The Company finds itself in a trap, but Gandalf is determined to get them out, whatever the cost.

This is probably the one point in the series where familiarity with The Hobbit really deepens the experience.  Aside from the whole “Balin is dead” thing (besides Thorin, he’s easily the most developed dwarf, not to mention the first to really respect and befriend Bilbo), Gandalf gets a lot more to do, even if he’s not as integral to that story as The Lord of the Rings.  He spends the first half of The Hobbit getting the dwarves out of scrapes, and there’s a general feeling that whenever Gandalf is around, nothing too bad can happen.  The only time anyone in the party dies is when they’re refusing to listen to Gandalf’s advice.  He can handle anything.

Anyhow, Gandalf discovers a book that records Balin & co’s failed attempt to retake Moria.

‘It is grim reading,’ he said. ‘I fear their end was cruel. Listen! We cannot get out. We cannot get out. They have taken the Bridge and second hall. […] The Watcher in the Water took Óin. We cannot get out. The end comes, and then drums, drums in the deep. I wonder what that means. The last thing written is in a trailing scrawl of elf-letters: they are coming. There is nothing more.’

Yet another fantastic use of tension and growing dread.

[There] came a great noise: a rolling Boom that seemed to come from depths far below, and to tremble in the stone at their feet. They sprang toward the door in alarm. Doom, doom it rolled again, as if huge hands were turning the very caverns of Moria into a vast drum. Then there came an echoing blast: a great horn was blown in the hall, and answering horns and harsh cries were heard further off. There was a hurrying sound of many feet.

‘They are coming!’ cried Legolas.

‘We cannot get out,’ said Gimli.

This is the first real battle in the series, and quite possibly the best in terms of pure action and dramatic tension.  Most of the later battles are concerned more with strategy and the larger picture, but here it’s just the Company fighting for their lives in a dark and desperate situation.

I’m honestly surprised they didn’t include Frodo’s little hero moment in the film: he fends off a cave troll by stabbing it in the foot!  Sam also slays his first orc in the fray.  Then just when they’re ready to make a run for it, an orc chieftain comes up and spears Frodo (because whether by orders or not, Frodo always seems to be the first target of any attack). Of course, he has that mithril shirt on, so he survives just fine, though it definitely gives everyone else a fright.

‘We cannot leave you to hold the door alone!’ said Aragorn.

‘Do as I say!’ said Gandalf fiercely. ‘Swords are no more use here. Go!’

Of course they didn’t actually leave Gandalf, and so they see him sent flying as the chamber they were in collapses.  Apparently there was some other powerful being with the Orcs who countered Gandalf’s attempt to magically shut the door (hence the collapse of the chamber).  The effort completely exhausted Gandalf, but at least they all got out (and a fire that was intended to cut them off from the Gates instead blocked the way of the pursuing orcs).  They all reach the titular bridge that leads to the exit.

Legolas turned and set an arrow to the string, though it was a long shot for his short bow. He drew, but his hand fell, and the arrow slipped to the ground. He gave a cry of dismay and fear. Two great trolls appeared; they bore great slabs of stone, and flung them down to serve as gangways over the fire. But it was not the trolls that had filled the Elf with terror. The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they themselves were afraid. Something was coming up behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and go before it. […]

‘Ai! ai!’ wailed Legolas. ‘A Balrog! A Balrog is come!’

Gimli stared with wide eyes. ‘Durin’s Bane!’ he cried, and letting his axe fall he covered his face.

‘A Balrog,’ muttered Gandalf. ‘Now I understand.’ He faltered and leaned heavily on his staff. ‘What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.

Between the implication that this is the same creature that just faced off with Gandalf at the door and simply the reactions of the Company, Tolkien does a great job playing up the threat that the Balrog represents, even without any explanation of what on Middle-earth it is (for the record, it’s a Maiar-spirit like Gandalf, but in a much more powerful form).  Of course Gandalf tells everyone to run again, and of course they can’t actually leave him behind; Aragorn and Boromir stand at the other end of the bridge, while the rest watch from the stairs further on.

‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’

The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.

I’ve got to hand it to the movies: It’s simply impossible for me not to hear Sir Ian McKellin’s voice here (even if the phrase is slightly changed – “You shall not pass”).  The phrase “You cannot pass” feels almost like a spell – not a command, but a statement of fact.  It’s simply impossible for the Balrog to cross the bridge – but it won’t go down without a fight.  Just when Aragorn and Boromir are ready to charge the narrow bridge, Gandalf makes his move.

At that moment, Gandalf lifted his staff, and crying aloud he smote the bridge before him. The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand. A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked. Right at the Balrog’s feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness.

With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.

The loss of Gandalf isn’t meant to signify that “anyone can die”, but rather introduce uncertainty.  It felt like Gandalf had all the answers (if not always off the top of his head).  He would never allow the Quest to fail.  He had a plan, and even if he hadn’t actually thought it all through to its conclusion, there was some comfort in believing he did (or would, when the time came).  Aragorn takes over as leader, but he’s uncertain of himself since the defeat on Caradhras, and especially since he agreed to Moria.

They looked back. Dark yawned the archway of the Gates under the mountain-shadow. Faint and far beneath the earth rolled the slow drum-beats: doom. A thin black smoke trailed out. Nothing else was to be seen; the dale all around was empty. Doom. Grief at last wholly overcame them, and they wept long: some standing and silent, some cast upon the ground. Doom, doom. The drum-beats faded.

Until next time…

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