They went on. But before long the snow was falling fast, filling all the air, and swirling into Frodo’s eyes. The dark bent shapes of Gandalf and Aragorn only a pace or two ahead could hardly be seen.
“I don’t like this at all,” panted Sam just behind. “Snow’s all right on a fine morning, but I like to be in bed while it’s falling. I wish this lot would go off to Hobbiton! Folk might welcome it there.” Except on the high moors of the Northfarthing a heavy fall was rare in the Shire, and was regarded as a pleasant event and a chance for fun.
As the light grew stronger it showed a silent shrouded world. Below their refuge were white humps and domes and shapeless deeps beneath which the path that they had trodden was altogether lost; but the heights above were hidden in great clouds still heavy with the threat of snow.
Gimli looked up and shook his head. “Caradhras has not forgiven us,” he said. “He has more snow yet to fling at us, if we go on. The sooner we go back and down the better.”
“Well,” cried Legolas as he ran up, “I have not brought the Sun. She is walking in the blue fields of the South, and a little wreath of snow on this Redhorn hillock troubles her not at all. But I have brought back a gleam of good hope for those who are doomed to go on feet. There is the greatest wind-drift of all just beyond the turn, and there our Strong Men were almost buried. They despaired, until I returned and told them that the drift was little wider than a wall. And on the other side the snow suddenly grows less, until further down it is no more than a white coverlet to cool a hobbit’s toes.”
“Ah, it is as I said,” growled Gimli. “It was no ordinary storm. It is the ill will of Caradhras…that drift was laid to cut off our escape.”
— J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings,” Book Two, Chapter 3
Gimli is a bit of a paranoid schizophrenic at the best of times, but if you’re familiar with the entire section, you know that Tolkien hints at all sorts of supernatural reasons for the Fellowship’s failure to cross the Redhorn Pass on their trip south.
Boromir and Gandalf suspect the snowstorm, rockfalls, etc., are the work of Sauron. Aragorn and Gimli are more inclined to blame it on the existence of “many evil and unfriendly things in this world” that have been in Middle-earth longer than Sauron and aren’t in league with him. The reader has been given an idea that it’s somehow Saruman’s fault. However, no one knows for sure.
The writer has done a perfect job of keeping the focus away from the most obvious explanation of all: it’s the middle of winter and the one time of the year when even technologically advanced civilizations cannot cross high mountains.
Of course, at some subconscious level we all recognize “don’t cross mountains on foot during the winter” as one of the basic facts of travel. Tolkien masterfully uses that recognition to advance his storyline in this small scene without triggering failure of the reader’s suspension of disbelief. He also intensifies the sense of otherworldly power that might be vague now but is going to become only too clear and immediate by the time Frodo reaches the chamber of the Fire of Doom.
Why does it snow?
I turned to the experts for an explanation of how snow happens in the real world and found a video that could have been filmed in Hobbiton or perhaps the Northfarthing (the Met Office is actually in the UK). The meteorologist goes into sleet and hail, too, but that’s okay – Frodo and Sam did endure a hailstorm while they were stuck on the Emyn Muil, trying to get to Mordor after the Fellowship broke up.
While filmed in mid-December, the ground in this video is bare, and the grass is still green, thanks to the North Atlantic Drift. Just as in the Shire, snow is not as common in the UK as it is many parts of North America. What snowflakes do manage to make it to the ground usually land on higher elevations – including real-world equivalents of the Northfarthing – where things are colder (Met Office).
Thanks to Charlie, we know that snow happens when the air is moist and cold, as long as there are particles in the air – dust or pollen will do – that snow nuclei can form on.
Now what’s the process like in the mountains?
It’s a pity
Aragorn Gandalf didn’t have a copy of Dr. John Papineau’s Practical Mountain Weather (PDF) to consult before attempting to change Gandalf’s Aragorn’s mind about the Redhorn Pass.
In Chapter 5, the
son of Arathorn wizard could have pointed out, it’s noted that hills and mountains can actually generate clouds, called “feeder clouds” around which an entire storm system may form. Steep terrain gets up to 50% more precipitation than the plains this way.
The distribution of snowfall is influenced more by wind drift and the distance between peaks or hills than by local topography.
As for the amount of snowfall in a mountain storm, according to Dr. Papineau, it’s controlled mostly by wind speed. Tolkien’s account of the attempt to cross the Redhorn Pass shows there was plenty of wind up there. Indeed, Dr. P. notes in Chapter 9 that the Alps – where Tolkien hiked as a child, an experience that influenced his writing – have “gap winds” that develop especially well in cold weather.
Mountain wind controls precipitation by acting as a forcing mechanism as well as bringing in lots of moisture.
The inevitable result? A huge snowstorm.
Well, up they went and almost lost their lives. So…was Gimli right? Were the snow effects supernatural?
Types of Snow
It started off normally enough. As the Nine Walkers climbed higher, snow flakes began to fall. Then suddenly, they walked into almost a whiteout – probably a frontal snow squall. Quite sensibly, they stopped. While they were talking the squall blew through and things quieted down.
There was a large storm system in the area, though, and soon after they started climbing again, it hit with full force, this time a blizzard that lasted almost all night but was winding down as dawn came.
What about the big drift below them? Was it really a trap set by an evil occult will?
If not, what sort of natural phenomenon could stop the combined efforts of such mighty men as Aragorn and Boromir and drive them to despair?
There is a clue in the description when the hobbits reach it (emphasis added):
It was flung across the mountain-path like a sheer and sudden wall, and its crest, sharp as if shaped with knives, reared up more than twice the height of Boromir; but through the middle a path had been beaten, rising and falling like a bridge.
This thing came to a very sharp point at the top and had a broad enough base to make the forced path rise and fall.
It was, in fact, a snow dune, shaped by the terrific wind and heavy snowfall during the night – like these, but bigger:
Science can easily explain all the Fellowship’s experiences on Caradhras. Nonetheless, these events are happening in a world where there really are ringwraiths, elves and dragons. In our world, we might well have perished in that blizzard without a wizard to cast a spell to make a fire while exposed to such extreme conditions.
Thus we can’t completely rule out magic here. But what exactly is that?
In a draft of letter 155, Tolkien wrote:
I do not intend to involve myself in any debate whether ‘magic’ in any sense is real or really possible in the world. But I suppose that, for the purposes of the tale, some would say that there is a latent distinction such as once was called the distinction between magia and goeteia. Galadriel speaks of the ‘deceits of the Enemy’. Well enough, but magia could be, was, held good (per se), and goeteia bad. Neither is, in this tale, good or bad (per se), but only by motive or purpose or use. Both sides use both, but with different motives. The supremely bad motive is (for this tale, since it is specially about it) domination of other ‘free’ wills. The Enemy’s operations are by no means all goetic deceits, but ‘magic’ that produces real effects in the physical world. But his magia he uses to bulldoze both people and things, and his goeteia to terrify and subjugate. Their magia the Elves and Gandalf use (sparingly): a magia, producing real results (like fire in a wet faggot) for specific beneficent purposes. Their goetic effects are entirely artistic and not intended to deceive: they never deceive Elves (but may deceive or bewilder unaware Men) since the difference is to them as clear as the difference to us between fiction, painting, and sculpture, and ‘life’.
As with many of Tolkien’s detailed discussions of his works, the going is a bit thick there.
However, it does show me that another layer in this scene is Aragorn’s free decision to follow Gandalf up the mountain, even though he disagreed with the plan. Isildur’s Heir All the others – even Boromir – were basically followers at this point, but Aragorn could believably have challenged Gandalf openly, though it would have destroyed the Fellowship and the Quest. Instead, the son of Arathorn chose reason and discussion as ways to sway the wizard’s mind. When Gandalf’s plan failed, Aragorn spoke not a word of reproach, something Gandalf later commended him on.
So it’s not such a small scene after all. In it, Aragorn showed his worthiness to wear the crown, though that’s never brought up directly, of course.
Correction: Of course it was Aragorn’s decision to attempt the Redhorn Gate – Gandalf thought Moria would be better overall.
Sorry about that! (Also, I have had a terrible time getting the images right in this post – am not going to fuss with those any more. After all, there are “many evil and unfriendly things” in this world and some of them may be trying to get my goeteia. ☺ )
Tolkien is actually putting Aragorn in a tough position. They’re blocked by the snow storm, so they fall back on Gandalf’s plan, which does get them on the other side of the mountains eventually but with great loss. Aragorn must now lead, yet he made this bad call so his confidence is shaken. He has some trials ahead of him before he’s ready for the throne of Gondor.
Anyway, I do love Tolkien’s work. You never know where it’s going to take you. And the more you read it, the more you discover.