There is something draining about “The Ring Goes South.” After two months of food, story, song, and the warm glow of safety at Rivendell, the Fellowship is plunged into their journey in the chilliness of winter on the road to Caradhras. There are moments of brightness, of course. Bilbo gives Frodo his mithril shirt and Sting. Gandalf supports Merry & Pippin’s eagerness to come along, citing the importance of emotional support in what’s to come. But this isn’t the slow, nostalgic goodbye of “Three is Company.” There’s no walking over the lush green, late-summer fields of the Shire. Instead the Fellowship lurches out the door into an early winter mist. And things only get grimmer from there.
“A Cold Grey Day Near the End of December”
Elrond has many gifts. He’s been around a long time, he’s seen lots of things. Plenty wise, I’m sure. But the guy needs to cultivate his skills in setting a tone. After a few months of intel-gathering and sword-reforging, Elrond sends the company out of Rivendell on a truly miserable day. “The East Wind was streaming through the bare branches of the trees, and seething in the dark pines on the hills. Ragged clouds were hurrying overhead, dark and low.” Not auspicious.
He’s also eager to quash any nascent optimism among the Fellowship, assuring them that they are all free to quit whenever they realize how terrible this is all really going to be.
“Faithless is he who says farewell when the road darkens.,” said Gimli.
“Maybe,” said Elrond, “but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has never seen the nightfall.”
“Yet sworn sword may strengthen quaking heart,” said Gimli.
“Or break it,” said Elrond.
He’s like the party host from hell: he will always refill your wine but he’s gonna be shaking his head and muttering about the brutal hangover that is sure to await.
I’m making fun of poor Elrond here, but it is a really striking way to set off a quest. The obvious route would send the Fellowship off with high spirits only to have them stymied by their difficulties on Caradhras. Instead, things are grim right from the start. The weather is terrible, the mood is grim. Elrond is suggesting that most of them will abandon the quest before the end. Bilbo is huddling in a cloak, Aragorn is sitting bent-forward, his face on his knees. Everyone – save the indomitable Bill the Pony – is described as “depressed.” It feels like a suicide mission. In a lot of ways it is.
There’s little to lighten the mood as the Fellowship progresses. The landscape is “rougher and more barren,” the journey is “hard and dreary.” Frodo doesn’t even remember much of it, save the wind: “for many sunless days an icy blast came from the Mountains in the east, and no garment seemed to be able to keep out its searching fingers.” When the wind finally calms down and the sun emerges, they are rewarded with the knowledge that they are being spied on by frightening flocks of crebain from Fangorn and Dunland.
And then they finally make it to Caradhras, “dull red, as if stained by blood.” They face all of the problems one might expect to face when crossing a lofty mountain pass in the heart of winter. But added on are odd voices in the air, and suspiciously targeted snow drifts. Boromir quickly wonders if Sauron is toying with them from afar:
“They say in my land that he can govern the storms in the Mountains of Shadow that stand upon the borders of Mordor. He has strange powers and many allies.”
“His arm has grown long indeed,” said Gimli, “if he can draw snow down from the North to trouble us here three hundred leagues away.”
“His arm has grown long,” said Gandalf.
It’s a dark turn of events. Not only do the hobbits almost freeze to death on Caradhras but the Company is turned back, unable to continue on their planned course. “Caradhras,” says the chapter’s terse final sentence, “had defeated them.” But even beyond that, it’s upsetting. Boromir’s words suggest that the company was not only repelled by the mountain, but they seem to think that Sauron himself was able to make it happen. Meaning he knows exactly where the Fellowship is and was able to counter them almost as soon as they set out from Rivendell and ages before they even caught site of Mount Doom.
Seasons, Time, and Agency
This grimness could have made for a bummer of a chapter (and to a certain extent, it does). But there are things going on beneath the surface that were interesting to me, and kept “The Ring Goes South” from being too relentlessly dour.
We get a nice farewell song from Bilbo before the Fellowship leaves Rivendell. It’s sing-song-y (most of Tolkien’s poem are), but it is one of my favorites.
I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been;
Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.
I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.
For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.
I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.
But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.
It’s easy to forget about Bilbo because at this point he’s only on the very margins of the tale. His major part is over. It’s such a sad moment for him: the adventure he began is moving on without him, all his closest friends are going off (possibly to their deaths), and he is getting older. There is a really strong sense of time cycling by, seasons rolling on whether you’re there to see them or not.
It arises again later in the chapter as well. As the Fellowship sleeps in Hollin, Frodo notices in the moonlight that many of the surrounding stones “looked to have been worked by hands, though now they lay tumbled and ruinous in a bleak, barren land.” Legolas mentions it as well. The Elves of the area were foreign to the grass and trees, but he hears “the stones lament then: deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone. They are gone. They sought the Havens long ago.”
“The Ring Goes South” is filled with the sense of time in constant movement and the larger forces of the world in constant flux. Seasons cycle on, works fade with ages, people fade away until only the rocks remember. The world feels big and indifferent and ominous; the Fellowship feels small. There is a sense – whether it’s Bilbo’s age or the worn-away rocks or the snow on Caradhras – that individual effort is worthless against the longer grinding forces of history and time.
I don’t think this is Tolkien’s ultimate message (pretty far from it, honestly). Bilbo’s song even ends on a note that denies it. But despite that, it is a really interesting way in which to send the Fellowship off on their adventure. It raises the stakes and displays in high contrast the nerve required for the Fellowship to attempt what it’s doing.
- The relationship between Aragorn and Gandalf is quite interesting in this chapter. They seem to have a kind of co-leadership in effect (though I read it as Gandalf holding the still-more-senior role in the partnership). And the uncertainty at play is very humanizing for them both. The fact that the two leaders of the hobbits throughout Book I seem to have very little idea of how to proceed even in the very first stage of the journey, is troubling. It’s also a good character beat for Aragorn that he pushes the road to Moria (against Caradhras) where Gandalf will eventually fall with the Balrog.
- The image of Aragorn bent over upon leaving Rivendell is heartfelt – it articulates what’s at stake for a character who (after his introductory chapter) hasn’t been all that verbose about his feelings. But it’s also kinda funny? I feel like it should be a meme. Like the Picard facepalm, but more extreme and anxiety-ridden.
- Speaking of character moments: Boromir is very likeable in this chapter. He gets chastised by Elrond for blowing his horn on departure (at least *someone* was trying to drum up some good spirit) and he is the only one to insist on bringing firewood up Caradhras, likely saving at least Pippin’s life. He also gets a nice little moment of self-deprecation. After using what I’m now imagining as Steve-Rogers-sized-arms to clear away a person-sized snowdrift, he admits that “lesser men with spades” might have served better.
- Legolas, though! Oh, Legolas. He’s a bit less charming when he tells Gandalf he’s “going to find the sun.” He then waves cheerfully at the “toiling” Boromir and Aragorn as he runs light-footed atop the snow. Elves continue to walk that tightrope of impressive and annoyingly smug.
Bilbo has grown older but his petty grievances have only taken deeper root in the soil: “It is your fault partly, my lad: insisting on waiting for my birthday. A funny way of honoring it, I can’t help thinking. Not the day I should have chosen for letting the S.-B.s into Bag End.”
- Despite differences from “Three is Company,” this nicely lines up with the third chapter of Book I. Both involve departures, both involve unexpected difficulties along the way. As noted above, though, different tones. This continues the Book I / Book II parallels. Both have parties in their first chapters, extensive backstories in the second, and departures in the third. We’ll see if it keeps up next week, and the hobbits rob a farm in Moria.
- Apologies for the lack of essay last week! I took a job and then un-took that job, so things have been hectic. Schedule should be back on track now, though. On a related now, I’ve renamed my car Bill the Pony, as there is nothing greater that a vehicle of transit could aspire to be. He took me to Florida and back again even though he is very old and easily tires.
- Prose Prize: There are a lot of beautiful passages about the winter landscape around Hollin and Caradhras, but my favorite goes to the passage relating the reforging of Narsil. It has such a great rhythm to it. The Sword of Elendil was forged anew by Elvish smiths, and on its blade was traced a device of seven stars set between the crescent Moon and rayed Sun, and about them was written many runes; for Aragorn son of Arathorn was going to war upon the marches of Mordor. I don’t know the literary terms anymore, but that last phrase has all kinds of great stuff going on. Beyond the alliteration there are all of the internal “or” sounds that give it such a weighty, rhythmic feel.
- Art Credits: Paintings are courtesy of Ted Nasmith, screen shots of New Line Cinema. The Chris Evans image is courtesy of Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Motion Pictures as well as, presumably. a dedicated arm and protein shake regimen.