LotR Reread: Over the Chasm and Through the Woods

Chapter V: The Bridge of Khazad-dum

The fellowship has found out what happened to Balin and his people in Moria. They’re dead, killed by orcs and whatever evils are down here. Frodo remembers Balin’s long friendship with Bilbo, and how he came to visit them in the Shire long ago. It’s a sweet memory, and I wish we knew more about it. Then Gandalf finds a book detailing what the Dwarves did upon their return to Moria, and how they fell in trying to retake it. It’s hardly legible now, but the last lines are foreboding: “We cannot get out. The end comes… drums, drums in the deep…they are coming.”

Almost before they can decide what to do next, they hear drumbeats coming from deeps of the mines. They stand and fight, and it’s successful stand, though Frodo is speared by an orc (who once again, singles him out from the rest of the company when given his choice of people to attack) and Sam gets a cut on his head. Aragron picks up Frodo, thinking him dead, and they flee. Gandalf stays behind to bar the door, catching up to them later. He’s exhausted and barely got the door shut. Some evil thing opposed him and nearly overpowered him. That’s not a good sign. Now Gandalf’s tired, there are still enemies ahead and behind, and some great big nasty thing that could be more than a match for. Gandalf heard the orcs mention ‘ghash’, which means ‘fire’ in their language. Were the caverns on fire? Were the orcs going to light a fire? He doesn’t know what it means, but he’s worried by whatever was on the other side of the door.

Frodo finally recovers enough to speak, telling Aragorn to put him down. Everyone is shocked. They thought Frodo was dead! Gandalf says that, like Bilbo before him, there is more to Frodo than meets the eye. Just what that is remains hidden for now, because they have to run.

They’re nearly to the bridge of Khazad-dum, a single, narrow bridge across a chasm when Gandalf’s dreadful enemy is revealed. Legolas was ready to start shooting everything with his bow, but he nearly drops it from fear. He knows what’s out there, and for something to freak out a centuries’ old warrior, it has to be bad. Gimli figures it out a minute later, and finally Gandalf gives the thing a name: a Balrog. Balrogs are fire-spirits formed in the First Age. While the spirits were either good or neutral at first, the dark figure of Morgoth corrupted them into his service. They led his armies, and once could be defeated by Elf-lords like Glorfindel. But that was ages ago. Much of the Elves’ power is gone, and this Balrog is a match for Gandalf himself.

The fellowship flees across the bridge, but Gandalf holds his ground. The Balrog steps onto the bridge, threatening with a whip in one hand and a sword in the other, but Gandalf isn’t cowed. He responds with some of the most badass lines in Fantasy: “You cannot pass… I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor…The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass!” The Balrog is subdued for a moment, then attacks. Gandalf fends him off and shatters the bridge in front of himself. The Balrog falls, but in a last motion it snaps its whip and catches Gandalf around the legs, pulling him down with itself. Gandalf’s last words are “Fly, you fools!”. Then he disappears into the abyss.

 

 

lord-of-the-rings-020

Gandalf faces the Balrog in the 2001 film, The Fellowship of the Ring

 

 

Chapter VI: Lothlorien

Gandalf’s death is a pivotal moment for The Lord of the Rings, and for fantasy itself. Heroic stories like this rarely resulted in the deaths of its important characters, but now this beloved figure is gone. Fantasy is never the same again. The reader has gone from being sure of everyone’s survival to wondering “who’s next?”

It’s also a profound moment for the fellowship as they must deal with their grief. Yes, these heroic men grieve. Men have emotions, too, no matter how often our culture tries to pretend they don’t. Peter Jackson’s film version deals with moment beautifully, especially when Boromir calls to Aragorn to give the hobbits a moment to deal with this, ‘for pity’s sake’. His own voice nearly cracks when he says it, telling us that even a big, strong Man like Boromir is devastated by this loss. Grief for Gandalf if not confined to this chapter, either. It is especially poignant for Frodo’s storyline after he leaves the company, and Aragorn, too, suffers from even more doubt without Gandalf’s wise counsel.

They cannot stay there, though. There are many miles to go before they reach Lothlorien, and orcs are on the trail. They do have to pause soon, though, as Frodo and Sam are both injured and fall behind. Frodo’s secret, the mithril armor, is exposed and the Hobbits love Bilbo all the more for giving it to Frodo. They can rest more easily now, knowing that Frodo is safer for having this armor, but it will cause them much heartache later on.

But first, Lothlorien. It’s an Elvish realm ruled over by Galadriel and Celeborn, though it doesn’t take much to see that Galadriel is the one in charge. She is ancient. Beyond ancient. While she wasn’t one the first Elves to awaken under the stars, she was among the first generations to be born. She knew and spurned Feanor. She was friends with Melian, the mother of Luthien. She survived the crossing of the icy Helecaraxe when the Noldor returned to Middle-earth from Valinor. She is wise and powerful, and it’s thanks to her that Lothlorien has survived all this time. Because of the enmity between the races, though, it’s considered to be a frightening place, and if you go in there you don’t come out again. Or, if you do, you don’t come back unscathed, Boromir says. Aragorn corrects him. “Say not unscathed, but if you say unchanged, then maybe you will speak the truth.” Aragorn has been here before. He knows what he’s talking about.

Before they go far into the forest, they encounter more Elves. Haldir and his brothers have been watching them since they arrived, way escort them the rest of the way to the city of the Galadhrim. Because he is a Dwarf, Gimli must be blindfolded. He objects to this and nearly halts their progress until Aragorn declares that all the company– even Legolas– will go blindfolded, too. It’s ridiculous, everyone agrees, but it is the nature of the Enemy to make allies mistrust each other, as Haldir says: “Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.” True words for all times, but Haldir manages to find a justification for this mistrust– he fears the downfall of Lothlorien if they trust too much. I suppose arguments can be made both ways, but if the peoples of Middle-earth defend their own lands so closely that they will not trust someone because they’re from a different land, then they’ll all fall.

This chapter contains some of the most beautiful descriptions in all Tolkien’s work and is part of why Lothlorien is so well-remembered and beloved, despite its relatively small place in the whole text of The Lord of the Rings. I mean, how can you love beautiful writing and not fall head over heels for a paragraph like this:

…As soon as he set foot upon the far bank of Silverlode a strange feeling had come upon him, and it deepened as he walked on into the Naith: it seemed to him that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more. In Rivendell there was memory of ancient things; in Lorien the ancient things still lived on in the waking world. Evil had been seen and heard there, sorrow had been known; the Elves feared and distrusted the world outside: wolves were howling on the wood’s borders: but on the land of Lorien no shadow lay.”

It is later afternoon by the time Haldir leads the company to Cerin Amroth, a place of great beauty and of special significance to Aragorn. From here, they see the land for miles around- the span of Lorien out to the darkening reaches of Mirkwood and the grim fortress of Dol Guldur, where Sauron himself lay in hiding for a time as he gathered his strength and his allies.

As they come back down the hill, Frodo finds Aragorn standing there, obviously remembering better days. He looks young again and seems to be talking to someone who isn’t there. Then he says, “Arwen vanimelda, namarie!”. Then he and Frodo leave the hill of Cerin Amroth, and neither ever returns.

 

brown leaf trees on forest

Photo by Vali S. on Pexels.com

 

VII: The Mirror of Galadriel

At long last, the fellowship arrives in Caras Galadhon, the great city of Lothlorien and the home of Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel. Though most of the lands of Middle-earth are ruled by males, it’s obvious early on that Galadriel is in charge. Sure, Celeborn is an important figure, but Galadriel gets the last word, and it’s her counsel that everyone listens to in the end. They’re both from the First Age and so are almost uncountably old, but according to the text, “...no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.” Don’t engage in a staring contest with these two. They’ll see right through you.

The company is introduced to them– even Gimli, who is probably quite wary of these treetop goings-on, but is as warmly welcomed as any Dwarf could be in the heart of Elvendom. And then comes the big question: where is Gandalf? Elrond’s messengers had stated that nine people would be showing up, but there are only eight. Galadriel has been searching for him in her mind because she can perceive the thoughts of those who are far away. This might sound alarming, but I think she can only see the thoughts of certain beings from a great distance. Gandalf, Elrond, Sauron. You know. The movers and shakers of Middle-earth. Anyone else has to be in visual range. And yes, Elves are telepathic. This isn’t a fan theory, it was confirmed by Tolkien himself in an obscure philological journal in his lifetime.

But anyway. Aragorn reveals that Gandalf fell in Moria, and Legolas says it was a Balrog that caused his fall. Celeborn rashly declares that Gandalf fell into folly for passing through Moria after the Dwarves awoke the evil there. Because its such a clever move to blame refugees for wanting to return to their homeland. Real open-minded of you, Celeborn.

Galadriel has the last say on the matter, though. She understands the desire to see one’s homeland, no matter what might be there. She left her own home once, long ago, and was forbidden to return until she passed a certain test that is still to come. Chiding Celeborn for his rash words, she speaks of the Dwarven landmarks using their Dwarven names and shows empathy for Gimli’s desire to see his homeland. This moment of compassion sparks a profound change within Gimli. He arrived in Lothlorien expecting to find enemies, and yet their greatest leader shows understanding and kindness. He’d go to the ends of the earth and beyond for Galadriel now, and all it took was a few kind words. Empathy. A little bit goes a long way.

Galadriel does not linger on this topic for long. The fellowship arrived seeing aid in their quest, as Celeborn is known as a wise lord and a giver of great gifts. She mentions her own history in the next breath, though, stating that the White Council convened at her request and that Gandalf would have led it if she’d had her way. But Saruman was named the leader, and it may cost them all dearly. And yet there is hope, though it is fragile. She looks them all in the eye, one by one, and seems as what they would do if granted their hearts’ desires. Only Aragorn and Legolas can meet her gaze for long, and no one wishes to speak of it afterward. Boromir is suspicious of her intentions, though Aragorn counsels him to not speak ill of Galadriel, saying, “There is in her and in this land no evil, unless a man bring it hither himself. Then let him beware!

Of course, Frodo carried the greatest of evils into the very heart of this land…

 

trees in forest during sunset

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

They rest for several days then. As their weariness passes and injuries heal, they find themselves grieving Gandalf even more. The Elves sing a lament that Legolas will not translate for them, and Frodo tries to write a bit of poetry, though he isn’t too fond of his attempts. Sam adds a verse to ensure that Gandalf’s fireworks aren’t forgotten. Neither wants to bring that bit of news to Bilbo.

Once again, we have a group of men grieving for a lost friend, days after the fact. Tolkien defies the ‘manly-man with a stiff upper lip who doesn’t cry for anything’ notion that is rampant in fantasy. He was familiar with grief, after all. He lost his father when he was four, his mother when he was eleven, and most of his college friends during World War I. Loss and recovery were concepts he was all too familiar with, and he knew that healing is neither easy nor quick. It shows in his writing.

One night, later on, Frodo asks Sam what he thinks of the Elves now that they’ve seen Lothlorien. Sam’s answer is well-observed: there are different kinds of Elves, and these Elves belong to this land, unlike, say, the wandering Gildor. But whether the land of Lothlorien has made them like this, or they’ve made the land the way it is, he can’t tell, and the legendary magic of the Elves is not obvious. “If there’s any magic about, it’s right down deep, where I can’t lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking.” I doubt the Elves would be much better at explaining their magic than Sam does, much as I wouldn’t be able to explain WiFi to someone born in 1850. Yeah, I can access all sorts of amazing information and videos and music, but I don’t know how it happens. It just does. It’s part of my life, but I can’t explain the nuts and bolts of it.

But speaking of Elven magic… we come to the object the chapter is named after: the Mirror of Galadriel.

She invites Frodo and Sam to follow her, pours an ewer of water into a silver basin, and invites them to look into the mirror if they choose. “Many things I can command the Mirror to reveal… and to some I can show what they desire to see… What you will see, if you leave the Mirror free to work, I cannot tell. For it shows things that were, and things that are, and things that yet may be. But which it is that he sees, even the wisest cannot always tell…” As a guide for the future, the Mirror is treacherous. You might see something you think is the future, and yet if you set aside the journey you were on to try to avoid that future you might end up causing it. Or you may misinterpret what you see. Also, you might see something clearly and yet ignore the warnings because they don’t fit into your worldview. Galadriel has seen all these things in her long life. There’s a reason she doesn’t offer advice.

Sam decides to look and sees Frodo, pale and asleep under a cliff, and then himself searching for something as he climbs a winding stairway. Then he sees terrible things happening in the Shire: Bagshot row being dug up, trees being cut down, an ugly new mill putting black smoke into the air. He’s furious and wants to return home to stop it, but realizes that he cannot do both that and stay with Frodo. Since he will not leave Frodo, he sits down in misery and wishes he’d never come there. He doesn’t want to see any more ‘magic’, not now that he has this vision of a ruined Shire in his memory as he walks farther and farther away from it.

Frodo looks, too, and sees strange visions: a man in white, the sea, a ship with black sails and an emblem of a white tree, and a ship passing into mist. He doesn’t know what they mean, though someone who is rereading LotR will know exactly what they are. And then Frodo sees the Eye of Sauron, a lidless, fiery eye searching for the Ring. It nearly pulls Frodo down, but Galadriel’s voice brings him back to himself.

She knows what he saw in the Mirror, and she knows it frightens him. Yet she is strong enough to defend Lothlorien from Sauron and to perceive his thoughts, while Sauron cannot perceive her. Not yet. Then she holds up her hand, and it’s as though a star is shining on her finger. It’s Nenya, the Ring of Adamant. Galadriel is its keeper, and with its power, she holds the darkness at bay. But no matter what the outcome of Frodo’s quest is, the Elves are doomed. If Frodo fails, they will fall to Sauron. If Frodo succeeds, the power of the three rings will end, and the elves will either leave Middle-earth or become what most of us think of as ‘fairies’: “…a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.” For her own part, Galadriel only wants her people to not be defeated, even if it means they are forgotten in the ages to come.

At this, Frodo does something completely insane. He offers Galadriel the One Ring.

Why is this a moment of lunacy on his part? Because at this moment, the world could fall. The Ring grants power according to the strength of its bearer, and Galadriel is powerful. She’s one of the most powerful beings in Middle-earth, and she knows it:

“In place of the Dark Lord you will set of a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”

Sure, she’ll be a bright and beautiful queen, but it will be a blinding beauty, cold and remote as the snow on the mountaintops, and as overwhelming as the sea. At the same time, she will be as dreaded as a great storm, and as strong as the earth itself. None would be able to overthrow her. Everyone would love her and yet despair at the fact because they would have no choice but to do so. The Ring would subvert her own good qualities her people respect her for and twist them into evil. For a moment, it seems like Galadriel might take the Ring for her own; she seems to grow tall and unendurably beautiful, terrifying, and worshipful. This is the figure she could become if she takes the Ring.

And then she laughs and seems to shrink. “‘I pass the test,’ she said. ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.’”

What’s this “test” she speaks of? Well, long ago when Galadriel was exiled from Valinor it was declared that one day, her will would be put to the test. If she passed, she could return to Valinor. If not, she was Doomed to stay in Middle-earth forever. Once, Galadriel had longed for a land of her own to rule over, and that desire shaped her decisions when it came time for her to decide if she would stay in Middle-earth or return to Valinor. Her pride, among other things, kept her from returning to Valinor where she would never rule her own kingdom. But at long last, she passed the test. She can return to her ancient home.

I often wonder at the fact that few people remark on this moment as being pivotal in the story of the Ring. Here, it was so very close to achieving a goal of some sort: to be in the hands of someone powerful enough to properly wield it. In Galadriel’s hands, it would have worked all sorts of evil, and whatever dark intelligence it possessed would have delighted in corrupting a person as great as Galadriel. Middle-earth was a hairsbreadth from falling, but everyone passes it by. Is it because Galadriel is a woman, and people can’t imagine a woman ruling the world and falling into evil? Or is it because they automatically assume that because Galadriel is one of the “good guys” that she’d never take it? It was a sore trial for her, though early Tolkien fans wouldn’t understand why until The Silmarillion came out in 1977 when the finally got to read about Galadriel’s background and her own desire for power. That she resisted the power that was handed to her- to preserve her world as she saw fit, to keep her people from being forgotten- is remarkable. Do we take her refusal as a given because we see her as a shining white figure, or because she is a woman?

With such counsel as she has given and the testing of her heart finally completed, Galadriel advises Frodo not to use the Ring to try to read the hearts and minds of those around him. He doesn’t have the strength for it and would have to learn the will to dominate others, something that goes against his very nature. Despite that, she says the Ring will sharpen his senses and allow him to see things that are hidden from others. This fact will help him understand himself and Gollum, once their paths finally cross.

Sam, not knowing what either Frodo or Galadriel do about the power of the Ring, wishes that she had taken it. “You’d put things to rights. You’d stop them digging up the gaffer and turning him adrift. You’d make some fold pay for their dirty work.”

Galadriel agrees. She would start by making people pay for their misdeeds. But it would not end there. It would end in ruin, with Galadriel as corrupt as Sauron ever was. But she did not take the Ring, and so Middle-earth has a chance to survive.

 


 

Next week: The fellowship receives gifts and goes canoeing. It would feel like a holiday, except for the endless peril in “Farewell to Lorien” and “The Great River”.

One thought on “LotR Reread: Over the Chasm and Through the Woods

  1. Pingback: Sunday Sum-Up | Traveling in Books

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