(Updated on 15/10/15)
This chapter really does show clearly the main complaints that are standard with Book Four, in that it can, at an initial glance anyway, be summed up in little more than a sentence: They walk through a bog and Frodo is getting a little peaky. But there is a bit more to it than that, even if “The Passage Of The Marshes” really is one of the weaker chapters in the story.
As with the Emyn Muil in the previous chapter, this chapter has another major physical obstacle, in the form of festering bogland. Anyone who has ever spent time in such a landscape will know that Tolkien gets the description pretty much dead-on here, as the marshes come to life as a place that it is possible to traverse but abound with hidden dangers and footfalls, where an obvious path can quickly turn bad:
“It was dreary and wearisome. Cold clammy winter still held sway in this forsaken country. The only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters. Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long-forgotten summers.”
Gollum is getting better, personality wise, and the opening pages provides a tie–in to The Hobbit, in the form of one of the riddle-rhymes from the famous game played with Bilbo. Gollum retains that slight air of maliciousness in nearly everything he does though, even if it is in something as insignificant as a dark look.
Gollum has begun to have those traits that we will see again and again, being as pleasing as possible even while holding obviously dark thoughts, such as when he repeatedly calls the two hobbits “sensible” as he tries to convince them not to do something he dislikes. The continuing flashes of his darker, perhaps real, self are self-evident in the way he mutters, complains for food and is generally just nasty when things don’t appear to be going his way.
This comes up especially as Gollum is unable or unwilling to eat lembas bread, which seems to almost poison him when he takes a bite. Since Elvish stuff is generally somewhat magical, is it possible that this pervades into their foodstuffs, which cannot be eaten by those who are too much on the side of darkness? Does Elvish food, like Sam’s rope, pick the eater? In the end, Gollum is acting very much like a pet, and is actually described as a “hounded dog” later, desperate for compliments and begging for treats, growling when not happy: later still, Frodo must threaten force in order to get him to move forward towards Mordor.
Sam is showing himself as, once again, the logical one, thinking about the food situation, now that the size of the party has jumped by 33%. Tolkien pretty much sidesteps this issue though, by having Gollum find his own scraps of food wherever he can, though the food situation will come up again.
The idealist/realist contrast with Frodo and Sam remains very clear, as Sam continually voices his (fully justified) distrust of Gollum, while Frodo seems to just casually dismiss it. Sam is going to be turning into the big hero of the story from around this point on, and Frodo’s blind faith in Gollum is part of that process, as a way for us to see Sam in a more positive light. He’s the smart one who sees the danger coming while Frodo just blunders into it, and it will be Sam to save the day when this all goes to hell at the end of this Book.
Gollum, of course, is just biding his time, as the reader must know. The Ring is his only desire, his only reason for existing, and he won’t be letting it, willingly, go into the hands of the enemy. He’s the guide now, taking advantage of Frodo’s innately trusting nature, but he is going to turn, there is no doubt. That makes the hobbits’ currently reliance on him all the more tension-filled, and it is just as well, as the chapter needs all of the tension that it can scrounge.
What follows, as the trio begin the passage of the Dead Marshes, is a very notable part of the text:
“We were miserably delayed in the hills. But Samwise Gamgee, my dear hobbit – indeed, Sam my dearest hobbit, friend of friends – I do not think we need give thought to what comes after that. To do the job as you put it – what hope is there that we ever shall? And if we do, who knows what will come of that? If the One goes into the Fire, and we are at hand? I ask you, Sam, are we ever likely to need bread again? I think not. If we can nurse our limbs to bring us to Mount Doom, that is all we can do. More than I can, I begin to feel.”
Frodo has clearly already gone head first into doom-laden thinking. The only way he is able to keep going, now that they near the Land of Shadow, is to accept, like Speirs in Band of Brothers, that he’s already dead. To that end, he has already dismissed anything other than getting to the goal. That’s all that they are supposed to do. Sam accepts this, mournfully, with a great degree of reluctance evident. Frodo might still be the idealist, but he’s also a bit of a romantic. He thinks that the only thing he can do is destroy the Ring and die in the process, get rid of the weight around his neck and then sleep. Sam is a bit more optimistic, or is trying to be, but Frodo and the surroundings, not to mention Gollum, are beginning to affect even his previously cheery outlook.
The sections of the text that take place within the Marshes themselves are marked with a heavy emphasis on the usefulness of Gollum, who expertly guides the two hobbits around the bog without any difficulty. It is important for Tolkien to actually make it clear, that Gollum being part of this trio is important and that Frodo has some reason to actually trust him, otherwise the Ring-bearer would really just look like a total Muppet. Indeed, Gollum moves from being a creature clearly subservient to Frodo in the last chapter, to being one who has the power of life and death over the hobbits in this one, a quick turnaround, and one that calls attention to the issue of trust in Gollum right to the form.
The Marshes themselves are all depressing imagery of death and sickness. The Marshes also fulfil the role of a haunted battlefield, filled with the ghosts of those who fought and died there eons ago. These were beautiful beings once, Elves with bright armour and shining weapons, but now “all foul, all rotting, all dead”. The myths surrounding the “will o’ the wisp” are brought up, taking on the form of candles lit by these ghosts in an attempt to lure people to their doom, to “light little candles of their own”. Such has this phenomenon always been described in history, and it only makes sense for Tolkien to use it a bit here as well. In this, Gollum proves his worth again, warning the hobbits of the supernatural danger that they are potentially prey to.
A winged Nazgul swoops over the party, and they react in different ways. Frodo and Sam panic and collapse in a heap, but recover fast enough once the initial danger has passed. Gollum however, panics blindly and is stunned motionless by the encounter for a deal of time. Perhaps it is due to his greater connection to Ring, or a more personal encounter with the Wraiths, but it is interesting that in such an environment, it is Gollum who freezes up, and not the hobbits. Very unnervingly, the lights of the marshes, those illuminations of bad minded spectres seeking to drag victims towards a watery grave, go out when the Nazgul fly overhead, a minor detail that I only fully grasped years after first reading the story.
Frodo begins to show the really heavy and obvious signs of his internal trouble, as the Ring begins to become both a figurative and literal weight around his neck, dragging him down towards the earth. Frodo is becoming bent over with the weight of the world. He also begins to feel “the eye”, that personification of Sauron that we saw way back in “The Breaking Of The Fellowship”, that is becoming more and more of a tangible presence, the closer we get to Mordor. The idea of never being able to escape from that feeling of such a malevolent entity searching for you, gives us just a small thought of what he is going through. Sam supports him, literally, grabbing him as he starts falling. He is, as ever, the loyal batman supporting his commanding officer, but there is only so much that he can do about the state of Frodo, that in the eerie surrounds is described in dream-like terms more and more.
The trio begin their final approach, having exited the Marshes, to Mordor, and what Tolkien describes is a truly hellish vista:
At last, on the fifth morning since they took the road with Gollum, they halted once more. Before them dark in the dawn the great mountains reached up to roofs of smoke and cloud. Out from their feet were flung huge buttresses and broken hills that were now at the nearest scarce a dozen miles away. Frodo looked round in horror. Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of the Noman-lands, more loathsome far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes. Even to the Mere of Dead Faces some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.
They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark labour of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing – unless the Great Sea should enter in and wash it with oblivion. “I feel sick,” said Sam. Frodo did not speak.
For a while they stood there, like men on the edge of a sleep where nightmare lurks, holding it off, though they know that they can only come to morning through the shadows. The light broadened and hardened. The gasping pits and poisonous mounds grew hideously clear. The sun was up, walking among clouds and long flags of smoke, but even the sunlight was defiled. The hobbits had no welcome for that light; unfriendly it seemed, revealing them in their helplessness – little squeaking ghosts that wandered among the ash-heaps of the Dark Lord.
Mordor is hell, so far removed from the Shire that Frodo and Sam can barely contemplate it. Sam is left to refrain from vomiting, while Frodo can say nothing at all. In the Emyn Muil they were small, alone and helpless. Here, they are all those things again, but in an environment that seems tailor made to kill everything that enters it. They are now, truly, fish out of water. Nothing will emphasise their complete lack of preparedness better than this passage here, one of Tolkien’s finest. In its inspiration, we do not need to look far, the manufactured wasteland bringing to mind both the trenches of the First World War and the bleak side-effects of industrialisation, two things Tolkien considered great evils.
The chapter comes to a close with another of the stories famous moments: the Gollum/Sméagol conversation, whereby he has an argument with himself, that Sam is witness to.
This conversation put the idea in my head that what has become known as the “Gollum” side of the character, the nasty Ring-obsessed one, is the Ring. That is, it is the Ring, in all of its evil and treachery, made into a biological form, one that is manipulative, single-minded and altogether untrustworthy. The Ring has warped Gollum’s mind so much that it has actually become a part of it, and it is a part that exerts the most control. Here, that Ring side dominates proceedings, browbeating the more submissive side of the character into agreeing with everything that it says, something that we must know has been the state of affairs for a while. It also tries to get Sméagol on-board by conjuring up grand visions of conquest and power, things that the Ring previously did to Boromir and will try again with Sam in a later chapter. We get significant foreshadowing as well, in the form of a mention of “she”, some unseen character or threat that will obviously prove a challenge in time to come. Gollum/the Ring only wants to get back to its master, if we take this interpretation, and has no problem using Sméagol’s need as a crutch to do this.
All of this creates a very obvious plothole, the closure of which is not immediately obvious. Sam hears most of this conversation, about the planned treachery, the murderous intent, “she”…and seems to do nothing. It is as if Sam thinks it is ok to put it to the back of his mind and just get on with the mission. It’s a little extraordinary that Sam would do so, considering that he is already so suspicious of Gollum. The natural explanation is that Sam expects they will soon be [parted from Gollum, as they are near to the Black Gate, but even that seems like too long a time to spend in the presence of a being openly planning to betray them.
In Peter Jackson’s adaptation, the Gollum/Sméagol conversation is moved a later point, and has its ending altered so that the Sméagol side comes out on top, the theme of the exercise being an aborted, honest rehabilitation of the character, that ends up neutralised by the actions of those around him. That works as a far more tragic interpretation of the Gollum/Sméagol character, adding a new layer of humanity, but seems mostly against what Tolkien envisioned, that being a Sméagol side that was always subservient, and a Gollum side that would never allow itself to be pushed aside, even for a short period of time. I’m not sure which I prefer: in many ways, I feel like the committed villainy of the literary version is a bit more engaging, though there is nothing wrong, drama-wise with what Jackson went with.
This chapter is sort of not all that great, and reads even worse during a retread. Like some of the Lorien chapters, you feel like it could have been cut down and merged with the following chapter – which is rather short, as we will see – in order to create a more fulfilling streamlined experience. As it is, we get some nice environmental descriptions, which really hammer home the horror that is Mordor and its borders, and a few decent moments of characterisation and interactions for Frodo, Sam and Gollum, especially that schizophrenic conversation near its conclusion.
And the chapter has, at its core, a good debate over who is right in their approach towards Gollum: Frodo, with his levels of trust, kindness and urge to try and reform Gollum, or Sam with his suspicion, jibes and general distaste for the creature he deems likely to betray them all at some point. Both Frodo and Sam have god reasons for their respective reactions to Gollum, and they both have bad reasons too, a confluence of factors as divergent as innate positivity and innate xenophobia. The interactions between the three thus have an added edge, one that the reader can easily buy into.
But large sections of “The Passage Of The Marshes” feel superfluous and a bit dull, and it is here that the idea of a whole book of just these three characters starts to seem a bit too much, or rather, too little. Maybe Tolkien thought the same, and so we won’t have to wait too much longer for a change up. But, before then, our trio must approach the Black Gate.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.