Reading Middle-earth — Chapter 12: Flight to the Ford
Frodo has survived his encounter with the Black Riders but relief is short-lived. Strider judges that Frodo carries a dark taint beyond his skill to heal. With few options, and fearing another attack, they press on to Rivendell with a wounded and weakened Frodo.
Strider leads the hobbits through the wilderness for ten days before an unexpected respite finds them. Happening on a troll hole, they encounter three familiar trolls—the same three who turned to stone while deciding how to cook Bilbo all those years ago. Samwise sings a song (of his own composition!) in tribute.
After some rest and more hard going, they rejoin the road to discover an elf token on the last bridge before the Ford of Bruinen. This good omen turns into good fortune when the elf Glorfindel overtakes the travellers. His news is bittersweet; they are expected in Rivendell but still no word from Gandalf. News of Frodo—and Gandalf’s absence—probably came by Gildor, whom the hobbits met before arriving in Crickhollow. Worse yet, all nine of the Black Riders are in pursuit.
Glorfindel leads them towards Rivendell at an unsustainable pace, and even Strider struggles to keep going. In the final stretch, the Black Riders from Weathertop overtake them and the remaining four attempt to cut off their approach to the ford. Still veiled in the shadow of his wound, Frodo doesn’t flee. At Glorfindel’s command, his white horse, Asfalof, carries Frodo out of reach and across the shallow ford.
Frodo resists weakly and collapses in darkness across the river at the approach of the mocking Black Riders. The last thing he sees is the calm river transformed into a torrent of froth-maned horses and the dim light of fire and shouts from the western shore.
A Very Different Journey
As I’ve mentioned before, I read The Lord of the Rings before I read The Hobbit. Despite this unfortunately oversight on my parents’ part, I still appreciate and enjoy the ways Book 1 calls back to and overlaps with Bilbo’s “there and back again” journey.
Right from Chapter 1: A Long-expected Party Tolkien hints at how this both is and isn’t a simple sequel. He worked on The Lord of the Rings in spurts for 17 years after the publication of The Hobbit and his work on the mythology of The Silmarillion ran in the background behind both works.
Frodo is drawn into an adventure just like Bilbo, but it’s a different kind of adventure—adventure probably isn’t the best word—one which is ultimately unchosen, though Frodo does choose to go and make choices along the way. The Hobbit is not a childish story, but it is limited in scope where The Lord of the Rings is sweeping, especially in the stakes of the respective quests.
Take this chapter’s scene with the stone trolls. There’s a sorrowful sense of passing time and gathering darkness in how the hobbits meet a fireside story made solid. In The Hobbit, the troll encounter is funny and exciting—a first triumph! But now the hobbits encounter the relic of Bilbo’s adventure after a first defeat. Frodo is wounded, and the discovery of the trolls—and the brief gladness it brings—only serves to throw the shadow hanging over Frodo into sharper contrast.
Wounds and the Weight of Broken Things
It might be because I love my large, single volume edition of The Lord of the Rings, or because Tolkien is a particularly generous storyteller (read: meandering) but Frodo’s wound all strikes me as coming very early in the story. It deserves a capital W, because it’s not a mere injury; Frodo is damaged and carries that wound into the final pages of the story. Because it’s dealt so early, even before he formally takes up the quest to destroy the Ring, it represents a compelling picture of the world’s brokenness.
Running away from the brokenness and ignoring the needs created by evil is no more dangerous than losing sight of the everyday mundane joys of life. Both postures are hopeless because in the first, the brokenness can’t be outrun, and in the second, the greatest weapon in the fight for joy is surrendered. Frodo’s wound never heals; he carries it with him forever. But when Sam recites his silly tribute to Bilbo’s old story, he demonstrates how to put the shadow in its place by singing in the midst of it.
One thing I appreciate about this story is how it doesn’t minimize good and evil; it maximizes both. The shadow that looms distant in Book 1 is accompanied by very real, very dark agents of that shadow, even if they’re not strictly corporeal. Evil in LotR is supernatural and banal, yet so is goodness. Something as simple as a hot bath banishes can lift the shadow and the name of the Lady of the Stars stays a Black Rider more than the swing of a sword.
This is why I’m convinced the greatest purpose of fantasy is to reintroduce us to a universe that sings, a cosmos. As I’ve said elsewhere, “Fantasy winds its way into the cracks of our vision and illuminates alternative ways for how—and who—operates the universe.”
Keep Reading Middle-earth
That’s it! That’s it for Book 1 of Volume 1 of The Lord of the Rings…the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring. This reading (and blogging) quest is daunting but I’m going to stick with it. I hope it gives several people a few reasons to keep coming back, and to read your own way through Middle-earth. If you’re joining late, you can catch up on Book 1.