The company learns the fate of Bilbo’s old friend Balin and are nearly caught themselves in the same dark trap. Sam is wounded and Frodo narrowly escapes death as the Fellowship flee Balin’s tomb and Gandalf flies from a slow approaching darkness even he cannot hold back.
The Fellowship pass through shadow and flame to finally reach the eastern slopes of the Misty Mountains but they do so at great cost.
No Turning Back
I wouldn’t say that Samwise has been significantly changed thus far in the journey, but we are seeing how circumstances bring out what is already inside us. One of Sam’s strengths is his inclination to nurture and preserve rather than break tear down and he’s not one to jump into battle but a battle comes to him in Moria.
This hobbit gardener is wounded slaying an orc and not only does he slay the orc, he also leaps to defence of Frodo. Sam is too late to protect his master from the blow, but Bilbo’s gift of the mithril mail to Frodo means the Ring-bearer lives to see more of Sam’s preserving care. Sam, the gardener and country cook, hacks the spear of an orc captain in two deep under the Misty Mountains.
Frodo survives and Sam dips into the well of his strength for the first time. This isn’t the first challenge for the hobbits, of course. When the Black Riders stalked them in the country surrounding the Shire they represented outside evil breaking into ordinary life. Now, out in the wide world, Frodo and Sam encounter the dangers of a world shaped more and more by the evil which set the Ringwraiths hunting.
Frodo’s errand is now a proper quest and will soon take its first tragic turn.
A Light, Veiled in Grey
“Suddenly at the top of the stair there was a stab of white light. Then there was a dull rumble and a heavy thud. The drum beats broke out wildly: doom-boom, doom-boom, and then stopped. Gandalf came flying down the steps and fell to the ground in the midst of the Company.
’Well, well! That’s over!’ said the wizard struggling to his feet. ‘I have done all that I could. But I have met my match, and have nearly been destroyed. But don’t stand here! Go on! You will have to do without light for a while: I am rather shaken. Go on! Go on!’”
In the midst of the persistent doom, doom of drums in the deep, Gandalf the Wizard meets his match. I love the way Tolkien plays with the sound of the words boom and doom here, alternating between them for the distant beat of drums in Moria. It’s hard to ignore the tension building quality of a “pursuing drum-beat: Doom, doom, doom,” or the subtle hint something bad is about to happen.
And something very bad happens.
In their flight, Gandalf remains behind to hold the narrow bridge of Khazad-dûm against the ancient evil which nearly destroyed him earlier. He stands and declares to the demon: “You cannot pass!”
“The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.
From out of the shadows a red sword leaped flaming.
Glamdring glittered white in answer.”
It bears mentioning that the small, bent, grey wizard is of the same order of creation as the Balrog. They are both Maia, divine beings serving the godlike Valar of Tolkien’s universe. Gandalf though, has willingly cloaked himself him weakness, having chosen (or been commanded) to aid and advise the peoples of Middle-earth rather than dominate them.
So here he is, in front of a monster of shadow and flame, not so much opposing it as denying it. In the films, the line is “you shall not pass” and has since become a meme, but I much prefer the choice here of “you cannot pass.” For me it calls to mind Gandalf's deep, though not perfect, knowledge of the arc of the universe. The wizard doesn’t know what will happen but he does seem to be aware of how the story ultimately ends—not the story of this tale, but of all things.
I can almost see the ‘far green country under a swift sunrise’ through the terrifying but temporary darkness of the Balrog.
Yet Gandalf falls and there isn’t a hint of narrative hope that he isn’t a true casualty. Responsibility shifts to Aragorn and the Company’s disagreements and various alignments soon begin to boil without the wizard’s wisdom.
Everything is different now and the Company, Frodo especially, will have to do without Gandalf's light for a long while.
Only five more chapters left in The Fellowship of the Ring and next the Company looks for rest and counsel among the elves again, but this time in “Lothlórien”.