The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: The Stairs Of Cirith Ungol

(Updated on 24/11/15)

The following three chapters, starting here, form the conclusion of Book Four, an extended finale that sees the tension get ramped up at a gradual level. It begins with Frodo, now being dragged down by the literal weight of the Ring, which will be a very prevailing image for the remainder of the quest. It’s an effective image too, of Frodo suffering from the evil around his neck. There is something remarkably affecting about his words in these moments: “It’s heavy on me, Sam lad, very heavy. I wonder how far I can carry it?” That’s foreshadowing for sure.

The trio behold Minus Morgul, the very sight making them cower away. Tolkien is careful to express Morgul’s power in decay-based imagery: “shadow”, “pale”, “ailing”, “corpse-light”, “emptiness”, “ghostly”, “leering”, “demented”, “sickening”, “rottenness”, “bestial”, “corrupt”, loathing”, “deadly” are all words used in just a few sentences. And the watchfulness is also ever-present: after all, here is an enemy fortress that actually seems to move at its highest most point, like a creepy painting whose eyes seem to follow you.

The reader, and the trio, are caught up in this experience, until Frodo is dragged towards the city by an unseen force. The mechanics of the Ring are never explained of course, but this is actually the strongest example of its power over Frodo. Rather than just pulling Frodo down, it’s actually dragging him towards the city, towards the most potent physical expressions of its master that we have seen yet. Morgul itself is the epitome of dark sorcery, pale and deathly. Every sentence of its description – the poison river, the leering tower, the gargoyles at the bridge – exudes horror and despair. It is the undead city, the Ringwraiths in stone, one of the ultimate perversions of Mordor. The hobbits, perhaps, should voice suspicions that Gollum’s route into Mordor takes them close to so terrible a place, but he made it clear that there were no easy ways into the Black Land.

The host of Morgul rides forth, the storm breaking, the silence over, the two terrible fortresses of Mordor in a moment of blinding communication, one of fire and one of pale light. The Witch-King’s army gives the reader a sense of dread, one that we didn’t really get from the pitiful amount of “Easterlings” and Haradrim that we’ve seen so far:

All that host was clad in sable, dark as the night. Against the wan walls and the luminous pavement of the road Frodo could see them, small black figures in rank upon rank, marching swiftly and silently, passing outwards in an endless stream. Before them went a great cavalry of horsemen moving like ordered shadows, and at their head was one greater than all the rest: a Rider, all black, save that on his hooded head he had a helm like a crown that flickered with a perilous light.”

This is the real power of Mordor. Led by the worst of the henchmen, it’s the image of steel and sword, meaning nothing but darkness for the men of Gondor. The simple emphasis on how long it takes the army to cross the bridge is a basic enough device to tell us how big – and dangerous – the force is. Frodo’s thoughts go to Faramir, and his pitiful band of Rangers will be no match for this host of enemies. This powerful moment also serves as a re-introduction to the Witch-King, the first confirmed sighting of him since “Flight To The Ford”. He is soon to reassume the mantle of primary antagonist in many ways, so an impressive return to the attention of the reader, accomplished here, is important.

But the reader isn’t given a lot of time to be wowed before we are treated to more Ring related stuff. The Witch-King senses the thing, stopping his army in its tracks. I’ve talked before about the loose nature of the Ring and its ability to draw in the servants of Sauron, but this is really difficult to overlook. The thing is right there, it just dragged Frodo towards Minis Morgul by its own power, and the Witch-King still can’t see it. What is it about the Ring? Does it need its bearer to give into to its power before it can light up like a real beacon? Why can it not call to the Witch-King here?

Frodo has some hidden power, which we know about from numerous instances: the Barrow, the Council, the Breaking at the Falls. He’s able to resist the Ring here, almost too easily, considering its earlier draw. Perhaps Faramir has had some influence, or maybe his time with Gollum has given him a lesson in taking the thing too lightly. It’s an interesting piece of narrative, as Frodo is tempted but makes a very conscious decision to ignore that temptation.

He knew that the Ring would only betray him, and that he had not, even if he put it on, the power to face the Morgul-king-not yet. There was no longer any answer to that command in his own will, dismayed by terror though it was, and he felt only the beating upon him of a great power from outside. It took his hand, and as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing it but in suspense (as if he looked on some old story far away), it moved the hand inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck. Then his own will stirred; slowly it forced the hand back…

The “not yet” is a startling piece of writing when you consider the full implications. Taking this paragraph as a Frodo “point of view” piece of narrative, what does it tell us about his future intentions, his desires? Does he, at this point, still hold to the quest, or has his mind already fallen to the possibilities, that so tempted Boromir, that destroyed Gollum, and will later tempt Sam? Perhaps it is a subconscious thing yet, an unacknowledged weakness, which will lead to near disaster at the pivotal moment.

The phial helps, that little piece of Elven magic that we haven’t heard about since it was first given. Back it comes here, the little bit of glassware that will be tremendously important for the remainder of the Book. But there are other problems. Frodo, while retaining enough sense to not give into the Ring, does give into depression, again. In the end, that’s his real flaw, the way that he usually reacts to any kind of crisis or setback. He tends towards panic or despair, and it is despair big time here. He just gives up, temporarily of course, but it’s stunning in the way that Frodo just stops caring, repeating mindlessly “All is lost”.

Worse than that, he also betrays some vanity. “No one will ever know” he thinks, even if they are successful. I wonder why this is so important to Frodo, that people will know what he did. Surely it is more important just that the quest is completed? Does Frodo have some sort of unconscious and hidden desire for fame? Of course, it’s more likely that this line was included as preamble for the main point of this chapter, but it does betray some distinctly unhobbit-like traits of Frodo, that are more in line with the Rings influence, which consistently presents people with visions of greatness and glory.

Gollum begins to get more and more jubilant and gleeful as we follow the trio up the titular steps, more and more obvious about what is to come. Sam really just seems to break from him here completely, ending that last little tenuous link of trust. Sam, at least, is prepared for some manner of showdown, even if they end up having to follow Gollum into a lion’s den first. Frodo is too exhausted by the first stages of the climb to argue upon realising that Gollum’s secret path is, in fact, guarded, but Sam makes the point.

The actual trip up the stairs is largely uneventful. Probably the dullest part of the chapter overall. Tolkien does a god enough job at intimating the sheer exhaustion that is gripping the hobbits in such an act, but he can’t get across such things without a degree of tedium: at this point, the reader knows that some manner of climax is tantalisingly near, presumably with the “she” that Gollum previously referenced.

It is only when the climb temporarily ceases that the chapter swings right around to containing some of the tale’s most iconic moments. The hobbits come to a rest close to the summit and it is here that we get probably the best moment of Book Four, one of the best of the entire epic: Sam’s famous “Great Tales” speech.

“…we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”

Sam continues by referencing the ancient legends of Middle-Earth, this remarkably exchange containing some of the longest paragraphs given to him, Frodo simply there to egg him on:

“Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it – and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got – you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”

The exchange ends on a dialogue that is both refreshingly humorous – Frodo’s gentle joking about how they, especially Sam, might be talked about in the eons to come – and full of foreshadowing for the things that “Sam the stouthearted” is going to have to accomplish in the next few pages. It is a wonderful piece of writing, an encapsulation of the story, the epic fantasy genre. When Frodo despairs at their anonymity, Sam brings him back up again, with a simple reminder that they are in the middle of one of the great tales, yet it is all just one great tale. And it is also good to see Frodo acknowledge Sam in blunt terms towards the conclusion: “And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?” Despite the more relaxed and hopeful nature of this moment, its end is a return to the peril that currently engulfs the trio, and a realisation that, for all the connections between this great tale and the ones that came before, the future remains uncertain: “Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.”

Gollum has disappeared again, and this time even Frodo cannot but open his eyes to the threat. Both hobbits seem accepting that Gollum is going to betray them, but what else can they do? At least at this point in the story, the duo don’t have a choice, but they certainly did earlier. Now, they simply have to let the dice fall where they will. Frodo, being the Ring-bearer, can see more into Gollums motivations, and knows that, for Gollum, the greatest disaster would be the Ring falling into Mordor’s hands: Gollum will do anything to prevent this, and betraying Frodo is nothing against such conviction. This would have been a more helpful insight if he had acted on it earlier, but Frodo has never been the smartest character. Sam, in his turn, more clearly sees the Slinker/Stinker divide, and which of those two aspects has become increasingly dominant.

In the end, Sam is a better observer of Gollum in terms of what he is actually saying and doing, but Frodo has a better insight into what is going on inside the former Ring-bearer’s head. Regardless, the lack of action makes both equally culpable. Both of them are prepared, at any rate, for the coming betrayal, or as prepared as they can be: “If he’s false, he’s false.”

Of course, that doesn’t stop them falling asleep despite Gollum’s mysterious absence. When he returns we get another fascinating bit of narrative, as the “Slinker” personality, the slightly nicer one anyway, breaks out for a moment, filled with regret for what he is about to do. He’s suddenly just an old hobbit again, “far beyond his time”, one a very long way from home. This is also one of the only pieces of text that acknowledges Gollum’s hobbit origins, reminding us that he much more similar to Frodo and Sam then he may appear to be. Sam’s typically brash reaction ends this little bit of sincere regret, but Sam can hardly be blamed for what he does, considering. Indeed, seeing Gollum display such affection towards Frodo might invoke envious feelings in someone like Sam.

Besides, the Sam/Gollum relationship was irreparably damaged a very long time ago. Still, there is something horribly foreboding about the control re-exerted by “Stinker”, with the “green glint” of jealousy in his eyes, the foreshadowing of his “spider-like” form – copying that which he has recently re-encountered I suppose – and his biting sarcasm in response to Sam’s “sneak” insult. “The fleeting moment” of Gollum before the Ring came to him, the person who so desperately wants an end to his suffering is gone, “beyond recall”. I’ve read some people who blame Sam for what seems to be an irrevocable fall for Smeagol into the Gollum personality, but I don’t really buy it: this brief display of possible regret is one thing, but “Slinker” has already demonstrated his total weakness in the face of the dominance of “Stinker”: it would take more, far more, than a brief glimpse of a sleeping Frodo to destroy the Gollum personality. Sam’s brash reaction simply brings the truth of what Gollum is – the creature who has just been off putting the final touches on his imminent betrayal – back to the fore.

It’s time for the last gasp. Frodo offers Gollum an end to their agreement, perhaps a belated attempt to ward off the coming treachery, but it’s a weak one, that Gollum quickly deflects. It’s easy to see an underlying menace in his last words, the chapters conclusion, that betray a nervousness and anticipation in their clipped nature. “O no! They can’t find the way themselves, can they? O no indeed. There’s the tunnel coming. Sméagol must go on. No rest. No food. Not yet.”

This chapter, after the narrative lull of the last, really needs to up the ante, and I think that “The Stairs Of Cirith Ungol” does that. The opening, with its description of Minus Morgul and its marching army, is haunting and effective, it contains that brilliant back and forth between Frodo and Sam on the nature of great tales and their part in the current one, and it brilliantly sets up the action to come through a nicely achieved rising of suspense and good use foreshadowing. All three characters – four if you look at Gollum honestly – get well-crafted moments to mark them out: Frodo’s temptation at the gates, Sam’s unexpected eloquence on the stairs, “Slinker’s” wordless regret at the brink and “Stinker’s” gleeful mood as they move towards it. After the unnecessarily dull trek in “Journey To The Cross-Roads”, this chapter reminds us of the fantastical nature of the story we are in, the risks that the central characters are taking, and the stakes for the entire world if they should fail. It is a chapter filled with horror, but also hope, and Tolkien manages those two extremes very well.

Next up, giant freaking spiders.

For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.

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5 Responses to The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: The Stairs Of Cirith Ungol

  1. Pingback: The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. shanebrowne says:

    I always loved this chapter. The description of the Witch-King leading the host of Morgul emanates power and foreboding. Don’t have the book at hand but doesn’t the Witch-King lead his army on horse in the book as opposed to the “fell beast”? I might be wrong on this but I always imagined him leading his host on horseback, makes it seem more badass to me!

    • NFB says:

      He does ride a horse more in the books certainly, and is indeed on horseback in this chapter. The “Fell Beast” was a more impressive visual choice I suppose.

  3. Pingback: The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: The Tower Of Cirith Ungol | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: The Field Of Cormallen | Never Felt Better

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