Gandalf feels that the group’s only remaining option is a path beneath the mountains, through the Mines of Moria. Many in the group tremble at the mention of Moria, which is widely reputed to be an evil place. Only Gimli is eager, as Moria was once one of the greatest places in the realm of the Dwarves, and he is eager to enter Moria to look for any sign of the Dwarf-king Balin. Aragorn makes a mysterious comment, saying that Gandalf in particular should beware of Moria. The rest of the Company is forced to agree with Gandalf’s decision to enter Moria, however, when they hear the howling of wolves nearby and realize they must move on quickly. Indeed, that very night they barely stave off an assault by the wolves. Everyone in the group fights valiantly: Legolas with his bow, Gimli with his axe, Aragorn and Boromir with their swords, Gandalf with a spell that sets the circle of trees around them on fire.
In the morning, the Company proceeds to the western Door of Moria, which is near a dark lake by the side of the mountain. At this point, they decide, much to Sam’s chagrin, that they must let Bill the pony go. The Door is sealed with ancient magic, and it takes Gandalf some time and a great deal of thought to figure out the password—which, as it turns out, is actually written in a deceptively simple riddle on the Door itself. Just as the Company is about to pass through the Door, it is attacked by a tentacled creature from the lake that tries to drag Frodo into the water. The Company rushes through the entrance. The creature slams the Door behind them and piles on boulders and uprooted trees. The group is now committed to the journey through Moria.
Once inside the Mines, the Fellowship is glad to have Gandalf’s guidance, as the caves are vast and intricate. Since the wizard has been through Moria before, he leads the way, lighting the passages ahead with his glowing staff. They walk for miles, through twisting passages and over great, gaping pits. Frodo thinks he hears a strange pattering sound behind them, like quiet footsteps.
After several hours of walking, the Company comes to a fork in the path that stumps Gandalf. They decide to stop for the night while the wizard mulls the problem over. They spend the night in a room off to one side of the path. Pippin raises Gandalf’s ire by carelessly tossing a pebble down a seemingly bottomless well in the room; the noise of the pebble falling appears to awaken something far below. Later that night, Gandalf relieves Pippin of his watch, as the wizard cannot sleep for all of his worrying over which path to take. Gandalf decides that he needs a smoke to soothe his nerves, so he lights a pipe.
The next morning, Gandalf chooses a path. When the group finds itself in an enormous, splendid underground hall with great pillars and shining walls, the wizard says he has chosen correctly. The group stops, and Gimli and Gandalf tell of the history of Moria. The Dwarves mined the caves for mithril, a metal of almost magical beauty and strength. Gandalf mentions that the dwarf Thorin once gave Bilbo a shirt of mail made of mithril—a gift worth more than all the Shire put together. Frodo realizes that this shirt is the gift Bilbo gave him earlier in Rivendell. That night, Frodo thinks he sees two luminous eyes off in the distance, but he cannot be sure.
The next morning dawns, and some light shines into the hall from windows built into the side of the mountain. Gandalf believes he knows the correct path, but he decides he wants to take a look around first. The group comes upon a large, square chamber, dimly lit by the sun through huge shafts in the mountain above. In the middle of the room is a block of stone, inscribed with runes—it is the tombstone of Balin, the Dwarf-king. Gimli casts his hood over his face in mourning.
Aside from Frodo, the character whom we get to know the best during this chapter is Gandalf. The Mines of Moria test the wizard from the start and, as we see in the upcoming chapters, continue to test him until the end. In his deep thought and even frustration, he tries mightily to keep the Fellowship on the right track through Moria. Both at the gate and then at the confusing fork in the path, we see Gandalf stymied by problems that must be solved not with powerful spells but simply with riddles and a good memory. One of the most memorable and human moments in the novel is when Gandalf, wondering why he is so jumpy, realizes he simply needs a smoke. It is this mix of timeless wisdom and short-temperedness, great power and wry humor, that makes Gandalf one of the most enduring characters in The Lord of the Rings.
The first stage of the Ring’s journey from Rivendell to Mordor provides several new examples of nature at its cruelest. Like Old Man Willow, Caradhras is powerful and malevolent for no apparent reason. When the Fellowship is not dodging falling boulders and slogging through heavy snow, it must hide from spying birds and fend off fearsome wolves. Tolkien’s nature is not the sort of Darwinian world in which every animal is out for itself, but is rather a magical place in which every bird, tree, and mountain is aligned either with the side of good or with the side of evil. Again, as we see in the episode in the Old Forest earlier in the novel, -Tolkien draws a clear distinction between domesticated nature, which results in pleasant settings such as the Shire, and wild, untamed nature, which can be either good or evil, but always unpredictable and therefore dangerous.
Tolkien also uses this section to better acquaint us with the Dwarves, about whom we have heard little in the novel before this point. The history of the Dwarves is long and dramatic, and as a race they are not only the traditional rivals of the Elves, but their opposites in many ways. The Elves are tall, slender, and fair; the Dwarves short, stout, and dark. The Elves make their home in the light, among the trees; the Dwarves live largely in the dark, mining deep within the earth. Perhaps most important, the Elves live in harmony with the natural world, whereas the Dwarves mine the earth for its riches. It is this mining that has perhaps led to the Dwarves’ doom, at least that of the Dwarves of Moria. Their skill at building and forging is great, but we learn that they also have been greedy, and their greed has had high costs for them. Not only have the Dwarves been driven from Moria in the first place, but furthermore, the Dwarf-king Balin, who insisted on returning to reclaim the Dwarves’ glorious realm of old, has met with an untimely end. This history of the Dwarves, especially their great desire for mithril, which leads them to dig too deep and wake something evil in the earth, is a manifestation of one of Tolkien’s central concerns in the novel: desires that are not in themselves evil can nonetheless lead to evil ends.