(Updated on 21/10/15)
“The Black Gate Is Closed” is a short chapter, but vital nonetheless. We’ve reached a very important point in the story, as the Ring-bearer arrives at the borders of Mordor, and we’re greeted with one of the great unexplained plot holes.
This chapter opens up with one of Tolkien’s typically brilliant descriptions of the titular gate, a mighty rampart of metal and stone, nigh unbreakable, that guards one of only two known entrances to Mordor, the other being guarded by Minis Morgul. The sheer hopelessness of the situation is captured in a fantastic way, as Tolkien illustrates just how unceasingly the watch is maintained, how strong the doorway is, and why utterly pointless any assault or attempted entrance would be: “Stony-faced they were, with dark window-holes staring north and east and west, and each window was full of sleepless eyes.” And, as we will see again later in the chapter, the Black Gate is an example of works of good being corrupted by evil, as Sauron simply takes over things that have been constructed by Gondor, and puts them to his own uses.
Mordor, if you hadn’t looked at any of the maps yet, gets its full physical description here as well, and it is a country that was almost purposefully designed for defence, with impassable mountains on three sides, and desert all around. Its Sauron’s great trump card: he could lose all his armies in the field, and it would still be a task of immense difficulty to assault his homeland, to even to just get in the door.
Which brings us to the problem, mentioned before back in my commentary on “The Breaking Of The Fellowship”. What was the plan? How was Gandalf planning on entering the Black Land? Did he have a scheme to get past the Morannon, undetected? It seems impossible here, and the narrative makes it clear that Gandalf would have rejected the other options, including the one that Frodo eventually takes. It’s never actually explained or elaborated upon at any point: we will never know just how Gandalf planned to solve this difficulty, or what Aragorn was deliberating upon either. I find the absence of an explanation here a little jarring, and I think it does diminish the mission of the Fellowship a little bit.
The hobbits, gazing up on this gigantic gate, are seemingly screwed. Sam, much like in the opening line for Book Four, is the one to give a verbal pronouncement on their quandary, and in this moment of trial, thinks back to a home he now realises he is not likely to ever see again, an emotional moment. Gollum, ever the crazed addict, spots what he thinks is a chance and clumsily encourages the hobbits to go home and to just give him back the Ring, a truly pathetic section that perfectly shows up Gollum for what he is. Frodo, rather interestingly, just ignores this at the time, and obstinately prepares to try and enter Mordor anyway, even in these impossible circumstances.
Gollum, previously caught between the two aspects of his personality, resolves those differences very quickly when he realises that Frodo actually means what he says and is about to deliver the Ring right into Sauron’s hands. From this point, that conflict within him is of less importance that it was before. He goes all out to change Frodo’s mind, detailing the third way into Mordor, that Tolkien lets the reader know is called the pass of “Cirith Ungol”, an evil sounding place if ever there was one. I had forgotten how lengthy Gollum’s recounting of this passage is. It actually takes up the majority of the chapter, as Gollum teases out the information piece by piece, as if he is putting on a performance designed to entice the hobbits with thoughts of an easier way in to Mordor. He’s evasive and tricky, as can be seen in the length of time it takes for him to tentatively admit that this hitherto unknown way is, in fact, guarded, and responds with too much anger, protesting too much, to any retort.
Of course, it’s all so very suspicious, but despite the fact that Sam has previously overheard Gollum talking about this in dark tones and mentioning evil terrors that lie in wait, he says nothing to Frodo, and does not interject. It is another weakness in the story, as if Sam’s logical objections would have slowed down where Tolkien wanted the tale to go.
Frodo is caught in a typical moment of indecisiveness, and spends hours deliberating the decision. As we wait for the obvious choice, we get a glimpse of Sauron’s hidden strength, scores of “evil” men marching into Mordor, men from the “eastlands”. More on that in a sec.
Frodo trusts Gollum and elects to follow him. In an important moment, he gives a glance to Sam as if to stifle any objections he might come up with before he can make them. Frodo establishes himself again as the man in charge in the process, albeit one that is making a lot of foolhardy choices. That being said, Frodo is not so dumb as to not realise what Gollum is secretly after, and gives the little wretch a stern warning not to try any funny business. Again, it goes back to this idea of power that some characters have over others, which we saw in “The Palantir” and “The Taming of Sméagol”.
Gollum lays out the alternate way in more detail, some detail anyway. It’s told in a folksy manner, as he remembers old stories and snatches of myth, which Frodo has to actually put names too. The embiggening of Minis Morgul’s reputation begins here, stuff that will pay off towards the latter end of this Book. Gollum also gives out a brief description of Sauron, in reference to his loss of a finger – `Yes, He has only four on the Black Hand, but they are enough,’ said Gollum shuddering” – which further indicates that Gollum’s experience with the Black Land might have been of the up close and personal kind.
Gollum is desperate to convince, and his panicked explanation of the third route reveals almighty holes and patches. He’s just so clearly frantic to keep Frodo and the Ring close that he’s almost dismissive of any concerns, just wanting the two of them to go with him at any cost. He’s also, very crucially, wrong when he maintains that Sauron’s armies can only come from the Black Gate, but Gollum is no master strategist.
Again, he uses the word “sensible” in that patronising manner, trying to make the hobbits understand that they have no choice. It’s like his go-to move. Frodo questions him about the pass to an extent, but seems oddly willing to just go along with it, even though he guesses at some of the truth behind Gollum’s story, such as what was probably an arranged escape from Mordor decades previously. The Ring-bearer is also clever enough to spot the difference between Gollum telling the truth and believing what he is saying is the truth, in the manner in which the character actually talks.
A short paragraph sets up the first of many timeline contrasts, as we discover that at this point in Frodo’s journey, Gandalf is out in Isengard during the events of “The Voice of Saruman”:
“Yet even as he spoke his last words to Saruman, and the palantír crashed in fire upon the steps of Orthanc, his thought was ever upon Frodo and Samwise, over the long leagues his mind sought for them in hope and pity.”
It’s Tolkien’s method of showing us just how the various paths are progressing relative to each other. It also shows just how slow Frodo and Sam are going, in comparison to their friends who have a whole Book’s worth of stuff done by this time.
Frodo is alone again, at least in spirit, and all down about the situation. But, he makes the decision and sticks with it, which is true to form at least, with the Ring – I presume – giving him an aura of authority: “…there was a look in his face and a tone in his voice that he had not known before.” Frodo also foreshadows events later in the story, as he threatens to put on the Ring and have Gollum cast into “the fire” if the creature moves against him.
The trio are still in danger and are buzzed by a group of men with “dark faces”, “of other race”. Tolkien’s racial opinions have been oft debated, some decrying his use of dark skinned people in Sauron’s’ armies. There is logic to this criticism, though I will point out that “dark faces” does not necessarily mean black, as many take it to mean. This specific branch of men seem to come from the desert, and strike me as more influenced by Carthage/Tunisia. I have little to really say on this point. It is undeniable that the “dark faced” races appear to be on the side of evil, but Tolkien has never, ever struck me as racist or harbouring such an agenda in his writings. If anything, I sort of suspect he went this way just so he could include what comes after in his big battle scenes. That “Chekov’s Gun” is in n the form of Sam’s “Oliphant” poem, another charming piece of folksy Shire legend, which we of course know is going to come true at some point.
This chapter is short, another transitionary segment to bridge the gap between our first looks at Frodo and Sam on their quest to Mordor, and the new direction that they take under Gollum’s urging. And it isn’t one of the better chapters. Several plot holes rear their heads, and the decision to follow Gollum to the new entrance seems very convenient, as if Tolkien simply did not have the inclination to make more of it, just wanting his characters to get on their way. Its brevity prevents it from becoming anything more, and it is another chapter that could potentially have been subsumed into what came before or after. There are still some great sections of descriptive imagery, and the decision taken in this chapter does give a renewed sense of purpose to the rest of Book Four, but “The Black Gate Is Closed” is, in the larger sense of the overall epic, somewhat forgettable.
Next up, one of the most mocked lines of fantasy history.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.