Rivers and Ruins: Rereading The Fellowship of the Ring

In “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth’s return to the banks of the River Wye call to memory a boundlessly energetic past self whose passions have been estranged to him by the passage of time:

“I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.–I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion.”

He finds his passions cooled; he cannot feel that level of immersion in the landscape, but he can reflect on those passions, meditate on them more profoundly where once they had possessed him. I am saddened to say that the return to Lord of the Rings is similar in that sense: I no longer have the boundless energy to block out all the world, to regard no concern of my daily life, and plunge with every strength of my soul into the subcreation before me. I wish to be all consumed with the fear of the Nazgul and the wonder of the Elves and the haunting ruins of the ancient Numenoreans as I once was. It is not that the pages of the text have lost any beauty for me; I do not love Middle-earth any less. I am just now too much of the world of experience, as Blake would put it – my days of innocence (I know, it sounds disgustingly nostalgic, but I mean it in a quite specific sense) are gone, and they are properly gone. I lean back from the page rather than into it, and with that comes a longing for the days when I plunged in, but there is something new:

“These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye.”

Just as Wordsworth turned in his heart to the “Sylvan Wye,” that “wanderer thro’ the words” who mirrored his migrant soul, so have I remembered the harried flight across the Bruinen, dogged by the Nazgul, and the crossing of Nimrodel into Lothlorien. Although I cannot feel the total abandonment to the plot of The Lord of the Rings, I can more deeply appreciate the Nimrodellian powers Tolkien holds over my heart, who makes me feel that, if for only a fleeting moment, “we see into the life of things.”

Despite it being over a decade and a half since my last reading, few words felt unremembered or strange – rarely did Gandalf’s words “I have no memory of this place” spring to mind. Rather, it was as if a layer of dust had collected, and disturbed by a return, rereading was akin to meeting up with a dear, dear Friend whose exact aspect has perhaps grown soft in your memory, but the flow of conversation and comfort in her society returns with such immediacy as if you had only talked yesterday, though it had been years.

My regard for the crossing of the Bruinen when I first read The Fellowship versus my present relish for the crossing of the Nimrodel perhaps best captures the newfound awe which the story holds for me. The strange reaction of Frodo as he confronts the Nazgul on the riverside, to call upon Elbereth and Luthien, as if the tales of the Elves he knew from Bilbo and Rivendell were talismans of power, the shapes of elemental knights on horses in the waves that rise to confront the wraiths and batter them away – the heat of Tolkien’s spell was upon me, and the magic that it portended drew my attention. But I know now that Elrond was a ring-bearer, that Glorfindel a tragic memory of the annals of the Silmarils, and that this meeting of force with force, beautiful as it remains, is a symbol of the desperation that comes with power wielded only to hold power at bay.

The waters of Nimrodel are not so exciting as the waters of Bruinen, though perhaps they might be if threatened by a breach of Ring-wraiths:

“It was cold but its touch was clean, and as he went on and it mounted to his knees, he felt that the stain of travel and all weariness was washed from his limbs… At length a silence fell, and they heard the music of the waterfall running sweetly in the shadows. Almost Frodo fancied that he could hear a voice singing, mingled with the sound of the water.

‘Do you hear the voice of Nimrodel?’ asked Legolas. ‘I will sing you a song of the maiden Nimrodel’…” (440)

One should always suspect a sad story in rivers named for maidens; even the sometimes repugnant optimism of Wordsworth admits the “sad, still music of humanity” that echoes over the streams. But Nimrodel is not a mournful river after the manner of Kheled-zaram, the mirror-like pool where Gimli and Frodo stand in stricken grief over the fallen Gandalf. Grief, in its emptying stranglehold, requires we look away from ourselves and see our reflection on the world diminished: “Of their own stooping forms no shadow could be seen” (434). Kheled-zaram was something I did not appreciate so well, when I first felt the jarring absence of the irascible old wizard, as I do now.

But like crossing the Nimrodel, rereading The Lord of the Rings has reminded me of a cleaner self, a less cynical eye, so that while it may be true that we are in a world where “but to think is to be full of sorrow,” as Keats would have it, the Elf is not deceiving, and the music’s sadness does not take away its stillness. In the real world, you might say that we only hear Elf-songs from Hobbits, but Hobbits are sometimes Fallohides, and there’s more to them than meets the eye (on this point Bilbo and Gandalf are agreed, a formidable alliance to be sure). And Hobbits though we are, we can bear a burden heavier, and for longer, than we might think.

“And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!”