(Updated on 12/10/15)
I often find that Book Four gets a lot of flak. I think it is fair to say that is generally perceived as the worst of the six, in that it encapsulates fully the more negative aspects of the story, and is certainly the least quoted. There is a lot of travelling (through mostly dour landscapes), limited character interaction and little diversity in the cast. Frodo is a little insufferable at times, and Faramir divides opinion.
But I tend to enjoy Book Four, at least more than other people. Gollum becomes one of the great fantasy characters in these pages, and Sam comes into his own in a big way. I enjoyed the more diverse surroundings that the trio journey through past the third chapter, and I liked the way that Book Four sets up several key events in Book Five. Moveover, I loved the final two chapters.
But, that’s to come.
“Quite a fix and no mistake” says Sam, an opening line that sets the tone of both the entire chapter and Book. The following paragraph, describing the maze of the Emyn Muil, emphasises the bleakness:
“It was the third evening since they had fled from the Company, as far as they could tell: they had almost lost count of the hours during which they had climbed and laboured among the barren slopes and stones of the Emyn Muil, sometimes retracing their steps because they could find no way forward, sometimes discovering that they had wandered in a circle back to where they had been hours before. Yet on the whole they had worked steadily eastward, keeping as near as they could find a way to the outer edge of this strange twisted knot of hills. But always they found its outward faces sheer, high and impassable, frowning over the plain below; beyond its tumbled skirts lay livid festering marshes where nothing moved and not even a bird was to be seen.”
The negative terms abound there: lost, laboured, barren, twisted, impassable, frowning, tumbled, festering. Combined, the picture is set: Frodo and Sam are in a very bad spot, and heading towards worse. Having made the crucial choice to split from the Fellowship, the two hobbits are now faced with the grim reality of just muddling through. Much like the other hobbit duo at the beginning of Book Three, they are faced with a terrible problem, and must use their wits and their ingenuity to overcome it.
Frodo is clearly depressed, overly focused on the long term, the fact that they are “delayed” in the hills, far away from their intended destination. His “I am tired, Sam” sounds so remarkably pained. In this, he seems ill-suited to actually solve the problem of getting out of the labyrinth, something that is foremost in the mind of the far-more practical Sam. That is not to say that Sam is being the completely rational one, he seems overly focused on the well-being of something as inconsequential as his cooking gear, the part of his equipment that has become representative of the Shire for him.
Gollum is on the trail, though this revelation gets little time to fester in the mind of the reader before he actually shows up. Reference is made to “the eye” for the first time in this Book, that unseen presence that will become crucial, both to their overall wellbeing and the sanity of Frodo, who will soon be feeling the weight of his burden very heavily. “The Eye”, Sauron’s horrific image, is the intangible enemy that is going for Frodo mentally, while Gollum becomes the more primary villain.
The cliff face that the two hobbits must overcome is the first of many physical obstacles – taking the place of actual enemies in this Book (for the most part). Sam, while being the eventual hero, shows off some of his innate stupidity here in a huge way, choosing to try and scramble down the cliff unsupported, a move that is emphasised heavily by Tolkien as being something that is dumb as a post. I think this sequence is meant to establish, after a whole Book’s worth of absence, the relationship between the two hobbits, the officer/batman dynamic. Frodo is the smart, logical one, not the most physically strong or conventionally brave, but the one with the right frame of mind for many difficulties. Sam is the courageous one, honest to a fault, but frequently leaps before he looks, almost literally in this case, an act Tolkien ascribes the traits of both bravery and foolishness to.
But before Frodo and Sam can actually navigate this little problem with a bit of intelligence, the Nazgul return, their cry hitting the hobbits like “cold blades of horror and despair, stopping heart and breath”. If there is one thing that the brief paragraph of pure terror that follows really gets into the head of the reader, it is that the hobbits are really all alone now. No Aragorn, no Gandalf, no friends from the Shire, nothing. It is them in the middle of the dark lands, with enemies all around who will destroy them with ease if they had the chance, the very elements an extension of the Dark Lord’s will.
Frodo finds himself in a bad spot, with a heavy emphasis on blind imagery, perhaps a microchasm of Frodo and Sam’s more general blindness of their surroundings. Sam, adding to his previous ineptitude, suddenly remembers he happens to have a bit of rope, a revelation that elicits a perfectly justified (and good to read) bit of annoyance from Frodo. Having navigated that obstacle, the narrative gets sucked back into a degree of hopelessness, as it seems that the hobbits haven’t really done anything other than get even more lost. But then, along comes the last member of this Book’s trio.
Gollum is a very striking character, one of the best you may ever read in fantasy. His brief appearance in The Hobbit was memorable enough, but he will now become the real stand out character of this book. From his chilling and memorable speech, his treacherous attitude, the way he changes, changes back, his conflicting feelings and split personalities, it all combines to create that character that has elicited such a response from Tolkien’s readership. His past mystery, his unpredictability, his nature, they all combine to form an immense impression.
The trait we get from Gollum’s initial appearance is that of overconfidence, mixed with a little desperation. He’s so obsessed with getting both the Ring and his long sought for revenge (he has been looking for the thing for nearly a century at this point) that he allows Frodo and Sam to wait him out and catch him unawares while he deals with the same cliff as before. He is more than a match for one of them alone, but the two together are able to bring him to heel, something that the film emphasised to a greater extent.
Gollum, that side of him anyway (as opposed to the “Sméagol side) is a nasty, bitter, angry individual, fuelled by an excellently written rage and self-righteousness. But when caught he disappears, for a while anyway. This sparks off that debate about the Gollum character. Peter Jackson took the definite interpretation that Gollum suffered from a severe case of split personalities, one maliciously evil, the other far more docile, even noble to an extent. I think Gollum can be interpreted in another way, still split, but with not so much of a chasm between the two. That is, the malicious side of him is perfectly capable of lying and acting obedient when it suits, the “Sméagol” side only really coming to the fore in a genuine manner on the rarest of occasions.
Here, he goes from openly talking about murdering the two hobbits, to begging for mercy in a near instant. Tolkien’s skill with words is such that we understand the manipulation that Gollum is trying to execute, though he also seems to be getting the measure of the hobbits’ ability for cruelty as well. Frodo is the merciful one, rejecting Sam’s suggestion that Gollum be killed, either directly or indirectly (though he was still the one holding a knife to his throat I suppose). Here, we get the call-back to Gandalf’s famous words in “The Shadow Of The Past” emphasising the importance of mercy, and Gollum’s “part to play” in the events that are unfolding. Frodo shows off his idealist streak, with Sam as the more realist of the two, something that will continue for much of the rest of the story. Frodo is willing to trust Gollum to a surprisingly large extent, leaving Sam to be the suspicious one. Frodo does make the decision to keep him alive and Sam does not object. Frodo is clearly the one in charge, even if his decisions are very dangerous.
The memory of the Ring’s inscription at this moment – “One Ring to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them” – is interesting. The verse itself is presumably a reference to Sauron’s desire to bind all of Middle-Earth to him under his own rule of darkness, but Frodo sees a deeper meaning in it at this moment, an almost prophetic one. In truth, it’s somewhat unnerving: it isn’t all that hard to imagine that the Ring itself is having an influence on Frodo at this moment, recognising the potential advantage to its survival having Gollum around is. Some have also wondered if Frodo’s memory of Gandalf’s words to him regards Gollum, with Frodo seemingly “talking to someone who was not there” might not also be an outside influence from the wizard, though this may be a bit more far-fetched.
Frodo sees better into Gollum’s head the Sam does of course, and recognises the power that he, as the Ring-bearer, has over the creature. He understands Gollum’s need, that irresistible and implacable hunger. Perhaps this bit of insight here can be seen as some foreshadowing of the things to come, as Frodo begins his own gradual descent into a Gollum-like state. Frodo offers Sméagol the chance to be found again in exchange for his aid, and it’s not hard to see the wheels turning in Frodo’s mind when he does so. But, for now, in a scene that evokes the previous chapter’s image of a supplicant Gandalf before a lordly Aragorn, Frodo has mastery over Gollum, using the very existence of the Ring as the leash with which to yoke him.
Gollum’s temperament and attitude improves almost instantly and will stay that way for a while. He is a mentally unstable individual, but it is clear that much of this comes from the sheer isolation he has been through in his long years wandering the wilds. Simply by being around other people, even ones that are opposed to him in many ways, Gollum improves. But, as we will see, and as we must realise, it will not be permanent. The Ring continues to call. Another great closing line – “Over all the leagues of waste before the gates of Mordor there was a black silence” – indicates that the most trouble is still before this trio.
This chapter needs to both reintroduce us to the central duo of the entire epic, and also reintroduce us to Gollum, the reader having last seen him a very long time ago in a cave under the Misty Mountains. To both degrees there is success: the Frodo/Sam dynamic is back in spades, and things are mostly as they were before, while Gollum remains as entrancing a character to me as he was the very first time I read him. A few interesting moments of peril – the cliff scramble, the Nazgul cry and the brief fight with Gollum – mark this chapter out and gets the pulse racing, but for the most part it is simple set-up for what’s to come. I had forgotten how long this one actually is, with the majority being about Frodo and Sam’s difficulty in traversing the terrain, Gollum only turning up around two thirds in, but the chapter really does fly along. Tolkien restablishes the situation of Frodo and Sam, and gets Gollum into the picture. It isn’t particularly thrilling, but it does the job required.
Next up, bogs!
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.