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Chico Zimmerman: Underworlds

There comes a point in almost every journey story where somebody has to go to Hell. Descent to the Underworld is a common feature of epic adventures from almost every culture known. Gilgamesh, Herakles, Theseus, Odyssesus, Aeneas, and countless others all make the journeys as part of their larger adventures. The Lord of the Rings is no exception.

Nearly to the pass at Caradhras, the Fellowship is halted by a supernaturally fierce snowstorm. They must choose either to try again to reach the pass or find another route. As the poet Dante realized centuries ago, sometimes one first has to go down in order to continue going further up. Frodo decides that the Fellowship must travel down through the Mines of Moriah to continue the journey, little suspecting the consequences of such a detour.

But what are the consequences of a trip to the Underworld? Why would anyone want to go there? The dead usually have something that a living hero needs. Sometimes it is directions (Aeneas); sometimes a special charm (Gilgamesh); sometimes, though, it is just a confrontation with death itself— embracing (literally , in the case of Herakles) death and the idea of one’s mortality. This is the “sacred knowledge of death” that Whitman describes in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Death gives life its zest, and sometimes, a person must “die” (symbolically) in order to be reborn with a renewed sense of that zest.

Tolkien’s travelers encounter death in the Underworld of Moriah. It is all around them in the skeletons of the dwarves, and it is symbolically embodied (as it were) in Balin’s tomb. From this point in the narrative, the journey will become a flight from danger to danger, and the Fellowship itself will slowly disintegrate and “die.” As it turns out, of course, this is just what needed to happen. Death is the first step in regeneration.

In fact, Tolkien’s story has several other Underworld journeys. Gandalf falls with the Balrog, passes out of the world of time and space, and is reborn as Gandalf the White. Aragorn must pass through the Paths of the Dead on his way to Gondor. Here, by conjuring the dead to fight for him, he proves himself to be the true heir to his ancestral throne.

Frodo, however, has the most prolonged Underworld experience in the long slow descent into Mordor prefigured by his various near death experiences (Ammon Hen, Moriah, and Shelob,) and culminating in the death of Gollum at Mt. Doom. Along the way he had passed through the Dead Marshes, experiencing the dead up close! Bilbo’s own symbolic death comes in the form of his bitten-off finger and the loss of the ring. Bilbo survives, but unlike the other characters, he cannot be transformed enough to be part of the new age that is beginning. His Underworld descent, however, makes that age possible, and in this respect he joins a long list of heroes in whose company may he rest in peace.