(Updated on 28/10/15)
It is a pretty off chapter title isn’t it?
It’s the first few pages of this chapter that might show just why Book Four is so disliked, in that it is very, very boring. It’s more travelling, dour or re-used landscapes, and then an argument about rabbits. Indeed, it is in this read through that I was particularly struck by how aimless things had become for the central trio, at least in terms of truly exciting or eye-catching things for them to do.
The trio leave the Black Gate behind and start seeing more signs of life immediately, indicating an area where Mordor does not have complete sway just yet. A road, a proper one that is, is mentioned. Proper roads are a big sign of life in any fantasy setting, and this shows that we are heading back into more civilised territory. A very clumsy plot gun is shoved in here, as Sam expresses a desire for something cooked.
This is Ithilien, “the garden of Gondor”, and it will make up the bulk of the next part of Book Four, a stark difference from the more desolate surrounds that the hobbits and Gollum have come from. I’m not sure just what the influence was, since it does not appear to be Shire-like in most ways. If anything, the description of Ithilien reminds me more of the forests and woods of the eastern US, in places like Virginia and the like. That is, to me, it’s pleasant, yet foreign, a familiar enough look at nature that still retains an inherent quality of difference to what you are used to.
The hobbits are happy, back in their element, a rural environment, which they haven’t really walked around in since Lorien. It’s that inherent connection with nature that makes them suddenly start laughing for no reason, as they get over the horror of the previous few chapters. This behaviour also draws more contrasts with Gollum, who hates the nature, coughing and spluttering through the haze of flowers and pollen. Perhaps it’s a call-back to the Elven rope problem from “The Taming of Sméagol” in that the character doesn’t seem capable of enjoying the more traditionally pleasant things, and actually finds them poisonous and lethal, the influence of the Ring wrecking the traditional pleasure/pain centres.
In amongst all of the nice scenery, Sam stumbles upon a ring of burnt bones, a somewhat heavy handed reminder that the land they now travel in is owned by the enemy. I thought that was a bit over the top, since Tolkien had already made it clear that the enemy was about through much more subtle means. Just a tad unnecessary.
Despite the brush with the dead, Sam is back to being the optimist, privately working out their rations with the thought of a return journey in mind, the despair of the previous chapter banished. The surroundings appear to have shaken loose the more defeatist thoughts that Frodo put into him back in the Marshes. He even tries to build bridges with Gollum, politely asking him if he could go and find him something to eat. Of course, that isn’t going to last much longer.
The centrepiece of the chapter, the titular foodstuff, is something that I feel is a bit of a mixed bad. On the one hand, grounding the story in this manner and calling attention both to the characters need to sustain themselves and the relative delight of a meal that is exotic in comparison to what they have been eating recently, is a nice touch. But I do feel that Tolkien goes a bit too far in his more exact descriptions of the food and the process used to cook it here. In other words, it is all rather boring.
As Sam cooks up the rabbits that Gollum brings him, we arrive at one of the more awkwardly remembered parts of the story, as Sam declares, looking at a sleeping Frodo, that “I love him”. Modern ways of looking at this passage tend to be filled with guffaws and innuendo. One can hardly be surprised really. Of course, I think such a statement fits in with the officer/batman role that the two are playing out, the expression of love here being in an obviously comradely way, rather than romantic. It doesn’t stop the sniggers of course, and I doubt they ever will stop, but the passage was written in a very different time. Indeed, it makes me recall the preamble to Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, when the author talked about his need to edit out some of the language used by American military officers of the Civil War era, as it was so affectionate, in a manner we would identify today as romantic, that it could ruin the experience for a modern audience.
Gollum’s reaction to that moment, as he creeps up and looks at the sleeping Frodo as well, tends to get lost among the cat calls. It’s a very short, but important moment, as he seems to look away, unable to bring himself to fix his gaze, as if beaten down with guilt at what he is doing. It won’t be the last time that we see such behaviour either.
Back on the actual meal, and any bridges Sam makes with Gollum are quickly burned, as the two get into a rather stupid argument which is mostly of Sam’s making. His politeness does not last long, as he quickly goes from asking nicely for Gollum to help him out, to treating him like a servant, to openly deriding him, taking the food that Gollum captures, cooking it to his own liking without leaving any aside for the guy who actually caught it, spitting insults, then expecting Gollum to go out and keep looking for stuff for him to eat. Sam comes off as the worst kind of person here, treating Gollum as little more than a stray dog that happens to be able to talk. In fact, what occurs here is practically a betrayal of the xenia concept that has cropped up throughout the book, as Sam perverts the traditional customs of cooking and taking meals, utilising he game captured for him by someone else without adequately taking into account their feelings on the matter. If Frodo and Sam in this chapter exhibit the idealised view of the officer/batman dynamic, then Sam and Gollum are like a British colonial superior telling off a native.
Gollum takes the abuse, gives a little back, and skulks off, beaten down, any guilty feelings he may have had banished. Sam will later warn Frodo about the danger of the “Stinker” side of Gollum’s personality being a threat, but Sam is the one bringing it out more than any other person. Maybe it is the general likeability of Sam so far in the story that makes this so jarring: it seems less a case of rounding him out as a character and more of a complete about face.
They call Gollum and he doesn’t come back. This is a very bad sign that the hobbits don’t really pick up on, though perhaps the reader does. Sam, aside from being a terrible person, goes back to his root trait of occasional stupidity, leaving part of his small campfire burning, attracting attention to their position.
The duo are rumbled, easily captured by some men, quickly identified as Gondorians, so the tension is reduced pretty fast. We get less than a page of rapid exposition here, as Frodo meets Faramir and gives a brief outline of the entire plot so far, leaving the Ring out:
“We have come by long ways – out of Rivendell, or Imladris as some call it.’ Here Faramir started and grew intent. ‘Seven companions we had: one we lost at Moria, the others we left at Parth Galen above Rauros: two of my kin; a Dwarf there was also, and an Elf, and two Men. They were Aragorn; and Boromir, who said that he came out of Minas Tirith, a city in the South.”
It comes thick and fast, and it must sound kind of crazy, but for the Boromir stuff that seals its authenticity. This whole sequence is a blur, as Faramir is introduced and brought up to speed in a fashion so rapid that it almost reads like a different author is writing it. Sam is the gruff one, retorting some of the insults that the hobbits receive effectively for the character.
The following pages paint these guys, the Gondor version of the Rangers we know through Aragorn, as a guerrilla army, a small band that is striking and ambushing Sauron’s forces in the area, especially the “evil men” that are passing to the gate we saw in the last chapter. Everything, from the way they are described in terms of general appearance, weaponry, stature and language, is done to paint a picture of these men as both good, noble, and Elf-like in many ways. Faramir, from the conversation of his men, soon takes the form of the “charmed” leader in our minds, the brave and resourceful Captain, much beloved by those that he commands. An element of defeatism is also seen though, as one soldier openly talks about the likelihood of Gondor’s fall: a morale problem, which Tolkien will come back to again and again, is evident.
The ambush happens quickly and is described more in sound then in sight, and it is done rather excellently, the reader’s imagination forming the actual picture of the attack, from the arrows, the panicked enemy, the rout that follows. This sequence also includes the following short internal thoughts of Sam, upon viewing a dead “Southron”, which I always liked as a piece of writing on the moral ambiguity of war and the people who fight it:
“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”
In The Lord Of The Rings it is typical for Tolkien to assign roles to “good” or “evil”, but this is the rare instance when he explores the possibility that fundamentally good people might end up fighting on the side of Sauron, through deceit or force. We won’t really come back to this all that much from this point, but it is a passage worth considering.
We get our first glimpse of an actual Mumak, a rather quick firing of the plot gun that was introduced at the end of the last chapter. War Elephants mark these guys out as African based again, though these beasts are described as quite a bit larger than their real-life counterparts. Fearsome though, but the easy way that this one gets dealt with (they just kind of get out of its way) does not exactly make them seem too dangerous. Ominous last words end the chapter, as it is made clear that the hobbits will be sticking around with these guys for a while: “Mablung laughed. `I do not think the Captain will leave you here, Master Samwise,’ he said. ‘But you shall see.’”
This chapter is one that, for the most part, I am not especially fond of, and four chapters in, paints a fairly dire picture of Book Four as a whole so far. The opening sections are aimless and lack the usual Tolkien punch when it comes to evocative imagery, and Sam’s later treatment of Gollum crosses the line from justifiably suspicious to downright nasty, in a way that is bound to cause revulsion in the reader. The whole thing is just about saved by the action of the conclusion, and that brief bit of toe dipping into the realms of more ambiguous alignments, but then again it also includes the most rapid and unappealing info dump in the story. Faramir doesn’t get a chance to engage the reader at all, and again, it seems like “Of Herbs And Stewed Rabbit” could have been merged into an adjoining chapter without too much difficulty. We’re heading into another stop-off, Lorien-like, that will kill the momentum of the journey (though, that is not to say that it will be wasted time in terms of good story-telling) so a succession of chapters in this vein is not to be overly-welcomed.
Next up, Book Four heads into more recognisable territory.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.