After leaving Rivendell, the narrative makes many asides into the description of geography and scenery, and there is much interaction among the Fellowship which helps to establish each character as well as their roles within the group; however, there are two major encounters with groups of wild animals that I want to look at in a bit more detail: the crebain and the wolves.
The Fellowship encounters the crebain in the land of Hollin, little more than a fortnight out from Rivendell. Unlike the movie interpretation of these events, the significance of the crebain is not in their appearance, but in the silence which their approach instills in the land. Aragorn observes how “No folk dwell here now, but many other creatures live here at times…Yet now all things are silent. I can feel it” (FotR, II, iii, 284). This passage is so ominous that I underlined it several times. As a reader, I was very afraid of anything that could cause an entire region to change its character! I imagined some sort of invisible blight that had somehow scared all of the animals of the area, but left the land untouched. What kind of monstrosity would be capable of such a thing?
It is because of this anticipatory passage that the appearance of the crebain is so impactful: What starts as a shadow in the distance takes on an ominous import as the source of such devastation and fear. This led to an interesting fluctuation of emotions for me. At first the cloud terrified me. Then, as I discovered, along with Sam, that it was simply a large flock of birds, I felt a sense of relief. Aragorn’s reaction to the birds, and his subsequent explanation of their significance renewed my sense of looming fear. The trick that Tolkien pulls here he does several times (including earlier with the black riders), and I do not know that I had ever before experienced this unique skill by any other author. He started with a kind of anxiety about the unknown cause of the stillness in Hollin, and somehow Tolkien identifies the immediate cause of the anxiety for the reader, but still leaves an ominous foreboding and completely unanswered questions. In my previous readings, whenever the source of the anxiousness was identified, there was something to be done. The enemy could be faced, fled, or reasoned with. The enemy became a known quantity. In this instance, the reader understands that the crebain are simply an implement. Whether they spotted the Fellowship or not is left uncertain, as is their ultimate master, although there are some pointed speculations. Furthermore, simply because they are under a malevolent influence does not entirely answer the question of why all of Hollin has gone quiet. What do the beasts and other birds have to fear from the master of the crebain?
While it was such a small occurrence when compared to the quest of the Ring, this episode really had an effect on my reading as a child. Largely because a part of the natural world is here used as an implement of evil, the event underscored my cautiousness and unwillingness to trust in characters with an unknown past (including Boromir).