We last left the Fellowship as they were dealing with Gollum while floating down the Anduin south from Lothórien. After another 130 or so miles of basically nothing, we join them again.
The passage we’re looking at today is a fine example of how Tolkien did his background work. Aragorn miscalculated the distance to the rapids at Sarn Gebir, and they were upon the white water before they knew it. To make matters worse, a band of Orcs was lying in wait for them on the eastern shore.
‘Yrch!’ said Legolas, falling into his own tongue.
They dodged the Orcs, and landed on the other bank. Legolas fired a few arrows across the water, killing a few of the enemy. But then they saw a Nazgul in the air riding one of their “fell beasts.”
Sam blamed Gollum for setting this all up, and it’s here is where we can get a glimpse of Tolkien’s inner workings.
As he wrote the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien kept detailed notes concerning the dates of positions of everyone involved. If he would have spilled it all out chronologically, the narrative wouldn’t have worked. But if he hadn’t paid attention to the chronology, it would have been an utter mess.
Let’s start with Gollum, blamed by Sam for bringing the Orcs to them. The Fellowship last saw him on the night of February 19th. It was now very late on the 23rd. Sam believed that Gollum had left the Anduin and found a band of Orcs, which he led to the Fellowship. He seemed to assume that it was purposely done.
This is fairly understandable. While we know that Gollum had no love for Orcs, the only thing that Sam really knew about it was that Orcs broke Gollum out of Thranduil’s holdings in Mirkwood. That was the whole reason Legolas came to the meeting at Rivendell.
In truth, Gollum never left the Fellowship. He just got better at hiding. The rapids of Sarn Gebir made it impossible for him to follow, and the Orcs terrified him, so he headed east toward Emyn Muil.
So if it wasn’t Gollum, how did the Orcs set the ambush for the Fellowship? Tolkien explains this in notes, and goes into parts of the future narrative that we’ve not yet covered. Essentially, there were two different bands of Orcs – one from Mordor, and the other from Isengard.
Saruman dispatched scouts from Isengard under Uglúk, who watched Lothlórien while the Fellowship was there. At the same time, Grishnákh and his band of Orcs left Mordor. After a bit of back and forth, they met up on the west side of the Anduin on January 26th (when the Fellowship was still in Lothlórien). Grishnákh then summoned a Nazgûl and set up camp at Sarn Gebir. By February 10th, Orcs were on both sides of the river at the rapids. But then, the Rohirrim attacked Uglúk’s band on the west bank, driving them south to Emyn Muil.
For twelve more days, Grishnákh’s company remained on the east bank when their scouts saw the Fellowship. They again summon a Nazgûl (probably the same one as before), but Sauron forbade it from crossing to the west bank. Since Grishnákh’s Orcs were on the east bank, it’s not really clear how Sauron’s stipulation for the Nazgûl came into play.
Nevertheless, on the 23rd, this date, the Orcs attacked but without success. After Legolas shot down the Nazgûl and the Fellowship passed by, Grishnákh crossed to the west bank and went south after them. He’d meet up with Uglúk’s Orcs two days later on the west bank at Emyn Muil.
In all of this, I’ve sort of glossed over the fact that there was a Nazgûl involved. The last time we saw one of those, there were nine of them and they were swallowed by the River Bruinen. We’re told that they didn’t die, and here’s finally proof.
The crossing of the Bruinen happened on October 20th. So, for the past four months, the Nazgûl had been missing. To a lesser degree, Tolkien worked this out as well.
Somehow or another, the Nazgûl made it back to Mordor. One horse was still alive, and most likely the Witch-king rode it back, arriving sometime in late November. How the other eight Wraiths got back home is never stated, but in these same notes, Tolkien wrote that they made it back by the end of December.
Once the Nazgûl were back in Mordor, Sauron somehow procured the “winged mounts,” the fell beasts, “And yet withheld them, until things became almost desperate and he was forced to launch his war in haste.”
Just what this meant isn’t exactly explained, but by January 26th, at least one of the Nazgûl met with Grishnákh, but then seemed to disappear for almost a month, until the night of February 22nd, when they attacked. The dismounted Nazgûl would again disappear for a few days, cropping up again after the Fellowship was broken.
The Orcs, as written by Tolkien, were there when he needed them and not when he didn’t. The Nazgûl worked the same way. But they didn’t just show up out of nowhere. All of these timelines had to be invented and considered by Tolkien as he wrote even the most basic of ambush scenes.
But then, this really wasn’t a basic ambush scene, was it? Not with the Nazgûl flying around, anyway. After the Fellowship found a place to camp, they quickly discussed what Legolas had shot down. Gimli said that its shadow reminded him of the Balrog. Frodo, however, knew what it was, though he wouldn’t say – much to Boromir’s disdain.
A Few Notes
- Most of the dates come from notes called Scheme for Lord of the Rings, as well as an unpublished draft of Hunt for the Ring, which are sprinkled throughout Hammond & Scull’s Reader’s Companion. While it is incredibly wonderful to have them in print, it would be even more wonderful to have them in tact and complete at the end of the book (or separately) as well. Lots of digging to do otherwise.
- Just before this action picks up, Aragorn spotted an eagle. He and Legolas figured that it was a “hunting eagle,” but just what that meant they didn’t know. Legolas: “I wonder what that forebodes. It is far from the mountains.” Nothing ever really came of it, but really, what was that about?
- There was another possible Nazgûl sighting before the Fellowship entered Moria which I talked about here.
- I’m really getting nervous for Two Towers. I’m just not sure how I’m going to be able to connect all of the story lines.
About the Photo
Stringing the bow and fitting an arrow he turned, peering back over the River into the darkness. Across the water there were shrill cries, but nothing could be seen. The photo was taken last summer in Zion National Park.
- Miles today: 20
- Miles thus far: 1234 (320 miles since leaving Lothlórien)
- 69 miles to the Falls of Rauros
- 539 miles to Mt. Doom
Book II, Chapter 8, Farewell to Lórien. Drifting down the Anduin, February 22, 3019 TA. (map)