(Updated on 17/11/15)
Time for one of the shortest chapters, one in fact that might not even justify being its own chapter. “Journey To The Cross-Roads” could easily be merged into both the proceeding and following chapters, and I wonder why Tolkien felt that this travel-packed selection of pages merited their own title. Looking back on The Lord Of The Rings this time around, it is a problem that I’ve noticed in several instances. Anyway.
The hobbits prepare to leave the Ranger refuge and the xenia show is in full swing, Faramir presenting Frodo and Sam with food and gifts. More of that sort of custom, as the Gondorian, having taken them under his care for a time, is now obliged to give them something as they leave. There has been some level of distrust between Faramir and these two, but to an understandable extent, and Tolkien is definitively portraying them as leaving off as friends.
It is the calm before the storm, as the lands around Mordor are noted as being empty, emptier than usual: “Nothing is on the road, and no sound of foot, or horn, or bowstring is anywhere to be heard. A waiting silence broods above the Nameless Land. I do not know what this portends”. That storm will break within Book Four in the next chapter, but that feeling of waiting dread will be a large part of the first few chapters of Book Five which takes place on a different timeline. For now, it is enough to know that the once packed by-ways of Mordor are silent, and that the great blow, long foreseen, is clearly on its way. That creates a nice kind of ambiance, but I wouldn’t say that Tolkien does as much as he can to deliver the sort of needed tension with Frodo, Sam and Gollum’s journey, which is sort of a race against time at this point.
Speaking of Faramir one last time in this Book, he also encapsulates the “friend unlooked for” archetype that is employed all throughout the story, like Farmer Maggot, Bombadil, Aragorn, Glorfindel, Eomer, Treebeard and beyond. Faramir has been an interesting character and is certainly one of the best parts of the otherwise middling Book Four, though that major flaw in the design of the Gondorian – his unaccountable resistance to the Ring’s power – still drags him down a little in my estimation. He’ll be worth coming back to in Book Five though, as a key connecting point between the travails of the Ringbearer and Gandalf.
Back on the road, Gollum is immediately back to his passive-aggressive self, almost goadingly reminding Frodo of his “trickses”. I get the sense in these pages that “Stinker” has taken over for the most part, and is simply mouthing the kind of words “Slinker” would say, with his own vicious tinge of anger. Faramir and the Gondorians, aside from the obvious threat that they posed to Gollum directly, were a delay and an obstacle in his own plans to get the Ring back and he was clearly desperate to get beyond that. Now that he has, he is almost gleeful in his disdain of them, taking the opportunity to point out what he considers Faramir’s flawed advice in regards to their travel route, already trying to turn Frodo back to his line of thinking. And though the food Faramir has given the hobbits should be more to Gollum’s taste, he doesn’t go near it: “Gollum ate nothing”.
The travelling is the big part of the chapter, most of the narrative going to the flowery description of the rest of Ithilian that the trio go through on their way to the titular cross-roads. Book Four has a lot of this and it’s in its worst form here, since it all seems like so much padding, as if Tolkien just wanted enough words to justify the creation of this chapter.
“To the right the Mountains of Gondor glowed, remote in the West, under a fire-flecked sky. To the left lay darkness: the towering walls of Mordor; and out of that darkness the long valley came, falling steeply in an ever-widening trough towards the Anduin. At its bottom ran a hurrying stream: Frodo could hear its stony voice coming up through the silence; and beside it on the hither side a road went winding down like a pale ribbon, down into chill grey mists that no gleam of sunset touched. There it seemed to Frodo that he descried far off, floating as it were on a shadowy sea, the high dim tops and broken pinnacles of old towers forlorn and dark.”
It isn’t terrible stuff by any means, in fact it is the typical Tolkien brilliance with descriptive imagery. But without that driving tension that the chapter needs, with that sense that this is merely a transitionary segment, it just feels like a delay, a tune-up before the coming crisis.
On a rest, Sam has a dream. The reader knows that dreams are important to the narrative at this point, but Sam’s doesn’t really appear to mean much. His vision of a tangled, messy Bag End may be a premonition of “The Scouring Of The Shire” and his search for a lost item may be a representation of his later search for Frodo, but it’s very unclear. Tolkien doesn’t have to spell it out, but this is the other extreme, and as previously discussed in some of the Book One chapters, it isn’t a trope that I particularly like.
Darkness is falling, a smog pouring out of Mordor, making manifest the very presence of the black land. From here, in this Book, begins that image, of the darkness holding sway, sweeping across the sky as the armies of Sauron prepare to sweep over the land. It will continue in this manner until well into Book Five.
Gollum is absent for a while, and when he returns, overly eager for the hobbits to press on as he always has in this chapter, Frodo, very crucially, does not question him about here has been. Frodo is falling more and more into Gollum’s hands, his feelings of guilt over what happened at the pool clearly affecting him. He has the chance to actually try and find out what Gollum, who has been absent for a while without any indication about what he has been doing, is actually up to. He does not take this chance. Neither does Sam, but Frodo is the guy in charge, and Sam voices his continued objections to Gollum’s presence before he returns, extending compassion only so far as hoping Gollum does not get captured by enemies.
The chapter ends with a powerful moment. The trio come upon a fallen image of Gondor, a statue of an ancient King, torn down and defiled by the forces of Mordor, reinforcing the common theme of evil being unable to create, only deform and mangle that which already exists. It is a graven image of the dark lands control over the area, and calls Shelley’s famous “Ozymandias” to mind.
“The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath. The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot-folk of Mordor used.”
“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
But there is hope, the severed head of the King now covered in a crown of flowers. Such a mystical event seems like proof of a higher power looking down. It is also a very clear emotive symbol of the destined failure of the armies of evil, who may be able to tear down the statue now and make mockery of it, but will not be able to completely destroy it, or the message that it gives out. “They cannot conquer forever!” says Frodo in response and he is right. This simple, yet beautiful passage, gives the quest another air of optimism and hope that has been sorely lacking for the last while, even if the final line seems to extinguish it rapidly: “The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell”. From this point on, the trio will be in the darkness, as they turn east.
This chapter is not a train wreck by any stretch of the imagination, but it isn’t anything too memorable either. Notwithstanding the memorable, but brief, encounter with the fallen statue at the end, you cannot say that anything that occurs in “Journey To The Cross-Roads” – the leave-taking from Faramir, Gollum’s snarling, Sam’ suspicions or the travelling through Ithilien – is very special, with much of simply a rehash of descriptions and conversations that have occurred before in this Book. A transition it is, before the more intense gloom and oppressive feel of the next chapter, and the action packed finale to Book Four that are the last two chapters. But it could have been merged into that which became before, or that which is coming after, without too much difficulty really.
Next, “the valley of living death”.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.