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.