The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Two Towers IV.2, “The Passage of The Marshes”

This week it’s chapter IV.2 of The Two Towers, “The Passage of The Marshes,” in our Lord of the Rings re-read. As usual, spoilers for the entire book and comments after the jump.

What Happens

Frodo and Sam follow Sméagol through the night and stop at dawn. Frodo offers Sméagol lembas, but he is unable to eat it. Despite Sam falling asleep on watch, Sméagol fails to eat them.

They cross the Dead Marshes, Frodo reacting with dreamlike horror to the dead faces in the water. Sméagol is terrified when a winged Nazgûl flies right over them. Frodo is visibly more and more tired, thanks to feeling the Ring and Sauron’s Eye.

Sam overhears Sméagol and Gollum arguing, with Gollum advocating taking the Ring, possibly with the help of an unnamed female. Gollum’s hands are nearly at Frodo’s neck when Sam pretends to wake. Gollum reverts to fawning over Frodo, until they feel a Nazgûl fly overhead twice in one night, after which Frodo must threaten him to get him to move.


This is moving faster than I remembered, with the Sméagol v. Gollum debate all the way back here in chapter 2. And yet I’m still finding it hard going, because my intellectual appreciation has yet to outweigh my emotional response.

It’s two things, really: First, it’s watching Frodo get more and more worn down. Second, it’s the entire dynamic with Sméagol, Gollum, Frodo, and Sam. I don’t know if it meets any of the formal definitions of a tragedy, but it has the sick inevitability that I associate with the form: I can understand and sympathize with everyone’s actions, but I still want so badly for it to come out otherwise that the claustrophobia of plot is overwhelming.

That said, I do have a bunch of notes for the chapter, so let’s get into the details.

* * *

Sméagol’s retelling of the fish riddle is in three parts. The first is how it was told in The Hobbit: “Alive without breath; as cold as death; never thirsting, ever drinking; clad in mail, never clinking.” The second sentence was omitted, perhaps because it makes the riddle too easy: “Drowns on dry land, thinks an island is a mountain; thinks a fountain is a puff of air.” The third part is likely a Gollum original: “So sleek, so fair! What a joy to meet! We only wish to catch a fish, so juicy-sweet!”

Speaking of Sméagol, as we discussed in the last chapter post, here is a statement of some caution from Frodo: “There is a change in him, but just what kind of a change and how deep, I’m not sure yet.” Sam also feels—but does not outwardly express—some ambivalence regarding Sméagol in this chapter: after a hungry Sméagol fails to eat them while sleeping, Sam is “half remorseful(),” and shortly after he sums up his attitude toward Sméagol quite nicely when he thinks, “The nasty creature; the poor wretch!”

(This chapter is Sam-POV except one brief dip into Frodo’s thoughts. It deliberately stays out of Sméagol/Gollum’s POV, but we’ll get to that.)

I also had a little more appreciation of Sam than usual for me when he reacts to Frodo’s saying that he doesn’t expect they’ll live even if they succeed: no denial or attempts at false cheer, just silent comfort and sorrow.

* * *

The Dead Marshes. For me, it’s the combination of the dreamlike insubstantiality of the lights and faces, as the past slowly comes back, and the disgusting physicality of the muck and ooze, which evokes the nastier aspects of the past, that makes them so beautifully creepy. (I think the specific association of the lights with the past is the reason I didn’t associate them with will o’ the wisps until just now.)

Frodo, being more sensitive to the supernatural, reacts more to the first aspect, and is twice described as acting as though he were in a dream. A bit of his description reminded me of poetry:

They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. [*]

And does anyone else find funny Sméagol’s caution that the hobbits must be careful or “go down to join the Dead ones and light little candles”?

Something I only noticed now, which I find even more creepy: the lights go out when the Nazgûl approaches. They react.

[*] Which reminds me of something completely tangential, a quote from Stephen King’s The Waste Lands (chapter I, section 28), which on looking isn’t that similar, but it still gives me the same feeling: “‘All is silent in the halls of the dead,’ Eddie heard himself whisper in a falling, fainting voice. ‘All is forgotten in the stone halls of the dead. Behold the stairways which stand in darkness; behold the rooms of ruin. These are the halls of the dead where the spiders spin and the great circuits fall quiet, one by one.’”

Oh, and before we leave the Marshes: the post about WWI mentioned a comment about how fear “force(s) people down towards the level of beasts.” The three are compared to animals twice in this chapter: they “squat() like little hunted animals” when the Sun comes out, and the day after the first Nazgûl flyover, “they cower() under a black stone like worms.” There’s an implicit comparison when Sam thinks about how they mimic Sméagol’s motions, including stooping and crawling, as they cross the Marshes: “Three precious little Gollums in a row we shall be, if this goes on much longer.” There’s your danger, right there.

* * *

Back to POV. Our brief dip into Frodo’s POV is after the first Nazgûl flyover, just a paragraph describing how he is troubled by the Ring and the Eye. Here’s the next paragraph:

Gollum probably felt something of the same sort. But what went on in his wretched heart between the pressure of the Eye, and the lust of the Ring that was so near, and his grovelling promise made half in the fear of cold iron, the hobbits did not guess. Frodo gave no thought to it. Sam’s mind was occupied mostly with his master . . . .

It would have been perfectly unexceptional to dip into Sméagol’s thoughts here, but the narrative deliberately stays out of them. Instead, when it wants to give us the conflicts in Sméagol/Gollum, it resorts to a conversation that Sam can conveniently overhear—though I don’t recall that his overhearing ends up having any plot effect. I find it hard to believe in the psychological plausibility of that conversation (physiological either, what with the alternating lights in the eyes), but I also find it hard to care.

But I shouldn’t be surprised that the narrative deliberately refuses to enter Sméagol’s POV, since I have belatedly noticed that it always refers to him as Gollum. (I prefer to call him Sméagol for now, except when he is about to strangle Frodo. Call it my own expression of hope in his better nature.)

* * *

A couple minor notes about the end of the chapter. The sterile landscape before Mordor presumably evokes the trenches in WWI France (my notes on the WWI article didn’t include that, and the book’s gone back to the library), but for me the much more immediate reference is a genuine industrial wasteland.

Frodo dreams and wakes refreshed: “a fair vision had visited him in this land of disease,” which he does not remember but which lightens his burden. This is a minor supernatural intervention that I had overlooked until now.

The second and third Nazgûl flyovers do a nice job of establishing the chronology of this book in relation to the last one:

soon the menace passed, high overhead, going maybe on some swift errand from Barad-dûr. . . . About an hour after midnight the fear fell on them a third time, but it now seemed more remote, as if it were passing far above the clouds, rushing with terrible speed into the West.

We are now at the end of Book III, which again is later than I remembered. If the story had been told in strict chronological order, we’d have two chapters’ worth of Frodo and Sam to eleven of the rest of the Fellowship. My first reaction is that this imbalance is an argument in favor of the split, but on reflection I’m not sure, since Book III is itself made up of different threads. What do you all think?

Finally, both this chapter and the last end on descriptions of silence: “Over all the leagues of waste before the gates of Mordor there was a black silence,” and “they walked in silence with bowed heads, seeing nothing, and hearing nothing but the wind hissing in their ears.” Just in case we missed the bleak desolation and isolation they’re experiencing.

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Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.


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