Wed
Dec 16 2009 2:25pm

LotR re-read: Two Towers IV.8, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”

cover of The Two Towers This time in the Lord of the Rings re-read, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol,” chapter IV.8 of The Two Towers. As always, spoilers for the entire book and comments after the jump.

What Happens

Frodo, Sam, and Sméagol leave the Cross-roads and come to the valley of Minas Morgul, where the Ring drags Frodo nearly onto the bridge leading to the city. They head away, but are not out of sight when an army leaves the city, led by the king of the Nazgûl. Frodo almost puts on the Ring in obedience to an outside will, but grasps Galadriel’s phial instead, and the army passes by.

The travelers climb the Straight Stair and then the Winding Stair, where, part of the way up, they see a tower guarding the passage at the top. There Frodo and Sam talk of being in tales and then sleep. When Sméagol returns, he is moved by the sight of them and touches Frodo’s knee. Frodo cries out in his sleep, Sam wakes and speaks roughly to Sméagol, and Gollum withdraws, even after Sam apologizes. After Frodo wakes, Gollum insists on leading them to the tunnel.

Comments

This is a chapter in three parts: the scenes in the vicinity of Minas Morgul; the metafictional conversation about stories; and the point where I finally have to give up my probably-silly project of calling the character Sméagol, for he has irrevocably become Gollum. I found the first to be absolutely awesome; the second to be kind of jarring, as meta stuff in LotR tends to be for me; and the third to be less wrenching than I expected, considering how much I have dreaded the moment throughout this book.

To take them in order: Just how amazing is the Minas Morgul stuff, huh? The ghostly glow; the tower that is not just looking at you but turning its head to do so; the bridge and flowers and stream. The flowers in particular remind me of John Bellairs’ wonderfully creepy and funny novel The Face in the Frost [*], though of course any influence is the other way around, in the way they are horribly twisted yet deeply compelling: “Luminous these were too, beautiful and yet horrible of shape, like the demented forms in an uneasy dream; and they gave forth a faint sickening charnel-smell; an odour of rottenness filled the air.”

[*] Now back in print from the fine folks at NESFA Press as part of Magic Mirrors.

Then there’s the fabulous sequence when the army comes forth. It’s signaled by the loudest instance of the thunder/drums of last chapter and then an “uprushing flame” (which suggests to me that the noise had been geological rather than atmospheric). Sorry, but I just have to quote the next bit:

And Minas Morgul answered. There was a flare of livid lightnings: forks of blue flame springing up from the tower and from the encircling hills into the sullen clouds. The earth groaned; and out of the city there came a cry. Mingled with harsh high voices as of birds of prey, and the shrill neighing of horses wild with rage and fear, there came a rending screech, shivering, rising swiftly to a piercing pitch beyond the range of hearing. The hobbits wheeled round towards it, and cast themselves down, holding their hands upon their ears.

As the terrible cry ended, falling back through a long sickening wail to silence, Frodo slowly raised his head. Across the narrow valley, now almost on a level with his eyes, the walls of the evil city stood, and its cavernous gate, shaped like an open mouth with gleaming teeth, was gaping wide. And out of the gate an army came.

I love the way these two paragraphs are bookended with stark simple declarative sentences—both starting with “And,” too, hah, take that, overly-prescriptive rules of style! I love that Minas Morgul gets blue lightning to match its corpse-light, and the way the overwhelming nature of the sounds is conveyed through that long sentence and the hobbits’ reaction, and that the mouth shape of the gate is not metaphorical but literal. It is all just awesome.

(I usually try to keep comments about the movies out of these posts, but I can’t help but say here that I am even less enthused about re-watching the second movie now that I’ve realized that Peter Jackson is going to keep me from seeing the screen version of this—which I also loved—until the third movie. (For those of you just joining us, I haven’t liked the second movie in the past.))

The other thing to say about this section is what’s happening to Frodo. The first sign is more passive: very early in the chapter we’re told that immediately after the Crossroads, the Ring’s weight starts growing again. Similar to this is the great weariness that “oppresse(s)” him, “as if a heavy spell was laid on his mind and body,” and that keeps them from getting further away from Minas Morgul. More active is his hurrying toward the bridge to Minas Morgul “as if some force were at work other than his own will,” and then his hand moving toward the Ring as the Witch-king pauses—which, interestingly, ditches the “as if” and flat-out states that the command is coming from outside and moves his hand for him.

After the Witch-king and army passes, Frodo undergoes a very rapid collapse and recovery. This is so rapid that I cannot regard it as an attempt at psychological accuracy, and instead attribute it to more supernatural affects, whether intentional (the Ring?) or inadvertent (some side-effect of being used as a puppet?). As the army passes, Frodo quite rationally worries about Faramir, but then starts irrationally worrying that everyone outside of Mordor will be slaughtered before he gets to Mount Doom: “Even if my errand is performed, no one will ever know. There will be no one I can tell. It will be in vain.” Then Sam tells him to wake up, reminding him of the Shire, and he does, metaphorically: though he still feels despair, he is no longer overcome by weakness, and “even smiled grimly, feeling now as clearly as a moment before he had felt the opposite,” that his task has to be done regardless of who would know about it. (To be clear, I don’t think the irrational thoughts are unrealistic as a general matter, it’s the speed that I’m reacting to. Actually I suspect that Frodo’s thoughts work pretty well for disorder levels of anxiety and depression.)

* * *

Now, some metafiction. As I’ve said before, though I usually like metafiction, I find its appearance in LotR rather jarring. I think it’s because I’m used to characters talking about how they’re in a story in books that, hmmm, imply a more fundamental acceptance that the audience knows that the entire story is a construct? Usually it’s in works that are explicitly about stories as stories (the movie Stranger than Fiction, the anime Princess Tutu, Pamela Dean’s Secret Country trilogy, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books—see these older LJ posts for more discussion), and thus the kind of suspension of disbelief is different. But the whole of LotR tries to create verisimilitude through a sustained and consistent accretion of immersive detail, all based on the premise that there is such a thing as a One True History of the War of the Ring and that this is it. And so when Sam and Frodo talk about how they’re part of the great tale that started with the Silmarils and whether their story will ever be “read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards,” I’m jolted out of the immersive historical experience and reminded that I am reading their story out of a text that has indeed been printed in a great big book with red and black letters.

Perhaps because I’ve been jolted, the conversation itself seems unfortunately obvious to me. The choice to keep going is vital; the outcome may be uncertain but you must persevere; the tale is long and its ramifications beyond mortal foreseeing. Yes, thank you for the blinking thematic lights. However, I do like the acknowledgment that everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own stories, even Gollum. What do you all think about this section?

* * *

Finally, there’s the section I’ve been dreading all this time, when Sméagol becomes Gollum irrevocably. Weirdly, it was less painful to read than I expected, maybe because it has been headed that way for so long and I’ve been bracing myself so much.

The paragraph when Sméagol has a change or at least softening of his heart is beautifully sad:

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee — but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.

Which, of course, he is. It’s been a while since we had a reminder of the downsides of obtaining very long life just for yourself, and outliving all your loved ones is definitely first on my list.

It’s also worth noting that when Sam wakes and speaks “roughly,” Sméagol at first speaks “softly” in return, and only goes bestial (“spider-like”) when Sam calls him an “old villain”: “The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall.” Sam does apologize right after, but it’s too late: all the history leading up to this point means that the opportunity for change was so fragile that it crumbled under just a little strain. And I do think the responsibility lies on all parties: Sam, obviously; Frodo, because maybe when he woke, he could have helped Sméagol come back, if it hadn’t been for Henneth Annûn; and Gollum for making the choice, in the end. But I also think Sam and Frodo are more responsible because they had less to overcome to do the right thing.

And that’s it for this chapter. See you next time.


« Two Towers IV.7 | Index | Two Towers IV.9 »


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.

25 comments
Lsana
1. Lsana
I always rather liked the "metafiction" bit, if for no other reason than I liked hearing the references to the older stories and how Frodo and Sam fit into them. I read this before I had any notion that the Silmarilion existed, and I was eager for any clues I could get about the First Age. It never seemed to me to be jarring or to knock me out of the reality of the story. It seemed natural that Frodo and Sam would talk about the history and their place in it, much like an American President might reflect on the fact that he is part of a story that began with George Washington and wonder about how his part of the story will be viewed by later generations.
Lsana
2. Foxessa
The 'metafiction' speculation of whether their names will live on, after their time in this action is finished, seems congruent with what they've experienced, done and seen on such an extended, increasingly perilous and weary quest. They have listened and thrilled to many a tale and song of such things that have happened in the past, of Heroines and Heroes who have failed and a few who have been successful.

They are part of another Age of Heroes, Heroes not least for they do not know how their quest will turn out.

In heroic literature, your Beowulfs are deeply concerned with their Name living beyond them, of their feats and exploits being sung to generations after. That Frodo and Sam are speculating just a little about this, comforting themselves with the tales in which the questor is successful, shows another dimension of their recognition that they are involved in events and decisions that affect all Middle Earth. That's a long way to have come for two hobbits who have never exhibited the slightest indication of thinking themselves anything above the ordinary of their kind.
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
Frodo's urge to put on the ring in the proximity of the Witch King here compares very nicely to a similar incident back in the Shire. Just before the hobbits meet the elves, there is at least one Black Rider sniffing for them and Frodo has a passing urge to put on the ring. He shrugs it off easily there, while here it is only the coincidental intervention of Galadriel's phial that saves him. I suppose Weathertop, where Frodo actually does put on the ring in the presence of the Nazgul can be compared as well, but the parallels between the incidents in the Shire and at Minas Morgul are very strong. They demonstrate clearly how the ring is growing in power and wearing on Frodo's will and ability to resist.

I was never bothered by the metafiction section. For me, more than anything, it shows how the hobbits can create a sort of homey atmosphere even on the very edge of ruin. This is the sort of discussion the two of them might have had sitting in the library at Bag End. It also demonstrates some of those hinted at depths in Sam's character and sets up another metafictional conversation on the slopes of Mount Doom after the climax of the action.

The last moments of Sméagol are truly tragic. But I think he would have been snuffed out no matter how Sam or Frodo reacted. Between the influence of the ring growing stronger and being so close to Sauron himself, the triumph of Gollum over Sméagol was inevitable.
rick gregory
4. rickg
I think you're imposing late 20th century ideas of metafiction where they aren't needed. Remember, this is a heroic tale and the characters are familiar with such tales being recorded and read - to them, Isildur, Beren etc aren't mythic figures, but figures in a story about events that happened. Great deeds, in Frodo and Sam's world, are recorded, read and form at least a part of the culture of Middleearth. Given that their deed will be on a par with those other heroes' I don't see it as metafictional on Tolkien's part, but rather as a reasonable topic for them to talk about at this stage in their adventure where they're about to walk into Mordor itself. They've seen a vast army sweep out of Mordor to attack their lands... it's natural to wonder if anyone will be left to record their heroism as people recorded that of Beren, Isildur, Elendil and others.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
That metafiction was the first metafiction I'd ever read (I was eight), and it struck me as exciting and revelatory that they were talking about whether they'd ever be in a book and they actually were, and I was reading it, and that therefore I was, or anyway the the thought of me was, in some way helping them to go on. Rather than pushing me out of the story, it made me a deeper part of the story. By existing and reading the book, I was helping Frodo and Sam destroy the Ring.

Thinking about it, this clearly affected my whole philosophy of life from that point on.
Lsana
6. WonderGirl
When I first read LotR (okay, had it read aloud to me) I was nine and had never heard the word "metafiction," but I too have always liked that part--"exciting and revelatory" is a good pair of adjectives. (Also it's rather ennobling to think that maybe you're in a story of your own.) And don't forget that it ties in to the scene in RotK with the minstrel!
Lsana
7. DBratman
Rather in agreement with others, especially rickg @4, about the "metafiction." Tolkien is not trying to draw your attention in a postmodern way to the fact that he's telling a story too (the reaction he wanted to that, if anything, was the more ancient-mode response of the young bluejo, whose reaction would I think have pleased the author greatly), but to tie in the present story to the earlier ones which, in LOTR, are told only in retrospect. Think of Frodo and Sam talking less of "tales" and "stories" and more of "history" that's still living around them, and that might convey the idea.

What I find a bit excruciating is Sam's "aw, shucks" reaction to being considered as a hero of future tales. He's embarrassed, and will feel even more so when he finally gets back to the Shire, though he's got a harder road than anyone, possibly even Frodo, to follow before he gets that far.

How tragic Sam's response to Gollum is depends on how firmly Gollum has already decided to betray Frodo to Shelob. That seems pretty definite, though I suppose he could have repented, confessed his evil plan, and found a way through the lair without disturbing you-know. What it does show is that Sam has some severe lacks of his own: suspicion that's too great, even as Frodo's is too mild, and a slightly insufficient sense of empathy.

Darrell Schweitzer once wrote an essay on Tolkien as a horror writer that would be relevant to your discussion of the language regarding Morgul.
Ian Gazzotti
8. Atrus
As others have already said, it's not really metafiction in the modern sense: the hobbits are talking about actual books in their world, not Tolkien's LotR and legendarium.

We've seen in the previous chapters that there is a long tradition of histories, and books, and poems and lays. The elves sing in the Hall of fire, Gimli has songs about Moria, Aragorn about Beren and Luthien, and so on, and you know they're all stories they're related to: about the past of their races, or about long-lost friends, or ancestors. They're not a fantasy about other worlds and sub-created pasts: they're stories and they're real (a very important subject in Tolkien's mind).

In particular, about the Shire and the Hobbits, they have the living example of Bilbo, who wrote a book about his adventures and was eager to write new chapters with Frodo's tale too. Being part of a story, written or told, was not an unfamiliar thought to them: the important bit in that discussion was that they were going to be part of a *larger* story, that started with the world and would only end with it too.
John Patrick Pazdziora
9. mrpond47
I have to agree with everyone else, for once--Tolkien's 'metafiction' isn't the postmodern sort. He in fact implies later in RotK that the stories in which the War of the Ring is remembered will get the story wrong. That Frodo's victory, the deepest and greatest, perhaps, of Middle-Earth--of a level with Beren's and Earendil's--will be mostly forgotten.

And that, oddly enough, Frodo is right and Sam will be remembered as a great hero.

Tolkien considered the fall of Smeagol as the most tragic scene of the book(s). And he pointed out the deep tragedy, that the fall comes through the most selfless character of the book. Sam's grudge against Gollum is perhaps his greatest weakness. He's quick to judge others, usually a stout judge of character--so Faramir, Bill Ferny. Unlike Frodo, he can't explore the nuance and pitch of a deep, multi-faceted personality--Gandalf, Faramir, Gollum. Ironically, his greatest strength becomes his greatest weakness, because at this point and no other he's unwilling to change.

Of course he does change. After carrying the ring, he, too, learns to pity Gollum. But then it's too late.
Andrew Foss
10. alfoss1540
Two things about this chapter to point out:

1) Misplaced metaphor - describing the will to put on the ring like swimming against the tide - what self respecting Hobbit would know about or do such a thing?

2) The steep Stairs - having hiked a bit on the west coast, the Stairs of Cirith Ungol always strike me. See this article - and specifically at the pictures of the "stairs" up the side of the mountain.

http://www.terntec.com/hiking_half_dome.htm
David Levinson
11. DemetriosX
alfoss1540 @10, while you're right that the tide metaphor is probably wrong for hobbits (who among other things know nothing about the sea and therefore tides), remember that Frodo is a Brandybuck on his mother's side and was raised by them for a time. Brandybucks are odd and like to swim and mess about in boats. In fact, his parents were killed in a boating accident. But that's really all rather beside the point.
Kate Nepveu
12. katenepveu
Hi, all.

It seems quite clear that I'm unusual in having this reaction to the conversations about stories in _LotR_. (I'd say "singular" except that long experience has taught me that the fastest way to identify someone who likes X is to assert that I've never met anyone (else) who likes X.) I appreciate the varied and entirely reasonable perspectives people are offering, and we'll see if they will change my own instinctive response once we get to the next instance of this (which is, what, the Field of Cormallen? Or sooner than that?).

bluejo @ #5, I wish I had, when I was eight or whatever, reacted that I was, or anyway the the thought of me was, in some way helping them to go on, because that is just very cool.

DemetriosX @ #3, yes, poor Frodo. I think it's next chapter we get an explicit statement of how much the Ring has grown in power, as if we needed one after this incident.

And you may be right that Gollum's ascendancy was inevitable, though (have I mentioned this here before?) I have heard that in a letter, Tolkien speculated that if Sam and Frodo had been kinder, Gollum still would have been unable to keep from taking the Ring, but then would have thrown himself into the Cracks of Doom voluntarily. Which, ever since I heard it, I have liked a lot.

DBratman @ #7, I suppose he could have repented, confessed his evil plan, and found a way through the lair without disturbing you-know

I admit I hadn't thought about the logistics if Gollum had changed his mind, but honestly if he'd just repented and confessed, I think they'd have had a better chance.

Is that Schweitzer essay easily available anywhere? I find myself struggling which just how much the horror-movie comparison is appropriate for the next chapter.

mrpond47 @ #9, yes, all the levels of conflict and irony here make me particularly sad. Well put.

alfoss1540 @ #10, fabulous pictures, thanks for posting the link. And good catch on the tide, though if pressed I suppose we could link it up to Frodo's dreams of the Sea . . .
Lsana
13. firkin
as commentary on the growing power of the ring and it's effect on frodo, at the bit where he is tempted to put it on, part of frodo's thought process and struggle involves being aware that he is not strong enough to challenge the witch king -- "yet." i found that pretty creepy, and very telling.

logistics -- isn't there a way up that bypasses the tunnel? i mean, someone built these stairs, and it wasn't shelob. and actually, who did build the stairs, Gondorians? i always find the climb very tiring, thinking about those small hobbits on stairs presumably built for much larger people, as if being ancient, uneven and dangerous wasn't enough.
Kate Nepveu
14. katenepveu
firkin @ #13: yes yes yes! I can't believe I revised that bit out of my comments. Stupid sleep deprivation. Yes, that was quite creepy indeed.
rick gregory
15. rickg
Kate... but they wouldn't have had a better chance if they'd not gone through Shelob's lair. After all, doing that meant that Frodo was taken by the tower orcs and the subsequent mutual destruction of the orcs. Instead of having to avoid a large contingent of orcs stationed in a tower designed as a look out point, they ended up getting past the tower fairly easily even though they couldn't have planned it like that at the time.

I also think the ascendance of Gollum over Smeagol in his personality is directly tied to his proximity to Mordor and Sauron.
Lsana
16. DBratman
The other route through Cirith Ungol was the main road in and out of that side of Mordor. Not much cover there. To avoid the road was the point in taking the tunnel in the first place.

Kate: Schweitzer's essay is in his book The Fantastic Horizon, and the book is in Google Books.
David Levinson
17. DemetriosX
Kate @12, the next metafictional discussion actually takes place on the slopes of Mount Doom after the destruction of the ring, while Frodo and Sam wait unknowingly for their deus ex aquileia. Sam makes some comment about young hobbits wanting to hear the story of Nine-fingered Frodo, and Frodo counters with something or other about Sam that he finds embarrassing. It's probably less believable than this instance, given that they're basically waiting to die, but it somehow works and says something about the stolid and indomitable hobbit spirit.
Lsana
18. ChrisCot
Great review, I'm enjoying it! I love that horrifying description of Minas Morgul and loved that you quoted it. I'm also 158% agreed with you about the 2nd movie, which enrages me each time I see it as much as the first movie delighted me!

Re: metafiction, I both agree *and* kind of disagree with most other commenters. I agree that it's not exactly meta-fiction but for a little different reason.

What Tolkien's doing here, it seems to me, is not the post-modernish "truth is only stories" but more "stories are truth." Sam and Frodo aren't from the same heroic tradition of tale-telling that the Rohirrim are from, so I don't think what's going on is them being used to the idea of heroes getting into ballads. Instead, this is part of their growing up out of Shire-ish provincialism. Even now, they're still realizing that the stories aren't just stories, but History. It's similar to Sam loving stories of the Elves, but when he meets them, realizing that they're not stories, but real beings with an independent reality where his likes or dislikes are rather irrelevant.

Now, that's been extended to stories in general. Remember how Aragorn wouldn't tell the story of the Fall of Gil-galad while they were running from the Black Riders? He took the story more seriously than the hobbits, who just wanted an entertaining tale. Now, the hobbits are accepting that these stories are *really* real, and that the struggle that took place in them is still ongoing, and they have a part in it.

I also think it's part of showing their optimism. I really like when Sam realizes that Beren and Luthien faced even worse odds than they are, against a more terrible foe in a blacker place.

Finally, there is metafictional stuff in Tolkien - all the stuff in the Prologue and Appendices about how what we're reading is just translations from the Red Book of Westmarch. However, in those cases, the metafiction for me is not jarring; it's again in service to the story. Because the metanarrator still accepts/asserts the stories as true History.

Ymmv.
Lsana
19. DonnaIsme
I agree that Frodo and Sam's discussion of stories from Middle-Earth history isn't metafiction.

Two things that others haven't mentioned -- immediately following the awful extinguishing of the Smeagol side of Gollum is, unexpectedly, *humor*, when Gollum starts repeating Sam's accusation of "sneak" and keeps using the word. ("But where have you been?" "Sneaking." And then Sam asks what time it is, and Gollum reproaches them for falling asleep: "Very foolish, very dangerous--if poor Smeagol wasn't sneaking about to watch." And a minute later: "No food, no rest, nothing for Smeagol. He's a sneak." The juxtaposition of cruel pathos and humor really takes you unawares.

The other thing that strikes me is how much lore Sam learned in Rivendell and while traveling with the Fellowship. "Beren, now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown..." Sam's been listening and thinking.
Lsana
20. EmmaPease
Sam had learned some lore earlier from Bilbo (he knew about Gil-Galad) and loved it though how much he understood then is debatable (he had been young). I see nothing surprising in him listening as much as he could in Rivendell and Lorien. However even Frodo whom Bilbo had presumably taught much more hadn't realized till the council that Elrond was great grandson of Luthien and Beren.

Of the hobbits who remain during the Fourth Age, Sam and Merry seem to have been the loremasters (Sam for finishing the story that Bilbo had started and Frodo continued, Merry for his treatises on hobbit lore and on the Rohirrim). Merry also had paid attention in Rivendell (he knew where they were when they escaped from the Orcs, Pippin didn't). Pippin seems to have been much less interested (though his family home may have had much material from earlier adventurous Tooks).

Frodo mostly disappears as a hero in the Shire, but, I think he is remembered in Gondor (certainly Aragorn would see he was remembered).
Lsana
21. Your mailbox is full.
firkin@13, kate@14: Good catch. I've never noticed that "yet" before. Contrast with Frodo's earlier, ambivalent acceptance of Smeagollums's promise "to obey the Master of the Precious".

Yet, indeed.

*shudder*
Lsana
22. Dr. Thanatos
I always liked this chapter. The vision of Minas Morgul as a sign of what awaited the world if they failed struck me as very powerful. This is motivation enough for Frodo and Sam to persevere.

Metafiction? I really never thought of this passage in that context. What I took from this is Sam and Frodo getting to see the "big picture." Earendil's light is beyond the reach of the Shadow, and they are part of that history, not some isolated episode.

I have also found the last flicker of potential redemption in Smeagollum touching. But I also remember Gandalf's monologue in Chapter II: there was another power at work, and Frodo was meant to find the Ring. If Sam hadn't hacked off Smeagol, and Smeagol had changed his character, there would have been a completely different series of events.

At the risk of jumping ahead too far "let us not pity him. If not for him the Quest would have failed at the last" . This had to happen, knowing that Frodo would eventually succumb; no one other than Smeagollum could take the Ring and then trip over his own shadow and do the deed.

Or as Golde said to Tevye, "it's all for the best and couldn't be any better, pooh pooh pooh."
Lsana
23. Dr. Thanatos
A clarification:

If Smeagol had not fallen into evil, and had seized the Ring and jumped deliberately, we would have a happy ending but it would have hinged on Smeagol's redemption.

Tolkein's whole concept is that we are given choices. The message I have always read into this book is that the root of the entire sequence of events leading to the downfall of Sauron was Bilbo's choice not to kill Gollum when he was invisible and could have done it easily. That choice is what made Bilbo different from Gollum; it is, as Gandalf said, the reason he took as little harm from the Ring as he did: he entered the relationship with the Ring on the moral high ground, as opposed to Smeagol, who acquired the Ring through murder and treachery.

If Bilbo's choice was not the root cause of the final victory, then the whole repeated concept of "Bilbo's pity may rule the fate of many"---"now that I do see him, I pity him" falls apart.

It's a much more powerful statement about Bilbo's choice when Gollum lives to grab the Ring and fall accidentally than if Gollum lives to grab the Ring, realizes the error of his way, gives Sauron Frodo's finger, and jumps. The way the story plays out, the only thing that saved the world in the end was Bilbo's choice not to kill when there was no need.
Susan James
24. SusanJames
I agree with @DR. Thantos on both counts.

1. Its important to Tolkien's vision that we see ourselves as part of a bigger whole. Sam and Frodo are only caring out thier part. Whether they live or die is not as important as what they do in the lifetime they have. And they find comfort in their attempt to do right.

2. Your pity is admirable Kate, but remember, Gollum never made much attempt to resist the evil of the ring-he was pretty quick to kill his buddy over a pretty trifle. And he used it to spy on his own people which is why he was driven out.

Has his wretched existance been an just punishment for his crimes? I suppose so, but he is given a chance to show that he's sorry, to "reform," and he doesn't take it. The beauty of Tolkien's work is to show us that even those we deem "bad" have a role in our world-Gollum is Frodo's refection-the other part of him, good and bad is in all of us. Frodo will fail and Gollum will finish the task. But his reformation is not Frodo or Sam's responsibility- its Gollum's.

Ursula Le Guin says it so much better in The Language of the Night. If you've never read that, do. Its fascinating.
Soon Lee
25. SoonLee
I too like & enjoy the 'metafiction' section.

Not much else to add except that I'm really enjoying the comments for this chapter especially mrpond47 @9 and ChrisCot @18.

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