(Updated on 10/12/15)
We open as Sam comes charging up the tunnel to take on Shelob, who has incapacitated Frodo. I wonder reading back if this was not a bit of a strange chapter divide, choosing to leave this fight for the beginning of a new chapter, rather than including it with the Gollum showdown at the end of the previous one. Just seems like that would have had a bit more flow to me, but it’s possible that taking a week between chapters is affecting my perception just a bit. Anyway.
Sam’s defence of Frodo entails more text that can is easy fodder for those who see the Frodo/Sam relationship as having some homosexual leanings, his attack compared with an animal defending its “mate”. Again, it’s just a turn of phrase, but it’s clear where people get this impression. It is sprinkled all over the narrative, and modern perceptions being what they are, it isn’t all that surprising to see snickers. It’s a bit of a shame though, because that passage in general is quite decent at summing up the incredible task Sam has on his hands: a “desperate small creature armed with little teeth alone” that must “spring upon a tower of horn and hide”.
The fight itself is quick, vicious and fairly heart pumping. The one common theme with bad guys taking on hobbits thus far has been underestimation: we’ve seen that as far back as The Hobbit, and it’s here again. In fact, the hobbit being the unexpected hero is the core of this whole story, and Sam steps up here in one of its most famous moments, the once little thought of country bumpkin fighting the giant spider. He really has come a long long way from the Bag End gardener, though his bravest moments are still to come. Where others have tried and failed, Sam manages to deal Shelob a potentially mortal blow.
Beren, that legendary hero, gets namedropped again in this segment, the parallels between him and Sam being drawn clearly. But in the end, Sam’s attack succeeds more through luck, but a very specific brand of luck. In the tradition of Tolkien, the little guy wins out not through his own strength, but in turning the strength of his opponent against that opponent. Shelob, bigged up as indestructible in these passages, defeats herself, by simply trying to squash Sam. Sting does the rest.
Sam does get his own badass moment in the aftermath, choosing to advance on the wounded spider despite the danger. It is something that really drives to the core of the Sam journey, from harmless hobbit to mighty hero: he makes the hitherto undefeated Shelob not only back down, but flee for her life. Of course, he does it in a sort of blood-drunk fashion, obviously not fully in control of his senses, but it is impressive nonetheless. The scary monster is just another bully really, and they all run in the end. With that comes an end to the combat, easily one of Book Four’s best moments. Shelob vanishes from the narrative, Tolkien putting a very clear bookend to her part in the story: “and whether she lay long in her lair, nursing her malice and her misery, and in slow years of darkness healed herself from within, rebuilding her clustered eyes, until with hunger like death she spun once more her dreadful snares in the glens of the Mountains of Shadow, this tale does not tell.”
Frodo is dead. I suppose this should hit the reader like a collapsing brick wall, but it just doesn’t, at least not for me. You just don’t believe it on a first reading. I certainly didn’t. Perhaps Tolkien doesn’t give the reader enough pages to actually get used to the idea of the main character dying, or maybe I just know a thing or two about spider tropes in fiction. Whatever it is, I never really thought Frodo was done, and suspected what was coming. I don’t want to say this is a failure on the part of the author though, because you can still find plenty of potent drama in Sam’s terrible decision, that choice in the chapter titles.
The sheer emotion of the scene is clear, as Sam desperately tries to wake his master up, and gradually comes to the grim conclusion, almost in a battle with himself, forcing his own conscious mind to accept the horrible truth before him. He rages and wails, and burns for vengeance against Gollum. It’s all very, painfully, real. We feel that need for revenge just as much as Sam does, for that horrible gloating smile to be wiped off Gollum’s face, permanently. Shelob may have done over Frodo, but she’s just a monster, a force of nature as impersonal as Old Man Willow of Cahadras. The plot was Gollum’s and he is our primary villain for this part of the tale now.
What follows is another of Book Four’s brilliant passages, as Sam goes through an internal debate with himself (not too unlike the internal debates Gollum has had actually).
“But what can I do? Not leave Mr. Frodo dead, unburied on the top of the mountains, and go home? Or go on? Go on?’ he repeated, and for a moment doubt and fear shook him. `Go on? Is that what I’ve got to do? And leave him?”
He knows he has to go on, and he comes, slowly, to the inevitable conclusion: he is the Ring-bearer now, and must take on the burden for himself. Sam is ever the realist, and he does not shy away from the responsibility. He, perhaps, shows far more bravery here than he did in fighting Gollum and Shelob, in accepting the cursed Ring, and deciding to travel on into the land of shadow alone. The quest cannot fail, it was the entire point of the Fellowship in the first place, and Sam is the man on the spot. He’s careful to work out the legitimacy of his action, a justification for his conscience more than anything.
Of course, his loyalty to Frodo goes beyond death, and when he says that he will return to find Frodo’s body if he can, the reader believes him. I am reminded of some of the closing words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, when the ever-loyal Kent mourns over the body of the titular monarch:
“I have a journey sir, shortly to go
My master calls me, I must not say no”.
And in leaving him, Frodo’s body lying in apparent peace, we are reminded also of the image of the “King under the mountain”, the sleeping prince who will one day wake again.
Sam takes the Ring, feels the weight immediately, and goes off on his own journey. Or, at least, he is in the process of doing so, when he gets interrupted. Some commentators give Sam little credit for his act here as a character, considering what he does next, but I do. He sees his best friend die in front of him, but pulls himself up and faces into even worse danger almost straight away, barely flinching. He seems fully set to continue on the quest alone. That’s a character with guts, though his smarts might not be all that impressive, as we’ll see. Orcs turn up suddenly. It’s good to be reminded of them, that we are now heading straight into the heart of the enemy’s homeland and that bad guys are all around. We haven’t heard Orcs up close since back in Book Three, and it’s about time that they made a re-appearance.
And it is in their arrival that Sam lets go of his realist streak. He acts, well, very human here in response to the Orcs carrying off Frodo’s body, in choosing to go after him. But, it is pretty dumb. He’s throwing it all away, the quest, the Ring, hope for the whole planet, just to try and fight a fruitless battle for the dead body of Frodo. Perhaps he can be excused, but Sam clearly has little grasp of the “greater good”, especially so soon after his rather logical appraisal of what had to be done. He outs on the Ring – immediately gaining power of understanding when it comes to the Black Speech as well as increased sensory powers, an interesting addition to the Ring’s abilities – but then cowers, a hobbit of the Shire lost in a bad land amid bad beings: “…but one thing it did not confer, and that was courage.“
What follows is an extended conversation, overheard by Sam, between two of the more prominent Orcs, which gives us shades of “The Uruk-Hai”. In fact, the comparison between this chapter and that one is apt, for reasons that we won’t really see until Book Five. Shagrat and Gorbag will be reminding us of Ugluk and Grishnakh before too long.
Right now, their conversation gives us lots of little tidbits on things that have been going on in the outside world. It lets us know that there is a very clear divide within Mordor, between those who reside in Minus Morgul and the those from Mordor itself. It goes beyond inter-service rivalry, as we’ll see in Book Five, but for now we know that “Lurzburg” and Morgul do not always see eye to eye and, in the great tradition of totalitarian dictatorships, spying on your own side is rife.
Mordor Orcs are also seen as just generally smarter than their Isengardian counterparts generally. Gorbag figures out about Sam, logically, though the end result – suggesting that Sam might be a great Elf-warrior – might be based off nothing more than fear. They also are just looking out for themselves more than the Uruk-Hai. They have plans, and they don’t involve being Sauron’s slaves if he wins the war, or being his dead army if he loses. Lots of dissension is evident: hatred of commanders, talk of desertion, grumbling at work being handed out.
Also, they mention that the war is “going well”. While you take such a thing with a grain of salt, it coming out of an Orcs mouth, the differing timelines does make this comment a cause for concern. Just what is going on out in the rest of the world? It’s a juicy bit of foreshadowing for what is to come in the next few chapters. And it is a reminder of how utterly isolated Frodo and Sam have been with the larger struggle.
The Orc conversation is maybe the point when the reader might notice how off the pace of this chapter is. “The Choices Of Master Samwise” might well be the oddest chapter in the story in that regard, beginning with high octane combat, preceding to a lengthier mourning segment, and then moving to this similarly lengthy birds-eye view of Mordor society and military life. I wouldn’t say it’s bad or off-putting, but it is very weird how this chapter is put together.
Before we get to hear more from the two Orcs, we get the news that I can only assume many were expecting: Frodo isn’t dead. Now, rather than simply being a massive letdown and making the previous pages of heartbreak a waste – as Gandalf’s return was – we are treated to something better, a real burst of tension: Frodo is alive, but Mordor has their hands on him.
I wouldn’t say that it’s the best cliffhanger in the books, but it is a doozy. Sam’s race to catch up, the failure of same, the crushing realisation that the quest hangs now on the edge of a knife…it’s good. Book Four closes with a definite bang, and a genuine sense of frustration, as we now move back to Gandalf, Aragorn, Pippin, Merry and company, leaving Sam alone in the dark with that terrible reality: “Frodo was alive but taken by the Enemy”. Always Frodo and Sam have been together. Gollum made it a trinity, and Faramir even briefly added himself to the mix. But all those parts have now been whittled away, until only Sam, the everyman, is left.
As mentioned, I find this a bit of an oddly paced chapter, but that’s about the only really notable criticism I can muster. While it jumps from tone to tone, there are four brilliantly written vignettes here. The Sam/Shelob fight, brief but effective, showcases an heroic side to Sam that is vital for everything to come. Sam’s mourning over Frodo shows something that we’ve already seen, just in terms that really get across how much Frodo means to his loyal batman. Shagrat and Gorbag’s back and forth is a fascinating insight into Mordor and Orc culture, and sets up a lot of things to come. And the final chase, ending in a failure, if a brief but heart-racing bit of writing, that leaves Sam and the reader in the dark about what is to come. Book Four has had its weak points, but ends on a series of very strong chapters, that certainly leaves the reader wanting more. And so too ends The Two Towers, a mostly-thrilling second installment of the overall story, that has run the gambit between visceral war story and intense character study.
Next up, the war gets real.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.