Summary: Book 2, Chapter 3: The Ring Goes South
Elrond sends out his scouts to determine the movements of the Enemy. Meanwhile, the hobbits bide their time. Bilbo asks Frodo to help him finish a book recounting the elder hobbit’s adventures, and start the next book, which will describe Frodo’s. Elrond chooses the company that will set out with the Ring-bearer. All told, there will be nine in the Fellowship: Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, Aragorn, Boromir, Merry, and Pippin. Elrond is hesitant to send the last two, as he is unsure of what they could contribute. However, he consents after Gandalf points out that not even an Elf-lord’s power would be able to guarantee success, and that Merry’s and Pippin’s feelings of loyalty to Frodo count for much.
The Company prepares to depart after Elrond’s scouts return two months later. As a parting gift, Bilbo gives Frodo a beautifully crafted coat of mail and the short sword, Sting, that Bilbo used on his own adventures. Aragorn has his broken sword reforged, and he renames the sword Andúril. Finally, the group takes along the old pony the hobbits bought from Bill Ferny, whom Sam has named Bill and who now looks healthy and strong. After quick goodbyes, the Fellowship sets off.
The Company heads south out of Rivendell, along the foothills of the Misty Mountains. One day, they see a suspicious flock of birds flying overhead, which Aragorn fears are servants of Mordor sent to spy on them. The group tries to decide how to cross the Misty Mountains, which impede their path. They settle on the pass of Caradhras, which enables passage beside one of the range’s tallest peaks. Caradhras is Aragorn’s choice, although Gandalf fears the pass may be watched. The wizard mentions a darker and more secret path—one that Aragorn is loath to try.
As the group climbs higher, the road becomes a treacherous path along a cliff face. Snow begins to fall. Only Legolas remains undeterred, for as an Elf he can walk lightly over the snow, leaving hardly a footprint. The farther the group goes, the heavier the snow falls. Before long, boulders start to tumble down the mountain all around them as well. Eventually, they are forced to turn back. The snow has built up many feet deep behind them, so the men must burrow a way out for the hobbits. The snow stops soon after they retreat. As Gimli notes, evidently some force in Caradhras—the mountain has a reputation for evil—does not want them to pass.
The Fellowship of the Ring is chosen to represent all the Free Peoples of Middle-earth: Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, and Men. Such an assembly of races in cooperation—now one of the most common, staple elements of the fantasy genre—emerged in large part because of Tolkien’s works. Although Tolkien never considered himself a fantasy writer—in fact, he spoke of the genre with disdain—an enormous amount of fantasy literature and gaming is derived from his writing. Tolkien thought of his work, with its concern for the origins of mankind and the fullness of its scope, as far more than fantasy; he envisioned it as something between fiction and mythology. On a narrative level, this cooperation of races allows Tolkien to act out in miniature some of the historical conflicts of Middle-earth, such as the traditional animosity between Elves and Dwarves, which we see in the early interactions of Legolas and Gimli. The diversity of the Fellowship also allows Tolkien to personify some of the traits he earlier describes only on a more general, archetypal level: the lightness and quickness of the Legolas the elf, the stolid determination of Gimli the dwarf, and so on. Some readers may find this stereotyping a bit limiting, but Tolkien does flesh out his characters beyond the stock traits of their particular races.
This chapter reminds us that nature is not merely a neutral backdrop to the adventures recounted in The Lord of the Rings, but is an active participant in them. Nature is endowed with moral qualities in the novel—sometimes good, sometimes evil. We see in the second volume, The Two Towers, a powerful example of nature’s goodness: the Ents, a tribe of treelike beings who rouse themselves from dormancy to aid the Fellowship. Within The Fellowship of the Ring, Sam’s pony, Gwaihir the Windlord, and Shadowfax are smaller examples of how the world of nature can offer aid. But this chapter also offers potent examples of how evil nature can be. The sinister birds flying overhead are not just a part of the landscape, but a suspicious reminder that Sauron is spying on the Fellowship, suggesting that nature itself may be a secret agent. The heavy snowfall encountered here, which at first seems like mere bad luck as it impedes the group’s progress through the pass of Caradhras, is finally judged by Gimli to be an evil influence. The clouds above the pass are, in effect, snowing on purpose, in order to keep the Fellowship from passing through Caradhras. Everything in Tolkien’s world is part of the central saga of good opposing evil.