Throughout the Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien propounds the theme of the road. Tolkien writes about the road quite often by describing the setting around it and relating the nature of the road to a river. Mentioned early in the Fellowship of the Ring, the Bagginses, in particularly Bilbo Baggins, sing a poem concerning the road. Bilbo describes the road to Frodo, his nephew, saying,
"there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. 'It's dangerous business . . . going out of you door. You step out into the road and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'"
One place where the Hobbits know little about where they may be swept off to is the River Anduin. Here again, Tolkien continues to outline and structure the setting around this waterway; the swift river passes by a multitude of locales including forests, plains, wastes, downs, and stoney cliffs. Moreover, the opposing banks of the river, coincidentally different at each locale, represent the outcomes of Middle-earth after the journeys end. By reminding Frodo of past experiences, Tolkien's description of the Great River Anduin reveals that only one true choice exists concerning Frodo's quest to destroy the Ring of Power, and that all other decisions were illusions.
At the commencement of their voyage down the flowing river, the Hobbits pass out of a comfortable environment into unknown territory. Tolkien uses the forces and descriptions of the setting to display how the surroundings lead the travelers away from safety and immerse them into the nearby scene. Clearly expressed when the Hobbits leave the Shire at the realization that the Shire “vanished as soon as the path brought them under the trees”; Similarly, Lothlórien disappears as “the River swept round a bend, and the banks rose upon either side, and the light of Lorien was hidden." At both of these points the Hobbits recall the experience of a sudden shift from a homely to an unfavorable location.
The unpropitious impression of the Old Forest, right after leaving the East Farthing, parallels strongly with the scene right after the departure down the river. The Old Forest, described as a menacing ominous wood, coincides with the description of the “overhanging shadows of the western wood” on the shore of Anduin. Furthermore, both greenwoods, characterized by their trees' ghost like properties and twisted wood, portray the characteristics of evil and jealousy lingering inside the trees. These qualities appear to emanate from the trees because the surroundings always appear to be “dreary and cold." By the same token, Tolkien describes the trees on the west bank as “seeming hostile," and the trees of the Old forest as “haters of things that go free upon the earth.” From both greenwoods, an aura of foreboding issues out of the wood, and reminds the company of the eeriness of trees as they passes into a land of rolling downs.
The description of the location after the woods reflects the Barrow Downs; The Barrow Downs, described as valley after valley of a treeless land, so closely parallels the downs of the Great River by the depiction of the “meads becoming rolling downs of withered grass." Furthermore, the foggy gloom of the Barrow Downs presents itself to the Hobbits by means of the Misty Mountains from the distance of the West bank. This choice of diction on the name of the mountain range, ever so deceivingly, adds a chilling reminder to the Hobbits previous experience in a land of downs. The lands of the Barrow-wights were described as “a foggy sea where . . . distances had now all become hazy and deceptive." The simple image of the downs on the banks of the River Anduin serves as a reminder of the Barrow Downs the Hobbits journeyed through in “Fog on the Barrow-Downs.”
Looking to the East, the description of the Brown Lands seem to mimic that of Weathertop's. The Brown Lands, “an unfriendly waste without even a broken tree or a bold stone to relive the emptiness," portrays Weathertop, a structure that provides a miniscule amount of safety in an open country, in many ways. Both countries, without tree or shelter, provide little to no defense against attack or unfriendly eyes. Furthermore, there is a description of uneasiness brought upon the company in both settings. The land, painted as such a desolate region, reveals that no hope for refuge lies there. This characteristic of the Brown Lands clearly expresses the Hobbits venture through Weathertop.
The flight from Weathertop to Imladris parallels the journey down the Emyn Muil to Parth Galen. As the Hobbits escape Weathertop, heading for Rivendell, they pass through a region of high cliffs and narrow dales. The dangers of the rocks and dramatic change in elevation of the setting reveals itself in Book One when the “new country seemed threatening and unfriendly. As they went forward the hills about them steadily rose. . . . They had an ominous look”." This description fits the area Emyn Muil to Parth Galen just as it does the land between Weathertop to Rivendell. At this spot of Anduin, Tolkien describes the environment as “a wide ravine, with great rocky sides . . . and in the distance two great rocks approaching: like great pinnacles or pillars they seemed. Tall and sheer and ominous they stood." By expressing the threatening terrain the Hobbits are reminded of the experience in “Flight to the Ford.”
The various settings serve as reminders to the Hobbits of their past experiences and help recall the choices and decisions they made along the way. However, did the Hobbits really choose their destinies, or was their fate already chosen for them? In order to remove the Ring of Power from the land so beloved, the Hobbits leave the beautiful and fertile region of the Shire, in hopes to preserve there simple quite land. The gloomy menacing land of the Old Forest causes the Hobbits to feel as if they must advance with haste. The Barrow-Downs' mist and fog causes the Hobbits to get lost and trapped, however, they still push on with courage. The desolate land East of Bree inspire the Hobbits and Strider to climb atop Weathertop for a better view of the area. The narrow dales and sharp cliffs of the path from Amon Sûl to Imladris force the Hobbits to climb the rocks to reach their destination. The Hobbits appear to have chosen to pursue forward, even through such cruel nature. However, the river Anduin's opposing banks reveal the only two outcomes of the Hobbits' quest.
The fertile land of the West symbolizes the fate of Middle-earth should the Hobbits succeed, whereas the East, desolate and destroyed, represents the dreary doom of the World should the Hobbits fail. These descriptions of the opposing banks recount the very reason as to why Frodo began the quest. It is obvious Frodo understands that everything would turn to ruin if he never removed the Ring from Sauron's grasp, being the reason why they left Hobbiton in the beginning. Knowing this, it becomes evident that the Hobbits never really had the decision of turning around or forsaking the quest, let alone the option of departing on the West bank. A question the arises; does Frodo have any decision that he may actually choose? It appears that he does, the choice of company along with him to Mount Doom.
Anduin, a swift river which models Tolkien's theme of the road, recalls the Hobbits experiences by showing comparable settings. These descriptions of the Great River's banks reveal that the Hobbits underwent many rigorous challenges in which they thought they were making decision. However, the contrasting shore of the Great River reveal that only two outcomes exist at the end of the quest. One of these ends, Frodo would never choose. Therefore, the river also reveals that the choices the Hobbits made were never really choices at all. On the other hand, the river also reveals that Frodo does have one decision he can make; the choice of going alone or with friends still exists. Therefore, through the portrayal of the River Anduin, Tolkien discloses the idea that appears ubiquitous throughout The Lord of the Rings, illusion vs. reality; even though choices appear to exist before us, we may not really have any power to choose in the first place.