LotRFI Pt.16–Gandalf Falls

Gandalf was my favorite character from the beginning of LotR. As I noted in a previous post, I always found him mysterious and funny. Unlike H, Gandalf was present throughout LotR, so the reader has the chance to know him well. His character was so well developed that I could often laugh at the little word-games he played on the hobbits, while always taking his warnings seriously. This is probably why his death at the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm was so heart-wrenching for me.

My reaction was not immediate. I thought that it was surely some kind of trick, Gandalf would levitate out of the chasm somehow. It was not until the other characters reacted and the chapter ended that it finally sunk in. This death was sudden and unexpected. There was no dramatic pause in his fall, as the movie depicts, rather this famous line comes out of the pit while he is falling. Aragorn’s seizing of control and his determination to get the Fellowship out of Moria drives the reader on and does not leave time for reflection until the chapter concludes.

moria
Image copyright David Wyatt

I must admit that I cried profusely before I began reading the next chapter. . I ruminated a while on how nonchalant the passage about Gandalf’s death seemed. It was not built-up and magnanimous as Thorin’s in H.  Perhaps it was Tolkien’s war experience that taught him how death is a sudden separation. Unfortunately, when I read LotR, I was too young to know about literary tropes. I knew of the quest archetype, of course, but I had no indication whatsoever that Gandalf, as the mentor figure, had to leave in order for the rest of the fellowship to mature.

As much as the heights of Caradhras shaped my understanding of Tolkien’s world, the depths underneath the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm defined the terms of the quest. Suddenly, I became aware that the true hazard of the quest was death; abduction or discovery were no longer the worst possible outcomes, but sudden and permanent death. As someone who had read mostly “children’s literature” up to this point, death was not the consequence of failure in most of my reading. Perhaps this is the point when I realized that the world I entered weeks before was more than just a fantasy land, but there were dire consequences here, worse than in the real world (I was, and still am, fortunate in how few times I have had to experience the death of a loved one).

I will take a moment to clarify that, on my initial reading, I did not fall victim to either of two popular fan interpretations of this passage. I never believed that Gandalf meant anything other than “run” when he shouts the word fly. Also, I never had any notion that the Balrog had literal wings. I always read the passage which sparked this fan theory as a metaphor, and I suppose I never questioned it because the Balrog falls down the expanse. I probably just justified that he could not have fallen if he had wings. (Perhaps this is a bit easier with the naiveté and certainty of youth, as I never considered alternatives such as “the Balrog had wings, but their span was too large to be efficacious in the depths.)

LotRFI Pt.15–Caradhras Changes Everything

I have always had inordinately strong opinions about the passage about Caradhras. In fact, it was changes made to this episode that made me shout “no!” when I went to see Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Rings in theaters.

I was familiar with other literature that gave a sense of autonomy to nature before I read LotR, and I was excited to see that Tolkien does the same throughout the text, even before getting to the fully autonomous Treebeard. As a child, I loved the idea that trees could have volition and emotions. Tolkien takes this wondrous idea and pushes it one step further in the Caradhras episode. As the snows on Caradhras foil the attempt of the Fellowship to pass over the mountain, this exchange occurs:

‘We cannot go further tonight,’ said Boromir. ‘Let those call it the wind who will; there are fell voices on the air; and these stones are aimed at us.’

‘I do call it the wind,’ said Aragorn. ‘But that does not make what you say untrue. There are many evil and unfriendly things in the world that have little love for those that go on two legs, and yet are not in league with Sauron, but have purposes of their own. Some have been in this world longer than he.’

‘Caradhras was called the Cruel, and had an ill name,’ said Gimli, ‘long years ago, when the rumor of Sauron had not been heard in these lands.’ (FOTR, II, iii, 289)

Here Boromir tries to attribute the malevolent weather to Sauron or one of his agent; however, but Aragorn and Gimli are quick to halt this impulse and clarify that there are other forces at play in the world. Gimli goes so far as to specify that the will is probably that of Caradhras himself.

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Image copyright Ted Nasmith

I cannot emphasize this enough: this passage changed my worldview the first time I read it. To ascribe volition to not just plants, but to all of nature, to the very earth itself! This was a truly awe-inspiring thought for me. I remember walking around for days thinking about the ramifications of this idea. What does it mean to till an earth that could feel the cuts? What does it mean to dynamite a mountain that can fight back? To this day, I occasionally ponder this “what if” question when I consider my lifestyle.

Let me be clear, I did not instantly change and become an eco-warrior or any of the other clichés, but this passage made me think about how I affected the soil, the rock, and the foundations of our planet for the very first time. I had already learned about trees and had Arbor Day plantings and such, but this was so much more inclusive than those lessons. If you can impact the ground, then make an influence on the world in every second of every day.

Imagine watching Peter Jackson’s movie after that. Jackson ascribes the wind to Saruman! Doing so completely changes Tolkien’s entire conception. It flattens all of nature, except Ents/Huorns, to mere things with no will or agency. This was by far the biggest disappointment for me leaving the theater.

LotRFI Pt.14–Wargs

The beginning of the next episode which features wild animals is remarkably contrary to the crebain incident. Without warning, Aragorn names the enemy: “Aragorn leapt to his feet. ‘How the wind howls! He cried. ‘It is howling with wolf-voices. The Wargs have come west of the Mountains!’” (FR, II, iv, 297) The story then becomes a rapid exchange of dialogue as the Fellowship makes decisions and outlines plans for their journey. Then there is a lull in the activity as the Fellowship makes camp and sets a watch against the wolves. Then, the fight begins as Wargs encircle the camp and the Fellowship is forced to fend them off.

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Image copyright Katarzyna Chmiel-Gugulska

This encounter always reminded me of the fight where Strider, Frodo, and the other hobbits struggled against the Ringwraiths near Weathertop. In each case the protagonists are encircled by enemies near a campfire and must use fire itself to drive away the enemy. It is probably this desired parallel that makes Gandalf’s role so significant to me. Unlike the somewhat successful attack by the Ringwraiths earlier, Gandalf, with some assistance from Legolas, drives away the Wargs before they can hurt anyone. Gandalf puts forth some of his power, seeming to grow in stature and power, as he grabs a branch and with it causes “fire to leap from tree-top to tree-top” until “the whole hill was crowned with dazzling light” (FR, II, iv, 299). At this sight, and the death of their leader, the Wargs flee. Gandalf’s might and skill saves the group and keeps the wolves at bay until they can reach Moria. While the crebain serve to deepen the ominous atmosphere in Hollin, the Fellowship confronts the wolves and staves them off. While there is still fear of their return, there is every indication that this is a manageable threat.


As a note of full disclosure: I read The Call of the Wild by Jack London a few years before LotR. It quickly became one of my favorite books when I was around ten years old. I enjoyed the escapism I found in the Alaskan wild and the grittiness of the writing; however, I mostly enjoyed the book because I loved Buck, the canine protagonist who relates the story. I undoubtedly channeled some of the horrific images from that book into the threat presented by the Wargs here.


Where do We Go From Here?

I want to take a step back, chronologically, and take some time to ruminate on Caradhras. This was a particularly important insight for me, and I hope I can do it justice!

What Do You Think?

I have depicted my first interpretation of the Crebain the Warg encounters as very different in nature. Do you agree with this perspective? Do I miss some important similarities?

LotRFI Pt.13–Crebain

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.

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Image copyright Daniel Govar

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).

LotRFI Pt.12–Boromir the Bad

When I first read FR, I remember that I distrusted Boromir entirely. Perhaps it is because in the first two mentions of Boromir the reader is told that he is “from the South” (FR, II, II, 240) and a “stranger” (FR, II, II, 243). I already knew that the real bad guys were in the south, and that the shadowy men from Bree were “strangers.”  Perhaps, too, it was because his first action is to interrupt Elrond in order to boast about his country and ask about the Ring; at least that is how I interpreted his statements at the time.

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Image copyright John Howe

Boromir is one of the largest detractors from the plan to destroy the ring while at the Council of Elrond. Throughout his journey with the Fellowship, Boromir is constantly preoccupied with the Ring and how it should be used, not destroyed. I think that my childhood instinct to view people, and characters, I loved as infallible played a role in the way I perceived Boromir. To me, he was ‘the enemy’ who was against the wisdom of Gandalf (whom I loved dearly, which I will cover in detail later). As such, I did not see him as a real man, as a character who was valiant yet flawed. I saw him, honestly, in the same way that many conservative American Christians see the devil: as a crafty and deceitful enemy who has his goal in front of him the whole time and picks his spots to exploit weakness. My reading was not to see Boromir as occasionally tempted, but as wholly corrupt and hiding his nature until he can sate his desires.

This interpretation of Boromir stayed with me for approximately three years. When I was sixteen, I audited a course on J.R.R. Tolkien which Dr. Amy H. Sturgis taught at a university near me. It was through her class that I first realized that Boromir was not an entirely unredeemable figure. Since then, my views on Boromir have changed drastically, but that evolution is a story for another time!

Where do we go from here?

Next, I want to talk about some of the obstacles the Fellowship encounter on the journey to Moria.

What Do You Think?

What was your first impression of Boromir?
Has your reading of Boromir changed over time?
​Let me know in the comments!

LotRFI Pt.11–Rivendell

I will readily admit that I was not an avid fan of the events in Rivendell when I first read LotR. As a young reader, it was very difficult to find the patience to work through the Council of Elrond, although the passages where the events of H were briefly rehashed and expanded upon were helpful. I think that I succumbed to the fault of many contemporary readers because I believed that chapters that did not have conflict, by which I mean battles or evading hunters, were boring. It was not until I completed the book and revisited Rivendell that I really understood its importance.

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Image copyright Alan Lee

Aside from the Council, I always enjoyed the privilege of seeing Bilbo in Rivendell. His poetry was difficult to follow because I was unclear about the meter in my first reading and Aragorn’s joke about Earendil was over my head; however, my curiosity about Bilbo was piqued by the second chapter and I wondered what would happen to him on his latest adventure. I also enjoyed the bits of comedy that peek through in the Rivendell chapters. Pippin especially stood out to me as a cut-up who wanted to offer his opinions and was not afraid to talk back to his betters.

For me, the most notable event in Rivendell through the first several reads was the establishment of the Fellowship. I enjoyed learning who would join in the quest, and even looked back over the chapter to make sure I had all of the information about Gimli, Legolas, and Boromir. This is a pretty good spot for me to transition into talking about the characters of the Fellowship, so I will do so for the next several posts, and then come back to Rivendell before moving on into the quest.

Where do We Go From Here?

A brief pause in the chronological approach will let us reflect more on the characters of the Fellowship before we return to Rivendell and continue on the quest itself.

What Do You Think?

How did you approach the Council of Elrond in your first reading?
Were you forewarned about the length or content of the Council?
What about the other events at Rivendell?

LotRFI Pt. 10–Glorfindel, Gildor, and the Elves Pre-Rivendell

In my discussions of Aragorn, Bombadil, and Maggot I have established that my general approach to new characters during my first reading of LotR was skepticism and mistrust. The only new characters that this mistrust did not touch were the elves. This is a little ironic, given that I read H shortly before starting LotR. It would make sense, given the background of the Elf King of Mirkwood, that I would mistrust the elves, especially those wandering in the woods. It seems, however, that the impression left by Elrond had more of an influence on me as a reader of LotR.

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Image copyright Alan Lee

I was very quick to trust the elves. Once the Black Rider fled from Gildor Inglorion and his company, I essentially trusted elves from then on. I do not remember a single instance when I questioned this trust throughout LotR. Even when the Fellowship confronted elves in Lothlórien, I felt the tension between two factions on the same side but did not assume that the Galadhrim were evil. To rewrite the Frodo line from the meeting with Strider, I deemed that elves seemed fair and felt fairer. Even if this perspective is unique to me or is not entirely based on the published text, it has proved very significant in my understanding of Middle-earth. From the beginning of my experience, the elves were truly Good People. The evil loose in Middle-earth could not tarnish their spirits. They were the bright light in dark places, even among the trees of the Shire.

My interpretation of the elves owes a lot to the fact that Gildor’s people are aware of Bilbo’s farewell from the Shire, they call Bilbo a “good master” and they laugh in their dealings with the hobbits (FR, I, III, 80-1). The familiarity and kindness of the elves, along with their opposition to the Rider make them likable. I found myself, like the hobbits, cheered by their presence.

This feeling of wholesomeness extends to Glorfindel, although he meets the company under more dire conditions. While the group is struggling to get to Rivendell when they meet the elf, Glorfindel acts as a catalyst for action. He spurs Frodo on across the Ford and he helps the others confront the Riders. More significantly than this, however, is that Frodo glimpses Glorfindel “as he is upon the other side” (FR, II, I, 223). This cements the association between the elves and the ethereal, making explicit the goodness of the Good People.

The other-worldly view of Glorfindel not only reasserted the allegiance of the elves, but it prepared me to experience Rivendell as a place removed from the world. We will talk about Rivendell more in the next post, but for now I just wanted to link Glorfindel’s ability to be both in the world and yet detached from it as foreshadowing one of the essential qualities of Rivendell and Lothlórien.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The next post will be on Rivendell, then I should probably take a break from the plot-based approach to cover some of the characters who will be in the Fellowship.

What Do You Think?

What was your impression of the elves before you arrived at Rivendell (in LotR)?

LotRFI Pt. 9–Strider Again

On the journey between Bree and Rivendell, Strider’s character becomes more complex, especially when the group arrives at Weathertop. The first suggestion that Strider is more than a roaming do-gooder is the fact that he has earned Gandalf’s respect. According to Gandalf’s letter, and Strider’s subsequent ruminations on how Gandalf would likely proceed, we understand that the two of them have often worked together and that they understand one another well. Just before they reach Weathertop, however, Strider’s learning is on full display. It is here that the ranger of the north divulges his knowledge of history. He answers the hobbits’ questions about Weathertop by sharing his historical knowledge of the area, then he relates some of the tale of Gil-galad.

To the surprise of all, Sam goes on to recite a bit of Gil-galad’s tale! This was a marvelous occurrence to me, as I did not expect it from Sam at all. He was listening to Bilbo closer than I ever gave him credit for! Unfortunately, Sam’s knowledge does not extend past this excerpt and he is unaware of its significance. Later, the hobbits request that Strider tell them the full story and he declines, saying that now is not the time. Instead,

“I will tell you the tale of Tinúviel” said Strider, “in brief—for it is a long tale of which the end is not known” (FR, I, xi, 191).

Then follows a lengthy poem that recounts the story of the meeting of Beren and Lúthien.

Fifth Day After Weathertop, by Ted Nasmith
Image copyright Ted Nasmith

This poem is significant for several reasons. First, it allows for exposition of Aragorn’s character and of the history of Middle-earth. This incident shows Aragorn to be knowledgeable of the lore of men and elves. Additionally, this sharing of lore seems to have the side-effect of forestalling the encounter with the Black Riders. They seem to lurk in the shadows until the tale is told and silence falls again. Finally, Corey Olsen posits that this is the moment in the drafting process where Tolkien decides to have LotR and The Silmarillion (not italicize because here it refers to the entire legendarium and not the published text) inhabit the same imaginative world. While this may be the case, when I first read the text, all I garnered from this episode is that Strider has much more wisdom than simply the skills of a tracker and forester. This sense is underlined after the events on Weathertop when Strider reveals that he has been to, and in fact lived in Rivendell for a time.

On Weathertop we see Strider’s real fighting skills for the first time. Contrary to how the movie adaptation depicts the scene, Strider does not use a sword in his combat against the Riders. Instead he uses fire brands to hold them off. This was significant to me in a couple of ways. First, it demonstrates that he is a formidable warrior in that he can adapt and use different weaponry when the situation dictates. Also, the imagery of Aragorn wielding the fire, a source of light, against the dark, shadowy Riders was symbolically important to me as a young reader.

The final insight I wanted to discuss about Strider is his use of Athelas on Frodo’s wound before Glorfindel arrives. This episode underscores Strider’s learning again, but it is not strange that a forester would have a bit of herb lore. The scene, however, demonstrates more about Strider than just his knowledge base. It demonstrates his emotional investment in the hobbits. Strider seems to genuinely care for the hobbits and he wants to ease Frodo’s suffering and delay the poison of the blade as much as he can. This care becomes more evident as this leg of the journey continues and he becomes increasingly worried about Frodo.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Glorfindel and the elves (pre-Rivendell) are next! Then we will cross the Ford and enter Rivendell.

What Do You Think?

What Aspects of Strider’s initial characterization change for you in this section? When?
​Did you picture Aragorn with a sword on Weathertop or not?

LotRFI Pt. 8–About Strider

You can probably anticipate what my initial approach to Strider was. As with almost everything in the story, I was untrusting or even outright skeptical about him at first. Who was this shadowed figure trying to wheedle himself into the confidence of the hobbits? Unlike previous encounters where I held on to my preconceived notions longer than other readers might or where, however, I imagine that I changed my opinion around the same time as most other readers. I decided to trust Strider the same time that the hobbits did: after they see Gandalf’s letter and he proves that he is Aragorn by showing his broken blade.

I think part of the reason that I decided to like Strider is because the rest of the Breelanders did not like him. Frodo claims that

 

“You have frightened me several times tonight, but never in the way the servants of the Enemy would, or so I imagine. I think one of his spies would – well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.”

strider

I think that this passage helps to explain my own approach. Throughout the early parts of LotR, I had an innate mistrust of any characters that seemed fair, because their aspect is unbelievable (the elves are excluded from this, but we will talk more about that as we enter Rivendell). Therefore, my approach to this unknown world of Middle-earth was similar to Frodo’s own. I had reservations, often verging on misgivings, about people who seemed to be better than they were. Hobbits I innately trusted because they were familiar; for example, even though Maggot is daunting, he was still a hobbit, and so was not a source of fear so much as tension or conflict. Once the hobbits leave the Shire, however, most of their encounters were cause for alarm to me because each was an encounter with the unknown.

Strider is the exception to this rule so far. He mirrors the trajectory of Maggot in that he seems gruff and unlikable, but eventually grows into an ally for the hobbits. This is the first character that the hobbits meet outside the Shire who is not as he appears. The foreboding caused by Old Man Willow and the fear of the Barrow wights were appropriate responses and Bombadil really was a merry, if frighteningly powerful, fellow (even though I had my doubts). For the first time, a character who is not a hobbit presents some real complexity of character and does not fit in to his surroundings. This makes him intriguing to the reader and we want to know more about him. In fact, we, like Frodo, want all of our questions answered on the spot there in Bree. It is the artistry of Tolkien, however, to prolong the mystery and only unravel Aragorn’s true significance bit by bit.

I will go a bit more into Aragorn’s lore and medicinal skills in my next post, as we approach and then descend Weathertop, but I did want to say a bit more about his character on the road, as it were, with the hobbits. I came to like Strider very quickly because he is direct in his guidance, but does not take himself so seriously that he does not have fun while with the hobbits. I think Jackson’s characterization of Aragorn strays quite a bit here. The hobbits are the characters that readers are supposed to identify with, that is why the tale is told from their vantage point. This elevates Aragorn to be above the station of the reader. The reader does not like Aragorn as an equal, but appreciates the burden of his responsibility and his condescension in being a ranger and protecting the hobbits. This makes his character much more complex and interesting. Aragorn is not the character whose history we can understand or whose purpose we can see ourselves mirrored in, but the fact that he is willing to come alongside the hobbits and help them in their quest demonstrates a quality of character well beyond what is expected of individuals with power and station.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Next stop: Weathertop. Then I want to pause and talk about Glorfindel and elves before we head into Rivendell

What Do You Think?

What was your first impression of Strider?
Do you relate more to the hobbits or the men depicted in LotR​? Why?

LotRFI Pt. 7–Signs in the Prancing Pony

We have finally arrived at Bree! As the first non-Shire settlement, there is much for the hobbits to adapt to and many new avenues of experience for them. Perhaps the plethora of innovations that the hobbits experience impacts the way that this scene can be interpreted in different ways.

In his Exploring the Lord of the Rings podcast, Dr. Corey Olsen suggested that Peter Jackson did not accurately portray the Prancing Pony in his film. According to Olsen, the great peril of the Pony is that it was so warm and inviting that it would put the hobbits off their guard, which could trick them into revealing more about their errand than they should. He denounced Jackson’s interpretation as far too scary and dark.

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Image copyright Greg and Tim Hildebrandt

Personally, my own experience echoes Jackson’s interpretation more than Olsen’s, although I do see parts of the hobbits’ experience at the Pony as pleasant. While I can appreciate Olsen’s perspective, I always saw the common room at the Pony as in intimidating place because it is the first time that the hobbits encounter the Big People, if you will. Reading the scene as child, it resembled my own experience of entering a room of adults. The feelings of uncertainty and unease that occur to anyone who enters a room where they can assume that they are the least knowledgeable about the world and other people. This connection is obviously an extension of my reading of the hobbits as children.

While the common room unsettled me, I understood that the hobbits were at ease for part of their time there and relaxed for most of their time before going to the common room. Perhaps a more accurate assessment of my response would be that I thought the Pony was, to paraphrase Aragorn, both fair and perilous. The warmth of the caretaker and his staff were more than enough to allow any weary travelers to rest and be at peace. The inclusion of hobbit rooms at the Pony was certainly an unlooked-for balm for the hobbits as they relaxed from their travels. Once the hobbits are refreshed, they confront the world of the Bog People without being properly prepared. While the hobbits felt ease in the beginning of their encounter in the common room, it quickly became a source of intimidation and fear. Just as Frodo was aware of the danger before his fellow hobbits, so I, as the reader, was aware of the danger upon entering the common room.

This is partly because of the warnings that Merry and Pippin bandy back and forth before going to the common room. In Olsen’s opinion, most of these warnings are friendly ribbing among the hobbits. As a young reader, though I took them all very seriously. This put me on guard as they entered the common room, and Frodo’s misgivings only acted as a confirmation of my presuppositions. I do not think that the disagreement in interpretation here changes much of the characterization of important people moving forward. Therefore, it seems to me that this episode supports either of these two interpretations because later developments do not necessitate one interpretation over the other.

Where Do we Go From Here?

I would like to take a post to reflect on Aragorn-as-Strider and then probably move on to Weathertop and the lore that breaks in there.

What do you think?

What were your first impressions of the Prancing Pony or of Bree?
When, if ever, did you begin to mistrust the Big People?
What were your impressions of Butterbur, Hob, and Nob?