(Updated on 19/09/15)
The first time I read this chapter, I had no idea what “Flotsam and Jetsam” meant. For the unaware, it’s a term for debris and the like, especially the kind found floating in water. Were you unaware of that? I was. The more you know! Anyway, let’s just move this right along.
This is a short catch-up chapter and I feel it is designed around, once again, the concept of xenia. The five characters of this chapter have been traipsing all over Middle-Earth after each other, now is the time to renew friendships and eat. Everything has to wait until people are fed, and fed well. It’s a celebratory meal, of a sort, and Merry and Pippin show themselves as determined to be as good hosts as is possible, even in the extraordinary circumstances. It is clearly important to be a good host in Middle-Earth, even if you’re hosting a dinner amid the ruins of war. There is even a gift exchange, of a sort, as Aragorn returns the Lorien brooches and knives, while Pippin graciously gives Gimli a pipe with which to smoke. They are minor gestures, but are also bound up in the friendship of the remaining Fellowship, and the guest-friendship that rules custom.
And the focus on food, drink and luxuries has an additional narrative purpose. Its good food and drink, explained away by being the store of Saruman’s human forces. But the appearance of tobacco from the Shire is puzzling. Waved away by the hobbits as just a piece of random good fortune, its presence in Isengard must be eye-raising for the reader. It’s a long way to Orthanc from the fields of the Southfarthing, after all, and it’s the first of several dark hints in this chapter.
An excellent little paragraph sees Aragorn just lay out on the ground and smoke, relaxing for the first time in ages. It’s good to see the Ranger as more than just the stressed out, tireless warrior. Pippin’s exclamation that “Strider the Ranger has come back!” just calls attention to the fact, while Aragorn acknowledges that he has been leading a double life of sorts, as the rustic Ranger of the North and the future King of Gondor, and has been morphing further into the latter for a while. But the walls do come down occasionally. We can also appreciate the subtle, yet very meaningful to the overall story, proverb he offers out in this chapter: “One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters.”
But this is all just prelude to what the reader really wants to know. Merry and Pippin recall their journey with the Uruks and the fight over Isengard, in a sort of a ramshackle “this happened, then this, then that, then it was over” kind of way. The hunters rightly praise Pippin for his intelligence is leaving breadcrumbs for them to follow. It’s good to see that sort of thinking acknowledged and it’s a sign of the continually growing stature of the hobbits in the “Big Peoples” eyes.
The actual description of the battle over Isengard highlights one thing very prominently: Saruman is a strategic incompetent. After ages of piecemeal attacks on Rohan, he suddenly launched his entire army on the off-chance that Théoden had got a hold of the Ring, and left next to nobody to defend his stronghold. It beggars belief. The White Wizard clearly is not any kind of military genius, and the annihilation of his capital at the hands of a very significant horde of beings he neglected to factor in to his plans is the result.
The hobbits comment on some of the “half-Orcs” in Sarumans army, and make the comparison with the oft-mentioned “slanty-eyed southerner” back at Bree. More alarm bells must be sounding for the reader now.
The actual attack on Isengard is a brutal description of Ent power, as the trees just tear the fortress apart. Literally. It helps that there are no defenders of course, but Treebeard’s forces still smash the Wizards stronghold in mere minutes. It may make the reader ask why no one has tried to get the Ent’s onside before, but they are just a fairy tale to most I suppose.
Aragorn gives a brief speil on Saruman, talking about how he is, or was, “marvellously skilled” and has a voice that gives him power over others, though he is careful to note that this might be dispelled if the target was not alone with the wizard. It’s all set-up for the following chapter, when we’ll be meeting Saruman in person, and it’s done fairly well. We know that he is a dangerous individual, one whose very words are a weapon to be feared, even if his armies have been finished off. That’s a recurring, in fact the primary, theme for Saruman in the rest of the story.
Tolkien gives us an almost throwaway reference to a sort of flamethrower type weapon being used against the Ents. Saruman appears to be the embodiment of technology and industry, but he is swept away by the embodiment of nature’s fury. Treebeard is seen as the good commander, letting his troops loose when required, but reining them in when it is necessary, stopping pointless attacks against Orthanc itself, that can serve no kind of benefit.
The Ent has a plan, as I suspect he has for a while, suddenly turning to a re-direction of the River Isen. On the face of it, it’s an impromptu idea, but as before, the underlying hint is that Treebeard has thought this all through very thoroughly. He also exhibits other creepy characteristics, such as pulling down walls just to “amuse himself” and holding secret councils with Gandalf.
The wizard does turn up in the story, much to the hobbits disbelieving eyes, and is as mysterious and unforthcoming with answers as you would expect. He just turns up, basically says hello to Merry and Pippin, and rides off again. And I thought he was low on answers for the three hunters. We get a nice description of the hobbits worry over the battle at Helms Deep, the sort of confused, helpless malaise that can be so terrifying. All they know is that “a great battle was going on…and that you were in it”. All they could do is wait it out and hope for good news, once again the pawns in a very large game, as opposed to some of its most important pieces.
The Ents flood Isengard, a very literal way of washing the filth and corruption of Saruman and his Orc horde clean. It was only on this reading that I remembered Merry’s dream way back “In The House Of Tom Bombadil” where he imagines being trapped in a room with rising water. As with Frodo, it’s a premonition of this moment, though it meant next to nothing at the time.
Wormtongue shows up in the flashback next, as all of the loose ends start to get tied up. Grima, surveying the apparent fall of all that he supported, becomes desperate and begins a descent into a pathetic state, the end result of which we will not see until some of the final pages of the book. His previously silver tongue deserts him, and all of his deceits will not help him now, the former councillor left squirming under the powerful gaze of Treebeard. Is it a just punishment, to be forced into imprisonment with his cruel master? He did plot to overthrow his King and take off with his niece, so I would say yes. The hobbits may feel a little sorry for him, it’s their nature, but Wormtongue has blood on his hands.
The chapter ends on a happy note, the friends reunited and the bad guys defeated, but Aragorn picks up on the suspicious thing: “weed” from the Shire in Isengard. While acknowledging that is beyond their power right now, the old “go home by going forward” thing, he is rightfully concerned that the area might be in trouble. “Wormtongues may be found in other houses than King Théoden’s.” Hmm…
“Flotsam And Jetsam” is a very brief enough transition chapter, on the same level as “The Road To Isengard”. The reader might be forgiven for wondering why the Ent attack on Isengard did not get its own chapter, but seemingly Tolkien decided that only one major battle scene was required for Book Three, and Helm’s Deep was it. Letting Merry and Pippin be the narrators for the remembrance of this attack helps to put them centre stage once more, as we see Saruman’s climactic downfall squarely through their eyes. This also helps to maximize the impression the Ent’s ferocity make, as our eye-eitnesses are just very small creatures witnessing a figurative hurricane. Aside from that, and the tieing up of other loose ends associated with the differing timelines, the chapter is useful for a few good character moments, especially in regards Aragorn, who finally gets to take a break from all the action and daring-do. And there is those lingering doubts over the status of the Shire to ponder over as well, it becoming more and more clear that Saruman’s poisonous influence can be felt much farther afield than Rohan. “Flotsam And Jetsam” is another fun little diversion from the central narrative, but two chapters of that in a row is enough. Next time, the climactic showdown of Book Three will take place.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.