Reading a Tolkien Passage: Help!

Middle-earth map help

I may have written some tips on how to tackle Tolkien’s works, but that doesn’t mean I’m an expert – in any way. On the contrary, I’m still in the learning stages and there comes a time where even I find myself in difficulty reading his texts.

Case in point is the section ‘Farewell to Lorien’, from The Fellowship of the Ring. Halfway through the chapter, Celeborn advises a possible route for the Company to take .

But the passage (quoted below) doesn’t seem to fit geographically – or at least, I have never been able to understand how the proposed journey fits within the map.

Boromir, and any that go with him seeking Minas Tirith, will do well to leave the Great River above Rauros and cross the Entwash before it finds the marshes. Yet they should not go too far up that stream, nor risk becoming entangled in the Forest of Fangorn.

Cross where? East or West? How far up the stream?

I’ve checked with two other versions of the book to make sure it wasn’t a typo from the copy I was reading. However, they all contain the same discrepancy.

If you look at the map, it seems impossible to go so far North as to end up in Fangorn.

Anduin Map

First off, which marshes are being referred to? The Nindalf (Wetwang), on the East side of the Anduin? Or the marshes around the mouths of the Entwash on the western side?

The way I understand it, Celeborn seems to advise them to leave their boats roughly at No.1, then cross the Entwash from the West before the marshes, at No. 2 and then proceed forward to Minas Tirith (No.3).

They may also have taken an alternative route and passed close by the Anduin River (No.2b).

But in either case, there’s a distance of over 200 miles between Rauros and the edge of Fangorn Forest.

I’m wondering whether “nor risk becoming entangled in the Forest of Fangorn” should be taken with a pinch of salt or simply removed.

Even if he was referring to the Nindalf, what has Fangorn got to do with it?

It’s all slightly confusing to me, to be honest …

And unless I’m seeing too much into this without any reason, Celeborn’s warning seems rather far-fetched considering the distance involved and the Company’s journey being way out of course from the Forest.

Perhaps it might have been a way to introduce Fangorn: foreshadowing the events in The Two Towers. But it seems rather unnecessary to insert it here and in this context.

Anyone else ever had any problems with this passage? How do you interpret it?

Help! 🙂


18 thoughts on “Reading a Tolkien Passage: Help!

  1. Celeborn is getting old. Also, maybe since Fangorn is full of Ents it’s shifted over the years. I imagine it’s been quite a while since Celeborn has left Lorien. Just my $0.02.

  2. Interesting. I had missed that. To add to your conundrum, an experienced tracker like Aragorn would certainly notice that the flow of the rivers would have changed. In other words, there’s no way to read Celeborn’s comment as a “don’t get so caught up in the flow of the river that you go the wrong way” kind of thing. The Entwash flows INTO the Anduin. Certainly Aragorn (but also probably every other member of the Fellowship) would have noticed the change in current.

    To add to this, in The History of the Lord of the Rings Part 2, “The Treason of Isengard,” p. 269, Christopher Tolkien writes, “The geography of these regions was coming in being. My father knew at this stage that the Great River wound in ravines… and that there was a great rock or tall island… in the midst of Anduin. This was associated with the hills, since the Company lands on the island and goes up into Emyn Rhain or in the the Green Hills. In the added section they cross the river to do so. The Wetwang now appears, obviously if not explicitly associated with the confluence of Anduin and Entwash, flowing out of Fangorn.” On p. 267, C. Tolkien also seems to suggest that the Professor was more concerned about getting the Fellowship away from Lorien and getting them “broken” (and therefore, moving the story forward) than with the specifics of the map.

    My guess is that (like in several other places in Tolkien’s writing), the line was drafted an accepted before the map was finalized. It must have gotten “missed” in the editing process.

    1. Thanks Casey for those insightful quotes from HoME.

      Although Tolkien was a perfectionist, I do understand that things may have slipped under his radar.

      I just find it slightly odd that, considering his meticulous detail in geography, this passage remained unaltered …

      1. Indeed. But then, there’s the whole confusion / contradiction / conflict about the distance from the Great Road near the Trollshaws to the Bridge leading to Rivendell in Hobbit (short) vs. Fellowship (long). Tolkien never did clear that up.

  3. The instructions do seem odd, now that you mention it. I think it’s true that Tolkien wanted to build a bit of suspense by emphasizing the dangers of Fangorn Forest well before any of the characters ever end up there. (Much as he emphasizes that Rohan may have started giving horses to Sauron and that Galadriel may be a dangerous sorceress.)

    But one might find some vague justification for Celeborn’s instructions. He doesn’t say to leave the Anduin immediately above Rauros, just above it. The western point of the South Undeep might seem one such option, since it is further west than Rauros. Cutting across the East Emnet, the ones going to Minas Tirith might be forced to go a bit upstream if the weather is wet and the marshes more extensive than usual. True, they would have to go illogically far upstream before they would enter Fangorn. Similarly, if they struck almost due west from the South Undeep to cross the Entwash as far from the marshes as possible, they would add to their own problems by needing then to cross the Snowbourne as well, and also they would have to go much, much further than by the route you have marked on the map above.

    So, no, the directions don’t make much sense, but Celeborn is presumably so concerned that they should avoid Fangorn that he covers even the very unlikely circumstance that some of the Fellowship members might somehow find themselves near it.

    1. Kristin, I think your first suggestion is probably more likely. I’m thankful you said it, and frustrated that I didn’t think of it first. 🙂

      The Professor’s literary goal must almost certainly be to build narrative tension / foreshadow the “dangers” of Fangorn than provide a detailed cartographic analysis.

    2. Hi Kristin, thank you so much for your comments.

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who found this passage a bit awkward. It also occurred to me that, every time I read The Lord of the Rings, I just couldn’t figure out how things placed themselves on the map.

      Nevertheless, I find your theory about leaving the River close the the South Undeep, to be a highly plausible explanation for this.

      Thanks 🙂

      1. You’re quite welcome, James. An interesting discussion. It’s worth noting that Boromir, the main character who would be going (possibly alone) to Minas Tirith via this route, spent a long time (four months, partly on horseback!) getting from MT to Rivendell. He seems to have blundered about looking until he finally found it. Even after Celeborn’s warning, he boasts, “I do not much doubt that I shall find a way through Rohan, and Fangorn too, if need be.” Celeborn has to warn him AGAIN not to “despise the lore that has come down from distant years.” Maybe Celeborn warns so strongly against going to Fangorn because he thinks Boromir might wander into it through a bad sense of direction and/or overconfidence.

  4. I like deweydecimalsbutler little explanation James. Fangorn did once spread far and wide, and thus its geography must have been different in Celeborn’s mind. Perhaps its the early onset of Alzheimer’s, being immortal can take its tool on the mind!

  5. In cases like this, where geography seems to be a bit off, it’s often that Tolkien changed his mind on the map but not in the text. To find the answer, you need to figure out when he first wrote it and how it compared to the map he had then. That’s all in HoME.

    It might also be addressed in the Atlas of Middle-earth.

  6. “Boromir, and any that go with him seeking Minas Tirith, will do well to leave the Great River above Rauros and cross the Entwash before it finds the marshes. Yet they should not go too far up that stream, nor risk becoming entangled in the Forest of Fangorn.”

    ## Just a wild suggestion:

    Is it necessary to read the words “Yet they…of Fangorn” as being part of a description of the same route as that described in the previous sentence ? Maybe, instead of the two sentences describing a single route, the Fellowship is being given – & so we are being given – two, perhaps even three, different routes. I read the sentence as saying: “Whether or not you leave the Great River above Rauros and cross the Entwash before it finds the marshes, don’t too far up that stream, and, don’t get entangled in the Forest of Fangorn”.

    I don’t think the directions all refer to the same route – IMHO two, or perhaps three, different routes are referred to, and one of them, the one that leads to Fangorn, is warned against. I don’t believe that Celeborn is ill-informed or ignorant or losing his mind – that doesn’t happen to Elves.

    1. Hey Jimmy! Not a wild suggestion at all actually. I honestly had thought about your idea: that the last sentence may have had nothing to do with the rest. And it certainly seems a possibility.

      I just found the passage’s structuring a bit odd and not altogether clear. However, it’s something that is intriguing, and I really like your explanations for it.

  7. Interesting…now that you mention it, I do remember this passage feeling odd. I’ve also always been confused by the cartography of Middle-Earth, particularly the “go East for Mordor, West for Minas Tirith” dilemma while floating down the Anduin, which doesn’t seem to match up with most of the maps. It’s probably worth throwing out that when it comes to choosing between the mapmaker or Tolkien’s prose, I’d have to throw my weight behind the prose.

    That being said, I’ve come to believe that not having a solid grasp of the land may have actually enhanced my experience in Tolkien’s world. He seems to emphasize often, especially as the Hobbits begin their journey, that the world itself is simply a big, strange, powerful, place. Not even Aragorn or Gandalf have Middle-Earth entirely in their grasp (i.e. Gandalf falls in Moria, Aragorn creeps dangerously close to the Sarn Gebir), and perhaps we ought not to either. I think much of the joy of Middle-Earth lies in its sense of mystery and grandeur, which is potentially heightened if one imagines that Tolkien’s geography does in fact describe a coherent whole that is simply beyond one’s understanding, much as it would have seemed for Frodo or especially Sam. As readers journeying in a strange and distant land, perhaps the best response is to embrace the land with all of its strangeness and mystery.

    Warm regards,

    1. Hey Chris! Thanks for your fantastic response!

      I couldn’t agree more that the main attraction of Middle-earth (apart from its rich detail and history) is the sense of mystery.

      That short passage however … its inconsistency gnaws in my head 😀

  8. Very very late but I have a theory on this after pondering it over for a while. Maps necessarily are difficult things because they don’t depict ‘reality’ as such, they depict major things that are map-sized, but may not convey the reality of the actual terrain to a person.

    Let’s think about the passage for a moment:
    “As you go down the water,’ he said, `you will find that the trees will fail, and you will come to a barren country. There the River flows in stony vale amid high moors…”

    This is not flat land that is easy to walk across, it is stony vales and high moors, there is enough of a drop that “[the river] falls then with a great noise and smoke over the cataracts of Rauros”

    While it seems simple enough to draw your line along the River from point 1 to point 2b, you are drawing on a flat map across what sounds like extremely rugged terrain, not easy to navigate on foot, and certainly not in such a neat line.

    Consider instead that they need to go around this inhospitable terrain in order to cross the Entwash. That may actually entail traveling east from the Anduin, not south, in order to go around the hills drawn on the west side of the river on the map.

    So your point 1 would not go south along the river to point 2, instead the fellowship would have traveled directly west from point 1 to go around the rough landscape. At some point they could have turned south again, perhaps around the final ‘e’ or ‘t’ in “East Emnet”. However, perhaps they would have been close enough to the Entwash at that point to cross it before continuing along it, as the map is very bare through that area. Though I would think the Entwash would still ‘want’ to run much further east than the map shows it to make that make sense.

    The warning could also be that the path and future could not be known, rather than suggesting there was some risk of deliberately traveling up the river in exactly the opposite direction of Minas Tirith, it could be that the warning was against being forced too far up through unforeseen circumstances – either being driven that way or going further up to avoid some other danger they may encounter.

    Possibly also a warning against the fellowship splitting at that point with any who might have been tempted to try to travel north.

    I agree that the map does not align with the text as neatly as we’d like, but I do not think the route you have drawn is necessarily the most reasonable given the description of that surrounding terrain. They would have had to travel west, not south, from Rauros.

    1. Hey there! Thanks for such a detailed explanation. I must say your analysis makes perfect sense now, and I can see how the text can be interpreted.

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