. Alas, not me: Two Paragraphs and Two Threats Converging in Tolkien (FR 2.ix.382)

09 January 2023

Two Paragraphs and Two Threats Converging in Tolkien (FR 2.ix.382)

Here's a piece of analysis I decided to take out of my book, To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity and the Ring of Power, about which I hope to have an official, public announcement soon. (Absit omen!). I didn't really want to remove it, but I don't think it shows us as much about the argument I am making in my book as it does about Tolkien's ability to construct a scene in a landscape that is more than a backdrop but contributes meaningfully to the way in which this scene from the journey of the Company on the river quite literally flows. The River moves them all along, dividing them, grouping them, moving them apart and back together; and in the eddy and flow of the narrator's attention as it shifts from one character to the next the dreams, thoughts, and anxieties of the members of the Company converge in the two threats threatening them, one from within and one from without. So much of what we've learned about these characters and theirs stories so far is implicit here, and so much that will become clear after the convergence of the threats causes the threads of their stories to separate after the breaking of the Fellowship on Amon Hen and the meeting of Frodo and Gollum in the Emyn Muil.


The heart of Legolas was running under the stars of a summer night in some northern glade amid the beech-woods; Gimli was fingering gold in his mind, and wondering if it were fit to be wrought into the housing of the Lady's gift. Merry and Pippin in the middle boat were ill at ease, for Boromir sat muttering to himself, sometimes biting his nails, as if some restlessness or doubt consumed him, sometimes seizing a paddle and driving the boat close behind Aragorn's. Then Pippin, who sat in the bow looking back, caught a queer gleam in his eye, as he peered forward gazing at Frodo. Sam had long ago made up his mind that, though boats were maybe not as dangerous as he had been brought up to believe, they were far more uncomfortable than even he had imagined. He was cramped and miserable, having nothing to do but stare at the winter-lands crawling by and the grey water on either side of him. Even when the paddles were in use they did not trust Sam with one.

As dusk drew down on the fourth day, he was looking back over the bowed heads of Frodo and Aragorn and the following boats; he was drowsy and longed for camp and the feel of earth under his toes. Suddenly something caught his sight: at first he stared at it listlessly, then he sat up and rubbed his eyes; but when he looked again he could not see it any more.

(FR 2.ix.382)

What beautiful paragraphs these are in detail and movement, from character to character, from boat to boat, and from threat to threat. Beginning with the loveliness of Legolas' vivid, dreamlike memory, and Gimli's chivalrous, romantic imaginings, we never expect the uncomfortable turn it takes, with the uneasiness of Merry and Pippin at the disturbing, almost threatening, behavior of Boromir. We then follow Boromir's gaze through Pippin's eyes straight to Frodo in the boat ahead with Strider and Sam. But suddenly and unexpectedly, since our attention has just been directed to Frodo, we find ourselves with Sam instead. But the introduction of Sam here, uncomfortable, unhappy, and untrusted Sam, is a misdirection. It lightens the menace of the sentences on Boromir, but only in order to refocus it a moment later on another threat that is present on the Great River, another one who has his had eyes fixed on Frodo and Frodo's burden for some time now.

It is of course Gollum whom Sam has seen, but the way in which the narrator shifts our gaze from Boromir to Gollum is masterful. Notice how Sam is looking back towards the boats behind his own. Given the previous paragraph, we might expect him to have caught the same look in Boromir's eyes as Pippin had. But it is not so. For just as we followed Boromir's gaze forward to Frodo, but found Sam instead, so, too, we now follow Sam's back, not to Boromir, but to Gollum. When Sam comes to tell Frodo what he has seen, he remarks over and over again on Gollum's eyes, five times in all, thus further pairing these two threats (FR 2.ix.382-83). Nor is this the first time that Frodo has been the object of the intense gaze of Gollum and Boromir (FR 2.vi.345; vii.358; viii.369; ix.383; cf. ix.388). As the day draws near when Frodo must decide between Minas Tirith and Mordor, danger is converging on him from more than one direction. From Gollum of course, as he tracks Frodo down the Great River, but also from his companion Boromir, who, desperate to save his homeland, feels quite keenly the anguish of the choice which lies before Frodo as he sits in the boat just ahead of him with Sam and Strider. And if Gollum, as Boromir himself said, is 'small, but great in mischief' (FR 2.ii.255), what is Boromir?

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