The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Return of the King VI.1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”

We pick up the Lord of the Rings re-read with the start of Book VI, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol.” The usual comments and spoilers follow after the jump.

What Happens

Sam goes to the Tower of Cirith Ungol to rescue Frodo, hearing fighting inside on the way. He uses the light from Galadriel’s phial to pass two Watchers at the gate, which triggers an alarm. He finds that almost all of the Orcs have killed each other. He scares away one Orc, named Snaga, through the Ring’s hidden menace and Sting’s light. In the tower he overhears an argument between Snaga and Shagrat, Captain of the Tower, in which Snaga refuses to take news of events to Barad-dûr. Shagrat chases Snaga back into the tower, kills a not-quite-dead Gorbag, and then approaches Sam’s hiding place. Sam leaps out and Shagrat chooses to shove him aside and run rather than fight and drop the bundle he is carrying (which is Frodo’s belongings).

Sam climbs to the apparent top of the tower and cannot find Frodo. He begins to sing; Frodo sings in response. Snaga goes to stop Frodo, and Sam follows him through the ceiling trapdoor and cuts off his hand before he can whip Frodo again. Snaga falls through the open trapdoor and breaks his neck.

Frodo and Sam are reunited, and Sam tells Frodo that he, not the Orcs, took the Ring. Under the Ring’s influence, Frodo calls Sam a thief; he then apologizes. They disguise themselves as Orcs and collect supplies for the journey ahead. They are forced to use both the light from Galadriel’s phial and Elvish invocations of Elbereth to pass the Watchers this time, resulting in the destruction of the gate and a Nazgûl’s approach.


I found this chapter rather hard to sink into, mostly because I had a hard time transitioning back to Frodo and Sam’s story after so long away and so much else happening. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, the journey through Mordor always seems longer and more painful in memory than it actually is when I read it, so there’s some mental foot-dragging whenever I start Book VI.

After the first time I read this chapter for this post, I actually went back and re-read the last chapter of Book IV and then this one back-to-back to see if that helped with the transition. It did, somewhat, but it also pointed out to me how the two chapters aren’t actually a continuous text with some other stuff shoved in between. Much of this chapter is a reorientation of the reader to Sam and Frodo’s situation; indeed, the first action Sam takes is to retrace his steps back to the pass, which inevitably involves describing locations in terms of what previously happened there. I didn’t notice this initially, which suggests to me that the reorientation is subtle enough to be unobtrusive, though on the other hand, it doesn’t seem to have actually helped me. But then, with such a big discontinuity, I’m not sure what would have, which may well be the most substantial argument against the split-book structure that I’ve come up with so far.

(Another bit of reorientation is when Sam wonders if the others ever think of him, and we are helpfully told that “even now” Aragorn and Merry were on their separate ways to Minas Tirith while Pippin was with an increasingly-mad Denethor. I note this separately mostly because of a comment late in the paragraph: “They were not forgotten. But they were far beyond aid, and no thought could yet bring any help” (emphasis added). Hello, signaling future plot points.)

* * *

One of the ways that my trouble getting into this chapter manifests is that I get distracted by the ways in which their escape is made possible. Of course all authors who are writing about secondary fantasy worlds have to build worlds that allow their plots to happen, by definition. But when I’m not fully engaged with a story, I am more likely to notice. So here, it makes sense and is consistent with everything established so far that the Orcs fight each other so much that they kill almost everyone off; that the Ring, Sting, Galadriel’s phial, and Elbereth’s name affect the Orcs and the Watchers; that Mordor’s shadows hinder Sauron’s ability to spot the Ring; and that Shagrat would choose to go to Barad-dûr with his captive’s belongings rather than stop and kill Sam (though this is the hardest to swallow, considering he had literally just finishing trampling and stabbing Gorbag into a pulp). And yet I kept thinking that, right, check, there’s another thing that has to be just so in order for Sam and Frodo to get out of this near-impossible situation. Again, I suspect this is mostly my failure to fall through the page rather than actual clumsiness in terms of plotting, though I would like other people’s reactions to this.

(Similarly, I would go right past a description like Sam “listening with all his ears” if I weren’t dragging my way through the text. Yes indeed, all two of them.)

* * *

This chapter contains Sam’s temptation by the Ring—his principal temptation, if I remember correctly. I seem to recall being told that early drafts or plans for the book had Sam in a much more conventionally-heroic role, and that his temptation here, and the dark humor of the Orcs running away from him, are acknowledgements of the appeal of such a role and of how it doesn’t suit Sam. (Though I did like the comment that “(h)e would have welcomed a fight—with not too many enemies at a time.”) Consistent with Sam’s character so far, what helps him “most” to resist temptation is “the love of his master,” but “his plain hobbit-sense” also contributes. How his love for Frodo helps isn’t explained, unlike the hobbit-sense: “he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him.” If it were me and I were thinking about my loved ones, it would be the desire not to face them knowing myself diminished. But I suspect I don’t really understand Sam’s feelings for Frodo well enough to say.

* * *

I think it’s a testament to how creepy I found the Watchers that my reaction was that they were much more explicitly magical than anything we’d got so far, which I’m not sure is the case, considering we’ve just seen, among other things, an army of the Dead. Nevertheless: really creepy, even though I can’t break down my reaction more specifically than that.

Unfortunately they’re also the prompt for one of the two “Sam doing useful things without knowing why” episodes in this chapter, when at the end he invokes Elbereth to break their will. That is at least easier for me to believe than the sitting down and starting to sing, “to his own surprise . . . moved by what thought in his heart he could not tell.” But we’ve already talked about how there are apparently two types of people in the world, those who spontaneously burst into song and those who don’t. (I do belong to another one of two types, those who always have a song playing in the back of their head—as I write this sentence, it happens to be Josh Ritter’s “Long Shadows.”) At this point, it’s just something I have to do my best to shrug off, but it doesn’t help me feel engaged by this chapter.

* * *

Frodo. On the whole, I think it probably a kindness that he doesn’t recall getting stung by Shelob. (He says, “Something hit me, didn’t it?”) It’s too bad that he doesn’t have any friends with a more modern outlook on reactions to emotional trauma, though; when he tells Sam, “I’ll never forget (the Orcs’) claws and eyes,” Sam says, “You won’t, if you talk about them.” Which is understandable but not exactly useful, at least in the long term. (It makes me sad that it’s not only anachronistic but thematically inconsistent for there to be effective mental health treatment in LotR.)

Despite being badly wounded and questioned by Orcs and thinking that Sauron had the Ring and calling Sam a thief, Frodo bounces back in true hobbit fashion by the end, with a kind of grim cheerfulness—no hope, but no despair either:

Here, take this elven-cake, and drink that last drop in your bottle! The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it’s no good worrying about tomorrow. It probably won’t come.

But there’s what I think is a subtle hint at the bad things to come, in this chapter, along with the more obvious one of accusing Sam: when Frodo is walking around to wake up, “it looked to Sam as if he was clothed in flame: his naked skin was scarlet in the light of the lamp above.” At first I thought this was more description that didn’t work for me, because “clothed in flame” says something much different to me than “looking red,” but now I think it’s a reference to the flame imagery of Mount Doom, which Sam saw earlier, starting to overtake Frodo. On the other hand, it is from Sam’s POV and it’s not the kind of metaphor he would think in, so maybe I’m overinterpreting.

And I know I’m not doing this chapter justice, but I’ve been poking at this post for way too long and it’s time to queue it up and let you all tell me what I’m missing. Have at, and I’ll try to do better next time.

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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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