The Fellowship of the Ring: The Ring Goes South
The Fellowship of the Ring is officially formed! Merry and Pippin fight for their right to risk their lives for friendship and Bilbo gives Frodo the secret gift of mithril mail and his old sword, Sting. More importantly, Narsil, the sword of Elendil, is reforged as Anduril, the Flame of the West, and Aragorn takes his first steps toward the crown.
The fellowship makes their way south traveling in the wild but are soon threatened by spies of the Enemy. With need to get out of the open and the risk of the obvious path being watched, Gandalf and Aragorn discuss their path. They decide to brave the mountain pass of Caradhras instead of the route Aragorn would only take “if there was no other way.”
Caradhras is not a servant of the Enemy, but it is wild and dangerous and of ill-will. Fickle and unforgiving, the mountain turns the company back with cold, storms, and falling rocks. Defeated by the mountain, only one way remains open to them.
To Wish to Dare
Merry and Pippin again show the powerful virtue of friendship in their indignation at the possibility of not being allowed to accompany Frodo on his new task. Although the young hobbits are quite foolish for wishing to go, as Frodo is quick to point out, Merry, in his folksy wisdom, rebuffs this:
“But we are envying Sam, not you. If you have to go, then it will be a punishment for any of us to be left behind, even in Rivendell. We have come a long way with you and been through some stiff times. We want to go on.”
The road the hobbits have shared to Rivendell has, with all its risks, served to reinforce the bonds of friendship that already united them. If you’re reading along then you know Fellowship is already two-thirds over by this point. The taking up of the true quest is a second inciting incident and it demands choices from would-be members of the fellowship. Here, Merry and Pippin are thinking less of themselves and even less of their duty to Frodo, because they don’t serve Frodo, they love him. If he is going to go into fire for them, they will throw themselves in alongside him — or so they wish.
And this is what makes their determination so staggering. Elrond tells them he cannot see the untold dangers ahead and his counsel is to send elf lords in their place (probably wise). But Pippin cries out, “We want to go with Frodo!” anyway, and Elrond says “that is because [they] do not understand and cannot imagine what lies ahead.” This is absolutely true, but it doesn’t stop Gandalf from encouraging their virtue.
“‘Neither does Frodo,’ said Gandalf, unexpectedly supporting Pippin. ‘Nor do any of us see clearly. It is true that if these hobbits understood the danger they would not dare to go, but they would still wish to go, or wish that they dared, and be shamed and unhappy. I think, Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship rather than to great wisdom. Even if you chose for us an elf lord, such as Glorfindel, he could not storm the dark tower nor open the road to the fire by the power that is in him.’”
Gandalf here is demonstrating faith not only in the untested virtues of the hobbits but also in the value of powers outside their control. Where Sauron directs his wisdom to bending (and ruining) good things to his will, Gandalf’s wisdom is to bend to those good things, like Frodo’s selfless determination in taking on the Ring and now the hobbits’ unrelenting friendship. He refuses to control them to pursue his purposes; Gandalf trusts that the frail and the humble will, and must, labour alongside the great.
No Charge is Laid
This reading has exposed a detail I’ve often overlooked but which adds to the beauty of the fellowship as an assembly of heroes. The fellowship is completely voluntary and “no oath or bond is laid” on them to go further than they’re willing. Only Frodo is bound, to carry the Ring and not surrender it to the Enemy or his servants. Everyone else is a free companion and any chance to turn aside or stay behind at any point is theirs to take. This is staggering. No one swears or makes lofty promises. They agree to take up the quest and are free to put it down without fear or threat of retribution.
Even Aragorn, who mentions to Frodo that their “road lies together for many hundreds of leagues,” could turn aside to his own concerns along that path. Aragorn is free to make his homecoming his quest and pursue his kingdom first. So, with no constraints on their wills, the fellowship must continually choose the quest.
With every step each member must answer the question: “Are you faithful?”
Chapter 4: “A Journey in the Dark” pits the fellowship against servants of the Enemy and the threat of a not-so-nameless fear.