Summary: Book 2, Chapter 9: The Great River

For several days, the Company passes swiftly down the Anduin without incident. The landscape, especially on the eastern bank facing Mordor, gets more and more barren and foreboding. One night, Sam thinks he sees two pale eyes shining out of a log floating nearby, which seems to be heading straight for Gimli’s boat. Sam mentions this observation to Frodo, who puts it together with the pattering noises in Moria and the strange creature in Lórien, and suspects that Gollum himself has been following them. The next night, Frodo keeps watch, and, as expected, he sees a dark shape swim up close to the boats. The hobbit draws his sword and the shape disappears. Aragorn confirms Frodo’s suspicions and says that he, too, has seen Gollum, and has even tried, unsuccessfully, to catch him.

The next day, the Company paddles more swiftly, fearful that their tracker will inform the Enemy of their whereabouts. Indeed, when they find themselves suddenly in the rapids of Sarn Gebir, they are forced to turn around and make for the shore with Orc arrows whistling over their heads. Just as the Company reaches the shore, a dark shape in the sky comes speeding up from the south, filling the Company with terror. Frodo suddenly feels the pain of the old wound in his shoulder. Legolas grabs his new bow, lets fly an arrow, and sends the flying form crashing down on the other side of the river. They hear no more from the Orcs that night. Frodo refuses to say to the others what he thinks the flying shape might have been.

The next morning, though Boromir tries mightily to convince the Company to make for Minas Tirith, they decide to push on further along the river. To get past a set of rapids, they use an old portage road to carry the boats and gear to where the river runs smooth again. The current takes them swiftly onward to the Gates of Argonath, a narrow passage between two immense cliffs, guarded by two gigantic statues—likenesses of Aragorn’s ancestors Isildur and Anárion. The Gates mark the ancient northern border of the realm of Gondor, one of the realms of Men. Passing through Argonath, the Company comes to the three great hills before the Falls of Rauros—Amon Lhaw on the east, Tol Brandir in the midst of the river, and Amon Hen on the west. They draw up the boats at the foot of Amon Hen, as they can go no further on the river. They must now, at last, choose to go either west to Minas Tirith or east to Mordor.


As the first stage of the Ring’s journey winds down, it is worth pausing to note how exactly Tolkien has brought the Company this far. There is, of course, plenty of action, many songs, and a great deal of recounted history, but much of the novel simply consists of descriptions of the Company walking through countryside. Tolkien’s eye for scenery, and his talent for making that scenery reflect mood, make the natural environment almost another character in itself, whether it is the sleepy Shire, the enchanted Lothlórien, or the bleak Brown Lands. In the case of Old Man Willow or the pass of Caradhras, the natural world actually does become a character. Each land through which the Company passes has its own topography and its own flora and fauna. Indeed, though some might find Tolkien’s characters a bit two-dimensional and his dialogue at times implausible with its mythic-biblical tone, the richness and fullness of the world surrounding the action make up for it.

In addition, such lush description allows Tolkien to demonstrate just how thoroughly he has thought out his realm of Middle-earth. If inclined, we can follow the trail of the Fellowship, from its seeds in the Shire to its dissolution at the foot of Amon Hen, on maps enclosed in the novel. Each river the party fords is there, as is each mountain range they cross. The maps add an aura of the arcane, giving us the feeling that we are poring over an ancient manuscript. They add to the sense that the novel is a record of a past age and place. At the same time, the maps serve a practical function, allowing us to follow the quest geographically and mark its progress toward Mordor, the final destination. Tolkien realizes the importance of providing this sort of bird’s-eye view for us: all along the way, first the hobbits and then the Fellowship stop at high places to mark their progress, whether in the Old Forest, at Weathertop, or on the tree-platform in Lothlórien. These vistas give us a sense of where the Fellowship is going, how far it has come, and an overall impression of direction and order in what might otherwise seem an incessant slog through unending terrain.

Gollum’s stalking of the group is one of the most notable examples of the constant anxiety the Fellowship experiences on the journey. Indeed, the various skirmishes with Barrow-wights and tentacled monsters certainly provide the Fellowship with a series of challenges and violent encounters. However, it could be argued that unceasing dread, rather than isolated bursts of incident, is more characteristic of the travelers’ everyday experience—and more of a drain on their energies. An unknown and unseen enemy is far more terrifying than one clearly viewed and recognized. Gollum, like the dark shapes of the Ringwraiths, is frightening more in his obscurity and elusiveness than in the actual harm he causes. He haunts and stalks rather than ambushes or attacks, so his threat is never-ending. Gollum’s pale, staring eyes and the ever-present patter of his footsteps in the distance symbolize the constant paranoia with which the Fellowship is forced to live in the name of safety.