though – Frodo’s wound on Weathertop is terrifying.

The Ring is associated with Power (with a capital P). Those who are tempted by it are tempted by its power – just look at how many times Gandalf uses the word when rejecting Frodo’s offer of the Ring: “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.” When Sam and Galadriel are later tested, they also have fantasies of power (Galadriel’s is nebulous and frightening, Sam’s consists of tons and tons of flowers). It’s easy to set up power as a bad thing in Middle Earth, as a corrupting force from which nothing good ultimately comes. But Frodo’s injury on Weathertop and its aftermath turns into a fascinating inverse of that dynamic. The Ring doesn’t tempt Frodo with power. It makes him powerless. And faced with that powerlessness – carrying it around with him in his shoulder – Frodo slowly starts to lose himself.

He bitterly regretted his foolishness, and reproached himself for weakness of will; for he now perceived that in putting on the Ring he obeyed not his own desire but the commanding wish of his enemies. He wondered if he would remain maimed for life, and how they would now manage to continue their journey. He felt too weak to stand.

Frodo’s reflection here was the first clue that this chapter was going to make me SAD. It’s also interesting that Frodo’s first instinct is not so much a fear that he’s been stabbed, or self-pity. Rather, it’s a self-punishing attitude that he was not strong enough, or powerful enough, to refuse to put on the Ring. It’s the absence of power that causes Frodo concern here, not the presence. The same thing happens at the Ford:

He did not obey at once, for a strange reluctance seized him. Checking his horse to a walk, he turned and looked back. The Riders seemed to sit upon their great steeds like threatening statues upon a hill, dark and solid, while all the woods and land about them receded as if into a mist. Suddenly he knew in his heart that they were silently commanding him to wait. Then at once fear and hatred awoke in him. His hand left the bridle and gripped the hilt of his sword, and with a red flash he drew it.

Once again, there’s a loss of control and of power – it’s phrased not so much as Frodo losing his willpower, but an external hijacking of his self-control. It’s deeply frightening. First he was “seized,” then the regular world fell away around him, and then something else “awoke,” filled with fear and hate.

Even when he’s not directly threatened, Frodo is carrying this powerlessness around with him. In one of his first nights after Weathertop, he dreamed that “he walked on the grass in his garden in the Shire, but it seemed faint and dim, less clear than the tall black shadows that stood looking over the hedge.” And walking through the countryside he observes that “and during the day things about him faded to shadows of ghostly grey. He almost welcoming the coming of night, for then the world seemed less pale and empty.”

There is a sense not only that Frodo is threatened with the loss of control over himself, but with the loss of connection to the world around him. Everything is fading and dimming, becoming quietly and certainly further and further away. This makes Glorfindel’s words to Frodo – true, if a bit insensitive – that his friends would not be in danger if he were not present even more heartbreaking.

The scariest thing about the Ring is an isolation and an erasure of self: the amplification of power that causes the transformation into a different person (Queen Galadriel, Warrior-Gardner Sam), or the minimization of power that causes a person’s sense of self to slowly slip away (Frodo).


Final Comments

  • Before we go any further, it’s important to me that you all know that this exists. Please go watch it now. It’s J.R.R. Tolkien singing Sam’s song about the trolls.
  • I find it really sweet that Bill Ferny’s poor abused pony turns into a total sweetheart, known for finding a path that causes his rider the least amount of pain. It’s a nice note of optimism in a chapter that can often be rather dark.
  • I like the relationship between Sam and Strider. Sam is distrusting of him, but Strider seems to single him out as a confidante despite class norms and earlier indications that Merry or Pippin would be the obvious choice for this sort of thing. Sam “should” be the one making the fire while probably Merry would be the go-to to discuss strategy. It’s another nice way to set up Sam’s competency and his relationship to Frodo.
  • Your appreciation for the pacing of this chapter will correlate closely with your appreciation for topography (quick, someone make a “your mileage may vary… literally!” joke). I quite liked it, as I’m a sucker for a good dramatic landscape description (see below) and I appreciate that Tolkien doesn’t gloss over the difficulties inherent in wandering around the back country off-road. That said, I have some sympathy for those who would say that the excellent pacing of “A Knife in the Dark” slows down and meanders here a bit too much.
  • How are people feeling about the Black Riders? The implications of their control over Frodo that we noted above are absolutely terrifying, but there’s a part of me that still nags at the fact that they were totally unable to find Frodo & Company until the actual Fords of Bruinen. For all of the fear associated with them, I still think they are sort of bad at their jobs?
  • Glorfindel is an interesting character, in large part because of what happened outside of the pages of The Lord of the Rings. Check out this interesting observation from Gene Hargrove: “Tolkien was very protective of what he wrote, including his errors. When he found something miswritten in his manuscript, he was more likely to ponder, in terms of Middle-earth, how his characters came to make such an error, or what special significance this might have, than simply to correct it. Thus, a misspelt foreign word was more likely to remain as an example of regional dialect than to be changed. Problems with the names and identities of characters were solved in a similar manner. There are, for example, two Glorfindels in his history of Middle earth, one who died fighting a Balrog in the First Age, and another from Rivendell who lent Frodo his horse in the race to Imladris. This situation was, if not a problem, at least a bit unusual, and required special attention from Tolkien, since in general Elf names are unique to particular individuals. Rather than simply renaming one of the Elves, Tolkien concluded that they were the same person and that he had stumbled onto a rare case of reincarnation among the Elves.”
  • Prose Prize: “The wind began to blow steadily out of the West and pour water out of the distant seas on the dark heads of the hills in fine drenching rain.”
  • Art Credits: The header image is from Jian Guo, the other two are courtesy of Ted Nasmith.
  • Next time – onto to Rivendell, and Book II!

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