“But so far my only thought has been to get here; and I hope I shan’t have to go any further. It is very pleasant just to rest.”
“Many Meetings” is a quiet chapter of The Lord of the Rings, the calm both before and after the storm. It’s almost achingly peaceful: Tolkien continues to be a master of atmosphere, effortlessly capturing that quiet fuzzy feeling of summer nights right before the sun goes down. After the run of terrible encounters that made up Book I, it’s a relief to get to see our hobbits relaxed and happy in the Last Homely House, well-fed and surrounded by songs and subtle magic. Pippin makes jokes! Bilbo is there, composing presumptuous songs! There are gardens and stars and running water and mountains touched by the sun.
But don’t get too comfy. This is Tolkien and this is Middle-earth, where stories keep marching on and beauty like Rivendell is by nature in its twilight years. This is a calm and peaceful chapter, but there’s also a string of sadness that lingers. Most of it hovers around Frodo. Elrond saved him from the imminent danger of his wound, but something of it still remains. He keeps asking others to tell him more of what’s to come, and everyone keeps evading the issue. Gandalf, in one of his grumpier and more foreboding moments, says it outright: they are all sitting in a fortress, while outside it is getting dark.
Tolkien and the Mystery of Magic
Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world. Then the enchantment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched him and drowned him.
Rivendell, of course, isn’t our first interaction with magic in Middle-earth. Pretty far from it. The Ring itself is a magical item. There were the Elves near Woody End, the ancient, unnamed magic in the Old Forest and the Barrow-Downs. There was Tom Bombadil, whatever he is. On plenty of occasions, magic has been on display. But the above quote is my favorite of Tolkien’s descriptions of magic, and one of my favorite passages in all of The Lord of the Rings. So bear with me for a second, and we can take a look.
Tolkien doesn’t have a ‘magic system.’ That’s not to say that he didn’t think about it (ha!) or that on occasion he doesn’t instill magic into items or people with clear and specific effects. But for most of Tolkien, magic is not rule bound. It’s not something that’s learned like chemistry, it’s not something that’s bound by nameable physical strictures. It’s overwhelming, expansive, almost to the point of being threatening (particularly through the eyes of hobbits). I love how it’s conveyed here.
It’s so strange and intangible. Notice how Frodo’s experience in Rivendell starts with something concrete. Words actually take shape and turn into “visions of far lands and bright things,” a lovely if familiar sensation to readers. But right away, that tangibility gets challenged and then snatched away. These far lands and bright things aren’t simply visions of the words, but of things Frodo “had never yet imagined,” strange things outside the realm of the normal imagination.
Things get even more nebulous from there. The world dissolves around Frodo, and the ‘far lands’ and ‘bright things’ give way to a place that he likens to “a golden mist above the seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world.” It’s a triple distancing: the solid visions give way to a fuzzy golden mist, that mist sits above a chaotic, formless foam, and all that ‘sighs’ over onto the unknown edge that is the margins of the world. And it doesn’t even stop there! Frodo then experiences the magic in the room as a river, its pattern “too multitudinous to be comprehended” that crashes over and drowns him.
It’s an amazing sequence. The further in Frodo goes, the further away the magic feels. As he sinks into it he seems to be tapping into something deep and old and powerful but it’s also something too big, and it’s something in large part unknowable. There’s also, amidst all its beauty, the perception of a threat. There’s a sense for me, in the above passage, that it would be so easy to fall backwards into this sort of magic and lose yourself. I think that’s something that fantasy authors occasionally try to capture, but rarely achieve. There’s a benefit to having magic without established rules (or at least rules that can’t be ascertained by the main viewpoint’s characters). The world feels less bounded, less constructed.
Frodo, Gandalf, and Leadership in “Many Meetings”
“Many Meetings” marks an interesting transition in The Lord of the Rings. After chapters and chapters where Frodo & Company faced a dearth of leadership (saving the late-arriving help of Strider), the hobbits are suddenly surrounded by authority figures in Rivendell. And while Rivendell itself is lovely and safe, I was surprised by how distant and almost cold these leaders appear.
At their first major appearance at Frodo’s feast, they appear to be your standard High Fantasy Heroes. Glorfindel is
tall and straight; his hair was of shining gold, his face fair and young and fearless and full of joy; his eyes were bright and keen, and his voice like music; on his brow sat wisdom, in his hand was strength.
It’s a traditional depiction of a leader. Tolkien likely cribbed it from some of his Anglo-Saxon studies. Glorfindel is beautiful, a strong warrior and a wise leader. Elrond is similar:
His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars. Venerable he seemed as a king crowned with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fullness of his strength.
This is your archetypal stuff, and an easy target for people who don’t like Tolkien’s lack of moral ambiguity. Beautiful People are Wise, Wise People are Good. And there’s absolutely an element of that going on here (probably a strong element). But I was surprised at how much these leaders, for this chapter at least, seem to be in a somewhat morally ambiguous position in their treatment of Frodo. Despite – and because of – the fact that their power vastly outweighs his, they are about to send Frodo into danger that far outstrips their own. I’m not saying that makes them terrible people. It is very easy to make the argument in this case that the ends definitively justify the means. But there’s an element of cruelty there as well. It’s most clearly visible through Gandalf’s guilt throughout the chapter.
Oh, Gandalf. The first thing he says to Frodo, after the latter almost turns into a wraith while doing Gandalf a favor, is “I am here. And you are lucky to be here too, after all the absurd things you have done since you left home.” Yikes, Gandalf! He retracts the statement, but he’s rather moody throughout the chapter and it’s hard not to read it as guilt. This seems even more likely near the end of his conversation with Frodo:
“He was smiling, and there seemed to be little wrong with him. But to the wizard’s eye there was a faint change, just a hint as it were of transparency, about him, and especially about the left hand that lay outside upon the coverlet.”
“Still, that must be expected,” said Gandalf to himself. “He is not half through yet, and to what he will come in the end not even Elrond can foretell.”
And the saddest example comes when Frodo proclaims, after the near-miss at the Ford, that he and his friends are finally safe in Rivendell. “Yes,” says Gandalf. “You are safe for the present.”
Maybe I’m just being overly protective of Frodo this time around. He is a gentle sweetheart, and deserves nothing that is coming his way. I understand why he’s sent, and why the qualities that make me want to protect him make him perfect for the job. But the distance at which most of the ‘leaders’ keep themselves is more troubling to me this time around, particularly the Elves.
- First things first: Beorn named his son GRIMBEORN. I didn’t remember this vividly from my last re-read, which is a mystery to me.
- Frodo on Strider: “Well, fond is not the right word. I mean he is dear to me; though he is strange, and grim at times. In fact, he often reminds me of you. I didn’t know that any of the Big People were like that. I thought, well, that they were just big, and rather stupid.”
- Frodo and Sam’s relationship continues to deepen and become more lovely. The first thing that Frodo asks about upon waking up is Sam. Sam sat by Frodo’s side, day and night, for four days. I love them both.
- I had forgotten how frightening Frodo’s wound was. It took Elrond days to get to the Morgul-blade fragment which was deep in his shoulder and “working inwards.” YIKES.
- It’s delightful to see Bilbo again in Rivendell. He’s such a crusty old charmer, and I love that he makes the Elves listen to his original compositions. He’s also formed a nice relationship with Strider, who declared that Bilbo’s song to be a bit presumptuous. “He said that if I had the cheek to make verses about Eärendil in the house of Elrond, it was my affair. I suppose he was right.”
- We get a brief glimpse of Arwen in this chapter, though she doesn’t speak. I have very mixed feelings about her role in The Lord of the Rings, and the differences between her character in the book and the movie. But that goes well beyond the scope of this chapter, so I’ll save that for another time.
- Prose Prize: The above quotation (“Almost it seemed that the words took shape…”) is my favorite. But since we already talked about that one, here’s a second favorite. “They spoke no more of the small news of the Shire far away, nor of the dark shadows and peril that encompassed them, but of the fair things they had seen in the world together, of the Elves, of the stars, of trees, and the gentle fall of the bright year in the woods.” I honestly don’t exactly know what “gentle fall of the bright year in the woods” means, but I think it’s beautiful.
- Art Credits: The top image is from Jian Guo and the middle image of Rivendell is from Ted Nasmith. I especially like the latter, because it made me realize that a large part of why I loved a recent trip to Zion National Park so much was because it reminded me a a sort of American Rivendell. The last image is courtesy of New Line Cinema.
Next time: “The Council of Elrond.”