LotR Reread: Hobbits in Dark Caverns Shouldn’t Throw Stones

Chapter III: The Ring Goes South

After Elrond adjourns his council, Frodo, Sam, and Bilbo meet up with Merry and Pippin, who think it’s unfair that Elrond is sending Sam on this journey with Frodo. Frodo says it’s not the reward they think it is, but rather a punishment. But Merry informs him that the real punishment is being left behind. “We have come a long way with you and been through some stiff times. We want to go on.” Nothing is decided though, Gandalf informs them. Elrond sent scouts to find out what they can about what’s going on in the wider world. It’s going to take a while, so the hobbits will be waiting around in Rivendell for a while.  Probably until Winter, which is a bad time to travel but it can’t be helped since Frodo waited so long to leave Hobbiton.

Two months pass while they wait. Rivendell is an amazing place of rest and comfort, where time doesn’t seem to pass and where the mind seems to forget what day is what. Unbeknownst to Frodo, this effect is thanks to one of the Three Elven Rings, which Elrond bears. The Elven Rings were made to preserve, and part of how they do this is by affecting the flow of time. It’s not that time doesn’t pass here, it just passes differently.

The scouts finally return. They’ve been all over the place, but haven’t found signs of the Black Riders anywhere.  Elrond and Gandalf speculate that the Riders retreated to Mordor and will have to begin their hunt again. They have some time before that happens, but not much. Frodo will have to leave soon, and so Elrond needs to figure out who is going posthaste.

He decides that Nine Walkers will go against the Nine Riders. Frodo and Sam are the first two, and Gandalf will be the third, as dealing with the Ring is the task he was sent to Middle-earth to complete. Aragorn is going, too, and his broken sword will be forged anew. As the company will be heading toward Minas Tirith for hundreds of miles, Boromir will be going as well. Legolas of Mirkwood will represent the Elves, and Gimli will represent the Dwarves. This leaves two spots open. Elrond isn’t sure who he’ll send, but he thinks that an Elven lord like Glorfindel or another member of his household will do the job nicely. But Merry and Pippin object (again) to this plan. They still want to go, no matter the danger, and though Elrond objects (he’d planned to send them back to the Shire to warn the hobbits of the encroaching danger), Gandalf speaks up and convinces Elrond to allow the hobbits to go.  And so the Fellowship of the Ring is complete. They’ll set out in a week.

Preparations begin, and in the midst of all the craziness, Bilbo pulls Frodo aside to give him two gifts: his old sword, Sting, and the mithril shirt that Thorin gave him. Bilbo had brought them along when he left the Shire all those years ago, thinking that he would be doing more adventuring, but that hasn’t happened. Now they’re collecting dust and would be put to a much better use in Frodo’s hands. Frodo puts the mithril on under his clothes, and no one is the wiser about it. But he’s much safer now, as there’s no better armor in Middle-earth.

brown mountain with snow during dayitme

Photo by Simon Migaj on Pexels.com

The fellowship sets out, with Bill the pony as their beast of burden. They’ve made no oath to follow Frodo any farther than their will allows (oaths are a big deal in Middle-earth, and breaking them carries severe penalties, like being banished to the Outer Darkness, or existing as a ghost under a haunted mountain). They don’t know where the journey will take them or what will befall them and Elrond says, “…let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall”. Frodo is the only one with a specific charge: to be the only one to carry the Ring, to not deliver it to a servant of the Enemy, and to not let anyone else handle it except for members of the fellowship, and that only in dire need.  And with that, they head out into the wilderness, leaving the comfort and safety of Rivendell far behind.

As they’ve set out in winter, the journey is cold. Thanks to the wind, it’s the sort of cold that goes right through you, straight to your bones until you think you’ll never be warm again. They’re traveling by night to avoid the Enemy’s animal spies, and so they have little but empty land, bitter cold and wind, and cold meals to look forward to during the first weeks of the journey. The only bright side is that there’s nothing to trouble them on the way. But Aragorn is troubled by the intense quiet, which magnifies every little sound.

Just how loud is every little sound? Let me give you an example. Several years ago, I went to Colorado to photograph a friend’s wedding at the groom’s family home. They own a ranch out in the mountains, thirty miles from the nearest town. The only way there is a narrow, winding dirt and gravel road through a canyon carved by the Colorado River. The day of the wedding I rose before dawn to photograph the sunrise. I heard everything going on for a long way in every direction– the little stream I didn’t have time to walk to, the air rushing over the bird’s wings as a small flock flew overhead, and when the mothers of the bride and groom came outside to decorate, I could clearly hear their quiet conversation from a quarter of a mile away. It’s hard to escape the noise of modern life, but when you can the silence is overwhelming.

At last, the company reaches the foot of the mountains. There are only a couple of paths through them. The Gap of Rohan takes them too close to Isengard, and there’s a dark road that Aragorn and Gandalf have mentioned in quiet conversations but will not talk about.  They decide to take the “best” option: the pass of Caradhras. The climb is hard but bearable until the snow starts. Just a swirl of white at first, but it gets worse and worse until they have to stop.

Ever been outside in a blizzard? I have. It’s a bad idea, and you shouldn’t do it. My companion and I missed the turn to my parents’ house and decided to walk the half block there. Walking through a blizzard is awful. You can’t see, you lose your bearings, and with the wind whipping around you at over 40 miles per hour, it’s hard to breathe, too. But I had a warm house at the end of our little trek. The fellowship has no shelter. They finally take refuge under a cliff wall, and Gandalf is forced to use his magic to start a fire. Gandalf is not a wizard who can use magic for little things, and it will alert evil beings to his presence. But it’s a choice between lighting a fire or dying, so he does it.  The fellowship survives until morning and takes stock of the situation. There’s too much snow for them to go forward, so they turn back, though even that doesn’t seem like an option until Legolas gets all snarky with them, hops up onto the snowdrift, and then walks over the snow like it’s nothing. He comes back with good news: the deep drifts end soon, and after that, they trail off until there’s just enough to cover their feet. By the time they reach lower elevations, they are freezing and exhausted, and enemy bird-spies are circling in the skies above them.


Chapter IV: A Journey in the Dark

With the pass of Caradhras behind them, the company debates what to do next. Aragorn and Gandalf finally tell the rest of the fellowship about the Mines of Moria, though no one but Gimli wants to go there. Why Gimli? Because these mines were made by Dwarves, and some of his kin– including Balin, Oin, and Ori– ventured in to reclaim them from the orcs. But Moria has long had a dark and dangerous reputation. Gandalf has been there and is willing to return. Aragorn has been there, too, and doesn’t want to go back. He tells Gandalf, “…if you pass the doors of Moria, beware!”

Being the sensible Hobbit that he is, Frodo suggests that they sleep on the matter for a night and decide in the morning. They’re exhausted, night has come, and the wind is howling. Aragorn realizes that it’s not the wind howling. There are wolves out there! They retreat to the top of a small hill and light a fire. The wolves approach, and it becomes clear that these aren’t wild wolves looking for prey. They are intelligent and have a dark purpose.


close up of snowflakes on snow against sky

I’m sure this guy is just looking for rabbits.  Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com


Side note for wolves! There are several kinds of wolves in Tolkien’s works. Wild wolves like you’d see in the mountains of the western United States; wargs, which are larger, smarter, and meaner than regular wolves (and given that wolves are pretty darned smart, that’s saying something); and werewolves. These aren’t the kind of creatures that change form at the full moon. They’re spirits of Elves, taken by the dark power, then tortured and twisted into foul things inhabiting wolf-forms. There was also the great wolf, Carcaroth, the great beast bred by Morgoth to guard his stronghold, but he was killed long ago in the First Age (and figures in the story of Beren and Luthien).

Anyway. The fellowship holds the wolves off, thanks in large part to Legolas’s bow and Gandalf’s magic. Once again, it’s a choice between revealing his power or death, so Gandalf reveals his power and drives off the remaining wolves. In the morning they find no wolf bodies. They hightail it out of there.

It’s a long, long walk to the doors of Moria. The land is not very attractive, though there are holly trees to mark the ancient boundary of Hollin. I like holly trees. They’re tough and prickly, but I’d never seen a tree like them before I went to Scotland. I miss them. Can someone send me a proper holly tree?


The land has changed since Gandalf last passed this way. There was once a river, but it has dried up. It turns out that someone (or something) dammed it up, so now there’s a nasty lake at the foot of the hidden doors. In ancient days, when the world was friendlier, they were easier to find. Since the Dwaves and Elves have been at odds for a long time, the doors’ secrets have nearly been lost. The long enmity between Dwarves and Elves rears its head when they don’t find the doors straight off.

“‘It was not the fault of the Dwarves that the friendship waned,’ said Gimli.

‘I have not heard that it was the fault of the Elves,’ said Legolas

‘I have heard both,’ said Gandalf; ‘and I will not give judgement now. But I bet you two, Legolas and Gimli, at least to be friends, and to help me. I need you both…’”

In other words, “Stop fighting, children.” He’s irritated, but not so much that he’s mean to Sam when they have to send Bill the pony away. They can’t bring him into Moria, so Gandalf lays a blessing on the pony to give him a chance of getting to safety. That was awfully sweet of him, and no matter who claims Tolkien refuses to hurt his characters because Bill the pony makes it home safely, just remember: they almost never kill the dog in movies. The whole world could blow up, but somehow the dog will be okay.

The doors appear at last. Their metal inscriptions (Celebrimbor drew them. The same Elf who forged the Elven rings…) only appear under moonlight, and read, “The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter.” Gandalf goes through a lot of words, magical and not, but doesn’t find the right one. Everyone’s getting antsy. Night is coming. The wolves are coming. There’s probably something nasty in the water. Pippin says something dumb, which makes Gandalf angry, and then Merry says something clever, which makes Gandalf realize that he’s translated the inscription incorrectly. The answer was in front of them all the time. It says, “say friend, and enter”. All you have to do is say the Elvish word for ‘friend’: Mellon.

Good job, Merry! In the movie, they give credit for this to Frodo. Poor Merry rarely gets the credit he deserves.

Before the fellowship can make it inside, a lake monster grabs Frodo and drags him toward the lake. The rest of them defeat it, but the monster– the Watcher in the Water– breaks the doors behind them. There’s no going back now. Those doors will never open again. Gandalf doesn’t mention how very odd it is that the Watcher grabbed Frodo out of everyone there…

So they start walking through the darkness. Pitch black. Ever been deep in a cave with no lights? I have. Part of a cave tour in Colorado involved stopping on a platform with a warning to not move. Then they turned out the already dim lights lighting up the rock formations. There was no light whatsoever. It was complete, utter darkness. I was twelve. I thought it was fantastic. Other people on the tour were freaked out. It lasted for about ten or fifteen seconds. The fellowship will be walking through this sort of blackness for a few days. Fortunately, Gandalf can conjure a little light to guide them. Aragorn tries to cheer them up by telling them that Gandalf is “…surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Berúthiel”.

Who is Queen Beruthiel? Good question. When Tolkien wrote this, he didn’t know, either. The phrase is a ‘cultural ruin’, that is a phrase that’s taken for granted by the people of the past that is indecipherable to us now. Imagine that, two thousand years from now our ancestors return to Earth to excavate the ruins of our current society. All record of Sherlock Holmes is gone, so when the future anthropologists see the phrase, “No shit, Sherlock!” in an ancient book, they have no idea what it’s supposed to mean. Nowadays, we know about the genius detective Sherlock Holmes, and the catchy phrase we bark when someone points out the obvious. We don’t need to explain it. But those future anthropologists will have no idea what it means. ‘The cats of Queen Berúthiel’ is like that. Because even Pippin doesn’t demand to know who Queen Berúthiel is, we take it for granted that her story is well-known in the Third Age. It’s just been lost to time, so we don’t know the story.

backlit dark light people

Photo by Heorhii Heorhiichuk on Pexels.com

It’s about this time that Frodo notices something. Since he was stabbed on Weathertop, his senses are sharper. He senses things in the dark the others can’t, and he can see better in this darkness than anyone but Gandalf. He feels certain that evil is both ahead of and behind them. And when the fellowship stops to rest, he can hear bare feet pattering behind them.

They walk for sometime before finding what was probably a guard room once. They decide to rest there for a while, though they must be careful of the well in the middle of the room. If there was a cover, it’s gone now. Then Pippin does something stupid: he drops a stone down the well. It falls and falls and falls before finally plunking into water. The sound echoes up the well and alerts Gandalf, who then gives us the famous, “Fool of a Took!” line. It’s well earned because they hear another sound– hammers striking stone in some sort of code. Not good. There’s something down there, and now it’s been alerted to their presence. Fool of a Took indeed.

The next march takes them through more mysterious halls and chambers, and Gimli tells them how wonderful the mines used to be– full of Dwarves crafting gems and shaping mithril, the halls filled with light and song. He sings a Dwarvish song about Moria, which Sam adores: “‘I like that!’ said Sam. ‘I should like to learn it. In Moria, in Khazad-Dûm!” It’s another example of how the songs and poems (which most people skip) provide insights into the myriad cultures of Middle-earth. The conversation turns to the real treasure of Moria– mithril. Easy to shape, harder than tempered steel, and untarnishable. Gandalf tells them of Bilbo’s mithril shirt, which is worth more than the Shire and everything in it. Frodo quietly freaks out at the thought.

They go to sleep, and in the morning Gandalf wakes them with good news. He knows where they are, “We are high up on the east side of Moria. Before today is over we ought to find the Great Gates and see the waters of Mirrormere lying in the Dimrill Dale before us.” They’re all relieved. Even Gimli. He long wished to see Moria, but now he wants to leave. It’s dark and dreadful, and they’ve found no sign of his kin.

Buuuut…. Gimli spoke too soon. The path takes them into a chamber that looks like a tomb. There is a light shining from a high window onto a table with a block of stone covered by a slab of white stone. The runes inscribed on the slab read “Balin Son of Fundin Lord of Moria”. Bilbo’s old companions are dead. The Dwarves came to Moria and died there.


Next Week: The fellowship has some issues crossing a bridge and catch a few glimpses of “Elven magic” ‘The Bridge of Khazad-dûm‘, ‘Lothlorien’, and ‘The Mirror of Galadriel’

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