The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 269-274
In the appendices that conclude the final part of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien outlines the key events in his great tale in strict chronological order, a valuable tool for those who want to know what each member of the Company was doing on each day, especially after the breaking of the Fellowship that takes place at the end of the first volume. And there, on page 1066 in my Harper Collins edition, in a brief sentence of heartbreaking terseness, we read these words:
December 25 The Company of the Ring leaves Rivendell at dusk.
The preceding pages have been autumnal in mood as preparation is made for last farewells. Gradually the days have shortened and leaves have fallen and it is Bilbo’s poem on old age that sets the tone best. But it is not in autumn that the Fellowship finally departs into the wild but at the very dead of winter. On December 25th in fact. And, as in all Tolkien’s writing, this is no mere accident, even as the dating of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ is no mere accident. I will leave it to scholars to write about this but everyone in northern climes, who has participated in the feast that we call Christmas, arriving at church in the hour before midnight to welcome the birth of the Saviour, will know that it falls upon the day on which the sun first begins its long journey northward and the day is just a few seconds longer than it is at the winter solstice.
Not that it feels any longer. If we are brave enough to avoid the temptation to surround ourselves with artificialilty, with warmth and bright light then, like Aragorn at the beginning of the great journey, we might sit with our head bowed to our knees. But Aragorn knows that the great crisis of his life is about to begin, the days that all his adventures have been preparing him for. Only he, and Elrond too, know that it is only as King of Gondor and of Arnor that he can ever wed Arwen. It is one thing to live in a hope whose possible fulfillment seems to lie in the future; it is another matter entirely when that hope comes within your grasp and yet still feels like an impossibility.
Tolkien, like all his generation in England, would have remembered the bands and cheering crowds that sent the young men of every community in the land across the sea to France in the Great War of 1914-18. Is he deliberately contrasting the departure of the Company with those memories of festivity? “No laughter, and no song or music”. There is only one member of the Company who wishes to have his departure marked by music and that is Boromir who carries his great war horn by his side.
‘”Loud and clear it sounds in the valleys of the hills,” he said, “and then let all the foes of Gondor flee!” Putting it to his lips he blew a blast, and the echoes leapt from rock to rock, and all that heard that voice in Rivendell sprang to their feet.”
Perhaps it is Boromir who reminded Tolkien of the young men among his contemporaries who marched forth to battle with smiles upon their faces and brave music sounding in their ears and then died in their thousands and tens of thousands in the mud of Flanders.
Gimli the dwarf, as befits his people, is not given to displays of courage as is Boromir, but he is deadly serious about the taking of oaths. Elrond wisely counsels him against doing this. He cannot know what lies ahead and if he had sworn an oath binding him to Frodo then he could not have gone with Aragorn and Legolas in their pursuit of the orcs who were to take Merry and Pippin and all that was to come of that choice. But Elrond’s words to him contain a hidden prophecy of Gimli’s own moment of crisis, of judgement.
“Let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.”
Did Gimli recall these words when he feared to follow his companions upon the Paths of the Dead at Dunharrow?