(Updated on 08/08/15)
For the record, I love this chapter. It is one my favourites. There are many reasons for those, but the essence is that it gives us a wonderful first hand view of the culture of the Orc race, as well as having a nicely contained mini-narrative, that offers lots of memorable moments of excitement and adventure. The Two Towers was already getting better with “The Riders Of Rohan”, but here things really get kicked up a notch.
We open with a crash cut to Pippin, and we know that he and Merry must be in a spot of bother. The haze of unconsciousness provides us with a murky retelling of the Amon Hen craziness and fighting. In this, Pippin provides a very unlikely moment of humour in an otherwise dire situation, as he remembers suddenly stumbling on a large group of bad guys, Han Solo in the Death Star style, a moment of stunned silence, then capture.
That said, the recollection of Merry fighting, and hacking off a few limbs, comes as a surprise. Merry is going to start being slightly more capable in a traditional sense from this point on, in a more physical manner I mean, something that will continue all the way up to his crucial moment on the Pelennor Fields. Pippin’s heroism will be a little less macho, but no less important.
Right now, Pippin hates himself and with good reason, his internal thinking focusing on his (absolute) uselessness to the quest so far: “I wish Gandalf had never persuaded Elrond to let us come,’ he thought. “What good have I been? Just a nuisance: a passenger, a piece of luggage.” He’s going to find himself a hell of a lot more useful starting from this point, but it is important to wonder what the hell the point of bringing him along up to now has been. He and Merry have essentially been little more than extra mouths to feed. I’ve talked about this before of course, and I’m sure I will bring it up again. But I have always found it one of the most unsatisfying parts of the tale, the way that Merry and Pippin’s inclusion has been largely unexplained beyond semi-mystical talk of “destiny”.
Anyway, the situation is grim. Captured by a large troop of bad guys, Merry and Pippin must be feeling a little bit small for this adventure, which suddenly includes the soldiers of the dark power in a very upfront way. “The Uruk-Hai” gives us our first speaking Orcs who actually have a bit of character. Admittedly, they aren’t very fleshed out characters, but it’s something. Besides, from the knowledge we have from the previous chapter, we know that most, if not all, of these guys aren’t going to be alive much longer, though the fate of Merry and Pippin remains very much up in the air.
It’s important to give these Orcs some character because “The Uruk-Hai” revolves around an internal power struggle sub-plot between Ugluk and Grishnakh, Mordor and Isengard. It’s an excellent little sub-plot, done extremely well over the course of only a dozen or so pages, and remains one of my favourite sequences in the entire epic.
Ugluk is the show-off and takes on the persona of a junior officer on his first command, barking orders, making stupid speeches, puffing out the chest as far as possible and generally acting far bigger than he is, clearly compensating for a lack of actual experience. Grishnakh on the other hand is the grizzled, bitter veteran, the kind of guy, a long serving Sergeant maybe, whose seen and done it all in his time. He has far more experience then Ugluk and knows it, dismissive of his erstwhile “ally” and with that comes the knowledge of when it is good to stand and fight, and good to run away. He’s a sneering, sarcastic villain, the rebellious enlisted. And there are the more mindless northern Orcs too, lacking a clear leader but just as likely to kick things all off.
The struggle between these three factions is our sub-plot, brought on by secrecy in the ranks, the kind of “need to know” stuff that always produces resentment within any army. In that, the Uruks/Orcs don’t act unlike any normal military unit, or the forces of two allies that are required by circumstance to work together. They’re the bad guys, but seeing three groups of soldiers like this, flung together on a common objective, the results are hardly surprising. These guys are a bit more vicious, but it is realistic behaviour. The rest of the bad guys, on either side, act like little more than football hooligans, with slightly more fatal results. It’s also interesting seeing the contrast between them all: the northern Orcs seem more animalistic, the Mordor veterans are a bit more divided and prone to backstabbing, while the Isengard Uruk-Hai are united but rather limited in intelligence. It’s good to see a complex enemy. The Orc culture is one of bravado and violent demonstrations of power: when Ugluck is challenged, he is obliged to kill a few of the rebels to cement his place at the top, and it seems to be a standard thing, creating more animalistic impressions with the sense of an “alpha-male” having to keep everyone else in line.
Pippin begins to show off some more of his smarts, taking advantage of an Uruk fight to cut his bonds. But he’s also smart and composed enough not to attempt escape at that moment. With the situation that the two hobbits are in, we can see that some hope remains: the bad guys are far from safety and despite their traumatic experience so far, the hobbits still have a degree of intangible power – Ugluk is playing nice enough and it is clear that the objective of the Uruks/Orks is to keep the prisoners alive. All those factors present a situation that is ripe for exploitation by prisoners.
The Orc food/medicine that makes an appearance in this chapter is an inversion of that of the Elves, emphasising the mirroring of those two respective races. Elf food is tasty, nutritious and long lasting, Orcs eat stale bread. Elf medicine is long lasting but takes a while to work (Frodo’s recovery in Rivendell is an example), Orc stuff works fast and rough. It’s simple racial characterisation, but works well enough for a story of this type.
Merry becomes our plucky prisoner archetype, stopping just short of spitting at the guards, all full of false cheer and bravado. He sees the fact that the hobbits are somewhat bulletproof, at least from the leaders of the bad guys. His scar is a mark of how far he’s come, though the line Tolkien uses here – “wore it to the end of his days” – can be seen as a bit of a tension killer, since that kind of writing indicates Merry will be alive for a while, and may not be in danger of death in the immediate future.
The crazy running is back in force as a plot device. One wonders just why horses and roads are even required in Middle-Earth if all the races can run like this. Anyway the split between the Mordor and Isengard factions leaves both sides weak, and the race of this chapter is on, even if the reader knows how it will end. Pippin shows some intelligence again in taking his moment to run off, and knowing when to call it quits. He drops his Lorien brooch as a breadcrumb, some excellent thinking in stressful circumstances.
The return of Grishnakh and his faction after their brief tearaway presents us with the division between the bad guys again, now simply sticking together out of sheer necessity, with strength in numbers as they desperately flee across enemy territory. Grishnakh is once again the long term veteran showing off his knowledge, spitting chilling words about the Nazgul at Ugluk and the other Isengarders: “’Nazgûl, Nazgûl,’ said Grishnákh, shivering and licking his lips, as if the word had a foul taste that he savoured painfully”. Grishnakh has also got the confidence of knowing that his side is stronger than Isengard, and this sense of superiority really marks him out as a one chapter character.
The chase is back on, but it’s inverted from the previous ones we’ve seen, in that we’re rooting for the prey to get caught. Somehow the Uruks are outrunning horses (of course, it’s possible the horses aren’t actually trying to outrun them, just hem them in), marking them out as very strong opponents, with a hell of a lot of stamina. We know what’s going to happen here, from the last chapter, even down to the casualties incurred by the good guys, but we still don’t know the fate of Merry and Pippin. Pippin, nervous about the very real possibility of friendly fire, hooks onto the one hope of avoiding the spears of the Rohirrim and sneaking away, like a desperate man clinging onto a safety line. Nothing else to hold onto really.
Ugluk’s leadership fails to get the Uruks to where they need to go: the mysterious forest of Fangorn. That the bad guys have chosen to head towards that particular bit of geography might seem a bit strange, but there was no way they could have gotten back to Isengard in open ground. Ugluk, ever the junior officer, expresses a lot of confidence in what is a very basic plan: breaking the encirclement with the help of some relief forces that he has no guarantee will even arrive. The Orcs, the Isengarders anyway, seem to be every bit a group of skittish, new soldiers, out on their very first engagement.
The wait begins and we come to the famous Grishnakh scene as the Mordor Orc tries to run off with the prisoners. Turns out his arrogant attitude was a bit justified as he knows a lot more then he was previously letting on, about the Ring and the hobbits. It certainly marks him out from Ugluk, who know what little his master deigned to tell him about “trinkets”. Grishnakh’s panicked search and interrogation of the hobbits is almost pervert-like in its language and imagery, the horrible old man pawing at the little guys, shaking with nervousness and anticipation: “‘My dear tender little fools,’ hissed Grishnákh, ‘everything you have, and everything you know, will be got out of you in due time: everything! You’ll wish there was more that you could tell to satisfy the Questioner, indeed you will: quite soon. We shan’t hurry the enquiry. Oh dear no!”. Merry and Pippin catch on pretty quick, but their next move is not the smartest, trying to cut a deal with the guy in their situation. Just not going to happen is it, and Grishnakh seems to be the exact wrong type of character to try and antagonise.
It all works out though, perhaps through the hobbits’ taunting. Grishnakh cuts and runs, panicked, and gets ridden down for his hubris. The Rohirrim are deadly efficient at their job, and only the Lorien cloaks save the hobbits from a similar fate.
Ugluk’s plan fails again, as the relief forces are butchered and his own spearhead out of the encirclement is cut down to a man. I suppose it is a harsh lesson that every junior officer must learn: the responsibilities of command, the need to adapt plans effectively after first contact, and actual battle with the enemy. Leaders with potential make it out of those first lessons alive; Ugluk doesn’t and he takes his men with him.
We’re treated to the bizarre image of Merry and Pippin watching the battle from the sidelines, happily gnawing on some lembas like spectators at a football match. You’d think they’d get to safety a bit quicker. The camaraderie between the two is a marked contrast to their soon to be skewered captors, who have spent the entire chapter arguing. Pippin has had his moments of intelligence, now its Merry’s turn as he remembers some geography of the area. It’s only now that we realise that the two are still in quite a bad situation, in the middle of nowhere, with no supplies and no idea where they are going. I would have thought they might have hung around the outskirts of the forest until daylight to see if they could have talked to the Rohirrim without being mistaken for Orcs, but that doesn’t seem to enter their thinking.
The two miss the actual end of the battle, with some heroic prose reserved for Eomer who takes down Ugluk himself, a brief plot method to give him some glory and reputation, by killing a named character:
“So it was that they did not see the last stand, when Uglúk was overtaken and brought to bay at the very edge of Fangorn. There he was slain at last by Éomer, the Third Marshal of the Mark, who dismounted and fought him sword to sword. And over the wide fields the keen-eyed Riders hunted down the few Orcs that had escaped and still had strength to fly.
Then when they had laid their fallen comrades in a mound and had sung their praises, the Riders made a great fire and scattered the ashes of their enemies.“
The sub-plot of the chapter has resulted in death for both groups of bad guys, for Ugluk through his inexperience and bluster, and for Grishnakh through his rashness and desperation. Bodes well for the future, seeing the way the antagonists get taken down here.
The final words of the chapter – “The smoke rose high and was seen by many eyes.” – are fairly ominous and warn of some unforeseen consequences to come, in a rather chilling manner though, in fact, we will never discover just who this line refers to. It might be Saruman, the Nazgul, Treebeard, the three hunters or even Gandalf, but for now it suffices to let us know that, well, people are watching. Larger events are unfolding, of which this skirmish is just one small part.
This chapter needs to keep the drama going after the welcome addition of some excitement last time out, and it does that in spades. It’s a fun stand-alone tale of daring do, with some really fantastic antagonist characters that stick in the mind with the vivid names, mannerisms and interactions. The bird’s eye view of the armies of Isengard and Mordor is fantastic, and poor Merry and Pippin get some well-earned spotlight, using it to the full. Despite the fact that the reader knows how this chapter must end, it still has that sense of drama because of the question mark over the hobbits, and the finale itself is a very satisfying conclusion to this self-contained sub-plot. This is the first time since “The Old Forest” that a chapter has been focused so solely on the hobbits, but it isn’t a bad thing at all: Tolkien makes it good, through the sense of peril for Merry and Pippin, and the way that they eventually get the upper hand (kind of) on their kidnappers. It’s just great, generally.
Two great chapters in a row have really set Book Three on the right path, and it is only going to keep going. After a while spent on some fighting, chasing and geo-politics, Tolkien will now dive back into the fantasy pool, with the introduction of one of the sagas most memorable characters.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.