A Journey in the Dark
Tolkien was careful to give away as little as possible in the chapter-names that a reader would see at the start of the book. He keeps as much as possible as a surprise for first-time readers. ‘A Journey in the Dark’ might have meant something other than passing through Moria. But it soon becomes clear this is the least bad option:
“`The attack on the Redhorn Gate has tired us out, [says Gandalf] and we must rest here for a while.’
“`And then where are we to go? ‘ asked Frodo.
“’We still have our journey and our errand before us,’ answered Gandalf. `We have no choice but to go on, or to return to Rivendell.’
“Pippin’s face brightened visibly at the mere mention of return to Rivendell; Merry and Sam looked up hopefully. But Aragorn and Boromir made no sign. Frodo looked troubled.
“`I wish I was back there,’ he said. `But how can I return without shame – unless there is indeed no other way, and we are already defeated? ‘
“`You are right, Frodo,’ said Gandalf: `to go back is to admit defeat and face worse defeat to come. If we go back now, then the Ring must remain there: we shall not be able to set out again. Then sooner or later Rivendell will be besieged, and after a brief and bitter time it will be destroyed. The Ringwraiths are deadly enemies, but they are only shadows yet of the power and terror they would possess if the Ruling Ring was on their master’s hand again.’
“’Then we must go on, if there is a way,’ said Frodo with a sigh. Sam sank back into gloom.
“`There is a way that we may attempt,’ said Gandalf. `I thought from the beginning, when first I considered this journey, that we should try it. But it is not a pleasant way, and I have not spoken of it to the Company before. Aragorn was against it, until the pass over the mountains had at least been tried.’
“`If it is a worse road than the Redhorn Gate, then it must be evil indeed,’ said Merry. `But you had better tell us about it, and let us know the worst at once.’
“’The road that I speak of leads to the Mines of Moria,’ said Gandalf. Only Gimli lifted up his head; a smouldering 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.”
Moria and Gandalf’s death there were conceived before Saruman was added to the overall plot. But now he is invoked to justify that path. Boromir would sooner return the way he came, via the Gap of Rohan:
“’Things have changed since you came north, Boromir,’ answered Gandalf. ‘Did you not hear what I told you of Saruman? With him I may have business of my own ere all is over. But the Ring must not come near Isengard, if that can by any means be prevented. The Gap of Rohan is closed to us while we go with the Bearer.
“’As for the longer road: we cannot afford the time. We might spend a year in such a journey, and we should pass through many lands that are empty and harbourless. Yet they would not be safe. The watchful eyes both of Saruman and of the Enemy are on them. When you came north, Boromir, you were in the Enemy’s eyes only one stray wanderer from the South and a matter of small concern to him: his mind was busy with the pursuit of the Ring. But you return now as a member of the Ring’s Company, and you are in peril as long as you remain with us. The danger will increase with every league that we go south under the naked sky.
“`Since our open attempt on the mountain-pass our plight has become more desperate, I fear. I see now little hope, if we do not soon vanish from sight for a while, and cover our trail. Therefore I advise that we should go neither over the mountains, nor round them, but under them. That is a road at any rate that the Enemy will least expect us to take.’
“`We do not know what he expects,’ said Boromir. `He may watch all roads, likely and unlikely. In that case to enter Moria would be to walk into a trap, hardly better than knocking at the gates of the Dark Tower itself. The name of Moria is black.’
“`You speak of what you do not know, when you liken Moria to the stronghold of Sauron,’ answered Gandalf. `I alone of you have ever been in the dungeons of the Dark Lord, and only in his older and lesser dwelling in Dol Guldur. Those who pass the gates of Barad-dûr do not return. But I would not lead you into Moria if there were no hope of coming out again. If there are Orcs there, it may prove ill for us, that is true. But most of the Orcs of the Misty Mountains were scattered or destroyed in the Battle of Five Armies. The Eagles report that Orcs are gathering again from afar; but there is a hope that Moria is still free.
“`There is even a chance that Dwarves are there, and that in some deep hall of his fathers, Balin son of Fundin may be found.’”
It is worth paying attention to all these little details that the Jackson films had to leave out – of necessity, since they are enormous even as they are. Jackson has Gimli confident that Balin’s people will be there to greet them, while Tolkien has everyone worrying that no news has come. But Gandalf was perhaps hoping for something better than what they find. Meantime Aragorn seems to foresee more clearly:
“`You followed my lead almost to disaster in the snow, and have said no word of blame [says Aragorn]. I will follow your lead now – if this last warning does not move you. It is not of the Ring, nor of us others that I am thinking now, but of you, Gandalf. And I say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware!’”
Note also that everyone except Boromir accepts that mistakes happen. He shows the flaw in his generally-brave nature by a string of entirely pointless complaints. He seems to constantly feel he is entitled to more than he gets.
They also hear wolves, and seek a secure place for the night:
“For their defence in the night the Company climbed to the top of the small hill under which they had been sheltering. it was crowned with a knot of old and twisted trees, about which lay a broken circle of boulder stones.”
An ancient Stone Circle? Or is it natural? Regardless, wolves attack them, with Gandalf using fire-magic to hold them off. And in the morning, the bodies of those they slew are not there. It was some sort of hostile magic.
One extra. Before the attack, Sam says
“Whatever may be in store for old Gandalf, I’ll wager it isn’t a wolf’s belly.”
It’s been noted by many, Tolkien included, that Gandalf has points in common with the wandering Odin / Wotan from Norse myth. He does indeed end up in a wolf’s belly, though that is the gigantic Fenris Wolf.
Moving on, Gandalf finds that a stream he remembered had been reduced to a trickle. They later learn that someone chose to dam it and make a lake:
“The reason for the drying up of the Gate-stream was revealed. Behind them the sinking Sun filled the cool western sky with glimmering gold. Before them stretched a dark still lake. Neither sky nor sunset was reflected on its sullen surface. The Sirannon had been dammed and had filled all the valley.”
The lake contains what may be the ‘Watcher in the Water’ that is later mentioned in the records left by Balin’s dwarves. The last chapter mentioned ‘many evil and unfriendly things in the world’, independent of Sauron. But here, it is logical to suppose the dam was built by orcs who had some sort of alliance with a water-creature or creatures who live there. It cuts off a possible escape route for Balin’s dwarves, and also prevents more entering that way. With the dwarves long dead, it must then have been neglected, but the creature remains and perhaps catches wild animals who come to drink. Perhaps the reason why Hollin no longer has living creatures in it. And it might range more widely – Moria has wells and presumably other water, just as Gollum much further north dwelt by an underground lake when Bilbo found him
They are not cut off completely from the gate. It is invisible but can be opened from the inside, which is how the orcs would know of it. The path is bad and they are lucky the orcs no longer watch it:
“When they came to the northernmost corner of the lake they found a narrow creek that barred their way. It was green and stagnant, thrust out like a slimy arm towards the enclosing hills. Gimli strode forward undeterred, and found that the water was shallow, no more than ankle-deep at the edge. Behind him they walked in file, threading their way with care, for under the weedy pools were sliding and greasy stones, and footing was treacherous. Frodo shuddered with disgust at the touch of the dark unclean water on his feet.
“As Sam, the last of the Company, led Bill up on to the dry ground on the far side, there came a soft sound: a swish, followed by a plop, as if a fish had disturbed the still surface of the water. Turning quickly they saw ripples, black-edged with shadow in the waning light: great rings were widening outwards from a point far out in the lake. There was a bubbling noise, and then silence. The dusk deepened, and the last gleams of the sunset were veiled in cloud.
“Gandalf now pressed on at a great pace, and the others followed as quickly as they could. They reached the strip of dry land between the lake and the cliffs: it was narrow, often hardly a dozen yards across, and encumbered with fallen rock and stones; but they found a way, hugging the cliff, and keeping as far from the dark water as they might. A mile southwards along the shore they came upon holly trees. Stumps and dead boughs were rotting in the shallows, the remains it seemed of old thickets, or of a hedge that had once lined the road across the drowned valley. But close under the cliff there stood, still strong and living, two tall trees, larger than any trees of holly that Frodo had ever seen or imagined. Their great roots spread from the wall to the water. Under the looming cliffs they had looked like mere bushes, when seen far off from the top of the Stair; but now they towered overhead, stiff, dark, and silent, throwing deep night-shadows about their feet, standing like sentinel pillars at the end of the road.”
Here as elsewhere, you find an entire landscape has been corrupted. You see the ruins of what was once a much better world. Decayed, but with some hold-outs, like the growing ‘crown’ on the beheaded status of a king that Frodo and Sam will later see. Here it is a remnant of the Noldor, who got on well with dwarves, as Rivendell still does. And as Legolas’s people do not:
“`Well, here we are at last! ‘ said Gandalf. ‘Here the Elven-way from Hollin ended. Holly was the token of the people of that land, and they planted it here to mark the end of their domain; for the West-door was made chiefly for their use in their traffic with the Lords of Moria. Those were happier days, when there was still close friendship at times between folk of different race, even between Dwarves and Elves.’
“’It was not the fault of the Dwarves that the friendship waned,’ said Gimli.
“’I have not heard that it was the fault of the Elves,’ said Legolas.
“’I have heard both,’ said Gandalf; ‘and I will not give judgement now. But I beg you two, Legolas and Gimli, at least to be friends, and to help me. I need you both. The doors are shut and hidden, and the sooner we find them the better. Night is at hand!’”
They also see the need to release Bill the pony, hoping he may survive, as in fact he does. This is followed by the well-known problems opening the door. It includes Gandalf giving a brief picture of magic in general:
“‘I will seek for the opening words.
“`I once knew every spell in all the tongues of Elves or Men or Orcs that was ever used for such a purpose. I can still remember ten score of them without searching in my mind. But only a few trials, I think, will be needed; and I shall not have to call on Gimli for words of the secret dwarf-tongue that they teach to none. The opening words were Elvish, like the writing on the arch: that seems certain.’”
He deduces that it was meant for easy use by the elves of Hollin, but takes time to see that the true meaning of the elven words he translated as ‘Speak, friend, and enter’:
“`I was wrong after all,’ said Gandalf, ‘and Gimli too. Merry, of all people, was on the right track. The opening word was inscribed on the archway all the time! The translation should have been: Say “Friend” and enter. I had only to speak the Elvish word for friend and the doors opened. Quite simple. Too simple for a learned lore-master in these suspicious days. Those were happier times. Now let us go!’”
This is the first useful contribution by the hobbits, apart from Frodo being the least risky person to hold the One Ring. The first step up to a truly heroic role.
On another topic, I’d note also the odd fact that I can think of no magic objects made by men mentioned in the various tales of Middle-Earth. Dwarves make doors, and perhaps put magic in their weapons and other things. Elves seem to put magic into everything they make. Other objects with specific magic power seem to have been made by orcs or by Sauron, apart from a seemingly magic ring made by Saruman. But human magicians ought to be able to do similar work. In Smith of Wootton Major, Smith thinks he could make special swords, but minor compared to Elven work.
Back at the gates of Moria, they have the door open but are still outside when Frodo is attacked by many tentacles from the water. Sam makes the painful choice to help rescue Frodo and abandon Bill the pony, who flees and whose fate is unknown to them at the time. They hasten inside:
“They heard Gandalf go back down the steps and thrust his staff against the doors. There was a quiver in the stone and the stairs trembled, but the doors did not open. `Well, well! ‘ said the wizard. `The passage is blocked behind us now and there is only one way out–on the other side of the mountains. I fear from the sounds that boulders have been piled up, and the trees uprooted and thrown across the gate. I am sorry; for the trees were beautiful, and had stood so long.’
“`I felt that something horrible was near from the moment that my foot first touched the water,’ said Frodo. ‘What was the thing, or were there many of them?
“’I do not know,’ answered Gandalf, ‘but the arms were all guided by one purpose. Something has crept, or has been driven out of dark waters under the mountains. There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world.’ He did not speak aloud his thought that whatever it was that dwelt in the lake, it had seized on Frodo first among all the Company.”
They now have to cross Moria – 40 miles in a direct line, and the road winds much. Gandalf expects three or four ‘marches’ – days, effectively. They are cut off from daylight. Either no one brought lanterns or candles, or they got left behind when they fled the monster. But Gandalf can make his staff glow.
It is no easy journey, and includes jumping over a chasm more than seven feet across, which Pippin finds particularly difficult. It is all confusing:
“The Mines of Moria were vast and intricate beyond the imagination of Gimli, Glóin’s son, dwarf of the mountain-race though he was. To Gandalf the far-off memories of a journey long before were now of little help, but even in the gloom and despite all windings of the road he knew whither he wished to go, and he did not falter, as long as there was a path that led towards his goal.”
Aragorn reassures them
“`Do not be afraid! ‘ said Aragorn. There was a pause longer than usual, and Gandalf and Gimli were whispering together; the others were crowded behind, waiting anxiously. `Do not be afraid! I have been with him on many a journey, if never on one so dark; and there are tales of Rivendell of greater deeds of his than any that I have seen. He will not go astray-if there is any path to find. He has led us in here against our fears, but he will lead us out again, at whatever cost to himself. He is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Berúthiel.’”
The enigmatic Berúthiel caught everyone’s imagination, even though she was not mentioned again in the book. Tolkien explained he used the name without knowing who this was – but later developed her somewhat. In Unfinished Tales, we learn she was of Black Númenórean origin. That she was married to a King of Gondor who expanded the realm, presumably with her help. But who also had to send her away and died childless. You could see this as the start of moral decay combined with an increase in overt power:
“‘She had nine black cats and one white, her slaves, with whom she conversed, or read their memories, setting them to discover all the dark secrets of Gondor, so that she knew those things ‘that men wish most to keep hidden’, setting the white cat to spy upon the black, and tormenting them. No man in Gondor dared touch them; all were afraid of them, and cursed when they saw them pass’…
“Falastur [King of Gondor] had her sent out to sea in a ship with her cats: ‘The ship was last seen flying past Umbar under a sickle moon, with a cat at the masthead and another as a figure-head on the prow’…
“She was one of these people who loathe cats, but cats will jump on them and follow them about… I’m afraid she took to torturing them for amusement, but she kept some and used them: trained them to go on evil errands by night, to spy on her enemies or terrify them.”[A]
Someone could make a dark adventure tale out of the hints that Tolkien left: The Blight of Berúthiel, maybe. King Falastur could be tempted by power into evil, but turn back. His nephew who later captured the Black Númenórean stronghold of Umbar could be the hero. I do hope the Tolkien Estate start allowing such things beyond the realms of Fan Fiction.
Back in Moria, they pick up Gollum who had waited there, and Frodo gets a hint of him. Gandalf is aware that it is night outside and where the moon would be, deep underground though they are. He clearly perceives a great deal, and knows which way he is going without visible clues:
Meantime Sam wonders about what happened to Bill the pony. And later Pippin drops a stone down a well, from an idle impulse. That’s good story-telling – the characters have distinct thoughts and interests, rather than being passive items moved by the author.
We’ve earlier had indications that things are still happening in Moria:
“The noise of churning water came up from far below, as if some great mill-wheel was turning in the depths.”
Pippin’s foolish dropped stone disturbs something that seemingly then uses a hammer to send signals. Or perhaps not: in the next chapter we learn from the elves of Lorien that orcs had gone north into Moria. Regardless, evil may be closing in on them, in a grand realm that is now decayed:
“The Company spent that night in the great cavernous hall, huddled close together in a corner to escape the draught: there seemed to be a steady inflow of chill air through the eastern archway. All about them as they lay hung the darkness, hollow and immense, and they were oppressed by the loneliness and vastness of the dolven halls and endlessly branching stairs and passages. The wildest imaginings that dark rumour had ever suggested to the hobbits fell altogether short of the actual dread and wonder of Moria.
“`There must have been a mighty crowd of dwarves here at one time ‘ said Sam; `and every one of them busier than badgers for five hundred years to make all this, and most in hard rock too! What did they do it all for? They didn’t live in these darksome holes surely? ‘
“`These are not holes,’ said Gimli. `This is the great realm and city of the Dwarrowdelf. And of old it was not darksome, but full of light and splendour, as is still remembered in our songs.’”
He then chants a long but splendid poem, of which I’ll give the start and end:
“The world was young, the mountains green,
“No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
“No words were laid on stream or stone
“When Durin woke and walked alone…
“The world is grey, the mountains old,
“The forge’s fire is ashen-cold
“No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:
“The darkness dwells in Durin’s halls
“The shadow lies upon his tomb
“In Moria, in Khazad-dûm.
“But still the sunken stars appear
“In dark and windless Mirrormere;
“There lies his crown in water deep,
“Till Durin wakes again from sleep.”
Decay as its theme, but with hope of one more rally before the end. The Appendices tell us that Moria will indeed be restored and a Durin the 7th appear.
We also learn the reason for its existence: it was the only source of ‘true-silver’ or mithril. Everyone values it, including Sauron, though we are not told what he does with it. And Frodo learns that his mithril shirt has a monetary worth “greater than the value of the whole Shire and everything in it”.
Yet all has now declined. Gimli says:
“`I have looked on Moria, and it is very great, but it has become dark and dreadful; and we have found no sign of my kindred. I doubt now that Balin ever came here.’”
Even this is too hopeful. The chapter ends with them finding Balin’s deserted tomb