This week in our read-aloud, we rounded the bend towards the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf thrust down his staff, blew up the bridge, and said, “You cannot pass!” to a balrog.
There was the anticipated silence when Gandalf disappeared down the crevasse after the creature. Even Maddie knew what had happened without any explanation. I used to say that I only felt comfortable in this story when Gandalf was around — and at this point, he’s gone. Everything is different. We as readers anticipate the unknown with dread.
The description Tolkien gives of the balrog plays upon our tendency to make things more terrifying in our minds when they are abstract.
Here is how the balrog is described:
“…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 to go before it.” (p.391)
He does go on to say that it carries a blade in one hand and a whip in the other, but not much more information is given. When I reread that passage to the kids, I realized that Tolkien doesn’t really give much visual information about some of his villains. There is plenty of detail about the hobbits, elves, dwarves, and other heroes, but some of the bad guys get talked about in very abstract terms. It’s genius. They stay in the shadows.
His description of the creature Shelob, who appears at the end of The Two Towers, is similarly vague. She is not a spider, but “in spider-form.” We are then told about what she has done and the dread she inspires. Tolkien, in his task as master storyteller, plays on our ability to make things worse in our minds.
This is why books can be scarier than movies. Movies give you the picture — they limit the terror in a way. Sometimes these creatures appear in film and I think, “That is not how I pictured it at ALL,” and I’m tuned out. What appears onscreen is limited to a few people’s vision of what it should be, and if I am not one of those people, I am held at a distance as a viewer. It doesn’t scare me as much.
Imagination is a powerful tool, and it can work against us sometimes. I’ve been thinking lately about my tendency to make anticipated things worse than they really are. Tolkien’s creatures are worthy of dread; most of the things I fear are not — or at least not as worthy of dread as I make them out to be. I look at situations in my life and make them out to be far worse than they are in reality, because the details are hidden. I am like the little hero facing down an unknown monster, and for some reason I sketch in the missing details in the bleakest way possible. All those things I don’t know must certainly be the worst.
I know I am not alone in this tendency. The term “mommy guilt” came about because of it. The entire line of “Worst-Case Scenario” products played on it. We look at the scene we are in and skip to what must surely be an unhappy ending.
If the characters in the story could step back and see what the storyteller sees, they might not despair quite so keenly. They would trust the twists and turns as part of the greater narrative. May it be so for me, and for all of us.