Crossing places

© C A Lovegrove

River fords are hugely symbolic as crossing places. Think of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea out of Egypt or equally the River Jordan into the Promised Land. Though the crossing may sometimes be done without getting one’s feet wet — by boat or over a bridge — the physical act of wading through on foot or on horseback often holds a psychological significance.

The end of Book I of The Fellowship of the Ring has Frodo fording the River Bruinen, not only putting distance between him and the Black Riders but marking the prelude to them being swept away, rather like Pharaoh’s army by the Red Sea waters. Such crossings by the hobbits are frequent in The Lord of the Rings, whether the Water on which Hobbiton sits, or the ferry across the Brandywine, or tricksy streams like the Withywindle; they almost always signify passing the point of no return as well as an attempt to leave some danger behind.

In this post, the latest of of my Talking Tolkien discussions for my sixth LOTR reread, I want to look at how Tolkien begins to structure Frodo’s journey and quest. This will only be a partial examination of course because the little party has so far just come a sixth of the way through the narrative.

© C A Lovegrove

[Y]ou knew that life never comes round to a happy ending and stops there. There is always afterward. But such was the skill with which this narrative was shaped that you could not see the pattern, even when it was being constantly put before you.

Diana Wynne Jones, ‘The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings’ (2012: 32)

I shall begin this discussion with author Diana Wynne Jones‘s 1983 analysis of how Tolkien shaped his story up to when Frodo crossed the Bruinen. She uses a  musical analogy to make her points, but first she clarifies that a narrative is not simply the plot: “the bare plot is to any writer no more than the main theme of a sort of symphony which requires other themes added to it and the whole orchestrated into a narrative.” In other words it has to be shaped and enriched. In addition, she suggests, each movement in LOTR has an extension or coda which she says reflects partly back and partly forward.

The first ‘movement’ in LOTR lasts until the flight from the village of Bree and, despite some anxious moments, has a cosy quality quite in keeping with hobbit nature. The countryside is similar to the Upper Thames Valley which both Tolkien and Jones knew. The themes presented here are three, which then combine in counterpoint to form a fourth.

  1. The narrative starts with a party to celebrate Bilbo’s and Frodo’s birthdays, which Jones compares to the feast which at Camelot in Arthurian romance traditionally preceded a call to adventure. Associated with the party are inklings of a recentish past (Bilbo’s adventures in The Hobbit) and, further back, hints of a heroic history (to be featured in The Silmarillion).
  2. That aforementioned call to adventure takes a while to be apparent to Frodo but it will soon resolve into a quest theme.
  3. The third theme Jones identifies is the character of the quartet of hobbits who in this movement come across as boyish and naïve and not in any way heroic, a facet that even Arthurian knights initially displayed.
  4. The partying, the emerging quest impulse, and the naïvety combine to create a feeling that matters feel less heroic than in days of old — for now at least.

Frodo’s lingering at Bag End after Bilbo’s departure lulls the innocent reader into a somewhat relaxed mood; and it’s not until a later autumn that Frodo is more or less catapulted into leaving. The expedition nevertheless begins in rather a pastoral fashion, though having embarked just after the autumnal equinox there is a sense of Middle-earth entering a less bucolic, less comforting season.

In true fairytale fashion the hobbits are rescued from imminent danger — by Elves from the Black Riders, by Tom Bombadil from Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wights — but the hobbits still haven’t realised they aren’t on some childish picnic. It’s not till they get to Bree and the singalong in The Prancing Pony that Frodo transgresses, putting on the Ring he was prohibited from donning. Jones identifies the two parties, Bilbo’s birthday with fireworks and Frodo’s impromptu concert, as bookending the first movement, with invisibility brought about by the Ring as a feature of both.

What happens next — the race to Weathertop, the attack, the Trollshaws, the episode at the Ford — Jones dubs the coda, a tailpiece in which time in days and distance in miles expands while simultaneously being concentrated in relatively fewer pages. Though Jones finds the Tom Bombadil episode “supremely irritating” and doesn’t think that the “confusion” at the ford “comes off at all” she ultimately has no doubt of “the skill with which this narrative  was shaped.”

When we turn to Tolkien’s son, the late Christopher Tolkien, and his edition of his father’s drafts for the epic we discover that the composition of what Jones calls the first movement was altogether less clear cut than Jones appears to imply. As well as a hesitant start to the requested sequel to The Hobbit, followed by stops and starts whenever the author couldn’t see a way clear, Tolkien was torn between what he fondly referred to as “hobbit talk” and his publisher’s wish for something less like a children’s novel and more like a medieval saga. Tolkien’s fear, as emphasised at one point in The Return of the Shadow, was that he might end up simply repeating The Hobbit — though on a larger scale. In several places during Return Christopher Tolkien makes clear that very early on there was no overall plan for Frodo’s journey there and back, and certainly no certainty that “the fate of Middle-earth lay within its [the Ring’s] tiny circle”: as he says, when the story had reached Weathertop,

“of the great lands and histories east and south of the Misty Mountains […] there is no shadow of a hint. […] In October 1938 he could still say to [friend and publisher] Stanley Unwin that he had hopes of being able to submit the new story early in the following year.”

The Return of the Shadow (1988: 189)

When The Lord of the Rings was eventually published the hobbits and Strider cross the Last Bridge as they head for the Bruinen ford and Rivendell, but in the original drafts of what became The Fellowship of the Ring there is no river Hoarwell for the bridge to carry the East Road over (1988: 192, 203) and so no need for a Last Bridge. However, for various reasons, including geography, Tolkien later inserted this additional crossing; and he gives it added significance by Strider discovering an elf-stone by the bridge.

Map of Middle Earth by Chris Taylor and Chris Guerette

I now come to Rendel Helms‘s Tolkien’s World (I still have copious notes I took in the mid-70s from a library hardback), drawing inspiration from for instance the fifth chapter discussing LOTR‘s structure and aesthetic. As well as an enlightening analysis of what Helms calls the laws of Middle-earth — which I shall examine another time — I drew up a table based on his comparison of events in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, in terms of motif type and the order it came in. One example goes thusly for Book One of The Fellowship of the Ring, with the parallels in the sequel following their equivalents in The Hobbit:

  • Festivity: an Unexpected Party / a Long-Expected Party
  • Information imparted: concerning Smaug and treasure / Sauron and the Ring
  • Sword acquired: a blade later used against Mirkwood spiders / used against a Barrow-wight
  • First goal: Last Homely House / Rivendell

It’s in his fifth chapter (‘The Hobbit as Swain’) that Helms makes clear The Hobbit‘s structural relationship to its sequel. The children’s book as its subtitle asserts began “as a symmetrical quest-tale” but gradually grew into a story “not about grasping, but about renouncing” — the grasping being of Gollum’s ring, and the renouncing applying to the Arkenstone. Helms finds a corresponding symmetry of renunciation in The Lord of the Rings — “Bilbo gives up the Ring at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, even as he gave up the Arkenstone at the end of The Hobbit” — and of course Frodo is also obliged to give up the Ring at Mount Doom after having received it from Bilbo:

Having discovered his pattern and his theme in The Hobbit, and their great potentials, Tolkien set about telling the same story again in The Lord of the Rings, yet with a difference. For though Frodo too, as I have shown, has a sequence of adventures closely parallel to Bilbo’s, the sequence in the Rings of entering a forbidden place and taking forth a symbol of manhood does not exhaust the adventures of the Ringbearer; he has more to do.

Rendel Helms, Tolkien’s World. 1976: 55

So we see some common but also distinct structural ploys suggested in all these commentaries. Jones sees the trilogy as themes stated and combining as in a musical composition; Christopher Tolkien clarifies that some motifs and situations sprang into being almost fully formed while others, more amorphous, were only slowly moulded into the shapes we now know; finally, Helms shows that these originally false starts and repurposings often finally emerged as replays of patterns established in The Hobbit, despite Tolkien’s worries about the trilogy simply becoming a repeat of the prequel.

But to me yet another way of observing how Tolkien was structuring his narrative, consciously or not, concerns crossings — river crossings particularly as they marked a visible frontier between one territory and the next — and to step across that boundary meant that there were new situations to meet head on and perhaps overcome. Frodo and Sam will have plenty of those, notably when the Fellowship breaks apart and the two hobbits paddle across the River Anduin above the Falls of Rauros.

  • Rendel Helms. 1976. Tolkien’s World. Panther. 72-98.
  • Diana Wynne Jones. 1983. ‘The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings‘, in Reflections, Greenwillow Books, 2012: 6-32.
  • J R R Tolkien. 1988. The Return of the Shadow: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part One. Christopher Tolkien, editor. Unwin Paperbacks.

23 thoughts on “Crossing places

  1. buriedinprint

    Beautiful scene and reflection in your photograph!

    I’ve been practicing with crosswords in recent months (everything thinks I should be good at them, because of reading, but I’m not) and it’s amazing how often ENTS appears as a solution. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah! When I first read LOTR at uni I kept seeing ENTS on posters but they inevitably referred to the student entertainments society! I used to enjoy doing cryptic crosswords, by the way, but you have to be in the right frame of mind *and* keep at it on a daily basis and these days I simply don’t have the energy, so it’s just quick crosswords for me now.

      Glad you liked the photo — I cheated a bit, it’s actually the further bank on the local canal but with a little faith and imagination it could be the ford where the Black Riders came to grief…


  2. Such an interesting post and thinking back to my Tolkien readings it strikes me now how well structured LOTR was. The different sections of the journey building to a crescendo, followed by a period of respite. The different strands of the stories. And yes, all those crossings. Fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Karen. I remember how much I thought of LOTR as a massive symphonic poem when I first read it — I was a music student at the time — and your characterisation of it as crescendos and calms after a climactic point reinforce that impression.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. As clear a statement as Bilbo’s public declaration “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” I shan’t not be quoting this epigram again in the future.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I really like your idea on how LOTR is structured with river crossings. It’s not something I noticed before, but now you’ve come up with this way of looking at it – I can see them all!

    It makes sense too I think, psychologically. Even now, in England, with so many bridges that we often hardly notice rivers, they still indicate borders, between counties and countries for instance. Also, as soon as you move from car to being on foot, rivers once again have that quality of being the edge of an area, the boundary which needs work to cross.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Doubtless one can also see the saga as progressions from holes underground or tunnels, punctuated by spells in the open: the smials of Hobbiton, the tunnel from Buckland into the Old Forest, the Barrow; and later the Mines of Moria, the way up through Cirith Ungol to Shelob’s lair, the way into Mount Doom… But I was struck by the Ford of Bruinen marking the end of Book One so went with that! And you’re right about rivers marking physical boundaries in our own world, such as the Wye between England and Wales, or the Avon between what was Gloucestershire and Somerset.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I didn’t know that Tolkien and his editor/publisher had disagreed about the Hobbit-y voice of the first part, which always struck me as marking not just the Hobbits’ innocence when starting out, but also the almost Edenic joy with which Hobbits faced every aspect of life. The four of them are children at the start, and return a year later as hardy battle-worn adults–yet still too much the Hobbit to consider themselves heroes.

    Thanks also, Chris, for your points about the various rivers crossed. Tolkien uses water–-clear, murky, marshy, still, or enchanted–-in so many ways. You’ve given us plenty to consider.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Christopher Tolkien quotes letters and notes about how Stanley Unwin and also, I think, C S Lewis (I’d have to check) felt that the hobbit-talk got in the way of advancing the narrative. Certainly reading the drafts in The Return of the Shadow makes clear how queasily cosy such chat became at times, but that of course comes from reading them with the benefit of hindsight!

      Anyway, I’m pleased you found all this of interest—I wasn’t sure if I was being too self-indulgent in this post or, worse, merely reiterating well-known analyses.

      Liked by 1 person

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    1. Interestingly, I found Bombadil a lot less irritating and whimsical this time around, Beth. One of the things that got under skin in The Hobbit were the dratted dwarves and goblins improvising rhyming ditties, and that unscratchable itch manifested itself with the Old Forest episode in past reads, but oddly not this year’s. I shall have to see what Christopher Tolkien has to say about it in The Return of the Shadow, but it’s clear JRR liked his poetic forms, as one can see from his recasting of Norse, Finnish and Arthurian stories as lays and epic verses. Do track down the Jones essay — it was republished in the Reflections collection of her non-fiction writings which appeared just after her untimely death.


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