Alan Lee, Beorn, Bilbo, bog people, Bombur, Boromir, bridges, causeways, drowsiness, Dwarves, Esgaroth, Great East Road, Greyflood, Gwathlo, Hobbiton-across-the-water, Lethe, Middle-earth, Mirkwood, Rammas Echor, Rivendell, river-crossing puzzle, Roman Roads, Tharbad, The Atlas of Middle-Earth, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, Tollund Man
Welcome, dear readers. Here we are again in Middle-earth, as so often we’ve been over the last couple of years, but, as we said in our last post, one reason why we revere JRRT and his work is that it’s so rich—it seems like one can open it to any page and there is something new to explore. In this post, we began with an odd little detail, just something said almost in passing by Boromir:
“A long and wearisome journey. Four hundred leagues I reckoned it, and it took me many months, for I lost my horse at Tharbad, at the fording of the Greyflood.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter VIII, “Farewell to Lorien”)
Tharbad, we knew from the Companion, was once a river port on the Gwathlo, Boromir’s “Greyflood”. Here’s a description from the extremely helpful introductory section of the Companion called “The Maps of The Lord of the Rings”:
“…with long labour a port capable of receiving seagoing vessels had been made at Tharbad, and a fort raised there on great earthworks on both sides of the river, to guard the once famed Bridge of Tharbad” (lxv)
This “once-famed” bridge was clearly long-gone by the time, at the end of the Third Age, when Boromir reached the river it had once offered passage over, for all of the work done once upon a time, including long causeways—raised approach roads above boggy ground—here’s a Roman example from northern Spain with causeway and bridge—
“But in the days of The Lord of the Rings the region had become ruinous and lapsed into its primitive state: a slow wide river running through a network of swamps, pools and eyots [little islands]: the haunt of hosts of swans and other water-birds.” (from a letter of 30 June, 1969, to Paul Bibire, quoted in Companion, 650)
JRRT appears to have left no description of the bridge itself, but we imagine it as looking rather like a Roman one (as JRRT could have seen pictures of surviving ones like this in Portugal
or this in Rome.
Unlike much of the rest of the Roman world, no Roman bridge survives in Britain—only the remains of piers, ramps, and approaches–so we’re assuming that, if he were at all influenced by Roman architecture—and that’s an absolute assumption on our part, we admit, but certainly things like Hadrian’s Wall seem to have been an inspiration—see our earlier posting on the Rammas Echor—it was through photographs.)
This mention, however, sparked us to think about the crossing of bodies of water, both in The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings, just how many there were, and the kinds of events which happened at them.
Bilbo’s Bag End, of course, is just down the road from The Water and its mill, as depicted by Tolkien himself.
When he sets off with the dwarves, however, there is little incident involved in running water at first. The party has to cross a river, “swollen with the rains, [which] came rushing down from the hills and mountains in the north.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 2, “Roast Mutton”) They cross this by “an ancient stone bridge” (perhaps like this one at Carrbridge, in Scotland?)
but, somehow, they can’t escape the river, as, during the night, “…one of the ponies took fright at nothing and bolted. He got into the river before they could catch him; and before they could get him out again, Fili and Kili were nearly drowned, and all the baggage that he carried was washed away off him.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 2, “Roast Mutton”). So far, when it comes to running water, for all that there was a bridge, it seems difficult for the dwarves to stay out of it.
Their second adventure with water is more successful, when they cross the bridge at Rivendell, which we have discussed in a posting on Rivendell architecture, so, for this one, we’ll simply add Tolkien’s illustration of Rivendell, plus a real favorite, Alan Lee’s of the bridge.
Beyond Rivendell, it’s into the mountains (literally, when they are pulled into the world of the goblins by a secret door) and, when they come out, their next water barrier is surmounted for them when they’re rescued by eagles and flown to the other side of the northern Anduin.
If they had simply taken the Great East Road (as we presume Bilbo and Gandalf did on the way back), they would have found a ford where the road runs eastward into the Old Forest Road. (see Karen Wynn Fonstad, The Atlas of Middle-earth, 80-81, for a larger view).
The real problem with a crossing comes at the next water course. They had plunged into Mirkwood
and come up across a stream (in fact, the Enchanted River, although they didn’t know it). During their leave-taking at Beorn’s, he had warned them about it:
“There is one stream there, I know, black and strong which crosses the path. That you should neither drink of, nor bathe in; for I have heard that it carries enchantment and a great drowsiness and forgetfulness.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 7, “Queer Lodgings”)
As people with a background in Greek and Roman mythology, we immediately thought of Lethe, the name of which comes from a Greek verb which means “to escape notice/be hidden—therefore, to forget”.
It was one of the rivers of the Underworld and, if you drank from it, you lost all memory of your past. In that part of classical religion which believed in reincarnation, it was one step on the way to returning to earth.
Here in Mirkwood, however, the point is to avoid drinking, or even touching, it. The difficulty, of course, is that, if you can’t touch it, how do you get across it, especially when:
“There had been a bridge of wood across, but it had rotted and fallen leaving only the broken posts near the bank.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 8, “Flies and Spiders”)
Providentially, there is a boat drawn up on the opposite shore and we’ve always been reminded here of what is called a “river-crossing puzzle”. There are many variations, but the earliest currently known dates from the 9th century AD, and is found in Propositiones ad Acuendos Juvenes (maybe something like “Puzzles for Sharpening [the Minds of] Young Folk”—which makes it sound rather Victorian). We provide links here for: River crossing puzzle, Fox, goose and bag of beans puzzle, and Propositiones ad Acuendos Juvenes, for anyone interested to learn more.
In the case of the dwarves, the math goes awry when the largest of them, Bombur, accidentally falls into the water and becomes comatose.
(And this Alan Lee drawing oddly reminds us of “bog people”—that is, the bodies of people, the earliest being from 8000BC, a majority being Iron Age, found in peat bogs throughout northern Europe. Because of the conditions in bogs, some have been amazingly preserved, such as “Tollund Man”—here
He eventually awakes, long before the party’s next river, which acts as a moat to the caves of the Elf king of Mirkwood.
This has a bridge, across which, at various times, Thorin, the dwarves, and Bilbo (wearing the Ring) go.
It is the next bit of water, however, which bears the greater interest. This is the underground stream which comes up in the cave where the elves store empty wine barrels to return to the men of Esgaroth. And this, the dwarves and Bilbo don’t cross, but ride down, packed in (or perched on) those empty barrels.
This leads us to the last body of water: the Long Lake, on which Esgaroth stands. From here, the people of Lake Town convey them back north to a landing place from which they will start out for the Lonely Mountain and the climax of their quest.
And here we’ll end our quest for water-crossings for this posting, to be continued with one on The Lord of the Rings in our next—along with all of those extras which we can’t help adding, from medieval puzzles to peat bog people.
Thanks, as always, for reading!
If you celebrate this time of year for any reason, may your celebration be a happy one! We mostly dream of toys…