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.