(Updated on 17/2/16)
We’re back on a moment of cliffhanger tension, the two hobbits still not free from the clutches of Cirith Ungol. The chapter break between these points is a little odd in my view. The moment when Frodo and Sam leap from the bridge would seem to me a better point to end “The Tower Of Cirith Ungol”, since the next paragraph ends the cliff-hanger with a plausible resolution. Instead, the previous chapter ends mid-dash and the next opens with the same, as if Tolkien has just hit the pause button mid-sentence, and with a Nazgul in the vicinity.
Sam is still clearly in charge, as he has to yell to Frodo, like the Ring-bearer is a stupid child, that he is running the wrong way. The actual escape is fairly exciting, and is the first real bit of proper action since Sam fought the spider back in Book Four. Your heart might thump as Sam’s does as he and Frodo dash from cover to cover, as if that will really help them with a winged Nazgul above and the tower sending Orcs out after them.
The leap of faith comes for Frodo and Sam, as their only option is to jump over a bridge into the darkness below, a desperate endeavour which shows the seriousness of their situation well. Their landing point does inject an almost welcome comical aspect to affairs though, as Sam sucks a bleeding hand from the thorn bush while Orc troops pass overhead.
And as they struggle out, the experience of the last few hours finally hits Sam, hungry, thirsty and tired. He’s been through a hell of a lot in the last while, a much more physical ordeal then Frodo has suffered. “It’s a long time, Mr. Frodo, since I had a proper sleep, and my eyes just closed down on their own.’” Yet, he has pulled off the rescue.
He certainly looks even more positive next to Frodo, who is really whinging hard. He can’t carry the armour that Sam found for him, and resolves to throw it away, in an almost tactless manner. Sam is ever helpful to his “master” though and the balance of their relationship is very briefly restored in this scene as the gardener shows deference to his better, or at least that is how it reads to me. Sam also gives us our first mention of Gollum in a while, showing him as still watchful for “Slinker”. Gollum is the ever present threat for the two hobbits now, that fear at the back of the mind. “I don’t like to think of you with naught but a bit of leather between you and a stab in the dark.”
The Ring and the Morgul wound seem to have gone overtime on the senses for Frodo, as he can now detect Black Riders when they are so far overhead as to not be seen. Neat skill, though I’m not sure how helpful it is in this open wasteland. Lucky for Frodo the Nazgul don’t seem to be looking for him. No, Mordor is more concerned with things outside its borders, as a rather excellent passage shows the hobbits that the tide of the war is turning.
“The billowing clouds of Mordor were being driven back, their edges tattering as a wind out of the living world came up and swept the fumes and smokes towards the dark land of their home. Under the lifting skirts of the dreary canopy dim light leaked into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison.”
The black clouds roll to the east, and the signal of the Witch Kings death is flying back to Mordor. Hope is renewed, at least for Sam, who has overheard much of what the Orcs of the tower thought of the war. Tolkien’s blunt but moving reminder of the cost of this victory hits hard:
“It was the morning of the fifteenth of March, and over the Vale of Anduin the Sun was rising above the eastern shadow, and the south-west wind was blowing. Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields.”
For Frodo though, beyond the limits of what hope can do, it is all so much background noise. He limps on, his only focus being the “wheel of fire” around his neck. He walks and sounds like a zombie now, discards one of his key remaining personal items as he hands Sting to Sam and, most crucially, he talks less and less about destroying the Ring, and more about just getting to Mount Doom, like he is on auto-pilot, doing only what he was last instructed to do. He is starting to forget what the Shire looked like, and is becoming more and more the Ring incarnate, that he now begins to see it’s terrible visage with his naked eye. That will be very important when we finally reach the story’s climax in the fiery mountain.
Tolkien now takes the time to give us a specific geographical summation of Mordor, right down to what direction the mountain ranges curve. It isn’t quite necessary and really bogs down the narrative following the excitement of the previous few pages, but most of what will follow up to the Crack of Doom itself will be fairly pedestrian. That is not to say that what Tolkien writes isn’t interesting, especially from the perspective of these two small hobbits, but it is still just taking time away from the actual journey that Sam and Frodo are making. We’re in the land of the enemy after all, but it seems so desolate and empty in these pages, with their detached geography lesson, that it doesn’t really feel like it.
The “unexpected ally” trope of the saga turns up in elemental form, but only really because Tolkien wrote himself into a bit of a corner. The duo find water out of nowhere, which is enough to keep them going. It’s a minor eucatastrophe I suppose, and Tolkien does take the time to point out later that things do grow in Mordor.
If Frodo got his moment of hope with the King at the cross-roads, Sam gets his own here, catching a glimpse of a distant star through the smog over Mordor. If Frodo knows that Mordor is evil but will never be able to conquer forever, then Sam knows that there are some lights that the Dark Lord will never be able to quench: some things, some beauty is utterly beyond his reach as “in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing”. And that thought is very much in line with someone like Sam, a gardener, of lover of simple beauty, who can find the will to keep going from such sights. Sam is the one who is keeping the two of them going, and he needs that motivation, because if he starts thinking like Frodo, they are both just going to lay down and die. Instead, he has become fully the true hero of the story: brave, resourceful, affectionate and pure, the driving force behind the quest to destroy the Ring.
Tolkien takes another break from Frodo and Sam to address some of the possible plot-holes that Mordor represents that come to mind as the two hobbits look out and see thousands of Orc and human troops milling around on the desert plain. They get food and water from slightly more fertile lands to the south, where there is a lake of some kind, so they don’t just live off the land in this part of Mordor. Of course, one can still wonder how anything gets grown so close to a volcano that is erupting near constantly.
The masses of enemy troops that stand between Frodo, Sam and their ultimate destination again bring us back to the poor leadership of Gandalf, Aragorn and Elrond, who have never given any indication of how they planned to deal with this problem while the Fellowship existed. Aragorn is making a hare-brained attempt to deal with all of these troops a few hundred miles away, but that is a wild shot in the dark that has luckily works. I doubt Elrond had it in his plans.
Frodo and Sam struggle on, flitting from rock to rock, each little part of the trek almost making the reader thirsty, as we read through this journey through “a desert burned and choked”. The sense of tension that Tolkien is trying to build isn’t quite coming off though, because we are yet to see any real evidence that the bad guys are actually close to catching the two. Until the next bit.
More Orc conversations, we’re getting a real load of them in the last while. These two, a soldier type and a “tracker” show us a bit about Orc “breeds” and the kind of jobs they do. They have some specialisations it would seem, but we don’t really learn anything much beyond that. Pity. What we do know is that Orcs all seem to have common traits of bitterness and greed, turning to argument at the drop of a hat.
Mordor is suffering a clear morale problem with the war going badly outside and Witch-King dead. But more than that, it is clear that all of these Orcs are ruled through fear, as they clearly despise their superiors, being almost gleeful at setbacks as long as they themselves are not affected. It all ends, as it did in Cirith Ungol, in blood: “…the tracker, springing behind a stone, put an arrow in his eye as he ran up, and he fell with a crash”. The infighting within Mordor continues. If the outside forces, Gondor, Rohan, were only more numerous, they could probably deal with Mordor with the greatest of ease, but that won’t happen unfortunately.
The Orcs at least confirm that Frodo and Sam are being hunted for, even if Mordor remains painfully ill-knowledged about who or what they actually are. This bit of eavesdropping also confirms, as the reader must have known, that Gollum is still shuffling about, dangerous as ever. Frodo notes the danger, and further notes that the two of them have been stupidly lucky to avoid detection so far. The tension is racked up a little at least, as we now realise how close the two hobbits are to actual disaster.
The crossing continues, a morose journey, where dialogue is kept to a minimum, Tolkien’s standard device for bleak, boring landscapes. Frodo and Sam appear to be getting some luck finally, as the Orc armies start to move off, offering them a potential route to Mt Doom free of molestation. Aragorn’s gambit is working, and it is noted again, the stupidity of Sauron, so focused on the minuscule military threat outside his lands, that he utterly fails to contemplate the very perilous threat that is inching closer to Mt Doom.
No sooner has Gollum been name-dropped by the previous Orcs, than the little git turns up again, all too briefly, as Sam narrowly misses the chance to throttle him. Gollum though, does not appear to have taken the chance to do the same to Frodo, so maybe “Slinker” is back in the mix a little, holding “Stinker” and his murderous streak back as much he can, frustrating his own designs. It won’t always be the case.
While this chapter has tripped along, it has seemed more like a transitional chapter before the much more serious business of “Mount Doom”. But then, suddenly, Frodo and Sam get caught up in some very real peril, as an Orc troop sweeps them up. This might actually be the best passage of this plot-line since “Shelob’s Lair”, as the danger of discovery heightens the tension to a huge degree. The whiphand that corrals the Orcs is a brutal villain, but the concern comes not from him and his instrument of terror (or his awesomely sneery voice: “Don’t you know we’re at war?”) but the threat of exhaustion, as Frodo is forced to run through the desert landscape.
It doesn’t last too long, and their escape is hardly the thing of legend, but it is a very good conclusion to the chapter, even if it does seem a bit shoe-horned, as if Tolkien suddenly realised that nothing exciting had happened up to that part. Frodo and Sam crawl to safety and the last line – …”and there he lay like a dead thing” – offers the best way to show Frodo as the dispirited, exhausted hobbit he really is. The last part of the quest lies ahead, and it is not clear if Frodo can even get to the mountain, let alone throw the Ring into the fire.
As stated, “The Land Of Shadow” comes as a strangely transitional chapter, between the exciting rescue of the previous pages and the long-awaited climax of the following. It starts mid-peril, and then devolves into a weary trek through the horrible landscape of Mordor, it’s tempo only growing again in its final moments. In the middle, there is some effective imagery used to describe Mordor, and a great deal of time taken to showcase Frodo as the beat down and increasingly lost soul that he has become, which is so very important for the critical events of “Mount Doom”. But it’s still just transition, as the two hobbits travel a great distance through a morose landscape in just a few pages. It’s hard to keep the excitement going in such circumstances, and with the conclusion of the quest coming up very shortly, I think it’s only natural for the reader to be getting a bit impatient at this time. Still, we have Sam’s hopeful glimpse of the star above, another great Orc conversation, some tantalising foreshadowing concerning Gollum and that thrilling run with the Orc troop to mark this chapter out. But it was all preamble, and its time for the main show.
Next up, that fiery mountain.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.