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Smiting Ruin: 1. Smiting Ruin
Fondly dedicated to Fadagaski, who inspired this story in a Livejournal conversation during which it was decided that I was in need of some smiting...
"From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak, I fought him, the Balrog of Morgoth…"
Gandalf’s voice was little more than a low murmur beneath Fangorn’s thick leaves. His eyes were blank and his face rigid. Caught up in his memories, the newly returned wizard was no longer aware of the man, elf, and dwarf that watched him anxiously. Rather, he stood once more upon the pinnacle of Celebdil, and the Balrog loomed before him, transformed from a creature of clinging slime to a demon that burned anew with the dread flames of Utumno. They fought, faltering with every blow but never once shrinking from the attack. Time ceased to have meaning, and their battle lasted both a moment and an age, draining all their strength and all their will…
"…until at last I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside."
Only too well did Gandalf remember the exultant joy that had accompanied his victory and how this joy had been cut short by the relentless pain deep within his chest. He remembered falling to the earth, flanked by snow and stone, while his mind drifted away onto paths no mortal had ever tread. The memories filled him, pulling his thoughts in a myriad of directions. How did one describe the music of the Ainur? How did one put into words the vastness of the melody that echoed through the Timeless Halls? How—
A discreet cough to his right jerked Gandalf out of his thoughts and the wizard started, returning to the lands of Middle-earth with jarring abruptness. Nonplussed, he looked around and quickly spied a puzzled frown upon Legolas’s face. "Something troubles you?" Gandalf prompted.
Legolas’s frown deepened. "Forgive me, Mithrandir, but did you just say that you ‘smote his ruin’?"
The elf now looked distinctly uncomfortable, but he was his father’s son and his reservations did not prevent him from speaking. "I have no wish to question your judgement or your actions, but…why? Surely your strength could have been put to better use."
Gandalf blinked, going back over what he’d said.
"His ruin had no need of smiting, if it was indeed his ruin," Legolas continued, the confusion in his eyes growing. "He was vanquished. Why smite a fallen foe when such things could be saved for another enemy?"
Now that Gandalf thought about it, he could see that the story made little sense. Nor was it an accurate retelling of events. He had certainly not wasted his energy by smiting the lifeless husk of the Balrog, yet in the course of the telling, his words had become confused. He had encountered this problem in Lothlórien as well. General knowledge of languages had returned to him, but some details of the mortal tongue were still difficult. Only days before—or a lifetime, depending upon how it was viewed—volumes of information could be exchanged with but a thought. Now such things had to be reduced to meager words.
"Perhaps you do not comprehend his intent," Gimli said, and Gandalf felt relief that someone understood. As an elf, Legolas was very aware of words, but as a dwarf, Gimli could look beyond the words and see the foundation that supported them. "By smiting ruin, perhaps Gandalf was not smiting the Balrog but rather the idea of death."
Gandalf’s relief vanished. That wasn’t what he had meant either.
"You believe that ruin was used in an abstract sense?" Aragorn asked, his brow creased. Gandalf’s hopes for understanding dropped even further away.
"Possibly. As Legolas has already pointed out, it makes little sense to smite what will not rise again. It is more reasonable to believe that Gandalf smote ruin meaning the idea of death rather than ruin meaning the Balrog’s corpse." Gimli paused and frowned. "Do Balrogs leave corpses?"
Elf, man, and dwarf looked to Gandalf for an answer, but the wizard ignored them, consumed by his struggle to understand the subtle nuances of an inexact language. What was it he had meant to say? And how did one correctly say it in Westron?
"Glorfindel would be the one to ask about corpses, as he slew a Balrog during the flight from Gondolin," Aragorn said eventually, breaking the silence that had begun to stretch into minutes. "I doubt he would be inclined to speak of it, though. And even if he were, he might not know. It is possible that he died ere he could see whether or not a corpse lay beside him."
"And learning whether or not Balrogs leave corpses was probably not foremost on his mind," Legolas added. "But we might ask Gwaihir. He is a scion of Thorondor, and it was Thorondor who bore Glorfindel’s body away. Mayhap the eagles have passed down the tale and know the answer."
Gandalf felt the beginnings of a large headache. Unlike his earlier stint with relief, the headache did not vanish.
"But regardless of whether or not Balrogs leave corpses, I do not think Gimli’s idea of ruin being a metaphor for death is correct," Aragorn said. "The words used were ‘smote his ruin.’ The ruin clearly belongs to the Balrog. If Gandalf smote it, he would be protecting the Balrog from ruin. That seems unlikely."
"Ah." Gimli nodded slowly, tapping his fingers against his axe. "Does a thing have to be utterly destroyed before it becomes ruin?"
"No, not necessarily," Aragorn mused, pursing his lips. "A ruined man may be a man who lives but has lost family or scrip. Or perhaps a man who has been cruelly disadvantaged in some way."
"I remind you that we are speaking of a Balrog, not a man," Legolas said. "It seems to me that the ruin of such a creature would imply a more complete ruin than the ruin of a destitute mortal. And this ruin was smote. That is a strong word. Even if you are correct and the Balrog lived, I do not think it required a smiting."
Gandalf had not been sent back to strangle Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, but he was sorely tempted to do so anyway. If they would only be still, perhaps he could figure out what he should have said!
"Your reasoning is sound," Aragorn murmured in response to Legolas, his eyes narrowing. "Well then, perhaps the words were spoken with hindsight. Gandalf mentioned vapor and steam rising about them. Perhaps he did not know the Balrog was ruined when he smote it."
"Or perhaps he smote it in victory as a gesture of triumph," Gimli suggested.
Legolas’s brow furrowed. "Is smiting a ruined opponent another of your strange dwarven customs?"
Gimli bristled. "Strange dwarven customs?"
"Peace!" Gandalf broke in, hoping the interruption would be enough to halt the debate. He thought he understood the language now, and he believed he knew what words he’d originally meant to say. "Let me attempt this again: I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountainside where he smote it in his ruin."
The other three looked at each other, eventually nodding. "That makes much more sense," Gimli said. "And I would like to point out that I had it aright. ‘Ruin’ referred to death."
"A fortunate guess that strayed near the mark," Legolas told the dwarf archly before turning back to Gandalf. "I would like to clarify something. You threw the Balrog down and he smote the mountainside. This smiting…did it come about because you threw him down or did he beat the cliffs as he died?"
"You think the Balrog smote the mountain in frustration as a gesture of defeat?" Gimli asked. "Is futile flailing another of your strange elven customs?"
"Smiting the mountain was most likely a result of the Balrog’s death throes," Aragorn interrupted, fixing a quelling look upon both elf and dwarf. "And now that we understand one another, I would hear the rest of the tale. Please continue, Gandalf. The Balrog smote the mountainside in his ruin. What happened after that?"
Filled with a vast sense of irritation, Gandalf considered walking away and leaving them to wonder about what had happened. But then he would be forced to deal with Aragorn's dogged persistence, Gimli's insatiable curiosity, and Legolas's patient but immortal prying. Still annoyed, Gandalf decided to give them a cursory version of the final events and then to move on. The morning was passing.
"Darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell…" Gandalf was not quite above mentioning that he was deliberately leaving parts out.
Author’s Notes: Though I enjoyed the LotR movies, some of the changes bothered me and some of the dialogue used struck me as rather odd. This story was an attempt to poke fun at the phrase "smote his ruin," which I know can mean what is implied but is far more fun to play with if taken literally. Beyond that, "smote" is a great word.
For references, Gandalf’s beginning quotes come from the movie version of The Two Towers. By contrast, here is Tolkien’s version of events as Gandalf relates them in the books:
"From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak it climbed, ascending in unbroken spiral in many thousand steps, until it issued at last in Durin’s Tower carved in the living rock of Zirakzigil, the pinnacle of the Silvertine.
"There upon Celebdil was a lonely tower in the snow, and before it lay a narrow space, a dizzy eyrie above the mists of the world. The sun shone fiercely there, but all below was wrapped in cloud. Out he sprang, and even as I came behind, he burst into new flame. There was none to see, or perhaps in after ages songs would still be sung of the Battle of the Peak." Suddenly Gandalf laughed. "But what would they say in song? Those that looked up from afar thought that the mountain was crowned with storm. Thunder they heard, and lightning, they said, smote upon Celebdil and leaped back broken into tongues of fire. Is not that enough? A great smoke rose about us, vapor and steam. Ice fell like rain. I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountainside where he smote it in his ruin. Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell." (The Two Towers, page 135, Chapter: The White Rider)
Actually, Gandalf says a lot more than that, especially about his fight with the Balrog in the depths of the earth, but the full quote would be too long to include here. Go read the books. They’re better anyway. Also, the "vapor and steam" that Aragorn speaks of toward the end of the story is a reference to the "vapor and steam" contained within the book’s version of events.
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