Gazing into GHG’s Palantir: ‘The Bridge of Khazad-dûm’

The Grey Havens Group Palantir has seen and heard much, but it is unpredictable and often fell. As the mists clear, the withered leaves of past conversations are revealed in barest shreds…

When any group comes together to discuss “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm,” there is one supremely controversial topic which must be either discussed and vehemently argued or just as forcefully ignored: that is, the nature of Balrogs and the infamous question of wings.

Tolkien actually gives two distinct descriptions, one which uses metaphorical language and one which does not. This leaves the door open for interpretation. The color structure of the Balrog: blacks, reds, and yellows, demonstrate its affinity for Morgoth as they are coordinating color schemes. As discussed at the Pass of Caradhras, perhaps this is a case where ambiguity is a purposeful seed for fascination and study.

Color plays a large part in the chapter, particularly black, greys, yellows and white. They are used to contrast the destructive power of flame and evil and the holy or sacred primordial light of the secret fire which Gandalf wields.

The nature of the Watcher in the water at the west gate is a complete mystery; Tolkien gives very little detail to work from. It is possible the lake was contrived by orcs, but it is also likely a natural formation. Based on description from the record of the colony, the waters were once much higher, up to the door in fact. This refers back to the curious use of the word “narrow” in the previous chapter to describe the shore between the waters and the cliff-face. Perhaps the narrowness describes the space between the cliff and the natural shore, which has receded.

Stars appear on the page as a break between ‘chapters’ in the book the Fellowship finds. Why are these here, let alone mentioned? In a purely literary sense, it denotes a passage of time or theme or chapter. This is what Gandalf states. This may be a dwarvish annotation. Another interesting, though largely unfounded link lies in the many pointed stars which make up the crown of Durin as well as his emblem. In this sense, as these stars immediately follow the declaration of Balin as Lord of Moria, it may be a sort of illuminated manuscript decoration to link him with the line of Durin. A stretch, but interesting.

Who writes in their last moments in a record? Especially something so immediate, as ‘they are coming’ or ‘we cannot get out?’ The closest modern correlation is a tweet or a text. It also bears great resemblance to the sort of notes found in sudden disasters, where word of love or explanation are shared in the last moments knowing no escape is at all possible. This understanding lends a great deal of tragedy and hopelessness to the last moments of the Colony. It shows a profound courage and a hope to pass on a warning to survivors or those who might come searching.

Silence or Hush and Darkness are real and palpable characters in this chapter and previous one. They set the reader on edge in anticipation for what may come. Like the sensation deprived, the reader begins to hear and feel things in the Dark and Hush, in an ever accelerating drumbeat of Doom. The drums only occur briefly when Pippin drops the stone and before the ambush, but they are urgently felt in their absence throughout the chapter.

In the sudden ambush at the Chamber of Mazarbul, there are clear hints demonstrating that the Fellowship has been closely followed. Particularly given later statements by Haldir, the entire ambush is in part orchestrated by Sauron. It is connected to the first sighting of the Nazghul over the Pass, and the crebain, and the wargs. In this then, beyond the pull of the Ring, it is explained why the orc chieftain would go for Frodo first. The mind can play tricks on a reader. It always seems great masses of foes are involved, though in reality, given Tolkien’s numbers, it is likely only a few score orcs at most are involved at first.

Gandalf’s moment at the door from the Chamber of Mazarbul is an example of Tolkien at his painterly best. He paints a wonderfully vivid image of the moment. Is it a given, however, who is on the other side of the door? The use of the word ‘ghash’ or fire always seemed to point to the Balrog, but there is no explicit evidence beyond this. In any case, after this Gandalf is bone weary. He has not slept more than a few hours in the last five days, not since the siting of the crebain before the attempt on the Pass. He is so tired he cannot even light his staff.

If the other behind the door is the Balrog, they presumably would also be as bone weary (or would have prevailed). Either way, this demonstrates the great power and control of Gandalf the Grey in this final confrontation. The timing of his final effort, where he breaks the bridge, speaks volumes. Depending on the reading, it may be a last ditch attack/defense, or timed to get rid of the Balrog before Boromir and Aragorn got far on the bridge and so a move of protection and self sacrifice.

Grief and trauma are an integral part of this chapter. The Fellowship has been through an incomprehensible emotional roller coaster. In no less than three hours they have been ambushed, Frodo presumed dead, Gandalf near defeated, Frodo discovered alive, been forced to wander in the dark, discovering stairs as they go, faced a Balrog, and lost Gandalf. By the end of the chapter their nerves are so frayed, Frodo does not even notice his own weeping until he sees Sam’s tears. It is not until they leave the long dark that grief fully encapsulates them.

And fittingly, in one of Tolkien’s few uses of onomatopoeia, the chapter is marked by the constant beat of Doom, drumbeats in the deep.

… until the hour of our next meeting.

Gazing into GHG’s Palantir: ‘A Journey in the Dark’

The Grey Havens Group Palantir has seen and heard much, but it is unpredictable and often fell. As the mists clear, the withered leaves of past conversations are revealed in barest shreds…

When it came time to discuss “A Journey in the Dark,” the discussion began at the beginning (novel for us, I know), commenting on Gandalf’s desire to go through Moria, which he set aside in order to try the Redhorn Pass at Aragorn’s urging. There is the appearance here that Gandalf is headed for a fated confrontation, a path he knows he must follow, though he may not know why or where it leads. This revealed interesting parallels with the Doctor; particularly with regards to his finding his way after the TARDIS lands him who-knows-where.

The adversity the Fellowship confronts after the defeat at the Mountain reveals their inner character. Merry and Pipping perk up at the thought of return to Rivendel or even wish they had just returned the Shire. Gimli is raring to go into the Mines. Aragorn is a pragmatist and cautious, warning of danger but willing to take the necessary path. Borromir is still the broken record, wanting to take the Ring back to Gondor to be used as a weapon. And Frodo is stuck with the quest and will do what he must to see it through…and Sam will follow him (though not without tears, as is seen with Bill the pony).

There are other paths which may have been taken, like the High Pass by Rivendel or even the lower pass below Moria. Why are these not considered? There can be no definitive answers, only guesses. First the High Pass may have been overlooked due to concerns of weather, and gathering orcs in the north. Second, Gandalf obviously had some purpose in wishing to go through Moria. Third, after the Pass, they have traveled by day and are exposed, Moria is a way to hide or misdirect.

Interestingly, each time the company comes to the point of making a conscious decision of direction, they are forced along their path. The warg attack comes right on the tale of the Company passing the choice on to Frodo (a decision he refuses to make, by the way). The wargs howl just before the Watcher attacks, panicking Bill, and cutting off escape. The Watcher attacks before they can change their mind to flee; and blocks the door so they cannot turn back. All of this is indicative of a fated path, instrumental in the reformation of Gandalf the Grey as Gandalf the White.

Gandalf makes a quick comment to Legolas and Gimli to be friends as a help to him. Is this his dying wish? Or rather, might the two later interpret it as such? It is one of the last things he says DIRECTLY to them personally. Either they are, and intended as such if Gandalf knows something of what comes, or they would certainly be interpreted as such after the trauma of his fall. The question comes back to Gandalf’s nature, which may be summed up in a series of titles: chess-player, manipulator, diplomat, or guidance counselor. He works to bring people together, to move them into their proper roles and relationships…to enflame them with the will to do the tasks at hand. His role parallels the function of his ring. And so, it is also feasible, in guiding Gimli and Legolas he moved them on the path of friendship, not only by the bonds of dying wish, but also by fanning the flames of the spirit by virtue of his ring.

The necessary mythic element of the journey into the underworld may explain, in part, the purely literary reasons the Fellowship has taken this path. As in classical mythology, this is required for Gandalf’s transformation and actualization as the White. There remains, however, a level of doubt and mystery even for Gandalf. As a maiar in human form, he is limited in power and knowledge, perhaps purposefully to ensure the movements of the world are not orchestrated by his own efforts but by the efforts of the Children of Iluvatar.

The maxims of Boromir and Aragorn with regards to the wargs and orcs are really societal indicators: of Boromir’s upbringing in a more civilized locale, and the dangers of Aragorn in the Wild.

As has been noted in previous chapters, the good professor often uses odd or rare words and word play to emphasize a point or create a meta-narrative. This occurs a couple times in this chapter alone The first is the use of the word ‘fathom’ to describe the height of a cliff before the stair falls. Fathom is usually a term used to describe depth of water. Water words and imagery are prevalent in this section of the narrative, but there is much more to be read here in the meta-narrative. The traditional form may be used to describe how the valley the Fellowship traverses was once carved out by the flowing waters of the falls/stream. However, the verb means to penetrate, to puzzle out or to come to understand, which leads in perfectly with the scene at the doors.

Another possible moment of word-play comes in Tolkien’s choice to describe a 36′ wide shore as “narrow.” Though the clear path between stone and root appears narrow, and should be the subject of the description, it is not. Looking again at the meaning of the word, it may be indicative of the immense length of the lake, so the shore is narrow for its length. However, there is another meaning which again bears directly on the scenes to follow: almost not successful, very close to failure, almost not enough for success.

Why to holly trees specifically frame the doors of Durin? Since ancient times, holly has had a sacred nature based on its qualities as an evergreen. However, perhaps the actual physical nature of holly is more pertinent in this instance, which as a tree-lover, Tolkien presumable knew well. First, the holly is an evergreen, with red berries, which come in winter. As such, it is a traditional symbol for renewal and everlasting life, which is why it is so commonly used in Christmas decor today. In liturgical colors, green is used as a sign of new and everlasting life. Red is indicative of martyrdom and sacrifice. Both colors are intrinsically tied to the celebration of Christmas.

The holly tree has grey bark. Not only that, but in the dark at the gates, any green it may have would also appear grey in the gloom. However, its wood is very light, almost white. In the destruction of the holly trees, therefore, is a powerful potential symbol of Gandalf’s own destruction; the necessity that the Grey be destroyed, but brought back to life so the inner White could be revealed.

Gandalf’s struggles with the password are very much a sort of philological study and must bear directly on Tolkien’s own experience. Often the answers in life stare us in the face and we have only to change our vantage point to find them. Such a change in perspective is the necessary and right way to initiate entry into a new world or new phase in a journey. In this shift of focus the characters are prepared or enervated in order to meet the challenges of their next tasks.

… until the hour of our next meeting.

Gazing into GHG’s Palantir: ‘The Ring Goes South’

The Grey Havens Group Palantir has seen and heard much, but it is unpredictable and often fell. As the mists clear, the withered leaves of past conversations are revealed in barest shreds…

The wrath of Caradhras is indeed great! The Mountain sent everything it had against GHG’s palantiri, attempting to prevent the discussion from continuing. Even so, for such an arduous and chaotic journey, the meetings were fruitful, and the six plus hours of discussion not wholly due to the Mountain’s fury.

Why are Elrond and Aragorn the primary selectors of the Fellowship’s members? In part, Elrond takes pride of place as the oldest and wisest of the Council, barring consideration of Gandalf. He is also the host. The Quest is the fulfillment of Aragorn’s fate and his final pursuit of the kingship, as such he plays a central role in it. Also, as the heir of Isildur, who largely causes this mess, he bears the weight of duty to see it through to the ultimate destruction of the Ring and Sauron. The two month delay between the Council and the leave-taking of the Fellowship is used primarily for scouting and the thought required of the selection of the Fellowship members. It may also be indicative of Aragorn’s need to gather himself and come to grips with his foretold role. In Elrond’s repeated question of Frodo’s resolve, may also be seen a potential inducement for Strider…a sort of ‘if he can do it, why can’t I’ situation.

Naming is of huge importance in Tolkien’s secondary world; his names mark a lexical importance not seen in naming conventions for many centuries. There is an element to prophesy to Tolkien’s names, but they are also more often than not given, received or taken on, becoming a way of speaking to the character of a particular person and their current state or where they would like to take their life.

Where do the scouts go? Particularly, what is the errand of the sons of Elrond? They clearly go to Lothlorien. However, it is not so described in the text; it is referred to in a rather round-about way, which may imply an element which has crept into the tale. In this ambiguity, there are a lot of questions to be discussed: Did they gaze into the Mirror? How much did they tell Galadriel? She would have known Frodo and Sam, and most likely Strider and Gandalf would be coming her way, but probably not the rest of the Company. And even if the full company is known, perhaps the inclusion of a dwarf is left out on purpose?

Frodo sees a red star waxing in the south. It is a clear reference to the same red star seen over Gondolin prior to its fall, and again before the suicide of Nienor; a link which draws this story closer to the full Legendarium and lends credence to the fact that it is indeed one and the same story as Sam will describe it at the Stairs of Cirith Ungol. The traditional superstitions regarding the planet Mars are implied here as well: as a portent of war and conflict.

Contemplating Merry and Pippin’s inclusion in the Fellowship led to tremendous discussion far afield. They are both eminently unsuitable for the quest, given they both treat it as a sort of holiday to begin with. It becomes a question of loyalty and friendship; even so, there is little evident value in their inclusion until they are left to their own devices with the Uruk Hai, or even later at their oath-takings. The question of their inclusion, however, led to the deeper question of why Elrond wanted to send them back to the Shire to begin with. Is it simply to save them from the arduous journey they obviously don’t understand? Or does he know of what changes are happening in the Shire? Or are yet to come? If this last is true, why wouldn’t he send further messengers? Are he and Gandalf hoping in hardship the hobbits of the Shire will toughen up? There is a certain level of callousness demonstrated by both Gandalf and Elrond here, which seems to point to an attitude towards complete focus on the quest at hand over any other concerns.

Elrond’s prescience here became the major point of inquiry; and tied to it the nature of knowledge gained via the Mirror. Elrond may or may not be prescient; but he doesn’t really need to be being as long lived as he is. Patterns arise in history; he should be capable of piecing together the likely outcome of events. The Mirror gives visions of things which are often questionable and incomplete. They are true in a sense, but the truth which comes from the information of an instant, and so may be changed. We got far afield in the mechanism by which the Mirror might work, as it is formed from the waters of a stream. Ulmo lord of waters is most versed in the Music of the Ainur and most able to see somewhat of the structure of the future, thereby lending that power to the MIrror. However, it only contains the Music in a stream, and of that only that in the ewer, and only that which is poured into the bowl…and that explains the incomplete or shaky vision which is given. It is much like the example of telling time. The instant you say it is present (or a given time) it is past. It can only be true and complete in a split second.

After the selection of the Fellowship, Bilbo and Frodo converse in Bilbo’s room. Bilbo shows complete disregard for Elrond’s home, plunging Sting into the woodwork, and the decoration of the Mithril coat seems excessive if it is to be an item of utility and not decoration. Why all this detail of crystal and pearls at this point in the story? The only answer which seems to fit is to establish its great worth before explaining the nature of mithril.

What does Bilbo mean when he uses the word “spared” to describe his hope that he be spared to write a sequel? To the modern mind it appears simply a wish to be spared death. But looking at spared’s meaning and development, it is closely tied with ‘thin’ and ‘sparse’, both close references to Bilbo’s sensation of being butter over too much bread. He hopes to survive. He may also question what destruction of the Ring will do to his long life. And he may solely be speaking of conserving time and energy in order to take on the task.

This led into the apparent ascetic aspects of both Bilbo and Frodo, and their slow withdrawal from the world to a more spiritual plane of existence. Which led further into portrayals of Men in art through history and thence into the integral ties between art, architecture and history.

It is often forgotten or conveniently ignored that the Fellowship travels exclusively under the cover of darkness after they leave Rivendel until they are defeated by Caradhras. As Borromir puts it, they are traveling as thieves in the night; which is a turn of phrase with particularly Christian meaning as it is used to describe the Second Coming. This fact, and Elrond’s prize winning worst pep-talk ever, as well as the noted lack of living sound in Hollin, lend an air of seriousness to the beginning of the quest. It creates a clear mood-dampening effect after the cheer and relief of Rivendel.

In a philosophical sense this demonstrates the necessary rhythms of life, the happy and the sad, the moments of action and the moments of contemplation. It was noted that from this point on the text accelerates relentlessly up to the sojourn in the secret wood at which point time again has little measure or perceivable meaning as in Rivendel.

Another fact taken for granted is that the Fellowship is never conceived as a permanent body. From its inception the various members intend to part to their own paths, with Legolas and Gimli planning such as early as the Pass of Caradhras. Only upon Frodo is the burden of going the entire distance laid. Yet, at the same time, there is much commentary about the uncertainty of their quest and what, or who, may be found along the way. They have to set out as an act of hope, which makes it utterly fitting they embark on December 25th. In each of these moves by Tolkien, in his timing and careful exposition of motives he harkens back to a medieval mindset in which there is a cosmic order which ripples through the ages.

Reaching Hollin, the reader is immediately struck by seemingly sentient stones. Are they sentient? Do their reported memories indicate some form of anthropomorphism or animism? Is this a particular skill of Legolas or all elves? This appears to be an elvish ability, which allows him to feel out the stones as another sense, to read their aura in a form of physiological or psychic archeology.

The ‘attack’ on the pass is a mystery, particularly who might be responsible: Sauron, Saruman (who there is little evidence for in the text), the landforms which would cause unpredictable weather, or Caradhras itself. Tolkien clearly lays out hints for many possible solutions, but lets the reader make their own conclusion, which led to an extended discussion on the nature of applicability. Each solution is feasible and changeable, and potentially placed to seed applicability wherein under different circumstances the text may constantly be read in a different light, but always validly as there is that implicit ambiguity. This topic continued in the vague description of the wisp of cloud which covers the stars before they attempt the pass. It should be read literally, as either just what is says or as the first sighting of a flying nazgul (taking into account Gandalf’s sense of feeling it pass overhead).

This chapter shows Legolas at his worst: a snarky, smug, annoying, and rude spoiled royal brat. As a prince, and most likely exposed to constant ‘respect’, it is very likely a learned behavior. And Gimli is much the same, though in a more coarse way. In both cases they are emblematic of what it means to be an elf or a dwarf respectively.

Gandalf’s possession of Glamdring is highlighted and specifically mentioned as the company made ready to set out. Tolkien’s choice to describe him as bearing his staff, “but girt at his side was the elven-sword” seems to imply that up to this point Gandalf did not bear his sword. That, and Gandalf’s desire to take the company through Moria may indicate some sense on his part of his battle with the Balrog. There is no evidence he yet knows the nature of the evil in the mines, but it appears he is well aware there is a major foe to be faced.

It is important to pay attention to Gandalf’s sleeping patterns. After the passing of the crebain, Gandalf does not sleep, or if he does, very little. In many ways this could be seen as indicative of his sense of the danger, the nearness of the accomplishment of his mission as ‘the Grey’ and thus his waning before waxing again as Gandalf the White.

… until the hour of our next meeting.