Things look dicey for Gandalf and the Fellowship after the defeat on Caradhras. They are not far from Rivendell, and the first major obstacle of the mission resulted in failure. It’s never a good sign when a third of your company’s faces “brighten visibly” at the possibility of quitting and going home.
No one gets a break in “A Journey in the Dark.”
Wargs and a Lovecraft-ian lake monster attack the Fellowship, and their escape consists of plunging head-first into a pitch-black abandoned mine. But more so than “The Ring Goes South,” “A Journey in the Dark” has a sense of cohesion and momentum. It’s a string of great set-pieces, of course. There are striking images: the warg silhouetted just outside the ring of stones, the glowing tentacle shooting out of the lake, the pillars of the Dwarrowdelf. But more than anything else, this is a chapter about Gandalf.
Gandalf the Grey
Tolkien is not an author who delves deeply or explicitly into the emotions and psyches of his characters. This isn’t an insult. It’s not that he can’t, or that the emotional complexities aren’t there. They’re just subtle and often left unsaid. It’s unusual compared to modern fantasy, which often prefers its heroes morally grey and fraught with angst or indecision. It’s why Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring features scenes of Aragorn staring at the shards of Narsil and explicitly announcing his insecurities.
We get very little of that sort of emotional exposition in “A Journey in the Dark,” but it is an interesting chapter for the characterization of Gandalf. When we think about him in the bigger picture, it’s been a brutal couple of months. His friend and (somewhat?) mentor Saruman ruthlessly betrayed him, locking him atop a tower and selling himself to the enemy. Because of his decisions, Frodo is forced to wander the countryside at the mercy of Ringwraiths, nearly dying multiple times and being stabbed by a Morgul blade. When he gathers the company together and they set out southwards, their first real test ends in disaster.
The Path to Moria
In this light it’s really interesting that Gandalf pushes to take the road through Moria. Even before the failure on Caradhras he was pushing the underground route, arguing with Aragorn and insisting to Boromir that the Pass of Rohan was untenable. Gandalf seems on the edge of a (justifiable) paranoia. He insists that “the danger will increase with every league that we go south under the naked eye” and that there is little hope left “if we do not soon vanish from sight for a while, and cover our trail.” In “The Ring Goes South” he immediately supported the idea that the snowstorm was not just an effect of the mountain, but outside meddling from Sauron. Gandalf seems certain that they are about to be discovered. It creates an interesting dynamic around Gandalf’s character, a quiet, underlying sense of uncertainty and fear.
It very much emphasizes the fact – present from the start – that while Gandalf is powerful he is very much not omnipotent. It rises up once again at the gate into Moria. Gandalf digs up all of his old sayings – “I once knew every spell in all the tongues of Elves or Men of Orcs… I can still remember ten score of them without searching in my mind” – and they are useless. He thunders in Elvish at the door to no avail, only to finally discover that he had been stumped by a simple, run-of-the-mill riddle.
Leadership and Choice
But “A Journey in the Dark” is not all about tearing Gandalf down or questioning his capacity. For every moment of failure or uncertainty there is one where the Fellowship catches of a glimpse of his potential and power.
The start of the chapter features Gandalf repeatedly emphasizing the theme of choice and free will. He offers the Fellowship the chance to go back to Rivendell. No one takes him up on it, though most of them seem to want to. He then presents options, and suggests Moria to be the only viable one (is it? Let’s talk about that in the comments). It’s not a popular suggestion – even the hobbits, who don’t know exactly what Moria is, associated with “a legend of vague fear.” But Gandalf presses ahead.
“I too once passed the Dimrill Gate,” said Aragorn quietly; “but though I also came out again, the memory is very evil. I do not wish to enter Moria a second time.”
“And I don’t wish to enter it even once,” said Pippin.
“Nor me,” muttered Sam.
“Of course not!” said Gandalf. “Who would? But the question is: who will follow me, if I lead you there?”
All of them do, of course (with some encouragement from howling Wargs). The question of how much choice is involved here is a pertinent one: it’s not clear that Gandalf really gave them another realistic choice. But the fact that Gandalf frames the mission as a choice feels important.
Magic and Contradiction
Speaking of the Wargs: in their nighttime attack on the camp we get one of our first glimpses of Battle Gandalf, and it’s a fairly impressive sight.
In the wavering firelight Gandalf seemed suddenly to grow: he rose up, a great menacing shape like the monument of some ancient king of stone set upon a hill. Stooping like a cloud, he lifted a burning branch and strode to meet the wolves. They gave back before him.
Tolkien is wonderful at stuff like this: conveying power and magic through contradiction. I love that he first describes Gandalf of an ancient king of stone, then immediately pivots and compares him to a cloud. With a quick look one could argue that Tolkien is being lazy, or mixing his metaphors. But I think it’s a very effective tool for illustrating a magical power that’s not quite human or not quite intuitive. He’s not just stern and strong; he’s not just looming and nebulous. He’s both, at the same time. It’s a great way to write magic.
Foreshadowing and Foresight
Before we move on, one more note about Gandalf. As I’m sure most of you know, the next chapter is a bit rough for our favorite wizard. He might start to miss those chilly hikes on Caradhras, if you know what I mean (I’m sorry). But throughout “A Journey in the Dark,” Aragorn seem to know that something bad is about to happen to Gandalf.
During the initial debate over the Fellowship’s route, Aragorn says he is hesitant to delve down into Moria for all the obvious reasons. But he especially fears for Gandalf: “I say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware!” Gandalf ignores this warning entirely and no one else responds. The story seems to move along past it. But it pops up again later: when Merry and Pippin try to dash into a chamber in Moria Aragorn chastises them. “Let the guide go first while you have one.”
I’m tempted to say that this is just some heavy-handed foreshadowing on Tolkien’s part. But it does raise a lot of questions. Does Aragorn have some kind of genuine foresight, or does he just have a bad feeling about the situation? Is he using some kind of special Númenorean intuition? Why does Gandalf ignore him? Does he know what is going to happen to him? In any case this sort of future knowledge felt a bit out of place to me, and I’m not sure exactly what to make of it.
Stories that Start in the Middle (or End)
We’ve touched on this before, in articles and in comment discussions: Tolkien is very good at creating a vibrant, lived-in world. Much of this comes from the world’s autonomy. Figures like Old Man Willow, Bombadil, Caradhras, and this chapter’s lake monster seem to exist largely on their own terms, independent of the plot. Old Man Willow could not have cared less that Frodo was the Ringbearer. He just tried to toss him in the Withywindle, because that’s just how Old Man Willow rolls. It makes the world seem real, not just created to house an individual story.
Another thing that helps this is the fact that The Lord of the Rings takes place in the middle of the story (or, honestly, right near the end). People remember certain things about the past, other people forget them. As the Fellowship wanders around Middle-earth they come across ruins of forgotten civilizations. There is history everywhere, of course. But it’s implied that there’s even more history that everyone has forgotten. It makes the universe feel large, expansive, mysterious. It makes the reader assume that if you pushed beyond the edges of the maps you wouldn’t just fall off the edge. There would be more there to see.
Moria is a wonderful example of that. When Gandalf first mentions Moria, it stirs up an emotional reaction throughout the Fellowship: “Gimli lifted up his head; a smoldering fire was in his eyes. On all the others a dread fell at the mention of that name. Even to the hobbits it was a legend of vague fear.” These differing reactions to a name do so much to make Middle-earth a good fantasy world. The same is true to the differing reactions to the ithildin writing on the Moria gate:
“There are the emblems of Durin!” cried Gimli.
“And there is the Tree of the High Elves!” said Legolas
“And the Star of the House of Feanor,” said Gandalf.
The simple fact that the three characters look at the same door and notice three different things creates instant nuance. It’s three short sentences but it implies a complicated relationship with history and the past, a world where different peoples from different places have very different interpretations of the world in which they live. Middle-earth is a rich world because of its detailed and well-established history. But it’s also a rich world because that history is in flux, told and understood, remembered and forgotten, by different people in different ways.
- I hadn’t remembered much about the Warg attack in this chapter, but I thought it was a good scene. Besides the above passage, we get the great visual of warg-eyes glowing around the campfire. And then at a gap in the circle “a great dark wolf-shape could be seen halted, gazing at them.” The Warg bodies also disappear in the morning. Not sure what to make of that, but a very unsettling detail.
- The Watcher in the Water is also a fun scene. I think the movie image had replaced the textual description in my head, and I was very much not expecting a “pale-green and luminous tentacle.” It’s much more B-movie horror than I would have expected, but I love it. I also like the detail of the water boiling as the monster attacked.
- Gandalf “did not speak aloud his thought that whatever it was that dwelt in the lake, it had seized on Frodo first among the Company.” What do you guys make of that? Was the monster making a play for the Ring, or is Gandalf just being jumpy?
- Pippin also gets a few good character moments in this chapter. It’s sad but sweet that he mentions to Sam that he shouldn’t have come. Not because he was cold or tired or unhappy, but because “I am no good after all.” Sure you are, Pip. Just wait.
- “The road may lead to Moria, but how can we hope that it will lead through Moria?” Aragorn is clearly a member of the Elrond School of Buzzkill Leadership.
- Do we know what happened to Aragorn on his first trip to Moria? I’m guessing it happened sometime in his early adventuring years, but I don’t know if there’s a story somewhere.
- The Fellowship is attacked by a giant lake monster with glowing tentacles, then trapped forcibly inside an evil mine, one of Gandalf’s first comments is “I am sorry, for the [holly trees outside the gate] were beautiful and had stood so long.”
- Bill the Pony Update: Gandalf ABANDONS him outside Moria and Sam is rightfully upset. After he’s come so far and all! Bill responds by nuzzling Sam, because Bill a ray of sunshine in pony form. Sam responds by throwing the packs angrily on the ground. We are all Samwise.
- Though we don’t see him, Gollum makes his first appearance credited as “ominous footsteps in the dark.”
- Prose Prize: “There are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world.” There’s nothing that special about this one. But it’s so ominous and resonant.
- Art Credits: Our header image is from Jian Guo, the painting of Gandalf and the hobbits outside of Moria is from Ted Nasmith, and the paintings of the Fellowship and of Gandalf inside Moria are from Donato Giancola. The screencaps from The Fellowship of the Ring are courtesy of New Line Cinema.