Welcome to May 1, 3018 of the Third Age. Today is the day when Gandalf meets back up with Aragorn at Sarn Ford on the River Baranduin at the extreme southern point of the Shire.
“We last met on the first of May: at Sarn Ford down the Brandywine.” – Aragorn to Frodo at the Prancing Pony, Bree.
The main narrative of Lord of the Rings mentions nothing of Gandalf leaving Frodo at Hobbiton to go meet Aragorn at Sarn Ford. There’s no mention at all of Gandalf ever leaving Frodo’s side during the time he spend there, from April 12th to late June.
The only way we learn anything of it at all is when Aragorn brings it up at the Prancing Pony. There’s not even a mention of it in Appendix B: The Tale of Years.
What Was Discussed?
Aragorn reveals only that Gandalf’s “business” with Frodo had “gone well.” Frodo, Gandalf told Aragorn, “would be starting for Rivendell in the last week of September.”
To discover more, we’ll have to dealve a bit, but that is always risky.
And unfortunately, there’s not much to mine there, either. In The Treason of Isengard we learn that in August of 1939, Tolkien resumed work on his Lord of the Rings manuscript after taking a bit of a break. This was his fourth pass at the material leading up to the Council of Elrond.
In notes quickly taken when trying to figure out Gandalf’s schedule, he wrote: “He [Gandalf] then tells him of Frodo’s intended departure on Sept. 22. Begs him to watch East Road in case anything happens to Gandalf himself.”
While the dates and even the order of the events surrounding the meeting of Gandalf and Aragorn (in this draft, still a Ranger named Trotter), the context is roughly the same.
That’s about it, really. Even in the draft written soon after taking these notes, Tolkien made no mention of Gandalf leaving Hobbiton to meet up with Aragorn.
The Etymology of Sarn Ford
Speaking of notes and drafts, when Tolkien jotted down “He [Gandalf] meets Trotter at Sarn Ford,” this was the first time the name “Sarn Ford” was ever used.
Tolkien wrote about the name in the manuscript for Nomenclature for the Lord of the Rings:
“[Sarn Ford] is a half-translation (of Sarn-athrad ‘stony-ford’), a process frequent in place-names. The [Sindarin] word sarn meant ‘stony’; as a noun a ‘stony place’, an outcrop of rock in softer ground, or in a river-bed. The ancient ford over the Baranduin was so-called because, after passing through the flats of the Eastfarthing, it passed then over a wide area of shingles before turning south-west and falling swiftly down into lower lands on its ways to the sea. (It was named by the Númenóreans after a ford in the River Gelion (in the lost land of Beleriand) famous in legend.)”
Sarn Ford and the Battle of the Gwathló
Historically speaking, according to Unfinished Tales, Sarn Ford was of some note. Nearly 4,800 years prior to the events in Lord of the Rings, the War of the Elves and Sauron (1693-1701 of the Second Age) took place over much of the same ground. Attacking from Mordor, Sauron sacked Eriador, especially Eregion – then ruled by Celebrimbor, the Elf who forged the Rings of Power.
Eriador encompassed nearly all of the land west of the Misty Mountains. Eregion (also known as Hollin), was located near Moria.
After Sauron captured, tortured and killed Celebrimor in 1697, Sauron’s forces laid waste to the entire region. While Elrond’s forces were besieged in newly-created Imladris (Rivendell), other Elves under the command of Gil-galad, and Numenóreans held a strong line along the River Lúhn (or Lune) to defend the Grey Havens from falling.
Now began the Battle of the Gwathló (1700 of the Second Age). Not waiting to Sauron to make his final move, Gil-galad’s forces and the Numenóreans fell upon Sauron’s growing numbers. While the Enemy was engaged and distracted, an additional force of the Numenórean Navy, fresh from Numenór, outflanked Sauron and fell upon his rear.
This action pushed back the Enemy and forced them into a general retreat. But they were not yet defeated. Driving them southeast from the line along the Lhûn, Sauron’s forces put up a fight all through what would later become the Shire.
The Numenórean Navy landed fresh troops up the Baranduin (Brandywine). They quickly made their way to Sarn Ford, where Sauron’s forces were fighting a delaying action while their troops slowly crossed the river. Due to the combined slowness and additional Numenóreans, Sauron’s forces were dealt a heavy blow – perhaps the heaviest of the entire war – at Sarn Ford.
Unable to hold Sarn Ford, Sauron fell back again to the next river, the Gwathló. This would be his final stand. His forces were bolstered by the troops left at the city of Tharbad along the river. However, the Numenórean Navy was able to land still more of their own troops up the Gwathló, once again falling upon Sauron’s rear.
Now utterly defeated, Sauron, with only a few guards left to him, returned to Mordor, vowing revenge.
While the crossing at Tharbad doesn’t play much of a part in Lord of the Rings, Sarn Ford certainly does. It is, afterall, the southern entrance to the Shire.
The entire month of May 3018 is fairly quiet, so we’ll see what we can do to pass the time. The next bigger event is Frodo selling Bag End in early Summer. See you (hopefully) before then!