Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Puttin' the Blog in Balrog V - Fellowship of the Ring Chapters 7-12

This read-along gets to be more fun the further in we get. Be sure to have a look at EssJay's great summary page with links to all known PtBiB posts. There's some great stuff there (and some great puns, like "Beorn Again").

A great discussion has taken place across many platforms (EssJay's blog, my blog, Twitter, Google Plus) about Tom Bombadil and about a ridiculous idea I had about the malevolent trees of the Old Forest and Old Man Willow actually being, not Huorns but Entwives, who have been waiting, all these centuries, for their damned husbands to come home from going "out for cigarettes" and having gotten so cranky with waiting that they're taking it out on everybody dumb enough to come through the Forest. I picture them in curlers and cold cream, brandishing frying pans. Of course that's just silliness on my part, but that's the kind of silliness that happens when books like these come to take up as much cultural and emotional space as these do!

And then our good pal DDog pointed us to this little gem, in which is made a case for Tom Bombadil being evil, which is quite an entertaining read. And if you're in the mood for even more Tolkien-inspired crazy, have a look at this other little gem, in which is made a case for Tom Bombadil being the Witch-King of Angmar. There's lots of other nuttiness there, but "The Truth about Tom Bombadil" is by far the best. Oh, the fun to be had on the wild, wild world of web.

And now, speaking of TomBom, we have a lot more of him and his (cough) fantastic songs yet to come in Chapters 7-12 of Fellowship of the Ring!

Frodo's reaction to meeting Goldberry sort of pre-figures Gimli and Galadriel, doesn't it? "Suddenly he stopped and stammered, overcome with surprise to hear himself saying such things" (he has just been quoting TomBom's song about Goldberry). Man, does every interesting bit in Tolkien come in pairs?

I'm kind of taken by how Goldberry recognizes Frodo as an Elf-friend, too. "The light in your eyes and the ring in your voice tells it." Elve apparently takes a long time to leave the bloodstream.

Oh man, nobody can tell I've been hanging 
with Elves again, right? RIGHT?

But really, it's all about Tom, and in the end, bad poetry or no, I like Tom, especially as explained by Goldberry. "He is the Master of wood, water and hill," she says, but when Frodo asks if all that belongs to him she says no, that would be a burden. "The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land each belong to themselves." And so does Tom belong to himself. I think the mastery of which Goldberry speaks is not about being the boss or protector so much as that, of all the things in his forest ("his" in the broader, genitive sense, meaning "associated with" more than "belonging to"), he has most mastered the art of just being. He is the master in the way a Zen master is, or a master tradesman. And he expresses this serenity and simple pleasure in silly, silly song, sung like a mantra to remind himself that it's okay not to be doing anything more important than finding more water lilies to sit in bowls surrounding his pretty lady. Or perhaps, that nothing is more important than finding those lilies.

Also, how did I forget that the water at TomBom's house is apparently the Mead of Poetry and makes everybody sing instead of talk. So apparently TomBom is really Kvasir! Or at least has him tied up somewhere with like a maple tap jammed in is carotid or something.

I seem hell-bent on making TomBom scary, don't I? Tee hee.

And but so, did anyone else completely forget that Frodo has a vision in TomBom's house, of pretty much exactly what is happening to Gandalf at that point in time? So what makes that happen? Lingering effect of the Kvasir-water? And Pippin, too -- I can almost convince myself that he is somehow pre-cogging on his looking into the Palantir, but of course he's just flashing back to his time inside Old Man Willow: "...suddenly he had a dreadful feeling that he was not in an ordinary house at all, but inside the willow and listening to that horrible dry creaking voice laughing at him again." Merry, too, dreams, of water and near-drowning, but Sam just sleeps soundly. I wonder why he's immune?

They wake up to a nice rainy day of a kind I seldom experience where I live and so much envy, even though I can't get this song out of my head. It doesn't sound much like Goldberry's nice rain song, but on the plus side, we do know these guys liked their Tolkien.

But then again, who knows?

I am, by the way, unshakably convinced that the stories TomBom tells to pass this rainy day are those in the Book of Lost Tales. It's a fun thought, isn't it? Man, I haven't read those since I first bought the book sometime in the early 90s. Hmm.

But of special interest is what he has to say about the trees through which our hobbits have just passed. It's an interesting passage that's worth inflicting on you in full:
Tom's words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning; destroyers and usurpers. It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords. The countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice.
I can see how this both does and does not lend weight to the idea we've all been discussing, of these trees, and especially Old Man Willow, being Huorns (though possibly, OMW, who gets his own equally long TomBom description that makes OMW sound scarier than Sauron himself,* is one of those Ents who became more like trees rather than, as the Huorns are, trees that becaome more like Ents, because OMW, it turns out, is even more powerful than we saw when he tried to gobble him some hobbit treats). For certain, we could say that perhaps this is what becomes of trees with no Ents to keep them in line, though I don't recall any Ents making sure that the Poo Trees of Valinor didn't start whomping passersby or dousing them with, uh, fuel.

But I digress. AGAIN. Because really, the Old Forest is just a distraction from what is really going on plot-wise, and which we don't get to find out about until much later. I'm talking, of course, about Gandalf's Delay.

But anyway. What's else is really important here is that, as we learn after all the storytelling and all the atmosphere of ease and comfort and trust has led Frodo to spilling his guts about pretty much everything, ever, that alone among all the figures in this story, TomBom doesn't take the Ring very seriously at all. "Then suddenly he put it up to his eye and laughed." He puts it over the end of one finger and doesn't turn invisible; indeed, for a second, he makes it seem like it has disappeared. Tom, in other words, has no dog in this fight, but could possibly be nagged to choose sides some day if somebody gets annoying enough

Hey dol, merry dol, Sherry dol dillo!

But finally, we leave TomBom and enter the realm of Tolkien scenery pr0n, which everybody loves, right? Look, I know a lot of people think it slows down the books and they'd be better without them, but I enjoy these bits, enjoyed them as a little and enjoy them now. He does it very well, and it is, after all, important that we get a sense of what's at stake and how very much worth protecting it is. We perhaps especially need this after the interlude with TomBom, who doesn't even seem to think it's threatened.

But wait! We're not done with TomBom yet, are we? Because Attack of the Barrow Wights. Well, wait, first Attack of the Fog! And then Attack of the Barrow Wights!

For "the strike misses" read "a silly song is sung at it" of couse.

Of course, this is also Frodo's first chance to be somewhat heroic, in that at least he, when he first meets a Wight, stands his ground (well, okay, falls onto his ground, but it's better than running away), and, when trapped inside a mound, he wonders WWBD (What Would Bilbo Do) and hobbits the Snape up. At first he thinks about putting on the Ring and escaping, but then he thinks of losing Merry, Pippin and Sam, who are spread out like corpses and covered in grave goods (including a nice big sword laid across their three little throats) and thinks better of it: "The courage that had been awakened in him was now too strong." He grabs a sword from the pile and quick as that he's hacking away at a Wight's outstretched hand which, prefiguring a certain other encounter he'll have on Mordor's border, wriggles "like a wounded spider" after he hacks it off.

But then and only then does he think of crazy old TomBom, who promised he'd show up and help if they sang a little ditty he made them memorize. And sure enough, there he is, the, ah, being himself, yellow boots and all, who wards off the Wight with more songs (see, it's not just me; apparently the Wights are sticklers for the niceties of formal poetry as well!). Really, TomBom's song power lends credence to his claim to be older than Middle Earth, which was originally created with a song, no?

Anyway, just like at the end of the non-battle with Bert, Tom and Bill in The Hobbit, this encounter ends with plunder for the winners. All the hobbits get fancy sword-knives set with rubies! Hooray!

And then TomBom and his pony, Fatty Lumpkin, who is apparently King of the Ponies the way Shadowfax is King of the Horses, escort the hobbits to the edge of the forest and it's time to visit Bree!

Bree! As I posted long ago on that first blog of mine, I grew up in a wild and lovely rural place that gave me ample (but inaccurate) exemplars of the kinds of of places we find in Lord of the Rings. Thus the river Anduin is the (wholly inadequate) North Platte River and Weathertop is Libby Flats Observation Point and Medicine Bow Peak is Caradhras and Lake Marie is where the entrance to Moria (and the tentacled horror in the water) are... etc.

Medicine Bow Peak (Snowy Range, southern WY)
 in July! Even then it has snow. So it could make Caradhras, yes?

(I should really just do a separate post on my own personal version of Middle Earth geography, shouldn't I?)

Anyway, in my mind, Bree, Staddle and Combe have always been Baggs, Dixon and Savery, WY. Which none of you have ever heard of, I'm sure, but they're groovy places, all the same. One time, when my dad (who was a Highway Patrolman) was new to that beat, he drove past a bar in, I think it was Savery, and saw a little red wagon with three goats hooked up to it, a most peculiar and memorable sight that, had he been more like my mother and I, would immediately have made him think of Thor's cart, but since he wasn't, he didn't. He just though "huh, that's something you don't see every day" and moved on.

Sort of like this, but a bit more redneck, yannow.

Then, a few hours later, when he was heading back towards Savery again, he saw the same cart, only with an codger passed out in the wagon. The goats were grazing alongside the road and gradually taking him home. He learned later from the bar manager that the same scene played out 'most every day there wasn't a blizzard.

I have imposed on you with some personal history here, but that's Bree, Staddle and Combe to me. Tell me no one ever passed out in his goat cart and let the goats tow him home from the Prancing Pony! Tell me!

OK. Digression over. For now. But that's a pretty interesting, maybe even unique, story, isn't it? Maybe I'll include it in my answer to National Lampoon's version of these novels, which I plan to title Lord of the Rednecks, someday.

Anyway, Bree! It's a fantastic podunk crossroads and there is a very nice Inn there that always reminds me of Saratoga, WY's Hotel Wolf, and thereat happen many important character moments for everybody. First we have Merry, who proves himself rather an introverted, quiet, thoughtful soul by declining to join the throng in the common room after supper (and look, okay? Dominic Monighan did a wonderful job playing a character in the films who happened to be named Meriadoc Brandybuck but that character had two things in common with this guy sitting quietly by the fire and warning his friends to "mind their Ps and Qs": 1. He is named Meriadoc Brandybuck and 2. He is a hobbit. Oh, I'll be generous, since also 3. He is friends with Frodo and Sam and Pippin. But that's about it, me hearties), and then Pippin also proves to be a rather sensible fellow and warns Merry, in turn, to be careful as well. Ahem!

ANYWAY, The Prancing Pony has to be the most important, and above all crowded, tavern that ever, ever was, because, as we all know, all the role-playing campaigns start from here. All of them. Convince me I"m wrong, people. Because here is the Platonic Ur-Tavern of all fantasy settings, patronized by Hobbits, Men, Dwarves, Rangers, Metahumans, Thieves, Clerics, Paladins, Deckers and Street Samurai, all waiting for a Mysterious Stranger to show up and give them a mission. We just have a point of view reversal here; as readers we have been traveling with the Mysterious Stranger (Frodo), and a party of one is waiting at the Tavern of Campaign Origins to be drawn into the stranger's plot. I refer here, of course, to Strider/Aragorn, who, I think, cheated on a few of his character creation rolls, if you know what I mean. All he's missing are jacked reflexes and a really sweet Ono-Sendai. And who knows, maybe Christopher Tolkien will find a cocktail napkin someday on which his dad scribbled notes about Aragorn being a genius hacker in addition to being the greatest tracker, fighter, linguist, boater, diplomat and heir to all the kingdoms that there ever was since Elros and maybe even better than him! Who "looks foul and feels fair but "whom Arfindel** loves anyway.

Anyway, Aragorn totally makes his charisma checks and convinces Frodo to let him in on the game. It helps that the Game Master likes him and provided a prop to help make his case in the form of a letter from Gandalf telling Frodo to totally trust this scruffy, smelly dude who has been loitering in wait for him. Twenties every time, Aragorn.
Aragorn probably even has better cleavage than I do. 
But does he have a sweet DMT molecule necklace like me?

I love the song that Frodo sings, by the way, the immensely prolonged version of Hey Diddle Diddle. Reminds me of a few times I have written sonnet versions of pop songs. Heh. But oh, such grave consequences for such a trivial performance! I consider it an open question whether it is truly an accident that the Ring gets onto Frodo's finger as he cavorts -- some of our number will surely say it is an product of the Ring's malevolent trickery -- but in any case, this is the first time Frodo uses it, I do believe. D'oh. He shows great creativity and quick thinking in pretending to have crawled away under the benches and tables after his fall, at any rate, though not enough people believe him and off go those nasty spies to report in to the Nazgul. Who themselves most likely already know where Frodo is now that he's used the Ring!

And now even Sam gets to demonstrate some perspicacity, as Strider herds the hobbits into their parlor to chew them out for carelessness, for he is the hardest to convince that Strider is to be trusted and allowed to come along on their adventure. Meanwhile, as Strider fills the hobbits in on who these Black Riders are, to a degree, Merry has gone out to snoop around and found that they're in Bree, OMGWTSBBQ!

Yes, the Prancing Pony is truly the Crucible of Character thus far!

Meanwhile back in Buckland, some of the Nazgul are there, too! Oh man, this scene thrilled and chilled me more than pretty much any other when I was a kid. Fatty Bolger has a terrifying encounter with one of the Nine, barely escapes to a neighboring house, collapses on the doorstep saying "I haven't got it" and someone raises the alarm and AWAKE! FEAR! FIRE! FOES! AWAKE! The Horn-Call of Buckland sounds for the first time in 100 years. And reading it again, I want to dash off to New Zealand and demand a reckoning from Peter Jackson as to exactly why this was left out of the film because this would have been an awesome scene. AWESOME.

But of course, it's not the Horn-Call that drives those riders off, whatever the Bucklanders think. Frodo's Accident has alerted the Nazgul as to where the Ring is and it's time to converge on Bree! Which they do! Because if there is one thing the Nine do very well, it is converge. They will do it many times before the Ring goes into the Fires of Orodruin. They're like the freaking Simpsons of Middle Earth, except we never find out if they have overbites.

Fortunately, Strider knows their converging ways, and pulls the good old room-switcheroo. Next morning the room where the hobbits would have slept is trashed and slashed, and, for good measure, OH CRAP the ponies are gone with all of their baggage and food. Fortunately, as we learn, these ponies are far more fortunate than the ponies in the last book, and find their way back to Fatty Lumpkin, King of the Ponies.

Hurry up and get the shot, Fatty, before those damned Bronies crash the party!***

There is a bit of a to-do about finding at least one draft animal, which delays them a while but culminates in the addition of one more hero to our party and the one with whom Sam really has a bromance: Bill the Pony. Hooray for Bill! And for Sam the Brony!

And finally, we leave Bree, amidst a lot of spectation and comment, alas. Frodo and the boys have pretty poor luck when it comes to keeping their doings under wraps, don't they?

Thus begin days and days and days of slogging through the marsh, swatting midges, and listening to neekerbreekers, until we see Weathertop from afar, get a history lesson from Aragorn, and learn that Sam was quite an attentive student when Bilbo felt like teaching. Again, Sean Astin did a great job playing a character named Samwise Gamgee, but that character was not this badass, hobbit-sensed motherfolklore who could spout off a bit of excellent historical verse in the middle of a cloud of biting flies.

Nor is that our only poetry recital on this trip, for the gods of foreshadowing and paralleling hath decreed that Aragorn shall tell the story of Beren and Luthien, which all the cognoscienti of Middle Earth consider to be a wondrous parallel to the story of his own relationship with Elrond's daughter Arwen. That's been written about everywhere. I thought it was all Very Romantic when I was twelve years old and copied that bit of the Lay of Luthien (I was a very innocent twelve-year-old, so didn't yet know to giggle at that word "lay") into all of my notebooks from memory, but now I'm old and jaded and all I can think of now is how Arwen is pretty much just a beneficiary of Aragorn's anima projecting and fascination with this old story. And don't even get me started on that nonsense in the film of The Two Towers when he goes over the cliff on his horse and is brought back to life by her spirit or her Necklace of Immortality of the Brisings (or possibly just the kiss of a good horse). I said don't.

In the night, the Nine catch up with our little band, and in the scuffle, Frodo, after a brave and futile sword attack (but a successful invocation of Elbereth!) succumbs for the first time to the unambiguous compulsion to put on the Ring, which brings him right under the notice and influence of the Witch King of Angmar. Next thing we know, Frodo destroys the horcrux takes a wound in the shoulder from the King's nasty-ass knife and his arm is trashed and completely useless. Fortunately, he passes out.

Frodo turns out to be very fortunate that four of the Nine are still tear-assing out of Buckland, or he'd really be hurting. Good thing Aragorn is there, and the hands of the King are the hands of a healer (though we have a thousand pages or so before we're actually, you know, told that), and he's able to find some Athelas, a medicinal plant that will help delay the supernatural poison of Frodo's wound. Otherwise, Frodo would be well on the way towards becoming the founding member of the Nazgul Hobbit Auxiliary, though perhaps an argument could be made in favor of that honor going to Gollum.

But now they really have to pick up the pace. Now Sam the Brony has to share Bill's love with Frodo, who is in no shape to walk. Bill soon turns out to be very good at picking paths and sparing Frodo too many jolts and if Fatty Lumpkin is the King, surely Bill is the Prince of Ponies.

 And here's our first taste of Tolkien as whatever the opposite of a scenery pornographer is. This country sounds like the worst anyone could ever walk to, except to us re-readers who know how much crappier it's going to get. I love the false alarm they get when they find the stones that used to be Bill, Ted and Bert (Done by! Gum by! - more erudition from Sam, which always makes me happy!), but otherwise it's pretty much slog, slog, for days, ugly scenery, Frodo hurts, everybody's tired and cranky and hungry, and by the time the Nazgul catch up again we're all but begging them to put the poor bastards out of their misery.

But no! Because Glorfindel, one of the coolest Elves ever (just ask EssJay), happens. Well, after some more wandering and dithering over which river to cross and how that even had me getting impatient. But finally, Nazgul and the landscape conspire to basically herd everyone into a spot where they'll be easy pickings. By this point Frodo is so far gone that a reader who didn't know he's got hundreds of pages of life in him yet would despair, so it's a very, very good thing that Glorfindel happens. On an amazing Elve Horse, whatever that is. Certainly a very fast horse that isn't afraid of Nazgul and orcs. Anyway, after a joyful reunion between Aragorn and Glorfindel (they're like brothers in the Fraternity of Awesome. Again, I'll just refer you to EssJay's post), Frodo is bundled onto this amazing horse and sent across the water after Glorfindel convinces them that letting this happen is not deserting his friends and leaving them in danger because the Nazgul will probably just ignore them if Frodo isn't there.

And so begins a very exciting chase that Peter Jackson kinda did justice to, except for, you know, Arfindel. Sigh. Anyway, Frodo and the amazing Elve Horse reach the water in the nick of time, and the by the power of Rivendell, the water rises up in a tide of foam that may or may not be some kind of hippopotamus attack (do your etymology) and the Nazgul are flooded out and shall not pass (cough) and WHEW, Rivendell.



The frathouse.

*Which, lets face it, he is, because he has actually done something in these books, where Sauron is just memory and potential.

**Arfindel is what EssJay and I have started calling Movie Arwen, since she took Glorfindel's place at the Ford of Bruinen. In the drinking game, we not only quaff but bark whenever she is on screen. Arf. Yes, I know this is very silly but if you haven't noticed, we are just nutty for Tolkien!

***By the way, was anyone else impressed at how well Bill Clinton did answering questions about this movie on Wait Wait Don't Tell me? I was very impressed. I might have actually been persuaded to vote for him after that performance. Better than playing the sax on Arsenio!


  1. "hippopotamus attack (do your etymology)"

    Still laughing at this! Will comment further when I'm not full of wine, promise.

    1. I really wanted to find an easy way to stick some Elvish "E" runes in to name the fraternity. EEE (E for Evenstar, E for Elrond and E for Elessar)(and an extra E for EEE).

    2. "a tide of foam that may or may not be some kind of hippopotamus attack (do your etymology)"
      Oh my dear lord I will never read this scene the same way again. Brilliant. Though technically it may be some kind of potamohippus attack. Where's Danielle? I'm sure her Latin is much better than mine.

    3. Hee hee, could be, but it's Greek rather than Latin that needs consulted.

    4. See? My Latin is so poor I effed that up. Although I could tell you what it is in Icelandic, which is how I remember the components of hippopotamus. I know nobody cares... but I do.

    5. You are WRONG, sir. I care very much. Because I love the Iceland. The Halldor Laxness. The Sjon. The ridiculous banking troubles. The geysers that are like Wyoming's geysers except actually awesome. The ponies. The turf houses. Yes, please, tell us what it is in Icelandic?

    6. In Icelandic the word is flóðhestur. "Flóð" is "water" (cognate for the English word "flood," though it doesn't mean that in Icelandic); "hestur" is "horse."
      In the same way, I first understood what the word "cauliflower" is derived from.
      Glad to hear you love the Iceland, my dear! Have you read Sjón's latest, "From the Mouth of the Whale"?

    7. I have not! Liked The Blue Fox; that was my first Sjon. Also I think Fiery Furnaces' "Tropical Ice-Land" is one of the neatest songs that ever was sung.

    8. Well, I thought it was good -- he has fun with narrative perspectives. If you're on Goodreads, I posted a review there (which I originally wrote for work, but hey, I figure that's OK).

  2. "He is the master in the way a Zen master is, or a master tradesman. And he expresses this serenity and simple pleasure in silly, silly song, sung like a mantra to remind himself that it's okay not to be doing anything more important than finding more water lilies to sit in bowls surrounding his pretty lady. Or perhaps, that nothing is more important than finding those lilies." ALL OF THE YES.

    "...at least has him tied up somewhere with like a maple tap jammed in is carotid or something." Well, I nearly peed myself with that one, thanks.

    And the fact that the whole scene in the Shire is left out? So sad. I always get the prickly back-of-the-neck kind-of-weirdly-teary thing when I read that line. It's so...so PLUCKY, or something. Just HEARTENING.

    I really, REALLY wish I could own that shirt, because it is AH-MAY-ZING, but I do not have anything that could, um, live up to the joke, as it were. Le sigh. Cursed bosom!

    1. I had to work really hard to convince myself that Tom wasn't, like, totally evil after I read all the crackpottery, I have to admit. I finally decided that he's a Master like Joel Grey is a Master in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. And now in my ideal LOTR film in my head, Joel Grey is Tom Bombadil. He looks great in yellow boots.

      And these books are so crammed with Norsery that it was really, really hard to find a way to add even more. Thank the gods for Kvasir!

      As for the shirt... can you believe those goobers over at Indie Pulp use that as my author photo? I think it's just so they can prove it's not a complete sausage fest over there. I know how a lot of our PtBiB folk feel about THOSE!

    2. I too loved that shirt. Had I seen a girl wearing one in my single, RPG-playing days, I would have been instantly beguiled.

  3. Excellent Wyoming story! :)


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