“The Flight to the Ford” is an extension of the problem of perception, as I hypothesized about in my previous post.  The chapter, in broad outline, is the account of Frodo’s world beginning to fade as the Morgul wound in his shoulder takes possession of him.  Yet the language in which I have just described Frodo’s experience is somewhat deceptive.  For, while Frodo perceives that his world is fading, his companions know that it is not the world but Frodo himself who is fading.

The language of fading is, of course, automatically privative.  Frodo is losing his being, not gaining it.  Yet as Frodo progressively fades, the Black Riders progressively gather reality.  Frodo dreams one night that he is walking in his own garden in the Shire, “but it seemed faint and dim, less clear than the tall black shadows that stood looking over the hedge.”  The very next day Frodo is exhausted by a hard climb through the hills, and as he throws himself to the ground, the trees and rocks about him (normally prime examples of substances) seem mere shadows.  That night he has another dream of winged shadows, this time not alleviated by any image of the real world.  By the last day of his flight, Frodo feels, while still awake, that a shadow has come between himself and his friends.  In short, the world of substances is vanishing for Frodo, and (as Gandalf will explain later), he is becoming like a wraith.

By the time Frodo encounters the Nine Ringwraiths by the Ford, his perception of them has altered entirely.  He no longer needs to wear the Ring in order to see them clearly.  To his waking (fading) eyes, they “appeared to have cast aside their hoods and black cloaks.”  Frodo sees kings wearing white and gray, clearly delineated warriors with helmets and Morgul weapons.  And even those weapons, one of which, in the form of a knife-blade, melted in the sun when Strider held it in his hands, now withstand the daylight to appear cold and hard.

What is most striking at this climax is not only the alteration in the Ringwraiths’ appearance, but in their hold on Frodo’s will.  In the attack on Weathertop, Frodo was able to resist the Ringwraiths to the point of striking at a Wraith’s feet and then freely pulling the Ring off his own finger.  Immediately following the fatal attack, however, Strider tells Sam bluntly that “they [the Riders] believe your master has a deadly wound that will subdue him to their will.”  And by the end of the chapter, the plot has proved Strider right.

Consider Frodo’s reaction to the final appearance of the Ringwraiths, while he is straddling one of the swiftest steeds in the world and Glorfindel is urging him to flee.  In the past, Frodo never had such powers of escape; but now, as the Ringwraiths are thundering up behind and he is realizing the full of his danger, we are astonished to learn that “a strange reluctance seized him,” and that “he knew in his heart that they were silently commanding him to wait.”  More astonishingly, Frodo obeys them.  Rather than flee, he draws his sword.  It is an action that can only be described as half-willful deception of himself, as if he could excuse his obedience to the Ringwraiths on the grounds of trying to resist them.  At the last moment, it is only the intervention of Glorfindel that sends his horse galloping off in the right direction.

After crossing the Ford, Frodo again feels himself “commanded urgently to halt.”  This time he cannot refuse.  Feebly he attempts to brandish his sword, but the upraised hand of a Wraith strikes him dumb and breaks his blade.  Frodo is reduced to the plaything of the evil powers, and once again, only the intervention of something external to himself—the flood at the command of Elrond—spares him from being wholly seized.

And it is at this nadir of Frodo’s weakness, when he is internally defeated even if externally saved, that Book I ends.

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