Oct 16 2009 5:26pm

LotR re-read: Two Towers IV.4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”

cover of The Two Towers Time for a cooking interlude, among other things, in this week’s Lord of the Rings re-read post. After the jump, comments on “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit” and spoilers for all of LotR.

What Happens

Frodo, Sam, and Sméagol travel into Ithilien, where plants are growing in the spring weather. At Sam’s request, Sméagol catches two rabbits for the hobbits, but is frightened and angry when Sam lights a fire and cooks them. Not without reason: after Frodo and Sam eat, Sam’s fire starts smoking and is spotted by four soldiers, including Faramir, Captain of Gondor.

Frodo asks the men to spare Sméagol if they come across him and identifies himself and Sam as hobbits who traveled out of Imladris (Rivendell) with Boromir and other companions. Faramir is startled and wants to hear more, but must go to battle (leaving two men behind to guard).

The guards tell Frodo that they are ambushing soldiers of Harad, come to join Sauron. The fight comes near, and in rapid succession Sam sees a dead man and a Mûmak, both of Harad. The Oliphaunt vanishes and they settle to wait for Faramir’s return.


I am pretty emphatically not at my best these days (too much work, not enough sleep), but this chapter still did not do a lot for me. I don’t think the introduction of Faramir was supposed to—I think this is setup for us seeing him differently and more sympathetically soon—but overall my reaction was just enh. Yes, even the mega-elephant.

Maybe it’s all the botany? DBratman said in comments to a prior post that this book is full of botany, and he wasn’t kidding: big long lists of plants, most of which I only recognize in general terms, so it doesn’t do a lot for me. It’s spring and things are growing, yup, I got it.

Sorry. Anyway. I do have some notes, so I guess we’ll just get started and see where we end up.

* * *

I have mixed opinions about a metaphorical device at the start of the chapter. As they creep away from the Gate, they see a “single red light” high up. In the next paragraph, it’s referred to as a “red eye (that) seemed to stare at them as they fled,” which eventually “dwindle(s) to a small fiery point and then vanishe(s).” On one hand, I can see how it’s effective to be reminded of the Eye, even though (or perhaps because) Frodo’s doing much better at the moment, and it is a very natural metaphor. On the other, I wonder how much confusion with the Eye it’s generated—I know I did a double-take when I first hit that paragraph, despite the clear geography and the lower-case capitalization.

* * *

As I said, I really don’t know very much about plants. I looked up a few of the names that I didn’t recognize, and they seem to fit the more southern landscape—tamarisk and terebinth are apparently both Mediterranean/North African-ish species, and then there’s the olive groves. If anything jumps out at my more knowledgeable readers as warranting comment, please do chime in. Otherwise, I’ll just note that in my idiom, this sentence wants a comma: “Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate(,) kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.”

Despite the plants, however, we have a handily-symbolic road made by “Men of old”: “It dwindled at last to a country cart-road little used; but it did not wind: it held on its own sure course and guided them by the swiftest way.” Weirdly, it reminds me of Gandalf.

(I’m being a little snarky about the convenient symbolism, but really, in a narrative like this, it would probably take more effort to keep descriptions of roads from being symbolic.)

* * *

There is quite a lot of character-related stuff to talk about this chapter. I mentioned above that Frodo is doing well this chapter: he is in a good mood, he sleeps well, and he has “another gentle, unrecoverable dream of peace” while Sam is cooking. (In contrast, earlier a sleeping Sméagol is animalistic and cagey: “whiffling and twitching in his secret dreams.”) But, of course, we’re not allowed to forget what Frodo’s already gone through and what’s coming next:

The early daylight was only just creeping down into the shadows under the trees, but he saw his master’s face very clearly, and his hands, too, lying at rest on the ground beside him. He was reminded suddenly of Frodo as he had lain, asleep in the house of Elrond, after his deadly wound. Then as he had kept watch Sam had noticed that at times a light seemed to be shining faintly within; but now the light was even clearer and stronger. Frodo’s face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiselling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: ‘I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.’

Gollum returned quietly and peered over Sam’s shoulder. Looking at Frodo, he shut his eyes and crawled away without a sound.

This strikes me as a very economical piece of characterization, telling us about all three of them in less than two full paragraphs. Frodo is still being . . . ground down and/or to an edge? drawn away from this world? tested to destruction, to borrow someone (probably Tom Shippey’s) metaphor? Sam is loyal and caring and inarticulate in prose. Sméagol—well, of course we don’t get his POV, but I interpret this as an indication that he cares about Frodo and that either it pains him to see Frodo looking worn or he doesn’t want to disturb his sleep (or both, they aren’t mutually exclusive). It’s the silence and the simple language that gives the sentences about him a poignant air to me.

And then, of course, we have the Great Coney Stew Debacle. This is probably another reason why I’m not enthused about this chapter, because it seems a clear step on the road to the plot outcome that I hate. I think Sam comes off unquestionably the worst here—does anyone disagree? Sméagol is right to be worried about the fire, and Sam is astonishingly careless to not have put it out right away. I consider it very rude to ask Sméagol to gather food that makes him ill (he coughs and retches at the smells of herbs as they walk), nevermind threatening him when he refuses. For that matter, Sam’s initial requests weren’t very gracious, either; yet Sméagol does catch the rabbits and fetch water, even. The only blame to be laid at Sméagol’s feet, as far as I can see, is not recognizing that his tastes in food are not universal—which is a flaw equally shared by Sam.

Sam does get his mind broadened on another front, however. He is the one to find the traces of recently-past violence in the area, burnt and gnawed bones (which, it just occurred to me, may have contributed to his reaction to Sméagol wanting them to eat the rabbits raw). And this connects up to the battle, some of which Frodo might not even see—it’s not clear, but Sam does join the guards and then climb a tree when it starts getting near, so he has a better vantage point, though it’s hard to imagine anyone missing the Mûmak. Regardless, Frodo isn’t even mentioned in this section, that’s how firmly the focus is on Sam. My hypothesis is that he needs the education more than Frodo, since he hasn’t yet been personally seriously affected by violence (unless the sleep deprivation is really putting big holes in my memory, he got a scalp scratch in Moria and showed no sign of being disturbed at having killed an orc there). Here, he gets a close look at the brutal ugliness of violence and a chance to wonder about the motivations of the mortal enemy:

Then suddenly straight over the rim of their sheltering bank, a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them. He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar. His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword.

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace—all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind.

I consider it a great pity that Tolkien couldn’t figure out a way to definitively answer those questions in the text. The Gondorians claim the southern kingdoms of Harad “were ever ready to His (Sauron’s) will,” which to me implies something more culpable than being duped; but they are obviously biased (though that doesn’t necessarily rule them out as authorial mouthpieces). I can’t remember if we get anything useful in the Appendices.

I think we’ll talk about Faramir next time, so I’ll end on a lighter note: what do you think happened to the Mûmak? The text offers two options, “escaped to roam the wild for a time,” or “raged on until he plunged in the Great River and was swallowed up.” Since elephants can swim, at least, I vote for crashing around the woods for a while. Hey, maybe he met an Ent or Entwife . . .

« Two Towers IV.3 | Index | Two Towers IV.5 »

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.

Marc Rikmenspoel
1. Marc Rikmenspoel
The parts of the books with Faramir are some of my favorites, so I look forward to the future discussion of his character. As you might guess, the treatment of the character in the movies was one of the lowlights of that project, imho, though it was nice to hear Fran Walsh mention in the commentary that "perhaps they made a mistake" in their handling of Faramir.
Mari Ness
2. MariCats
Actually, I thought both Frodo and Sam came out looking a little questionable in the Great Coney Stew preparation - mostly because it showed that neither one of them had thought about bringing along enough food. They're not hunters, and they know they're not exactly heading into a land filled with welcoming people, let alone inns and restaurants, and neither one thinks to grab extra lembas bread, or conserve it along the way. It's great that Smeagol's willing to do some hunting and Faramir gives them some extra grub, but, still.

And yes, I do recognize that when they left Rivendell they assumed they would be travelling with people skilled at hunting or getting food, but when they strike out on their own, Frodo at least should have an idea of how long they'd be walking.

This chapter was about the only one where I found myself actually liking Smeagol, though, so that's a plus.

The thing that most struck me in reading this the first time, however, probably because I'd seen too many World War II and Vietnam movies, was the scarlet robes that the enemy was wearing - I always thought of soldiers as wearing duller or more camouflagy uniforms, and wondered why they'd be wearing robes instead of pants. I bring it up now because I think it shows just how many (incorrect) assumptions I brought to the text, especially when I read it knowing very little about medieval and ancient cultures and welfare. But even now, the contrast with modern armies continues to strike me.
Marc Rikmenspoel
3. Your mailbox is full.
I hear you about the work thing (and I note in passing that we share a profession). I'm considering taking a few days holiday, but am being dissuaded by the amount of work which will pile up in my absence.

This is a meh chapter for me, too. Not sure why, but I almost invariably speed-read this chapter every time I read the book.

The Sam thing makes me uncomfortable, and that is probably the point. I like Sam. I think we're all supposed to like Sam. Sam is a Great Guy. In this chapter, in particular, Sam is being an expletive-deleted in his dealings with Gollum, and that really brings me up short. It's a bit like the feeling you get when you meet someone you have long respected - and put upon a pedestal - and finding out that they are as flawed as the rest of humanity.

The Gondorian comment about the Haradrim is likely to be nothing more than propaganda, and it may have its foundation in the fact that in the last several hundred years of Gondor's history, the Haradrim have been in thrall to Mordor. Nobody alive in Gondor at the time of LoTR has ever known a time when the Haradrim were their best buddies. The propaganda is clear from the very first words of Boromir, who basically says "Who da man? We da man!" (erm, Men...) I think that we get that basic sentiment from every Gondorian man we see, with the possible exception of Beregond. Gondor is at war, and a country at war will do its best to make sure that there is no question in the minds of the population about the rightness of their cause (and the wrongness of the enemy). Gondor has always been at war with Eurasia.

And, speculating about the other side, for how long had Sauron's lieutenants been in charge of the Harad school system, civil service, and political institutions? "Mordor good, Gondor bad." was probably being chanted at school assemblies for quite some time. Mordor was, of course, protecting the southern lands from the evil that was Gondor - wasn't it in the aftermath of Pelennor that the Haradrim were surprised at the mercy that had been shown to them by the Gondorians, or am I thinking of Helm's Deep?

I don't believe that it is a display of authorial bias, though, intentional or otherwise. Tolkien was never wholly satisfied with the concept of irredeemable Orcs; I can't imagine that he would have ever entertained the idea of fundamentally evil Men.
j p
4. sps49
MariCats @2-

Camouflage was not really used until the turn of the last century- in the US Civil War, Union soldiers wore blue (and the cavalry did vs. the Indians), the Napoleonic Wars had blue-coated French, Redcoated Brits, and a variety of others. I recall learning that some of the American irregulars (i.e. the Green Mountain Boys) wore greens and browns, and the Merry Men supposedly used Lincoln green, but otherwise camouflage wasn't used before then.

I think it had to do with the close ranges required for combat and unit ID, but I have no evidence for this :)

I remember picturing these Haradrim as vaguely Arabic until the Elephaunt, then thinking more (East) Indian.
Marc Rikmenspoel
5. pilgrimsoul
About Sam wondering about the dead Haradrim--Maybe an echo of young Ronald Tolkien on the Battlefield of the Somme wondering what drove the young soldiers on the other side.
Marc Rikmenspoel
6. DrDave
While I do agree in general about Sam not coming off very well in this chapter, let's not be too quick to forget who is the obsessive murderous stalker in this group. Gollum is there because he has pursued Frodo and the Ring through countless leagues of wilderness, with the single goal of getting the Ring back. Making him do scut-work as payment for letting him hang around (alive) after he's been caught seems pretty mild.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
I've always loved this chapter, and it's one of my favourites. I love it because it's the beginning of the interlude of peace in Ithilien, when it's beginning to look as if it's going to be a long march through horrors to Mordor and nothing nice ever again. I love the interaction of Smeagol and the hobbits -- this is Smeagol at his best, and yes, Sam's unfair and recognises it himself. And I love the Oliphaunt, and also the dead guy from Harad, the way he's seen as a real dead person with a lost life. In my mind (if nowhere else) I can almost see Harad and the complex subtle cultures of Harad behind in those words and that dead soldier. And yes, I wish Tolkien had answered those questions too.
Marc Rikmenspoel
8. JoeNotCharles
This is another of those reversals - from several different sorts of terror and bleakness (the desolation of the Emyn Muil; the crushing might of the Black Gate; then the death and creepiness of the marsh) to a conquered but relatively bright and lush place. It always struck me as backwards that they entered the desolate hills immediately after leaving the river, and as they got *farther* from the river and *right under* the mountains of Mordor, the country got *less* hostile.
Soon Lee
9. SoonLee
I like this chapter too. It's a quiet chapter, but there was a lot going on I thought.

What came across about Sam was his love for Frodo, but also his naivety; I mean, starting a cooking fire in the middle of hostile territory? Really?

OTOH, the rabbit stew brought a sense of Hobbity homeliness to an otherwise unpleasant situation, nourishing not just the body, but the mind too.

Sam's treatment of Sméagol showed that he (like everyone else) had character flaws, which makes for more realistic characterisation. We may like Sam for being the Good Guy, but we don't have to like everything he does.

Re:the botanical references.
Well, Sam is a Gardener...
Tony Zbaraschuk
10. tonyz
Harad has been under Sauron's influence for a long time (indeed, many of those areas were settled and dominated by evil Numenoreans long ago, though I don't know how many of them still culturally identify with that ancestry), and I think we can take Faramir's quote as being reasonably accurate historically. To some extent, he's Tolkien's infodump about the history of Gondor, and he's shown as being interested in history, and aware of its ramifications and abuses, so I don't think we should take him as mindless repeating of Gondorian prejudice. Recall that Sauron only returned to Mordor about a generation ago, and I suspect that a lot of the interim was spent in (re-)corrupting the Haradrim and the Umbarians and the Easterners.

But note the phraseology: "ever ready to His will" may well be accurate, but Tolkien would have expected you to understand that people could be vulnerable to evils of various sorts, and expected to resist them. Were the Germans of the last century "ever ready to the Leader's will"? (William or Adolf, whichever; the point remains.)

Sam's thought train about the Harad soldier is amazingly perceptive, which I think makes his treatment of Smeagol even worse. He's not totally blind, and therefore can't plead total ignorance. And we know already from the Dunlendings in Book III that Mordor and its servants use quite a few lies to attract allies to their bidding. Remember that Saruman is only a feeble copy of Sauron (and Sauron is probably more brutal, being farther fallen, but imagine being, say, a captain of the Haradrim invited to Barad-dur, and listening to the words of that dark voice.)
Marc Houle
11. MightyMarc
I liked this chapter.

I thought the episode with the stew was a subtle reminder that Sam and Frodo are still Hobbits at heart. In spite of all they've gone through and all they will go through, they are still ordinary Hobbits that can take pleasure in the simplest of things.
Marc Rikmenspoel
12. Dr. Thanatos
In terms of the Gondor-Harad dynamic, I also point out that in the Kin-Strife civil war, the losing side wound up settling in and taking over Harad and Umbar and so there may be a very personal bone to pick. Not to mention what was said above about their having a long heritage associated with rival/enemy Numenoreans.

It was the Easterlings at Helm's Deep who were surprised they were not being burned alive as prisoners, as they were told by Saruman; but what I recall from the Pellenor aftermath is that everyone was given the option of surrender but the Orcses and Trollses; I think there was a lot of pardoning mentioned...

I also thought this chapter a bit slow; but that's what happens when the focus turns to character analysis. I always thought that the way Sam treated Smeagol reminded me of the British treatment of their non-European colonies especially the Indians: get us the rabbit and herbs; put up with our snide remarks, and if you don't do it politely and quickly we treat you as if you are ungrateful children. And I think Tolkien does not portray this in a positive sense. Again I think of the previous discussions of racism that some were reading into the text; here again I think is evidence that JRRT was making a statement against such inherent cultural bias...

And as I reread and re-edit this, I think more and more of Smeagol/Gollum as a metaphor for the dark-skinned "wog" Indian who may have been of two very different minds about their British masters, and whose history of relations with Britain both before and after independence has been rocky and moved back and forth from "nice master" to "wicked master."
Michael Ikeda
13. mikeda
Dr. Thanatos@12

Minor correction. It was Dunlendings at Helm's Deep, not Easterlings.

(As far as the Pelennor aftermath is concerned, the phrasing in the "Battle of the Pelennor Fields" suggests to me that no prisoners were actually taken in that specific battle.)
Marc Rikmenspoel
14. DemetriosX
I've always liked this chapter, because it represents a small moment of peace and, well, hobbitness. The following chapter is also restful, but more a matter of recharging and preparing for what is to come. From here on out, I think the next moment of peace comes in the Houses of Healing after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and that too has a lot of tension of preparation. The next time anybody really relaxes is after the Battle of the Black Gate.

Kate's comment about the road, made me think more of old Roman roads than anything else. There are, or were, plenty of places in Britain where ancient arrow-straight roads dwindled to cart-tracks. Tolkien was very likely familiar with some and they probably influenced his description here.

I think everybody's being a little hard on Sam. For me, his short-tempered outbursts and treatment of Sméagol are signs of the strain he is under. Sam is our primary viewpoint character here, so we don't get to see the physical signs, the drawn look, the shadows under his eyes, etc. Frodo is turned too far inward in his fight with the ring for him to show us that on those rare occasions when the view shifts to him. Sam is the sort of person who certainly can't or won't admit to himself that he is being pushed to his limits, and so we see the strain expressed through his temper.
Marc Rikmenspoel
15. on top of the hill?
I like this chapter, too.

Sam's primary interest is the well-being of Frodo, and to Sam right now the primary threat to Frodo is Gollum, who they have been spending days with. They are sleeping beside him, following his guidance into overwhelming danger on a journey of enormous importance to everything that Sam loves. There is nobody else but him and Frodo there for guidance or help. Sam does not trust Gollum. Sam is pretty sure Frodo is trusting him too much. (Sam also really doesn't really believe that Gollum will reject the proper food that he is about to prepare, and is willing to share with him.) Working together to produce a meal is at heart a peaceful and cooperative process, so in a way it is a bit of an olive branch Sam is offering Gollum, in his straightforward, blunt-spoken hobbitish way. Gollum is a threat, a danger, and a strain. Sam is not at all happy having to keep him around. Having Sam speak generously and graciously to Gollum would make him look like a first class hypocrite, and would not be at all in character.

Hmm. I'm trying to post as "Underhill" which is how I have posted in the past, but am being told "this alias is in use." Hi guys, I'm "Underhill," okay?
Marc Rikmenspoel
16. DBratman
Thanks to the above commenters for defending this chapter and explaining about the Haradrim.

I agree that it's important to show the truculent, foolish side of Sam. His virtues in adversity are, or will be, so great that Tolkien does well to remind us that Sam is not a paragon, just a hobbit, good, bad, or mixed, as is usual.

As far as the practical side of matters is concerned: the hobbits can't live on lembas alone; they cannot possibly carry enough food with them on foot without pack animals. Absent the generosity of strangers (and they'll get some of that, soon enough), they'll have to live off the countryside, hostile or no. Sam is not oblivious to the problem, but as frequent references show, keenly aware of it. And if he'd been more careful about the fire, it would have been less of a problem.

I once wrote an article about food in Tolkien. The fare, when it's described at all (there's not a word about what was actually eaten at the feast at Rivendell), is plain English. Only Gollum's tastes for sashimi and steak tartare mark him out as alien, as from the hobbits' view they should.
Marc Rikmenspoel
17. MKUhlig
#15 - I think you have summed up very well my take on Sam in this chapter. I have always understood Sam's motivation to be loyalty and support of Frodo, not the mission on the Ring. As you said, Smeagol/Gollum has shown a lot of sneaky, murderous behavior, and I think it takes a lot more than "Oh Smeagol will be good!" to overcome one's distrust of him. At most he has led them out of the Emyn Muil and thru the Dead Marshes, but towards what has not ben shown yet (to Sam's eyes anyway). So I think Sam's continued distrust is entirely pragmatic and does not show him in a bad light. He is just prudently keeping his guard up.

I also agree that while Sam is cooking and building the fire up, to ask Smeagol to get food is more, in my reading, in the nature of everyone sharing the workload. It's not "Oh, Frodo and I are going to rest and smoke a pipe, let us know when dinner is ready" And as evidenced in the text, he thinks Smeagol will want to eat what he fixes. It is the first time they have had food to share with him other than the lembas, and Sam would most likely assume that the elvish quality was why Smeagol would not eat that.
Marc Rikmenspoel
18. DemetriosX
It occurs to me that there is another, very simple reason for the mistake with the fire: it was necessary to the story. Tolkien needed to bring the hobbits into contact with Faramir. Rather than using the clumsy contrivance of Faramir and his men just stumbling across the hobbits, or violating the information about hobbits which we have already been given -- that they are virtually invisible to anyone when they don't want to be seen (a trick they've already pulled off with the Black Riders) -- he gives us a small cooking fire that alerts the soldiers. It's a bit of a mistake on Sam's part, but it's justifiable, fits reasonably well into the character behaviors, and advances the plot.
Kate Nepveu
19. katenepveu
Hi, all. I really appreciate it when other people have very different views on something and say so (in a way conducive to further discussion); it's much more fun and interesting this way. So, thanks.

Marc Rikmenspoel @ #1: here is a preview of my thoughts on Faramir in the movie: @@4EVA. (As in, I can't even be bothered to _write out_ "my eyes, they roll forever.")

MariCats @ #2: Frodo does tell Sam to go get his gear and food, and Sam grabs "some extra packages of food"; I think that the need to hurry prevented him from doing a really thorough extrapolation of their needs. So I'll cut him a break on this.

And yes, even though like you, I know that non-bright uniforms are a relatively recent addition to the history of warfare, I still find it hard to believe.

Your mailbox is full. @ #3, it's a combination of all the state appellate courts being back from summer vacation and issuing scheduling orders in great lumps, and just random chance. But I planned for an extended weekend in NYC before everything landed and I'm sticking to it, come what may.

I don't believe that Tolkien was attempting to set up an entire society of fundamentally evil humans either, but my evidence for that is basically this chapter and then extra-textual (the problem of Orcs is, IIRC, acknowledged only outside the text), which is unfortunate.

bluejo @ #7, you're very right that this is an interlude of peace, and I suspect it says more about me than it that I wasn't appreciating it more. Though the botany would probably not be my thing regardless of how much sleep I'd had.

JoeNotCharles @ #8, I haven't looked at the map for too long, but the text does say that the difference is in length of time under Mordor's influence, not geography, if that helps.

SoonLee @ #9, you have a point, the botany is indeed consistent with an implicit hobbit narrator!

tonyz @ #10, that quote wasn't Faramir, that was Damrod, a random soldier, and so I took it as not necessarily as knowledgable.

And this reminds me that I don't know how, in my perusal of the Appendices in years past, I missed all the kin-strife stuff! I will have to pay close attention to it when we get there later.

Dr. Thanatos @ #12, I hadn't connected the hobbits' attitude toward Smeagol/Gollum with colonialism. I would not carry the comparison too far, given that Smeagol/Gollum is explicitly a debased, untrustworthy, corrupt creature (not just in the views of the hobbits, but objectively), but some of the interactions do seem to resonate.

DemetriosX @ #14, you're very accurate in pointing out that Sam would not acknowledge his own strains, and I'll try to remember to see how the omniscient narrator deals with this.

on top of the hill? @ #15 , this is why I find the entire dynamic so frustrating: you're absolutely right that it's in character and understandable and all that, and yet it still sucks hard vacuum through a straw.

DBratman @ # 16, plain English food for everybody, huh? Strikes me as a bit of a blind spot in worldbuilding.

DemetriosX @ #18, the smoking fire is indeed more elegant than just "happening" to stumble across; I can imagine other ways to bring them all together, but this is economical, you're right.
Marc Rikmenspoel
20. still on the hill
A major reason I like this chapter NOW is the anticipation of the hobbits meeting Faramir. It strikes me that reading this for the first time is a very different thing from reading it when you know what is about to happen. I wish I had better recall of how I felt about it when I first read it. I do remember this: I was horrified by the smoking fire, worried about them getting caught up in a battle, in fact wishing they could get away from the guards at the end. (Now, of course, I absolutely do not want them to escape the guards and not spend that time with Faramir.) Sam's discovery of the bones, the appearance of the Mumak, and the encounter with the dead soldier were all strong reminders of the danger to the hobbits and to the quest.

I am sure that a lot of us are veterans of many re-reads. I know that I read the books over and over, until at last I had to stop for probably a decade or more, because the words were so familiar they didn't work on me anymore. After that long break I've now read them to my son once, and a couple of times just to myself, and although I can enjoy them again, it still does not approach the intensity of the experience of reading them for the first dozen or so times... (grins) Anyway, I think that a sense of "not too much happening here" can be a result of knowing the story too well, knowing the really significant stuff will happen later, the things that all this present bit is still leading up to. And it is possible to forget just how much this rather less dramatic chapter kept you reading, intent and worried and fully engaged, the first time round.

I am pretty sure that I remember on my first reading being amused and comforted by Sam competently setting up housekeeping in the wild and pulling together his stewed rabbit.

I find that scene with Sam and Gollum poignant, just the two of them alone, with Frodo asleep, momentarily in a fragile alliance, working together on something, although neither really likes nor trusts the other. I think it is a short demonstration of how much they have in common, of how alike they essentially are - they are kind of like two scrappy brothers forced to do the dishes together. They're not acting kind or respectful to each other, but they seem to understand each other and I think they are shown for the moment as equals - mutually antagonistic equals forced into each other's company by events outside themselves. But they are showing a tentative willingness to try to work together. When it falls apart, it falls apart because of the ways that Gollum and Sam are very much not like each other, and I think this abrupt change from almost cooperation to outright alienation and revulsion (on both sides) serves to show how far Gollum is removed from anything wholesome, natural and good. Never mind not being able to tolerate elvish lembas and elvish ropes - although starving, he is unable to eat plain, regular stewed rabbit. Which Frodo and Sam both eat with pleasure, comfort and satisfaction.

That sense of something almost cooperative and constructive, broken abruptly by Sam treating Gollum harshly, prefigures that moment - that major potential turning point - when Gollum returns from his plotting and conniving to find them sleeping peacefully, the absolute picture of companionship and trust, and he softens, and that small enduring core of hobbitish good in him rises up and he begins to reconsider what he is about to set in motion.

Kate, is this why this bit sucks so hard for you? Because the way Sam treats Gollum wrecks his final chance at redemption? And this scene is a painful precursor of that later one?

And why can't I be Underhill anymore, darn it?
Marc Rikmenspoel
21. legionseagle
I've always loved this part, because it was the last bit of peace and quiet in Sam and Frodo's story before the unremitting slog through Mordor, and because I liked Smeagol trying to be helpful. Admittedly, Sam's reference to fish and chips is another bit of anachronistic and faintly bizarre world-building, along with the tea, coffee, pipeweed and the Bywater express train, but at least he was trying: offering to make fish and chips specially for someone is a gesture of reconciliation of sorts, even if it's taken badly.

With regard to Tolkien and food, he just doesn't do food well at all in general, which is another reason why this particular scene stands out. You can read Lewis and immediately feel hungry (and Lewis is particularly good at using food to evoke particular moods; from the languid decadence of the rice, chicken-livers, sherberts and wine of palaces in Calormene to Conradin's indulgent great-uncle/favourite niece spread of omelette, cold lamb and peas and strawberry ice). With Tolkien, it's a sort of generic "oh, the food was abundant and delicious" which is profoundly unsatisfying. So having something with a bit of taste and texture, for once, adds depth which makes Frodo's later claim to have forgotten how food tastes have increased poignancy.
Marc Rikmenspoel
22. pilgrimsoul
May I disagree re JRRT an food? Think of Mrs. Maggot and her mighty dish of mushrooms and bacon. Or the wholesome meal at Bree. I'd gladly tuck in!
Marc Rikmenspoel
23. Dr. Thanatos
Kate @19,

I did not mean to imply that Smeagol was an innocent victim of oppression. I was looking at Sam's instinctive approach to him.

Sam in this chapter at least treats Smeagol like a servant or inferior---he gives him errands, treats him curtly, and talks smack to him. Frodo's interactions with Smeagol are quite different.

I keep in mind that Frodo are hobbit aristocrats; you could argue that their sense of noblisse oblige makes it easier for them to feel pity and empathy for Smeagol. Sam, however, has always been held to represent the working-class; we note that he doesn't feel any sense of pity for Gollum until the slopes of Mt. Doom and then not at the same level as Frodo.

I was only saying that Sam's attitude towards Smeagol could also be seen to represent JRRT's impression of how the common man related to the "other" and how Sam's moral and ethical progression might represent JRRT's aspirations for what his countrymen could rise to .
Agnes Kormendi
24. tapsi
It is one of my favourite chapters, I find Ithilien very evocative and peaceful, I can practically smell those herbs and bushes. I remember that when I first read it, I thought Faramir and his men were something like Robin Hood and his band (or even more like the outlaws in Stevenson's The Black Arrow), so I wasn't particularly worried about the hobbits.

Considering Sam's decision to light a cooking fire, we should remember that he's a gardener under tremendous pressure and without much expertise in scouting and warfare. It is also very easy to be lulled by a peaceful, sunny day, especially when one's as tired from constantly watching out for threats his master doesn't seem to care about. And he knows perfetly well that Frodo needs to get at least a few decent meals to carry on and Ithilien seems like the only place he could actually provide him with that (and MariCats@2: Frodo didn't plan that the two of them set out all alone and they didn't have much time to plan and prepare for the trek; but even if they had, I find it highly unlikely that they could've physically carried enough food to last all the way to Mount Doom). He does make a mistake, but if he let Frodo starve, that would have been far worse. So essentially he takes his chances (and he thinks them far better than they actually are) and is rewarded with a failure that profits them more.
Soon Lee
25. SoonLee
Re:the cooking fire.

IIRC, the fire was initially smokeless, but it was a momentary lapse by Sam not putting the fire out once the stew was ready and some fern fronds(?) close by catching fire that caused the smoke. Haven't got my copy handy. Can anyone confirm this? If true, it makes it a more contrived plot-device.
Marc Rikmenspoel
26. formerly underhill
The meal with the traveling elves when the hobbits are still in the Shire, Goldberry and Tom's abundant good food, Beorn and his honey cakes, the ever-disappearing forest feast of the wood elves, the meal in the house at Crickhollow, the food at the Long Expected Party, Bilbo having thirteen dwarves and a wizard to tea, Merry and Pippin picnicking amid the ruins of Isengard, Sam and apples for walking: Even if it is described as appetizing, you never smell it, or really get a good look at most of it. It seems to be there for the symbolism of the shared meal, to show hospitality, and for the characterization of Hobbits. And very often, the eating and enjoying of food together in relative peace points up by contrast how grim, difficult and dangerous the last bit of the story was, or the next bit. Drinking beer and pipe smoking ditto. I am guessing that Tolkien was more interested in the talk over dinner than he was in the process of cooking the dinner, and WAY more interested in forestry, botany and ecology than in cooking...
Marc Rikmenspoel
27. sunjah
Re: the botany--as a gardener and woods person, it really worked for me. My take home:
1) it's Spring and things are growing, yup ;)
2)it smells good
3) it looks good
4) edible plants! and probably animals!

It is a real respite from the multi-acre open grave and the toxic wasteland that they have just passed through. The first time I read it though I was tense, waiting for the shoe to drop. Places this hospitable are rarely uninhabited, and I wondered who, or what they might meet.

SoonLee@25, I do confirm that. I've had similar happen to me though. All it takes is a momentary carelessness for a bit of burning material to get outside the firepit.

Re: the old road. I am reminded of a bit from Tolkien's Letters, which I do not possess, to the effect that the Anglo-Saxons were much impressed by the old Roman roads they found. They dubbed them "eald enta geweorc," meaning the ancient work of giants. Tolkien mentioned it in the context of his name for the Ents being essentially the same word as A-S for "giant." He also discusses finding it evocative of a people who were awed by the work of vanished predecessors, of whom even the knowledge had been lost.
Andrew Foss
28. alfoss1540
Every time I read this chapter, I am fooled with the fire. Everything that Sam is doing - as foolish as it turns out to be - feels right. I think it is the smell of the campfire. Imagining that smell always cements this scene in my mind.

How many of us have: 1) walked for days through a cave, 2) rafted for days down a river, 3) spent weeks or months outdoors unprotected from the weather? This scene is so familiar with the small of campfire and the serene wilderness, most readers can recall the memory. It is real.

I love it every time.

As for Sam - This scene is so tough. My empathy or sympathy for gollum only really started after reading the series about 8 times. He is evil and fatally flawed. And you can feel sympathy at times for him. But it is the same sympathy you feel for an ax murderer about to be executed. It is sad, but has to be done for the good of humnaity. And I buy the good vs evil and some things deserving death thing, but Frodo is way too sympathetic - like heroin addicts. I always saw Sam as the all too proper foil to Frodo's naivete. Harsh as he may sound (as well as stupid, biggoted and wrong) I totally side with Sam against gollum.
Bill Reamy
29. BillinHI
SoonLee @25: re: fire: "He found that a small brand, burning away to its outer end, had kindled some fern at the edge of the fire, and the fern blazing up had set the turves smouldering." Faramir's men had already seen the smoke and Sam heard their (bird calls/whistle) as they approached.
Marc Rikmenspoel
30. Foxessa
This is a likeable chapter. To me, as writer and reader, a dramatic, action-packed adventure tale needs these interludes of peace and normality. I need them as writer and reader both as a safety vent from the pressure of constant threat. It's also in these interludes, as is pointed out in the comments to this particular work, we learn more and necessary bits of the fundamental natures of those characters with whom we living for so long.

But that's not all this chapter does. Tolkien is terrific at foreshadowing the great climatic action or decision in earlier, much smaller ones.

In this chapter, tenuous strands of unity among the three of have an opportunity to grow. This began with Frodo pulling Sméagol out of Gollum. If these threads had continued, become stronger, how differently might the future have turned out?
That Sam is willing to share with Sméago food he's cooked for his beloved master says a very great deal, despite his harsh words. To me the exchanges betwen Sméagol and Sam here seemed to be the beginning of the harsh kind of companionate interchange you often find among soldiers under great stress.

But it also foreshadows Frodo's the terrible betrayal of Sméagol at the Falls, which brings back Gollum.

We can say that Gollum would always have come back; he began this adventure with murder a millennia ago.

But who knows?

On a edge of a blade were all their hopes balanced.

Perhaps if the mutual betrayals didn't happen, the Ring may never have come to the Crack of Doom, but returned to its master ....
Marc Rikmenspoel
31. Confusador
Others have said much the same thing, but for some reason I feel compelled to put it in my own words. Sam is really terrible in this chapter, and it doesn't matter that we may feel much the same way about Gollum. Frodo has given a perfect example of how to behave, and Sam blatantly ignores it. It's painful to watch because Sam is the hero of the story, and at this point he still has a lot of development to do. Which I suppose is the point, but I don't have to like it.
Marc Rikmenspoel
32. DBratman
sunjah @27: Using an Anglo-Saxon word for giant as the name of these creatures (Ents) makes even more sense when you know that, in the drafts, Tolkien originally conceived Treebeard as a Giant, probably akin to the ones alluded to in The Hobbit, and rather untrustworthy, instead of the dangerous but sympathetic tree-creature he turned out to be, still very tall but that not his salient feature.
Marc Rikmenspoel
33. MKUhlig
Wow, I keep reading how “terrible” Sam is in this chapter, so I read it yet again with attention to the Sam and Smeagol/Gollum interactions. They seem to consist of the meal scene. As I reconstruct it:

First Sam gets the idea of having “real” food and sees Gollum leaving and asks if he is going hunting can he see if he can get something for Sam to fix for him and Frodo. Gollum tells him to ask nicely which Sam says he is and he even “begs it.” Now this can be taken as a bit of chaffering between the two of them, but it seems to go both ways, since Gollum says to him “if they asks nicely” so I can hardly see how Sam acted in any way terribly here. He does not send Gollum on an errand – merely asks him to find food for him and Frodo while he is out. Again a reasonably worded request.

Second, Gollum comes back and looks over Sam’s shoulder at the sleeping Frodo. Sam does not make any comment to him regarding this, and the only reaction we are told about is that on Smeagol presenting the rabbits “Sam had no objection to rabbit at all and said so”.

Third Sam prepares the fire and dresses the rabbits and has Gollum go get water. Now I guess you could say he tells him to, but not in any terrible way, more in the nature of I am busy, this is your part in preparing the meal. Smeagol raises no objection, but is just curious and Sam indicates that he is expecting to share the meal with Gollum “If you can’t guess, you’ll soon find out”. Now Sam does threaten him if he damages his pans, but surely this is more in the nature of what anyone might say giving someone care of a beloved item and not in the nature of a true threat.

Next they have a bit of exchange about the fire, but nothing mean spirited is said that I see. Then Smeagol sees Sam is going to stew the rabbits and refers to him as “silly hobbit”. Smeagol tries to get back the rabbits and Sam has the exchange where he says that “if our bread chokes you then raw coney chokes me.”

Finally, he asks Gollum to find him some herbs. Smeagol objects and calls them “smelly leaves. He doesn’t eat grasses or roots” At this point they both get into it with some name calling, but Sam offers at the end to make him some fish and chips some day (which Smeagol disgustedly rejects) and Sam says “Oh, you’re hopeless” So I cannot see this exchange as other than a case of mild bickering.

So perhaps, someone can point out to me where Sam acts “so terribly” in this chapter
Marc Rikmenspoel
34. TheMarchChase
sps49 @ 4

-Not trying to be critical, but just recently learned about the Connecticut Sharpshooters division in the US Civil War. Union soldiers who wore green uniforms to aide in concealment. Pretty interesting group.
Kate Nepveu
35. katenepveu
Hi, all. Sorry for the absence.

Relatedly: I'm not going to be able to manage a new post this week, sorry, because this brief has been very stubborn and needs to be written tonight (squeezing out enough time to answer these is dicey enough as it is). I hope to have one early next week, but since I have another brief to write for Monday and am solo parenting a very active toddler all weekend, I do not promise anything.

That said:

still on the hill @ #20: a sense of "not too much happening here" can be a result of knowing the story too well

Excellent and very fair point indeed. It's been so long I don't remember now what I first thought when I read this, but you're right that I can't help but read it now in light of what's to come.

And yes, Kate, is this why this bit sucks so hard for you? Because the way Sam treats Gollum wrecks his final chance at redemption? And this scene is a painful precursor of that later one

As Jon Stewart might say: Nailed it.

(I don't know why you can't be underhill any more. I'll try to remember to bring it to the site admins attention, but I suspect it's a symptom of the problems from the server crash a bit ago--"following" people hasn't worked since then, either.)

legionseagle @ #21, I hadn't spotten fish & chips as anachronistic, thanks. And I don't find Tolkien's food descriptions unsatisfying, but they never spring to mind, either.

Dr. Thanatos @ #23, the comparison I didn't want to push was racial minorities as explicitly debased, untrustworthy, and corrupt, not Gollum as an innocent victim!

sunjah @ #27, there's a useful perspective: it hadn't occured to me that it was such a nice place that it was likely to be inhabited. Bad fantasy novels with poorly-thought-out geography warping my brain.

Foxessa @ #30, how did I forget Frodo and Smeagol at the Falls? Maybe I've been too harsh on Sam after all--though the final straw, as formely-underhill says, does seem to be Sam.

MKUhlig @ #33, I gave my explanation in the post, but I certainly don't insist everyone react the same way as I do!
Marc Rikmenspoel
36. Formerly Underhill
To Kate, a weekend alone with an active toddler and a legal brief sounds like a truly formidable quest - stock up on the lembas, and may you have 'help unlooked for' from someone or something. (Nice weather, and a laptop in the park? Friend with compatible toddler borrowing her for a playdate?) I am enjoying this re-read enormously, and I want to stop for a second to say thanks. You're doing a great and faithful job, with the summaries, and moderating the comments of the group. And thanks to the group, too! I don't know what the heck I'm going to do with myself when it is over, except print the whole thing out and have it bound into a book....
Marc Rikmenspoel
37. bookzombie
Hi all!

I'm only just catching up on reading these posts so way behind on the conversation so apologies if it has moved on!

(Can I just say how much I am enjoying the discussions and the - most of the time anyway! - civilised way they are being pursued. It makes such a pleasant change from most internet debate!)

One comment regarding the sillyness or not of Sam lighting the fire. There are several comments that have excused Sam on the grounds of inexperience. But in an early chapter (A Knife in the Dark?) when Strider says that they need to light a fire it is Sam who grumbles about it (something along the lines of 'And it's the best way of saying 'I'm here!' bar shouting')

In fairness they do know for sure they are being pursued at that point, but still...
Kate Nepveu
38. katenepveu
bookzombie @ #37, you are absolutely right, but on the other hand they were on a hilltop in the growing dark at the time . . .
Marc Rikmenspoel
39. joyceman
I've always loved Frodo's description of Gollum to Faramir as a "gangrel creature". Even before I knew what gangrel meant, the word seemed very evocative of Gollum
Marc Rikmenspoel
40. Judith Proctor
Military uniforms in some periods were very much for show. The regiments were often sponsored by individuals who wanted their men to look good. Officers would wear their uniforms to attract young women (think of Kitty in Pide and Prejudice and her delight in 'officers'). Also, an attractive uniform would sometimes aid in recruitment.

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