(Updated on 16/2/16)
Sam is alone in the dark. As he wonders where he is, Tolkien expertly places the reader back in this narrative, identifying with Sam’s feeling of being out of place. The end of “The Choices Of Master Samwise” left him stunned, and this chapter begins some time after that, not too long clearly, but Sam’s disorientation seems very real. The entire tone of this chapter is made in these moments, as Sam gropes his way through the blank tunnel, despairing, alone, hopeless, desperate. This is his big perilous moment, facing the task of rescuing his master and bearing the Ring at the same time. And he is somewhat panicked.
Tolkien ties all of this in to the other subplots on the opening page, outlining what everyone else is doing at this moment, from Aragorn, to Merry to Pippin. This helps to orientate the reader, who may not remember the full fact that the timelines are skewed between Book Four and Book Five. Even as Pippin faces Denethor’s last moments, Merry faces battle and Aragorn sails up the Anduin, the greatest crisis is here in this dark caves.
It is a desperate situation facing Sam. Frodo is in the hands of a large number of horrible bad guys, and the only one who can help him is his gardener. Sam is, in a very human way, scared of the task facing him, as he gets closer and closer to Mordor himself. “He felt that if once he went beyond the crown of the pass and took one step veritably down into the land of Mordor, that step would be irrevocable. He could never come back.” Indeed, the idea that the Ring-bearers can never truly come back is one that the story is going to be returning to. Sam might be proving his worth in this chapter, but it is good that he is singularly terrified of the prospect. He has already proven his bravery throughout this adventure, but it is good to know that he is still just a country hobbit at the end of it: these types of adventures, while not insurmountable, are not his forte. At this point, the reader might well wonder how Sam is going to pull this off, and thoughts could drift back to the Mouth of Sauron’s claim of a captured hobbit. Is he actually going to be able to rescue Frodo?
Help is at hand in that regard, as Sam hears fighting in the tower ahead, the Ring’s enhanced sensory power being helpful. It all dawns on the reader: Tolkien is starting to slash the odds in Sam’s favour but what exactly is happening in Cirith Ungol is still a mystery. Sam will, using common sense, work it out for himself in a very believable way (I was reminded of Aragorn’s deduction work in “The Riders Of Rohan”), realising that the Orcs, being Orcs, are fighting each other, and probably over the prisoner (or what was on him). This realisation will not solve the problem, if anything it puts Frodo in more peril, but at least Sam is remaining level-headed enough to work it all out.
The last line of this section is brief and to the point in its dramatic declaration, as Sam puts aside his fear temporarily and accepts the task ahead of him, the hesitancy gone from both him and the narrative: “Sam had crossed into Mordor”.
In crossing the border, Sam (and the reader) get their very first glimpse of that terrible vision, what we’ve been striving towards – Mount Doom. The volcano is an immense, fiery image, brilliantly described:
“Ever and anon the furnaces far below its ashen cone would grow hot and with a great surging and throbbing pour forth rivers of molten rock from chasms in its sides. Some would flow blazing towards Barad-dûr down great channels; some would wind their way into the stony plain, until they cooled and lay like twisted dragon-shapes vomited from the tormented earth. In such an hour of labour Sam beheld Mount Doom, and the light of it, cut off by the high screen of the Ephel Dúath from those who climbed up the path from the West, now glared against the stark rock faces, so that they seemed to be drenched with blood.”
Something to look forward to.
Of more concern to Sam right now is Cirith Ungol, the watchtower revealed in all of its own strength and defence. Tolkien takes his time in describing its many peaks and battlements, really emphasising its scary nature, its lack of weakness, how the whole thing is a little hopeless for little old Sam, “…a last unsleeping guard against any that might pass the vigilance of Morgul and of Shelob.”
Sam distracts himself by theorizing who built this tower in the first place, and it was actually the Gondorians, another monument, like the Black Gate, the statue at the Crossroads or the ruins of Osgiliath, to their total failure to contain Mordor following Sauron’s first fall in ages past. Not only has their watch failed, but the very instruments they built to help with that task are now used by Mordor itself. And that is bad news for Sam, who must be going through an emotional rollercoaster, between carrying the Ring, getting his first glimpse of Mt Doom, before turning his attention to the castle in front of him.
Speaking of the Ring, it decides that its moment is now, and with that sentient will we have seen already, exerts some temptation on Sam. But, like Boromir trying to “borrow” the Ring from Frodo or Bilbo asking to “just” hold it, it is a clumsy attempt. Showing grand visions of armies and victory may have worked on Boromir, might even work on someone like Aragorn, but not Sam. That inbreed “hobbit-sense”, not to mention his loyalty to Frodo, is more than enough to deal with the Ring and its machinations. Sam hasn’t had enough exposure to the Ring’s power for this to work (Frodo on the other hand…).
No, Sam, logical, realist, common-sense Sam, knows the score, and knows that even using the Ring is not an option anymore, not in Mordor. The tracking beacon properties of the Ring are very vaguely defined throughout the story, but it is made clear that putting it on in this fiery desert would be the equivalent of a neon “Ring-bearer here!” sign over Sam’s head, and he isn’t so in thraldom to the thing yet to risk such an occurrence.
The fighting in the tower (more on that in a second) has left the entire scene with an eerie sense of quiet as Sam potters up to the entrance. There he meets “the watchers”, the hideous gargoyles that somehow bar entrance to enemies. This is a strange magic that we don’t see much of in the story, where it has a direct, lasting impact on the environment. This invisible force field is a very clear bit of magical “devilry” and an effective one, though someone like Sam has just the right tools to break it. They are very creepy those statues, and it is a bit disappointing that we never learn anything more about them really.
This chapter is all about “Samwise the Brave”, that Frodo spent that brilliant section of “The Stairs Of Cirith Ungol” envisioning, and he is showing off some false bravado, like Pippin earlier, in a large way as he bursts into the tower to find bodies everywhere, his job half-done already. It is certainly a dramatic shot in the arm in terms of confidence, and I really like Sam’s change of mood here, from being fearful, jumping at shadows, to being almost cocky amidst the dead Orcs, as if he was the one who killed them all, unwilling to give into the terror for too long. His humour never goes away either: “He would have welcomed a fight – with not too many enemies at a time…”. It’s a very believable character change, backed up by the reaction of the one Orc Sam does encounter.
“For what it saw was not a small frightened hobbit trying to hold a steady sword: it saw a great silent shape, cloaked in a grey shadow, looming against the wavering light behind; in one hand it held a sword, the very light of which was a bitter pain, the other was clutched at its breast, but held concealed some nameless menace of power and doom.”
This one Orc – Snaga – has the fear of God put in him and runs. The wonders of a little confidence. Sam goes from being a tiny hobbit with a short sword to a great Elf warrior due to nothing more than the right outward impression of courage. Orcs are clearly cowardly when not backed up by numbers. As an aside, interesting that, already, when faced with an immediate peril, Sam clutches the Ring.
Of course, I cannot go on without mentioning that the central plot-point of this chapter – the little civil war in Cirith Ungol – is a small bit of a cop-out. The thought of Sam having to rescue Frodo while getting round a horde of Orcs was interesting, and one could anticipate the tension in such a task. But that is easily negated by having all of the Orcs kill each other. One might ask how I could expect this problem to be solved otherwise. Perhaps some stealth based narrative, with the aid of the Ring, might have been handy. Perhaps, invisible, Sam might have made the right blows, said the right things, to get the garrison to turn on itself, making the achievement a bit more down to him. Of course, this is something that Tolkien has done before (twice in The Hobbit, with the trolls and the underground Elf halls), so perhaps he did not want to go over the same territory again.
Still, by getting rid of the central problem facing Sam in such an easy fashion (and “off-screen”) this chapter loses a little something. So does Sam, who cannot be viewed as so heroic when you realise that he actually does very little in this chapter, beyond mastering his own fear and hopelessness. He scares one Orc, and barely fights two others before finding Frodo. Of course, he is still there, in this snake pit, so he deserves some credit.
Time for some more overheard Orc conversations, between Shagrat and Snaga. The problems of Mordor (and Orcs in general) are made very clear here, as they were in “The Uruk-Hai”. A good Orc leader is very hard to find, and the easily made internal difference (here it is between Mordor and Minis Morgul, before it was Mordor and Isengard) turn to violence at the drop of a hat. Orcs are violent, cowardly, greedy creatures and the general impression is that Cirith Ungol is a boring post to be in: the first sign of excitement (and loot) and the garrison started to slaughter each other. Not the best foot soldiers. They really need more competent leaders: “I’ve fought for the Tower against those stinking Morgul-rats, but a nice mess you two precious captains have made of things, fighting over the swag.”
This segment goes back to how vicious Orcs on the rampage are, as Shagrat and Snaga devolve from officer and subordinate to killing each other remarkably quickly. Shagrat is clearly the stronger of the two, but it is the strength of his greed that gets the best of him, his grip on Frodo’s mithril shirt limiting his attacking ability. Their conversation is equally brutal, as they simply spar verbally before they are doing it physically, Shagrat blaming all of his problems on “that filthy rebel” Gorbag. Orcs themselves are easily tricked, Snaga talking at length about the mighty warrior he just faced down below, a grimly amusing moment the reader appreciates as much as the eavesdropping Sam.
Gorbag himself isn’t quite dead yet, even if all of his troops are, and Tolkien takes the time to outline, in horrific detail, the manner of his final execution, as Shagrat rips his throat to shreds before Sam’s eyes. Sam has a very brief face off with the Orc, one where the intimidation factor is more important than anything. Shagrat may well have been able to take on the hobbit, even wounded, but he has something to live for: the “swag” under his arm. He does a runner rather than have any big quarrel with Sam. We never find out what happened to Shagrat, but I doubt it was anything good. Anyway, of course, part of the mystery of the shirt and the one mentioned hobbit in “The Black Gate Opens” is solved: “If Sam could have seen him and known the grief that his escape would bring, he might have quailed. But now his mind was set on the last stage of his search.”
Sam reaches what appears to be an anti-climactic ending, running out of places to search. It is enough to frustrate and bring on despair, as Sam seems to suddenly just give up. “At last, weary and feeling finally defeated, he sat on a step below the level of the passage-floor and bowed his head into his hands.” This is one of his most famous moments, as the weight of everything that is happened in just the last few hours, from the ascent up the stairs, through Shelob’s lair, Gollum’s betrayal, the fight with the spider, losing Frodo and the journey through this tower, just comes crashing down on him.
Hope never goes away completely of course – “They cannot conquer forever” – and Sam doesn’t give in completely. Song, the traditional fall back for flagging morale, might seem ridiculous in the circumstances, but why not? “Always look on the bright side of life” and all that. So, he sings.
And, just as you should expect from hobbits within hearing distance of each other, Sam gets an answer, mirroring the famous tale of an imprisoned Richard I being found by his minstrel the same way. Frodo is still alive. That confirmation must come as joyous considering the question marks over Frodo’s status in “The Black Gate Opens” but he isn’t out of the woods yet. Sam finds where Frodo is being kept, and while weak and hungry and desperate, he can still be roused to courage and rage. Snaga berating and torturing Frodo will do it. One last obstacle in the way of the escape remains, as Sam faces the Orc again, with the Orc on a more even footing. At least until he slips and falls down the trapdoor. Sam blunders into success again. I might seem to be a little harsh on Sam, and I don’t question his fighting ability really. He did just defeat Gollum and Shelob’s after all. But his combat skills don’t really get much of a work-out in this chapter, mores the pity. Something that Jackson changed, for the better.
Sam’s “master” is found at last: “It was Frodo”. He’s in a bad way, but the damage appears to be more psychological than physical, the ordeal of capture and interrogation – and absence from the Ring – taking their toll more than whips and beatings. The hobbit is a little out of it as Sam finds him, not even sure of where he is and how he got there. He’s the junkie who has suddenly been wrenched away from his drug, gone cold turkey.
Frodo’s despair at losing the Ring is very believable, as the hobbit sobs away at his situation, his worst fear come true. He may be weeping for the fate of Middle-Earth here, but we can all sense the inner despair here. Frodo has had his great treasure taken away from him:
“They’ve taken everything, Sam,’ said Frodo. `Everything I had. Do you understand? Everything!’ He cowered on the floor again with bowed head, as his own words brought home to him the fullness of the disaster, and despair overwhelmed him. ‘The quest has failed Sam. Even if we get out of here, we can’t escape. Only Elves can escape. Away, away out of Middle-earth, far away over the Sea. If even that is wide enough to keep the Shadow out.’”
But suddenly there it is again. The Ring exerts a much more effective temptation on Sam here, much better than the visions of glory before. In this moment, it actually works to an extent, as Sam is suddenly offering to “carry it” for a little while if Frodo cannot bear it. This concern is touching, and in line with Sam’s character, but it has that insidious hint of darkness: no one just “carries” this thing, and you don’t “lend” or “borrow” it either. The Ring is working its will on Sam, if only a little: he was clutching it in the face of Snaga just a short while ago.
And it is working its will on Frodo too, who sees Sam transform into an Orc before his eyes as he snatches the Ring away from him in a powerful moment. The comparisons to Bilbo are very apt. The Ring is playing both sides of this potential conflict, trying to drive a wedge between the two friends. It won’t work though. Regardless Frodo is right when he remarks “I must carry the burden to the end. It can’t be altered. You can’t come between me and this doom.” The Ring can only be his to bear, as harsh as it is, or else there is no way that he and Sam can remain committed to the cause. Two Ring-bearers just won’t work. That the object has now worked its will enough to plant discord between Frodo and Sam is among its last, and most powerful, corruptions.
It is time to go and it is now clear that Sam, who has carried the Ring, broken into the Orc tower, fought a few bad-guys (kind-of) and found Frodo, is in command now. He’s taking the lead on everything while Frodo just cowers in the tower. He might still call Frodo “master” but Sam is calling the shots. And he is thinking well in that regard, recognising not only the need for Orc disguises, but the right Orc disguises – those of Mordor Orcs, not Minus Morgal’s. That common-sense is easily Sam’s best trait at this stage. Frodo is back to being his usual mopey self, proclaiming the entire quest to be hopeless when it really isn’t, so it’s a good thing that Sam has such a strong head on his shoulders.
Back down to the lower levels they go through the scores of Orcish dead, and through the eyes of the Watchers again. This chapter ends on an excellent (if somewhat odd in the way it cuts off) cliff-hanger, as a Nazgul shrieks above. The two hobbits are not out of the woods yet.
And one last point on the narrative: where is Gollum? His name isn’t even mentioned in this chapter, but we know the little betrayer is still in the picture somewhere.
This chapter needs to re-introduce us to Frodo and Sam, their desperate plight and the status of the quest into Mordor, as easily as possible. And, in a way unlike the slower boil “The Taming Of Smeagol” which fulfilled a similar purpose back at the beginning of Book Four, Tolkien achieves that, brilliantly, with a chapter overflowing with great internal dialogue with Sam, wonderful descriptions of Mordor proper, and an exciting, tension-filled narrative. Yes, maybe Sam could have been given a more pro-active role to play in Frodo’s rescue, but “The Tower Of Cirth Ungol” is still an exchilirating read.
Tolkien hooks you back in with Sam quickly, and soon has the reader right inside his head, the best place to be, and then litters the resulting adventure with great moments: Sam’s resistance to the Ring, the horrific “Watchers”, the first encounter with Snaga, the over-heard Orc conversation and Frodo’s snatching of the Ring back from Sam, before ending the chapter on a heart-stopping finale. It would have been easy for this to be messed up, considering what we have just come from: the more traditional epic of Book Five, with its battles and King’s and glorious struggle. We go from that fateful last stand at the Black Gate to Sam crawling along in the darkness: through the course of the chapter, Tolkien sweeps us along on this most vital element of the over-arching story, fully making us realise its comparative importance next to the actual War of the Ring.
Frodo and Sam are in Mordor. Next up, some trekking through a wastleland.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.