The Lord of the Rings – Book 2, Chapter 9: “The Great River”

“I saw a log with eyes.”

After many days on the river through barren wastes and no living beasts save for black swans, Sam catches glimpses of that which Aragorn and Frodo have seen for a while now.  The Fellowship has been shadowed by Gollum since before the company hit Lothlórien.

The next day, fearing their unwanted guest has alerted the enemy, the company hits rapids and is forced to turn to shore with Orc arrows whistling around them.  As they reach shore, a dark shape comes speeds from out of the skies to the south, and Frodo feels the old wound in his shoulder.  An arrow from Legolas fells the dark form, crashing it on the other side of the river.  They hear no more from the Orcs, and Frodo refuses to say what he thinks the skyward threat might be.

Another night passes, and Boromir tries to convince the company to head to Minas Tirith.  They decide against him, carrying the boats past the rapids to smoother waters.  Their journey takes them past the Argonath, a narrow passage between two immense cliffs into which are carved the likenesses of the kings of old, Aragorn’s ancestors Isildur and Anárion.  The Gates mark the ancient northern border of the land of Gondor.  Arriving at the great hill of Amon Hen, the company must now finally choose their path: west to Minas Tirith or east to Mordor.

There are no songs to dig into in this chapter, but there’s something else I’d like to focus on for a bit.  There’s something about the majesty of the Argonath that captures my imagination.  Something about the sense of nostalgia for a bygone age.  Here’s how it reads in the book:

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: the craft and power of old had wrought upon them, and still they preserved through the suns and rains of forgotten years the mighty likenesses in which they had been hewn.  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.  Awe and fear fell upon Frodo, and he cowered down, shutting his eyes and not daring to look up as the boat drew near.  Even Boromir bowed his head as the boats whirled by, frail and fleetings as little leaves, under the enduring shadow of the sentinels of Númenor.  So they passed into the dark chasm of the Gates.

I get geekbumps just thinking of this.  If you’ve ever had the opportunity to be in the presence of a megalithic statue, then you already know that incredible sense of overbearing and insignificance that comes with that experience.  There’s the sense that first nature put that stone into being, and then somebody carved it to purpose.  I live in awe of such things.  That very experience is part and parcel of why such statues are built.  The way Tolkien describes it, I feel the power of the Pillars of the Kings, and I know it’s far larger than anything I personally know.  The only things in our world that could compete would be skyscrapers, but those don’t elicit the same kind of effect.  The Argonath is a touchstone on the journey for me.

Because I know this story as I do, and because I’m learning to read it at new levels with each passing read, the Pillars of the Kings speak to me of the once-great civilization of men that Aragorn is entrusted to revitalize with his very presence.  It’s a reminder after all that we’ve seen of Elves and Dwarves that the world of men lies ahead, and it is as dangerous as anything we’ve seen thus far, and perhaps nowhere near as subtle or refined.  It’s a warning of what lies immediately ahead for our heroes.  And there is a kind of romance to it, in the old sense of the word, that speaks of great warrior-kings as Tolkien would most certainly understand it.  If the Vikings or the Saxons had built on the megalithic scale, would they build something like this?  Tolkien seems to think they might be inspired to do so had they the know-how and resources.  As I say, there’s a romance to it.

This is a bit of a sidetrack as I don’t discuss the films much in this blog.  My focus is the text itself on this read-through.  Even so… the screen version is a bit different from Tolkien’s description, but no less impressive because the spirit of intent was honored.  All references to Anárion were removed in the film version, so the second likeness on film is that of Elendil, and Elendil is holding the legendary sword Narsil rather than an axe.  I think of all the fantasy art associated with The Lord of the Rings, I’ve perhaps studied more interpretations of the Argonath than anything else.  I remember seeing the teaser poster for the film with this image on it and thinking to myself for the first time that now, at long last, it felt real that this movie was happening.

Fellowship poster

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