The Great River
Going down the river, the Fellowship soon pass out of the wider forest beyond Lorien:
“As the third day of their voyage wore on the lands changed slowly: the trees thinned and then failed altogether. On the eastern bank to their left they saw long formless slopes stretching up and away toward the sky; brown and withered they looked, as if fire had passed over them, leaving no living blade of green: an unfriendly waste without even a broken tree or a bold stone to relieve the emptiness. They had come to the Brown Lands that lay, vast and desolate, between Southern Mirkwood and the hills of the Emyn Muil. What pestilence or war or evil deed of the Enemy had so blasted all that region even Aragorn could not tell.
“Upon the west to their right the land was treeless also, but it was flat, and in many places green with wide plains of grass. On this side of the River they passed forests of great reeds, so tall that they shut out all view to the west, as the little boats went rustling by along their fluttering borders. Their dark withered plumes bent and tossed in the light cold airs, hissing softly and sadly. Here and there through openings Frodo could catch sudden glimpses of rolling meads, and far beyond them hills in the sunset, and away on the edge of sight a dark line, where marched the southernmost ranks of the Misty Mountains.
“There was no sign of living moving things, save birds. Of these there were many: small fowl whistling and piping in the reeds, but they were seldom seen. Once or twice the travellers heard the rush and whine of swan-wings, and looking up they saw a great phalanx streaming along the sky.
“`Swans! ‘ said Sam. `And mighty big ones too! ‘
“`Yes,’ said Aragorn, ‘and they are black swans.’
“`How wide and empty and mournful all this country looks! ‘ said Frodo. `I always imagined that as one journeyed south it got warmer and merrier, until winter was left behind for ever.’
“’But we have not journeyed far south yet,’ answered Aragorn. `It is still winter, and we are far from the sea. Here the world is cold until the sudden spring, and we may yet have snow again… here we are not above sixty leagues, I guess, south of the Southfarthing away in your Shire, hundreds of long miles yonder. You are looking now south-west across the north plains of the Riddermark, Rohan the land of the Horse-lords… It is a rich and pleasant land, and its grass has no rival; but in these evil days folk do not dwell by the River or ride often to its shores. Anduin is wide, yet the orcs can shoot their arrows far across the stream; and of late, it is said, they have dared to cross the water and raid the herds and studs of Rohan.’”
We see the blight of Sauron, including probably the black swans. They occur naturally only in Australia, though Tolkien does also have potatoes from the New World growing in The Shire.
I saw such swans in New Zealand, where European settlers had brought them. The red-beaked red-eyed creatures do indeed seem like something evil. Probably very unfair.
Economists make a big thing of ‘black swans’ as rare unexpected events.
Regarding the climate, Tolkien is right to suppose that the interior would have much more drastic winters than land near the sea.
They are all uneasy, and Sam sees a log with eyes, which he assumes is the same creature the elves of Lorien saw. And correctly identifies as Gollum:
“I don’t like my thoughts; but thinking of one thing and another, and Mr. Bilbo’s stories and all, I fancy I could put a name on the creature, at a guess. A nasty name. Gollum, maybe? ‘
“`Yes, that is what I have feared for some time,’ said Frodo… `I suppose he was lurking in Moria, and picked up our trail then; but I hoped that our stay in Lórien would throw him off the scent again. The miserable creature must have been hiding in the woods by the Silverlode, watching us start off! ‘”
Aragorn later confirms this:
“`So you know about our little footpad, do you? He padded after us all through Moria and right down to Nimrodel. Since we took to boats, he has been lying on a log and paddling with hands and feet. I have tried to catch him once or twice at night; but he is slier than a fox, and as slippery as a fish. I hoped the river-voyage would beat him, but he is too clever a waterman.
“`We shall have to try going faster tomorrow. You lie down now, and I will keep watch for what is left of the night. I wish I could lay my hands on the wretch. We might make him useful. But if I cannot, we shall have to try and lose him. He is very dangerous. Quite apart from murder by night on his own account, he may put any enemy that is about on our track.’”
Aragorn suggests the strategy that Frodo will later follow. Frodo will also feel sympathy for Gollum as a fellow ring-bearer, something that seems alien to Aragorn. On the other hand, Aragorn does not suggest that Legolas’s skills as an archer be used to kill the dangerous creature. As Gandalf had much earlier said to Frodo, a decent person cannot lightly kill.
Aragorn in Tolkien’s work is not presented as perfect. This is shown on the eighth night:
“`We will venture one more journey by night. We are coming to reaches of the River that I do not know well: for I have never journeyed by water in these parts before, not between here and the rapids of Sarn Gebir. But if I am right in my reckoning, those are still many miles ahead…
“There was a swift current which swung left, towards the eastern shore where the channel was clear. As they were swept aside the travellers could see, now very close, the pale foam of the River lashing against sharp rocks that were thrust out far into the stream like a ridge of teeth. The boats were all huddled together.
“`Hoy there, Aragorn! ‘ shouted Boromir, as his boat bumped into the leader. `This is madness! We cannot dare the Rapids by night! But no boat can live in Sarn Gebir, be it night or day.’
“`Back, back! ‘ cried Aragorn. ‘Turn! Turn if you can! ‘ He drove his paddle into the water, trying to hold the boat and bring it round.
“’I am out of my reckoning,’ he said to Frodo. ‘I did not know that we had come so far: Anduin flows faster than I thought. Sarn Gebir must be close at hand already.’
“With great efforts they checked the boats and slowly brought them about; but at first they could make only small headway against the current, and all the time they were carried nearer and nearer to the eastern bank. Now dark and ominous it loomed up in the night.
“’All together, paddle! ‘ shouted Boromir. ‘Paddle! Or we shall be driven on the shoals.’ Even as he spoke Frodo felt the keel beneath him grate upon stone.
“At that moment there was a twang of bowstrings: several arrows whistled over them, and some fell among them. One smote Frodo between the shoulders and he lurched forward with a cry, letting go his paddle: but the arrow fell back. foiled by his hidden coat of mail. Another passed through Aragorn’s hood; and a third stood fast in the gunwale of the second boat, close by Merry’s hand. Sam thought he could glimpse black figures running to and fro upon the long shingle-banks that lay under the eastern shore. They seemed very near.
“`Yrch!’ said Legolas, falling into his own tongue.
“`Orcs! ‘ cried Gimli.”
Someone did a cartoon of this, which has Legolas literally falling into a gigantic tongue. Part of a calendar that also has some very dim orcs learning simple sums from an orc schoolmarm – ‘orcs were multiplying in the mountains’.[A]
As well as his technical error, Aragorn fails to apologise generally or to fully credit Boromir. There is a growing rivalry between them, and Aragorn is perhaps at fault here.
They manage at last to get to the safety of the west bank, but then another peril appears. This time Legolas handles it:
“Frodo looked up at the Elf standing tall above him, as he gazed into the night, seeking a mark to shoot at. His head was dark, crowned with sharp white stars that glittered in the black pools of the sky behind. But now rising and sailing up from the South the great clouds advanced, sending out dark outriders into the starry fields. A sudden dread fell on the Company.
“`Elbereth Gilthoniel!’ sighed Legolas as he looked up. Even as he did so, a dark shape, like a cloud and yet not a cloud, for it moved far more swiftly, came out of the blackness in the South, and sped towards the Company, blotting out all light as it approached. Soon it appeared as a great winged creature, blacker than the pits in the night. Fierce voices rose up to greet it from across the water. Frodo felt a sudden chill running through him and clutching at his heart; there was a deadly cold, like the memory of an old wound, in his shoulder. He crouched down, as if to hide.
“Suddenly the great bow of Lórien sang. Shrill went the arrow from the elven-string. Frodo looked up. Almost above him the winged shape swerved. There was a harsh croaking scream, as it fell out of the air, vanishing down into the gloom of the eastern shore. The sky was clean again. There was a tumult of many voices far away, cursing and wailing in the darkness, and then silence. Neither shaft nor cry came again from the east that night.”
This is the first view we get of a Nazgul riding a winged beast. As usual, Tolkien introduces a major plot element in small ways. He gets you used to them before they play a major role.
This incident is one of many things left out in the film.
Incidentally, just how big is the river? In her Atlas of Middle-earth, Karen Wynn Fonstad estimates a total length of 1,388 miles, 2,233 km. That makes it much shorter than the Nile or Amazon.[B] Not as long as the Danube (1,770 miles), but significantly longer than the Rhine (760) miles or the Thames (215).
This danger past, Sam tries reckoning the days and is puzzled:
“`The Moon’s the same in the Shire and in Wilderland, or it ought to be. But either it’s out of its running, or I’m all wrong in my reckoning. You’ll remember, Mr. Frodo, the Moon was waning as we lay on the flet up in that tree: a week from the full, I reckon. And we’d been a week on the way last night, when up pops a New Moon as thin as a nail-paring, as if we had never stayed no time in the Elvish country.
“`Well, I can remember three nights there for certain, and I seem to remember several more, but I would take my oath it was never a whole month. Anyone would think that time did not count in there! ‘
“`And perhaps that was the way of it,’ said Frodo. `In that land, maybe, we were in a time that has elsewhere long gone by. It was not, I think, until Silverlode bore us back to Anduin that we returned to the time that flows through mortal lands to the Great Sea. And I don’t remember any moon, either new or old, in Caras Galadhon: only stars by night and sun by day.’
“Legolas stirred in his boat. `Nay, time does not tarry ever,’ he said; `but change and growth is not in all things and places alike. For the Elves the world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by: it is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long long stream. Yet beneath the Sun all things must wear to an end at last.’”
This is part of fairy-tale tradition, and one might guess that it had indeed been a whole month. The dates in Appendix B confirm this – at Caras Galadhon on the 17th January and departing on 16th February.
You could also note the similarity to the Lotus-eaters from Homer’s Odyssey. But that is negative, whereas the elves are benevolent.
Incidentally, this tradition is reversed in C S Lewis’s Narnia stories, where time flows much more quickly, and a visitor can find that they have been returned to childhood after a long visit in which they grew up. This seems to be original to Lewis, though when I asked on Quora it was suggested that there were precedents in the stories of George MacDonald.[C]
Ursula Le Guin later had the clever idea of linking vast amounts of time passing for a visitor to supernatural realms to Einsteinian time dilation. This is in a short story called The Dowry of the Angyar, the first of her remarkable Hainish stories. A woman seeking to recover an heirloom necklace is unknowingly taken on an interstellar journey at nearly the speed of light. On her return, though she only experienced two days of travel, she has been away for nine years. This story was expanded as Rocannon’s World, a much less successful mix of science fiction and legendary elements. Le Guin thereafter kept them separate, but Julian May was able to mix them much more successfully in her Saga of Pliocene Exile.
Back to the Great River. The company are able to carry the boats round the dangerous falls:
“Then the boats were drawn out of the water and carried up. They were far less heavy than any had expected. Of what tree growing in the elvish country they were made not even Legolas knew; but the wood was tough and yet strangely light. Merry and Pippin alone could carry their boat with ease along the flat. Nonetheless it needed the strength of the two Men to lift and haul them over the ground that the Company now had to cross.”
They now approach the place where they must decide: a lake called Nen Hithoel that ends with the Falls of Rauros. Its northern end is traditionally the northern border of Gondor, and is marked by the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings. They show the royal brothers Isildur and Anárion, sons of Elendil. They had been set up some 1200 years after Isildur’s time by a later King of Gondor after defeating some Easterlings. That’s a gap about as big as from us back to Alfred the Great.
The film makes it Elendil and Isildur, with Anárion the ancestor of the Kings of Gondor very much minimised.
Surprisingly, Aragorn has not been here before, despite the much more distant journeys he had previously made.
The south end of the lake has three peaks: one on the east bank, one on the west and in between an island:
“The pent waters spread out into a long oval lake, pale Nen Hithoel, fenced by steep grey hills whose sides were clad with trees, but their heads were bare, cold-gleaming in the sunlight. At the far southern end rose three peaks. The midmost stood somewhat forward from the others and sundered from them, an island in the waters, about which the flowing River flung pale shimmering arms. Distant but deep there came up on the wind a roaring sound like the roll of thunder heard far away.
“`Behold Tol Brandir! ‘ said Aragorn, pointing south to the tall peak. ‘Upon the left stands Amon Lhaw, and upon the right is Amon Hen the Hills of Hearing and of Sight. In the days of the great kings there were high seats upon them, and watch was kept there. But it is said that no foot of man or beast has ever been set upon Tol Brandir. Ere the shade of night falls we shall come to them. I hear the endless voice of Rauros calling.’”
In the next chapter, they will land near Amon Hen, on the west bank. And will find that even that is no longer safe from orcs.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.
[A] I’ve lost track of which it was. If anyone knows, please tell me.