The Breaking of the Fellowship
Chapter titles in Tolkien seldom give much away. Here, you already know that the eight survivors of the Fellowship are likely to split, going to Mordor or Minas Tirith. There is no hint of how violent the split will be.
Never forget, Tolkien planned it as a single volume with six Books. It was the publisher who gave it the form of a trilogy. He would expect the reader to be able to look ahead to Book 3. So its first chapter, The Departure of Boromir, is also consistent with the original plan being carried through.
But of course it is not.
They land on the west bank of the Anduin, at the foot of a hill called Amon Hen, the Hill of Seeing. In the shadow of a possibly-sacred island called Tol Brandir. An island too steep to land on, sadly, otherwise many things might have been different.
Just to the south is the Falls of Rauros. It would have been possible to carry the boats down the North Stairs, and go by boat to Minas Tirith. But if they were to go to Mordor, it was better to turn east now.
Incidentally, when I came to study the chapter, I realised that I had never previously visualised it correctly. Vaguely thought they were on an island.
I looked up a Tolkienian source to get an exact description:
“The lake was approximately 20 miles long from north to south, and 10 miles wide. The lake was formed by a narrow southern outlet and the small island of Tol Brandir, which created a natural dam. Upon the lake’s northern approach from Anduin the Men of Gondor carved the huge pillars of the Argonath in the reign of Rómendacil II to mark the northern boundary of their realm, although by the time of the War of the Ring that boundary has long since receded. At the southern end of the lake stood three steep hills. Amon Hen, the ‘Hill of Seeing’, was upon the western shore and Amon Lhaw, the ‘Hill of Hearing’, was upon the east. The third hill formed the island of Tol Brandir. None ever set foot upon the island due to its sheer cliffs that rose directly from the river.”[A]
They are on the west bank of the river. Orcs are mostly on the east bank, but it was earlier mentioned that they have crossed to raid the Rohirrim. Aragorn is aware of danger. He has Frodo test this:
“A shadow and a threat has been growing in my sleep. It would be well to draw your sword.’
“`Why? ‘ said Frodo. `Are enemies at hand? ‘
“`Let us see what Sting may show,’ answered Aragorn.
“Frodo then drew the elf-blade from its sheath. To his dismay the edges gleamed dimly in the night. `Orcs! ‘ he said. `Not very near, and yet too near, it seems.’
“`I feared as much,’ said Aragorn. `But maybe they are not on this side of the River. The light of Sting is faint, and it may point to no more than spies of Mordor roaming on the slopes of Amon Lhaw. I have never heard before of Orcs upon Amon Hen. Yet who knows what may happen in these evil days, now that Minas Tirith no longer holds secure the passages of Anduin. We must go warily tomorrow.’”
Old centers of Dunedain power seem to have some power to repel evil. But he correctly fears it may not be enough.
Aragorn’s mighty sword Andúril evidently does not have the useful trick of warning of nearby orcs. It had been re-forged by Elrond from the fragments of the sword Narsil, which was carried by Elendil, who with his sons Isildur and Anárion had led the faithful minority of the Numenorians back to Middle Earth. That sword had been made by a dwarf in the First Age, and had been broken when Elendil and Gil-galad overcame Sauron. (All very different in the Jackson film, of course.)
This sword may actually be better than the elven blades Elrond might have been able to give Aragorn. But it lacks the useful orc-spotting trick.
Knowing orcs might be upon them soon, Aragorn askes the Fellowship to make a difficult choice:
“When they had eaten, Aragorn called the Company together. `The day has come at last,’ he said: ‘the day of choice which we have long delayed. What shall now become of our Company that has travelled so far in fellowship? Shall we turn west with Boromir and go to the wars of Gondor; or turn east to the Fear and Shadow; or shall we break our fellowship and go this way and that as each may choose? Whatever we do must be done soon. We cannot long halt here. The enemy is on the eastern shore, we know; but I fear that the Orcs may already be on this side of the water.’
“There was a long silence in which no one spoke or moved.
“’Well, Frodo,’ said Aragorn at last. `I fear that the burden is laid upon you. You are the Bearer appointed by the Council. Your own way you alone can choose. In this matter I cannot advise you. I am not Gandalf, and though I have tried to bear his part, I do not know what design or hope he had for this hour, if indeed he had any. Most likely it seems that if he were here now the choice would still wait on you. Such is your fate.’
“Frodo did not answer at once. Then he spoke slowly. `I know that haste is needed, yet I cannot choose. The burden is heavy. Give me an hour longer, and I will speak. Let me be alone! ‘
“Aragorn looked at him with kindly pity. `Very well, Frodo son of Drogo,’ he said. `You shall have an hour, and you shall be alone.”
Frodo goes off alone. Aragorn meantime outlines his plan:
“‘But if he goes east, then all need not go with him; nor do I think that all should. That venture is desperate: as much so for eight as for three or two, or one alone. If you would let me choose, then I should appoint three companions: Sam, who could not bear it otherwise; and Gimli; and myself. Boromir will return to his own city, where his father and his people need him; and with him the others should go, or at least Meriadoc and Peregrin, if Legolas is not willing to leave us.'”
Aragorn can probably find a better way into Mordor. Without the same sufferings, and with the others to encourage him, Frodo is able to destroy the One Ring. The drawback is that Merry and Pippin never meet Treebeard and Saruman remains strong, even if his army still loses at Helm’s Deep.
But that’s not how it goes. While Frodo ponders his choice, Boromir interrupts him. And does not like what Frodo tells him:
“I know what I should do, but I am afraid of doing it…
“’I think I know already what counsel you would give, Boromir … And it would seem like wisdom but for the warning of my heart.’
“`Warning? Warning against what? ‘ said Boromir sharply.
“’Against delay. Against the way that seems easier. Against refusal of the burden that is laid on me. Against – well, if it must be said, against trust in the strength and truth of Men.’
But the ring has been working on Boromir. He starts demanding the ring. His speech gets very strange: he begins talking to himself rather than Frodo:
“The only plan that is proposed to us is that a halfling should walk blindly into Mordor and offer the Enemy every chance of recapturing it for himself. Folly!”
Gollum, of course, always talks to himself when talking to others. I doubt the similarity is accidental.
It is also one of three likely sources of the Jackson films’ most famous phrase:
One does not simply walk into Mordor
This is said at the Council of Elrond, as a very late addition:
“It was ‘a passage of dialogue scribbled on a piece of paper and literally balanced on his knee,’ … you can even catch Bean subtly glancing down at it during the scene. It’s hard to account for just how many memes were created by that line.”[B]
The other two possible sources, any or all of which might have inspired Jackson and his co-writers, are:
- Elrond saying “There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril – to Mordor.”
- Approaching Moria, Boromir says `He[Sauron] 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.’
Unable to persuade, Boromir tries using force, pushing Frodo to repeat his desperate strategy of putting on the ring. I see this as the one time when he’s correct to do so.
But how far was Boromir wrong? I suspect that without knowing which choice the author has decided is going to be justified, many would think his choice correct. This may explain why Aragorn later shows such sympathy. He feels the same, and has a much better claim on the One Ring. Perhaps without Gandalf, the original risky venture has become impossible. Gandalf has been wrong on other matters: perhaps he overestimated the danger.
With Frodo gone, Boromir goes from rage to repentance:
“He rose and passed his hand over his eyes, dashing away the tears. ‘What have I said? ‘ he cried. `What have I done? Frodo, Frodo! ‘ he called. ‘Come back! A madness took me, but it has passed. Come back! ‘”
But how sincere is this? If the ring is manipulating him, this might be an attempt to get a second chance. A sincere person would surely depart at once, rather than risk being tempted again.
When I said this at my Tolkien Smial, most of the others disagreed, seeing Boromir as much more heroic. I’ll discuss this further in the next chapter-analysis, which deals with his death.
Though the book does not say it, I’d also wonder if Aragorn decides not to follow Frodo because he can’t be sure he himself would be tempted as Boromir was, with longer exposure and the ring growing stronger as it comes closer to the place where it was created. The place where Isildur let himself be tempted, though the scene with Elrond in the heart of the mountain was invented for the film, one of several excellent additions that make the plot clearer. And of course the One Ring does in the end overcome Frodo himself, who irrationally refuses to destroy it.
Back then, Frodo is fleeing while wearing the ring, and has his amazing vision on Amon Hen. A remarkable panorama that Jackson, surprisingly, decided not to film beyond the minimum necessary to the story:
“Up he went and sat upon the ancient chair, feeling like a lost child that had clambered upon the throne of mountain-kings.
“At first he could see little. He seemed to be in a world of mist in which there were only shadows: the Ring was upon him. Then here and there the mist gave way and he saw many visions: small and clear as if they were under his eyes upon a table, and yet remote. There was no sound, only bright living images. The world seemed to have shrunk and fallen silent. He was sitting upon the Seat of Seeing, on Amon Hen, the Hill of the Eye of the Men of Númenor. Eastward he looked into wide uncharted lands, nameless plains, and forests unexplored. Northward he looked, and the Great River lay like a ribbon beneath him, and the Misty Mountains stood small and hard as broken teeth. Westward he looked and saw the broad pastures of Rohan; and Orthanc, the pinnacle of Isengard, like a black spike. Southward he looked, and below his very feet the Great River curled like a toppling wave and plunged over the falls of Rauros into a foaming pit; a glimmering rainbow played upon the fume. And Ethir Anduin he saw, the mighty delta of the River, and myriads of sea-birds whirling like a white dust in the sun, and beneath them a green and silver sea, rippling in endless lines.”
This is the only time when Tolkien describes the rest of the world looking strange to the wearer of the One Ring. Bilbo notices nothing when he first puts it on, and deduces its power only when he sees Gollum taking no notice of him, event though he ought to be in plain sight. Frodo is not mentioned as seeing anything odd when he puts on the ring in the Prancing Pony. On Weathertop, he sees the Nazgul ‘on the other side’, as it were. But it is explicitly said:
“Everything else remained as before”.
Jackson, of course, makes the world seem strange to the ring-bearer so that the audience can easily work out that strange things are happening.
Having seen the normal world in impossible detail, Frodo now sees the wider war.
“But everywhere he looked he saw the signs of war. The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills: orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes. Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly strife of Elves and Men and fell beasts. The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lórien.
“Horsemen were galloping on the grass of Rohan; wolves poured from Isengard. From the havens of Harad ships of war put out to sea; and out of the East Men were moving endlessly: swordsmen, spearmen, bowmen upon horses, chariots of chieftains and laden wains. All the power of the Dark Lord was in motion.”
One has to ask, is he seeing what was already happening, or does he get a glimpse into the future? Regardless, it would have been hugely useful to King of Gondor to get a wide vision like that. And odd that the Stewards have let it lapse – but perhaps they no can longer see such things.
It is still a magnificent passage. And during Smial discussions of my original version of this study, it was suggested that it was fairly directly inspired by visions of World War One. Tolkien was in the trenches, but involved in intelligence and signals. He would probably have seen the photographs taken by aircraft of the battle lines. He would certainly have seen them after the war.
Here, Frodo sees first his own side and then the enemy:
“Then turning south again he beheld Minas Tirith. Far away it seemed. and beautiful: white-walled, many-towered, proud and fair upon its mountain-seat; its battlements glittered with steel, and its turrets were bright with many banners. Hope leaped in his heart. But against Minas Tirith was set another fortress, greater and more strong. Thither, eastward, unwilling his eye was drawn. It passed the ruined bridges of Osgiliath, the grinning gates of Minas Morgul. and the haunted Mountains, and it looked upon Gorgoroth, the valley of terror in the Land of Mordor. Darkness lay there under the Sun. Fire glowed amid the smoke. Mount Doom was burning, and a great reek rising. Then at last his gaze was held: wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant, he saw it: Barad-dûr, Fortress of Sauron. All hope left him.”
Sauron notices him – but so does someone else:
“And suddenly he felt the Eye. There was an eye in the Dark Tower that did not sleep. He knew that it had become aware of his gaze. A fierce eager will was there. It leaped towards him; almost like a finger he felt it, searching for him. Very soon it would nail him down, know just exactly where he was. Amon Lhaw it touched. It glanced upon Tol Brandir – he threw himself from the seat, crouching, covering his head with his grey hood.
“He heard himself crying out: Never, never! Or was it: Verily I come, I come to you? He could not tell. Then as a flash from some other point of power there came to his mind another thought: Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!
“The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose, and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger. He was kneeling in clear sunlight before the high seat. A black shadow seemed to pass like an arm above him; it missed Amon Hen and groped out west, and faded. Then all the sky was clean and blue and birds sang in every tree.”
This could all be done so much better than Jackson does it. Of course the next production is likely to be for television, where one doesn’t need to attract hordes of thrill-seeking teenagers to be a commercial success. And as I’ve said before, many of Jackson’s other changes were brilliant and are likely to be re-used.
The voice is, of course, the returned Gandalf. And it is significant that he merely cancelled Sauron and enables Frodo to choose. That he could cancel Sauron may have been helped by this being an old centre of Dunedain power.
Having escaped the power of Sauron, what happens next?
“Frodo rose to his feet. A great weariness was on him, but his will was firm and his heart lighter. He spoke aloud to himself. `I will do now what I must,’ he said. ‘This at least is plain: the evil of the Ring is already at work even in the Company, and the Ring must leave them before it does more harm. I will go alone. Some I cannot trust, and those I can trust are too dear to me: poor old Sam, and Merry and Pippin. Strider, too: his heart yearns for Minas Tirith, and he will be needed there, now Boromir has fallen into evil. I will go alone. At once.’”
Frodo now mistrusts everyone except the other hobbits, and perhaps Aragorn. And he is not willing to sacrifice them. This is understandable but foolish – they will have little future if he fails.
He would certainly have failed had he gone on alone. And while Merry and Pippin usefully divert Sauron’s attention, with him they might have done just as well. They might also have been more understanding of Gollum without commanding him, and helped make him really repent.
Regardless, Frodo now decides to yet again use the ring, ignoring the dangers and surprisingly no longer noticed by Sauron. This I would call a glitch – the boats have been abandoned while everyone else searches for him, so he did not need to be invisible.
We now hear the other seven discussing the future. One interesting detail – Aragorn believes that Rivendell would be stronger than Gondor even in physical warfare:
“‘Minas Tirith is no nearer to the Fire and the destruction of the Burden.
“`We may remain there for a while and make a brave stand; but the Lord Denethor and all his men cannot hope to do what even Elrond said was beyond his power: either to keep the Burden secret. or to hold off the full might of the Enemy when he comes to take it.”
Numbers of elves are far fewer, though perhaps there are elves whom Elrond could summon at need. More importantly, Glorfindel was stronger than three Nazgul. Others are almost as strong: when meeting Aragorn and the hobbits he said:
“There are few even in Rivendell that can ride openly against the Nine; but such as there were, Elrond sent out north, west, and south.”
Perhaps no one in Minas Tirith except maybe Prince Imrahil. Boromir himself reported how he and Faramir had fled from what they knew as a nameless fear at the last bridge in Osgiliath. Minas Tirith cannot stand unless the One Ring is destroyed
None of them intent to leave with Boromir – but at that point they notice he is not there. Soon afterwards he reappears, giving a less than complete account of what had happened. But he does admit that Frodo put on the ring, which suggests something like the truth. Everyone is worried. They scatter, ignoring Aragorn’s orders
“`Wait a moment! ‘ cried Aragorn. `We must divide up into pairs, and arrange – here, hold on! Wait! ‘
“It was no good. They took no notice of him. Sam had dashed off first. Merry and Pippin had followed, and were already disappearing westward into the trees by the shore, shouting: Frodo! Frodo! in their clear, high hobbit-voices. Legolas and Gimli were running. A sudden panic or madness seemed to have fallen on the Company.
“`We shall all be scattered and lost,’ groaned Aragorn. `Boromir! I do not know what part you have played in this mischief, but help now! Go after those two young hobbits, and guard them at the least, even if you cannot find Frodo. Come back to this spot, if you find him, or any traces of him. I shall return soon.’
“Aragorn sprang swiftly away and went in pursuit of Sam. Just as he reached the little lawn among the rowans he overtook him, toiling uphill, panting and calling, Frodo!”
All of this is very different in Jackson, who allows Aragorn to have no faults beyond being slow to realise what a very superior person he is.
For Tolkien, everyone is imperfect and the strong must look after the weak. And here also, one supposes, he would have imagined God’s Plan operating regardless of Aragorn’s intention. The apparently disastrous breaking of the Fellowship will help ensure that Rohan and Gondor survive until Frodo completes his task. And the Fellowship will grow into their proper heroic roles, including the unlikely key roles of Merry and Pippin: first jointly with the Ents and then separately to drive off the Witch-King and to save Faramir.
It might also be that God, who could easily crush the power of Sauron, and who evidently arranges it so that Gollum will accidentally destroy his Precious, is setting a series of tests that the Fellowship and others must pass to be worthy of Divine Aid. That is what Gandalf implies when he says Bilbo was meant to find the One Ring, and Frodo in turn to inherit it.
I don’t agree with Tolkien’s view of God. But I am describing what the story is, not how I’d have written a story from the same basic ideas.
You could also suppose that the breaking of the Fellowship is due to Boromir’s wrong choice, which he might not have made. Had Boromir not fallen, perhaps Aragorn and Gimli could have got Frodo to Mount Doom while he still had will enough to destroy the One Ring. Boromir meantime would have worked smoothly with his father and made a better defence of Minas Tirith than was in fact made. Denethor would presumably have regretted not having the One Ring, but understood that Boromir was never in a position to take it without dishonour. I’d assume he’d have seen that as unacceptable, or at worse thought his favoured son too nice in such matters.
As things are, Denethor will fall into despair and send out Faramir where he should not have been sent. Aragorn will be needed to save Minas Tirith.
Having lost everyone except Sam, Aragorn tries to direct him up towards the top of Amon Hen. Sam correctly decides otherwise. He works out what Frodo is actually doing. That he will take a boat, the boats being conveniently unguarded with everyone else scattered to look for him.
Sam sees an apparently empty boat departing. Rushes out, almost drowns and is rescued by Frodo. And then helps him take more gear. Even tries to stop them being followed:
“I’m coming too, or neither of us isn’t going. I’ll knock holes in all the boats first.’
“Frodo actually laughed. A sudden warmth and gladness touched his heart. `Leave one! ‘he said. `We’ll need it.
One boat will later take the dead Boromir, and Aragorn considers following Frodo in the third, so Sam evidently does not carry thought his planned sabotage. Instead they cross to the east bank, for their dangerous journey, using the boat to cross the river and then hiding it. They can’t have supposed they would use it again, but it was lent to them by Galadriel and probably would be recovered eventually. And they are not wasteful people.
Note that they have so far seen nothing of orcs. Those on the east bank have either crossed earlier or have given up on following the boats. It would have been a very short two-person quest otherwise. Here again, I can understand Boromir’s viewpoint.
With admirable stoicism, Frodo and Sam set off with no one else to help them:
“Shouldering their burdens, they set off, seeking a path that would bring them over the grey hills of the Emyn Muil, and down into the Land of Shadow.”
A Non-Narrative Extra
In my 1976 version of the three-volume work, Tolkien provides guidance for the first-time reader:
“Here ends the first part of the history of the War of the Ring.
“The second part is called The Two Towers, since the events recounted in it are dominated by Orthanc, the citadel of Saruman, and the fortress of Minas Morgul that guards the secret entrance to Mordor; it tells of the deeds and perils of all the members of the now sundered fellowship, until the coming of the Great Darkness.”
Some but not all of the other three-volume editions have this.
From letters, we learn that Tolkien took time to decide that those were the relevant two out of many others. Jackson has Saruman put it otherwise, saying:
“Who now has the strength to stand against the armies of Isengard and Mordor? To stand against the might of Sauron and Saruman and the union of the two towers?”[C]
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.