As ever, dear readers, welcome.
In our last, we had begun discussion of the use of watchmen/sentries in The Lord of the Rings. In our last, in fact, we had stopped with what is well-known to have been a strong influence—especially in The Hobbit—upon JRRT: Beowulf, and its two such figures. Here’s Beowulf with the first.
What particularly interests us is that, often when such a figure—or figures—is encountered, it slows the action, but, interestingly, may cause further action at the same time: the protagonist can be challenged, questioned, or even forced to act—all part of what we call “no fiction without friction”—and we’ll see what this does for the characters now as we’re off on our journey through Middle-earth, beginning where The Lord of the Rings begins, in the Shire.
Before we go farther, however, we would like to expand our definition of watchman/sentry just a little to include the mobile equivalent of sentries, patrols:
“The Shirriffs was the name that the Hobbits gave to their police, or the nearest equivalent that they possessed…There were in the Shire only twelve of them, three in each Farthing, for Inside Work. A rather larger body, varying at need, was employed to ‘beat the bounds’, and to see that Outsiders of any kind, great or small, did not make themselves a nuisance.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, 3, “Of the Ordering of the Shire”)
Tolkien says of these shirriffs that “they were in practice rather haywards then policemen”, and “hay” here doesn’t mean horse and cattle feed but, rather, it’s an old word for “hedge”(from Old English “haga”) and we see our next sentry at the hedge which surrounds Bree. Initially, this is “old Harry”, who seems, when the hobbits arrive, a bit too inquisitive:
“They came to the West-gate and found it shut; but at the door of the lodge beyond it, there was a man sitting. He jumped up and fetched a lantern and looked over the gate at them in surprise.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 9, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”)
It says, perhaps, something about the confidence of the Elves that, at Rivendell, there are neither sentries nor patrols—although perhaps the River Bruinen might be considered at least a defense, considering that it sweeps away the Nazgul when they try to cross.
(Image by one of our favorite Tolkien illustrators, Ted Nasmith)
This idea of a natural force as sentry appears again before the Fellowship enters Moria—although, this time, as they climb along the mountains on the way south, it is decidedly not on their side:
“They heard eerie noises in the darkness round them. It may have been only a trick of the wind in the cracks and gullies of the rocky wall, but the sounds were those of shrill cries, and wild howls of laughter. Stones began to fall from the mountain-side, whistling over their heads, or crashing on the path beside them. Every now and again they heard a dull rumble, as a great boulder rolled down from hidden heights above.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”)
The combination of rock and snow forces the Fellowship to make what seems at the time a fatal decision: to go not south, but east, into the Mines of Moria, with the disappearance of Gandalf as the consequence.
At the western doors of Moria, however, they encounter another negative force, something in the manmade lake in front of those doors. It is a watcher, if not an active sentry, although what it really is, even Gandalf doesn’t know:
“Something has crept or has been driven out of dark waters under the mountains. There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 4, “A Journey in the Dark”)
Whatever this creature may be (and it has lots of tentacles, which makes us think immediately of the squid with which the crew of the submarine Nautilus has to contend in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea)
their encounter with it insures that their choice of traveling through Moria can’t be revoked:
“Many coiling arms seized the doors on either side, and with horrible strength, swung them round. With a shattering echo they slammed, and all light was lost. A noise of rending and crashing came dully through the ponderous stone…They heard Gandalf go back down the steps and thrust his staff against the doors. There was a quiver in the stone and the stairs trembled, but the doors did not open.”
On the far side of Moria, at the edge of Lorien, the company meets its next watcher—or watchers, rather, a listening post of Elves set on a platform in a tree, where:
“…[Frodo] found Legolas seated with three other Elves. They were clad in shadowy-grey, and could not be seen among the tree-stems, unless they moved suddenly.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 6, “Lothlorien”)
And here we see an interesting development brought on by contact with the Elves at this sentry-post. Because the Elves are mistrustful of Gimli, there is an awkward moment: he is to be led blindfolded into the center of Lorien, something he resists until Aragorn proposes that all be blindfolded, to which Gimli makes a counterproposal that only Legolas need be blindfolded, which Legolas resists, and all are back to Aragorn’s proposal, but the leader of the Elves, Haldir, draws a moral from the situation:
“Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.”
Our last sentries for this posting are more a symbol in that they are inanimate, but full of warning all the same:
“ ‘Behold the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings!’ cried Aragorn…
As Frodo was borne towards them the great pillars rose like towers to meet him. Giants they seemed to him, vast grey figures silent but threatening. Then he saw that they were indeed shaped and fashioned…Upon great pedestals founded in the deep waters stood two great kings of stone: still with blurred eyes and crannied brows they frowned upon the North. The left hand of each was raised palm outwards in gesture of warning; in each right hand there was an axe; upon each head there was a crumbling helm and crown. Great power and majesty they still wore, the silent wardens of a long-vanished kingdom. “ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 9, “The Great River”)
But, for all their forbidding look, they spark something in Aragorn—
“ ‘Fear not!’ said a strange voice behind him. Frodo turned and saw Strider, and yet not Strider; for the weatherworn Ranger was no longer there. In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skilful strokes; his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes: a king returning from exile to his own land.”
And, on that inspiring note, we’ll pause for this posting, saving the rest of the sentries, watchers, and patrols for Part 3.
In the meantime, thanks, as always, for reading.