Jan 11 2010 1:34pm

LotR re-read: Two Towers IV.10, “The Choices of Master Samwise”

cover of The Two TowersAnd now, the conclusion of The Two Towers, “The Choices of Master Samwise.” As always, spoilers for all of Lord of the Rings and comments after the jump.

What Happens

Sam runs up to where Shelob is beginning to drag Frodo away, grabs Sting, and stabs Shelob in the foot and eye. Shelob attempts to smother him with her bulk but instead impales herself upon Sting. The light of Galadriel’s Phial drives her back and she vanishes.

Sam cannot find a heartbeat or any other sign of life in Frodo. After a period of despair, he debates with himself and decides he must take the Ring. As he walks away, he is assailed by doubts and then hears Orcs coming toward him. He puts on the Ring and overhears a conversation between two Orc leaders, one from the tower guarding the pass and one from Minas Morgul. He learns that prisoners are to have all belongings sent to Lugbúrz (Barad-dûr) and to be kept whole until Sauron’s orders are received, that the Orcs think a dangerous Elf warrior is on the loose (him), and that Frodo is not dead but paralyzed.

Unfortunately Sam is too far away to catch them when he hears this news, and the chapter, book, and volume end thusly:

The great doors slammed to. Boom. The bars of iron fell into place inside. Clang. The gate was shut. Sam hurled himself against the bolted brazen plates and fell senseless to the ground. He was out in the darkness. Frodo was alive but taken by the Enemy.


Eventful chapter! Cliffhanger!! Lots of stuff to talk about!!! Many exclamation points!!!! Obligatory Pratchett reference!!!!!

I guess we’ll start where the chapter does, with Shelob. We were talking some, last time, about references to Middle-earth’s deep history; here we have a nice reference to its more recent history, when the narration notes that “Shelob was not as dragons are” with a soft spot in her hide. We also have another instance of evil containing the seeds of its own destruction, with Shelob impaling herself on Sting. And, as sps49 noted last time, force is nevertheless insufficient: it is explicitly the light that drives Shelob away—a light that blazes bright “as if” fueled by Sam’s defiance. (In passing, it is astonishing how I can’t stop noticing each and every “as if,” and how Tolkien just doesn’t vary that phrase.) Oh, and after Sam got his turn to speak in Elvish without knowing what he was saying—I like that it’s the comment in Westron, not Elvish, that appears to prompt the light increase.

Finally, there’s Shelob’s exit, which is deliberately left ambiguous:

Shelob was gone; and whether she lay long in her lair, nursing her malice and her misery, and in slow years of darkness healed herself from within, rebuilding her clustered eyes, until with hunger like death she spun once more her dreadful snares in the glens of the Mountains of Shadow, this tale does not tell.

I’m used to “whether” coming with an “or not,” so at first I found this confusing, and indeed even now I can’t quite decide if I’m supposed to understand that the other option is that she dies or that she just ceases to be a problem. Regardless, the last word on her is unquestionably horrific.

* * *

And now we come to the section that I always skimmed in wanting to get to stuff happening again, Sam finding Frodo apparently dead. I found this both emotionally moving and intellectually troubling.

The moving bit should be pretty obvious: the progression from “master” to “me dear” when Sam begs Frodo to wake, the shifts from disbelief to anger to despair to sorrow—“And your star-glass, Mr. Frodo, you did lend it to me and I’ll need it, for I’ll be always in the dark now.” *sniff* Excuse me, I have to go find a tissue—it’s this bronchitis, really it is . . .

Then Sam tries to figure out what to do next, a section I also like. He feels that he has something to do, based on his long-ago statement, and rejects revenge and suicide. Then it occurs to him to take the Ring and continue the quest on his own; he’s unsure whether this is the path to take, so reasons it out:

‘Let me see now: if we’re found here, or Mr. Frodo’s found, and that Thing’s on him, well, the Enemy will get it. And that’s the end of all of us, of Lórien, and Rivendell, and the Shire and all. . . . it’s sit here till they come and kill me over master’s body, and gets It; or take It and go.’ He drew a deep breath. ‘Then take It, it is!’

But he’s still not sure, because “what he was doing was altogether against the grain of his nature.” Then, when he hears the Orcs find Frodo, he has a revelation:

He flung the Quest and all his decisions away, and fear and doubt with them. He knew now where his place was and had been: at his master’s side, though what he could do there was not clear. . . .

‘ . . . I wonder if any song will ever mention it: How Samwise fell in the High Pass and made a wall of bodies round his master. No, no song. Of course not, for the Ring’ll be found, and there’ll be no more songs. I can’t help it. My place is by Mr. Frodo.’

And here is my problem. To plagiarize myself: If it's ever a choice between saving my life and saving the whole world?

Save the fucking world, already.

And if you think I’m already dead and you’re just defending the honor of my corpse? Even less of a contest.

This is just not a mindset I understand. And I don’t think I see any reason to want to, either.

I hate this kind of thing in regard to romantic relationships (the original quote is about just that), so I don’t think this is me knee-jerking about the existence of a master-servant relationship and whatever extent that affects Sam’s decision. I can’t think of any relationship in which I would agree with Sam’s decision.

Interestingly, I thought at first that the narrative approved of Sam’s decision, but on looking closer I don’t see any narrative statements either way, just comments from Sam’s POV. Can we infer a position of the narrative, nonetheless?

The best I can do is consider whether the plot would have come out better if Sam had stayed with Frodo. And though I’m terrible at coming up with counterfactuals (one reason why I don’t write fanfic, along with having no creative writing ability whatsoever), I don’t think it would have.

If Sam had stayed, I don’t see how he could have hidden Frodo somewhere where the Orcs couldn’t find them, considering that the Orcs were looking for intruders. Sam would have had the Ring, but (1) we have no reason to think that the Ring would hide something as large as a body that’s in contact with a wearer, and (2) the Ring wants to be found, has explicitly grown in power since getting to Mordor, and managed to betray Isildur to his death: if it doesn’t get itself found here, it’s no instrument of Ultimate Evil. And that, as Sam so rightly thinks, is game over for free civilization in Middle-earth.

So that might be an implicit position in the narrative, but it’s a very quiet one if so. Obviously I don’t recall if Sam ever reconsiders or if the narrative takes a more explicit position.

* * *

The other thing about this chapter is the lengthy overheard conversation between the two Orc leaders. I have many passages marked for this, but they’re too scattered to quote, so let me sum up:

They are hardly pure saintly types who are only working for Mordor because they are being forced: Gorbag looks forward to frightening Frodo with tales of torture, and when they wish to slip away and be their own bosses, they envision “somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy,” not, you know, good agriculture. Nevertheless, they do have their own opinions, they criticize higher-ups and feel put-upon by them, and they would like to be in charge of their own lives. They are capable of fear (the Nazgûl give them the creeps). They have varying levels of intelligence and intrinsic optimism, but are not stupid. They have a low opinion of Elves and believe they behave poorly: Gorbag calls it a “regular Elvish trick” to just leave Frodo lying in the tunnel. In short, they seem to me pretty much within the range of ordinary people.

I do wish we’d gotten this kind of look at the humans who fight for Sauron.

* * *

Now that we’re done with Book IV and The Two Towers, I thought I’d consider the question of the split narrative structure. What would The Two Towers have looked like if it weren’t split into two books?

It’s hard to say, because Book III is split not chronologically but at places related to each other: we go back to Merry and Pippin after Aragorn tracks them to Fangorn and see what happened leading up to and after they get to Fangorn; transition back to Aragorn et al.’s concern about Saruman when Merry and Pippin arrive at Isengard; and then backtrack when the parties reunite at Isengard. There’s no such relationship to the Frodo & Sam bits to provide logical break points.

Structurally, roughly the middle third of Book IV is the interlude with Faramir, which would seem to provide natural chunks for interleaving. But then the Faramir section is no longer a break from the dreary terror of Mordor, which removes some of its function. And, if the whole volume were going back and forth between all the threads, I think Frodo and Sam would feel less isolated. Which I might enjoy, but which is probably not the most effective thing for the story. So I think I’m slightly in favor of the structure at this point.

Also: cliffhangers: evil. Did anyone here read this volume without the third on hand? How long did you have to wait, and how awful was it?

Right. Cinematic interlude next—yes, I’ll watch the extended version, just so no-one can say I didn’t give it a fair shake if I still hate it—and then we’ll address those cliffhangers.

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

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.

Mari Ness
1. MariCats
I did not have the third book on hand, and this was AWFUL. Leaving aside the "Frodo's getting tortured by Orcs and Sam's not throwing the Ring away after all" stuff, WE STILL HAVE A GIANT PEOPLE-SUCKING SPIDER OUT THERE. Even if said spider has left the narrative, she isn't dead.

In later rereads, I wondered if Sam's decision to head back to Frodo instead of continuing on to Mount Doom was somehow guided by the Ring, which of course is not excited about the whole idea of getting melted down. It's not entirely clear just how strong the Ring is, or how quickly it can influence someone, and of course Sam doesn't wear it very long, but it would not surprise me to learn that it can guide people away from the heroic, saving the world path, all while convincing them that they are doing the right thing, or the only thing they can do.

(In the first read I was too freaked by the spider to put a lot of thought into this.)
2. Jamsco
I sure would like it if someone could provide a map of Shelob's lair and it's connections with the tower. I always have difficulty understanding the topology of this chapter.
3. Jamsco
"This is just not a mindset I understand. And I don’t think I see any reason to want to, either."

Kate, are you saying that you think poorly of Sam for doing this? Isn't that we're supposed to think? Or are you saying this is a flaw in the writing?
Soon Lee
4. SoonLee

If you're caught in a gripping narrative, then yes. But as a story-teller, it's an excellent device provided it's used judiciously.

After all, cliffhangers have a venerable tradition, cf. "1001 Nights".
Susan James
5. SusanJames
Kate-wow. So many wonderful insights as always. First. I had to hurry my little 12-year-old self to the library to get Return of the King, but thankfully I was one of the few (maybe only) people in my small town reading this book so I didn't have to wait any longer than getting my mom to drive me.

Second. Sam's unreasonable behaviour particularly about a corpse. I had a little crippled cat that I found when I was away at college. She traveled back and forth with me on breaks. She was my constant companion when I was lonely. When she died, I buried her in my backyard. It rained that night and I jumped out of body with the wild thought of digging her up so the rain wouldn't touch her. Crazy, I know, but true. I won't even go into some of the things I thought when my mother died. Thing is, grief is not logical in anyway. Tolkien seemed to know this.

And, as we know, Sam's going in actually saved the quest. Remember how Gandalf, Gildor, Galadriel all told Sam not to leave Frodo-ever. Sam never wanted an power (the ring). He only wanted to help Frodo. That was his quest. When he sticks to his true self all benefit. He was meant to be as he is.

I found it interesting that he began to think of the rings as It almost immediately. It's so powerful at this point and yet, Sam the simple hobbit resists it because of grief, love.
6. Lsana
I don't think the narrative necessarily wants us to approve of Sam's actions in going back. For that matter, I don't think Sam approves of Sam's actions in going back. He thinks it's the wrong choice, but he's doing it anyway.

@1 MariCats,

Interesting point of view, because I was actually thinking the exact opposite. I was thinking that the fact that Sam went back was related to the same impulses that allowed him to resist the temptation of the ring in the first place. He doesn't want to save the world at any cost; he wants to save Frodo. And while I agree with Kate that he should have forgotten about protecting Frodo's corpse and just gone on, this is Sam's line that he won't cross.

If its worth sacrificing one life to protect the world, then is it worth sacrificing 2? Or 10? Or 100 or a 1000 or 1 million? If it's worth sacrificing those lives, then surely it's worth compelling them in an action or two. If it's okay to kill hundreds to protect the world, then surely it's a much less sin to dominate them a bit. Just slip on this ring here...I see that as how the ring might have gotten to Gandalf or Aragorn.

Anyhow, my point is that while I don't agree with where Sam's line is drawn, I feel like the fact that he has a line is one of the things that protects him.
JS Bangs
7. jaspax
RE: Sam's decision, I think that the narrative does approve, and that it's related to one of the larger themes of LotR, namely virtue. Sam's decision to defend the honor of Frodo and even Frodo's dead body is a virtuous stand (leaving aside whether or not we agree with it), and the narrative repeatedly emphasizes the fact that virtue, not might, is what defeats the darkness.

This connects back to the very beginning of the story and the repeated motif that virtue . Frodo does not take up the Ring in a heroic drive to save the world: he takes it because he inherited it and feels responsible for it. The idea of taking the Ring in order to save the world is a the temptation to be heroic, and that temptation that is faced by many characters thereafter. Gandalf, Galadriel, and Faramir choose virtue over heroism. Boromir wants to be a hero, and dies because of it. Sam's decision to take the Ring and go to Mt. Doom by himself is a hobbit-sized instance of the same temptation. He overcomes it, though, because he eventually determines that his love for Frodo and his loyalty to him even in death is more important than "saving the world". And of course, with his help the world is saved, not because Sam took up a heroic decision to go into Mordor alone, but because he chooses love and loyalty.
Philbert de Zwart
8. philbert
I haven't been following this reread too much, so I may repeat what others have said before, but here goes:

Two points:
The big thing about hobbits, I always understood, is that they are more resistant to magic in general, and the influence of the ring in particular, than other species. The Ring messes up Boromir from a distance, and even Aragorn feels the pull at some times.
Gandalf knows this and this is why he wants Frodo to be the one that carries the ring to be destroyed.
So I doubt that Sam's decisions are really influenced by the Ring, only having worn it for a short time.

The other point: the book positions Frodo as the main protagonist, and most readers see it so. Not me, Sam is the man! Frodo is whiny, weakhearted and makes mistake after mistake. Sam almost literally drags him all the way to Mount Doom. Actually I found that the movies nicely illustrated my point. Do you guys agree?
9. Lsana
@8 philbert,

Sam was awesome, but Sam didn't have to bear the burdens that Frodo did. Frodo literally had Satan (or at least Satan's right-hand man) hanging around his neck for the entire trip. He's injured in ways that can't be healed. In the first book, Frodo was the hero and the other three hobbits were at best loads to be dragged around. As the story progresses, though, Frodo is stabbed, frozen, attacked by his own party member, and bitten by a spider-demon, all while carrying the embodiment of evil, which is getting stronger every day. Is it any wonder that he's "whiny and weak-hearted" by the end? It's a wonder he has any strength left at all.

It's also not fair to say that Frodo kept making mistakes, since he was also the one making most of the decisions. If we put Sam in charge of all these choice, I don't know if he would have done much better.
rick gregory
10. rickg
On Sam's impulse... I think that there are a few things to note, some of which are noted above....

First, as SusanJames rightly notes, grief isn't rational, especially fresh grief.

Second, this is who Sam is. He's the character that isn't caught up in the glory of it all or the cosmic import - he's the person who's there for a very simple, small reason - to help a cherished friend. Not destiny, not some great struggle... he's there because of Frodo.

Finally, remember that the Valar are in the background. While this isn't a universe where all is ordained, there IS a song and a plan (I'm taking this from the Silmarillion). There are various points in the story where you can easily see the quest failing if a different choice had been made - for example, had Sam gone on alone here, he'd likely have been caught and the Ring returned to Sauron. His irrational decision to go after Frodo sets him on a path that ultimately results in both of them completing the quest. For anther example, look at Gollum's part in the whole series of events - had Sam done the rational thing and slain Gollum at any one of several points he'd not have stolen the Ring at the end, and fallen into the fire, taking it with him.

Regarding Shelob, I like that her fate is not defined. Too often stories tie up everything neatly... this is a small reminder that this is a complex world with events that go on before and after the story we're following.
Eric Braddock
11. EricBraddock
Hey everyone! About a year ago, Pablo and Kate allowed me to post up some of my LotR character sketches from the films with these posts. I got bogged down with jobs last year but I've finally got some free time now that the holidays are over and finished up this sketch to go along with the latest chapter! I hope you all enjoy it, this was one of my favorite moments in the story with Sam.

"Samwise the Brave" 18x24" charcoal and pencil on paper

You can view the full size image on my blog by clicking here.

To add to the current topic about Frodo being weak and making mistake after mistake, I agree with @Lsana, Sam didn't have the burden of being the ring-bearer over the course of the story. Also, Frodo is portrayed as being a lot more weak in the movies than he is in the books, there are lots of moments when he shows his strength (example: when he calls out to the group of Nazgûl to return to Mordor while standing alone in the chapter Flight to the Ford). Though it's a great topic of discussion, the whole idea of Sam's strength versus Frodo's ever-growing weakness to the power of the One Ring.

@Rickg great points! I agree what you said about her fate being undefined, I was pleased with that decision, not really telling what happens to her.
12. pilgrimsoul
Fortunately I had all three vols. in paperback right there.
A narrative convention exists--and is perhaps more common in shallow works of fiction--that "love conquers all." The character makes the irrational choice based purely on feeling that somehow turns out to be the right choice. But I also agree with those who point out that Sam acts in character. He says something about sticking to his master that was the "right rule."
I also cannot help thinking that the combination of circumstances might be a hint of Valar action. Sam like all the other characters has a choice of what do do with his circumstances.
j p
13. sps49
I had to wait a weekend, I think, and was figuratively biting my nails the whole time.

Sam was not thinking clearly, and to me, from the first read, I projected into my reading the assumption that the little voice in the back of Sam's head knew Frodo was probably alive and was trying to get him back to rescue Frodo.

I also think that at least Varda, her attention being drawn by the use of her name, was hollering at her Feanorian flatscreen palantir for Sam to get back there, now, dang it!

Then again, maybe not. Because we will soon see that Frodo's taking was probably necessary, since it eliminated the troops that the Tower of Cirith Ungol would've sent to search for and find both hobbits.

EDIT: Oh, and now "as if" will jump out at me the same way stunt rehearsal tire marks do!
Debbie Solomon
14. dsolo
To paraphrase a more contempory "hero" story -
"Save Frodo, Save the world"

I never questioned Sam's decision, but, of course, I was 18 when I first discovered LOTR (luckily, a cased trilogy in my school library and I was able to read them one after another). Now, nearly 40 years later, Sam is my favorite character because of his stubborn faithfulness.

As previously mentioned, Sam's instructions were to stay with Frodo. Gandalf must have known that Sam was necessary for Frodo's success. Throughout the book, various characters become aware of how their lives would change if they took the ring. There are always pivot points in history, and consequences for any decision (I read that the CIA refers to it as blowback). Sam was not supposed to be the ringbearer, and save the world. His part of the story was to lend his strength to Frodo. He was the visible reminder of why Frodo was doing this. Frodo had the harder burden. He had to fight the pain of a never healing wound and the pull of powerful, evil magic while traveling through a harsh land. Oh yea, and having every evil, scary nightmare you ever had looking for you. I wouldn't have been whiny, I would have been curled up in a fetal position sucking my thumb.

Aragorn is the valiant hero, Gandalf the powerful magician, the Elves represent beauty and the Dwarves strength, but it is the funny little Hobbits who save the day. Stubborn and loyal. Not in it for the glory, but because it had to be done. As another wizard once said, "It's not our abilities that define us, but our choices."
Andrew Foss
15. alfoss1540
Sam - not a planner but a follower. And True to the core for Frodo

- After walking through Shelob's dungeon of hell and barely getting out

- Beats the shit out of Gullumn - Finally - WINS

- Faces down Huge creepy Spider creature - WINS but

- Finds his best friend - and only reason he has to go on in the world - killed dead

At this point, I see Sam as the ultimate hero for actually getting himself up to continue the quest, but don't we all know that his heart is wrenched beyond itself. Anyone with any clude about PTSD might say - why isn't he curled up in a ball drooling right now?

Only to face his first real decision - after hearing the orcs - and puts on the ring - something Frodo has spent the last year resisting with the exception of Bree and Weathertop (Frodo still get's stud points). Sam, never a leader, can be forgiven. He needed direction to make it happen. And he got it by taking on a small fete - saving Frodo - rather than the whole ball of wax - Saving Middle Earth by himself.

- Going back to get Frodo's Body - totally in character for Sam.

Regarding the Orcs and their secret life - seemed a little Brokeback Mountainish to me. But you are right. Just what does go on in the minds of long time campaigners - human or otherwise. What's in it for them in the end?

Got the Book and ready to read on.

Watched the Movie and waiting for the jeers. It sucked hard again.
David Levinson
16. DemetriosX
Whether (without or not): I think Tolkien is drifting into High Fantasy narrative talk again and "whether" is merely used here as a fancy way of saying "if".

Jamsco @2: Track down a copy of the Atlas of Middle Earth. That includes a section showing the various tunnels and caves connecting Shelob's lair with the fortress. Still a little confusing, but it does help.

Orc POV: This is an interesting look at the way things work under Sauron, though I think we're supposed to be less than sympathetic. They're nasty, vicious and backstabbing, only looking out for number one and the main chance. They're a little like the mirror universe in original Star Trek. We do get a sort of look at the humans working for Sauron, but only through Sam's eyes, when he wonders about the Southron warrior he sees killed and his family. In many ways it engenders a lot more sympathy than this look at the orcs does.

Cliffhanger: I was fortunate enough to get this as a boxed set for my 12th birthday, so I didn't have to wait. But it's rather unfair to call it a cliffhanger. Remember, Tolkien wrote this as a single book. This is a moment of suspense and the action does turn away from these characters, but this is really nothing more than a good chapter end designed to get you to read on.

Sam: As others have pointed out, this is entirely in character for him. Not only is he driven by his love for and devotion to Frodo, he still lacks a degree of confidence in his own decisions and knowledge. Even though he winds up dragging Frodo halfway across Mordor and making most of the decisions, he still thinks that he doesn't know where to go or what to do. He even uses that uncertainty and lack of confidence to prompt Frodo into consciousness and motion.

Finally, I think the narrative does approve of his actions, albeit rather subtly. I find that approval in the orcs' reference to him as an elven warrior, his own assumption of that title (OK, right before he knocks himself unconscious, but still...), and IIRC, a mention of his shadow looking like an elven warrior. From Shelob to the decision to take up the ring to his decision to rescue Frodo, this chapter is where Sam openly becomes a hero. Before this, he could never have rallied the hobbits of Hobbiton and the surrounding countryside (as Merry and Pippin do for their respective borderlands) or go on to become the man who renewed the Shire and was mayor 7 times. He may not have been an elf or much of a warrior, but he does become a hero.
Iain Coleman
17. Iain_Coleman
The high point of this chapter for me is the bit where Sam contemplates suicide. All the rich prose of Tolkien's high fantasy falls away, revealing stripped down, stark sentences - and the moment is all the more powerful for it.

The Orcs' dialogue is very important in revealing Tolkien's view of the Orcs in general. Their language is very English vernacular, not just self-centred and blinkered, but petty and selfish with it - Hobbits gone wrong, if you will. These Orcs are not the Other, they are not stand-ins for other races or alien cultures: they are Tolkien and his countrymen at their meanest. I can't remember where exactly, but Tolkien wrote at one point of his experience in the Great War "I was an Orc".
Mary Aileen Buss
18. maryaileen
Re the cliffhanger ending: I first read LOTR in fifth grade, when I was home sick for several days. About the time I finished Two Towers, I got better and went back to school. I didn't pick up Return of the King immediately--partly because I was busy but mainly because I just wasn't that gripped by the story. (I did finish it in the next few weeks, as I recall.)

I liked it better re-reading it in high school, particularly because I then had friends to discuss it with.
Agnes Kormendi
19. tapsi
But... but they taught us that "whether" was more or less interchangeable with "if"...! Sigh. That's the problem with not being a native speaker: I would never, ever have noticed it was odd.

Re: "If it's ever a choice between saving my life and saving the whole world?" In most stories you can only save the world if you're willing to sacrifice it for one single person. Because that shows how you really care for the individual and not the greater good or something. Usually, it is about how "humanity" and "the world" are abstract ideas, but the person needing your help is a very real person and it is your moral obligation to help them first, because people are more important than ideas.

In real life, this would certainly be different, as reality doesn't work along moral laws...

Also, giving up the dead body of the person you love the best to a group of monsters must be a horrible idea. Even laying someone you loved to rest is hard, but everything Sam knew pointed to the fact that Frodo's corpse would almost certainly be defiled. I don't think it's surprising that he had a hard time resigning himself to that, especially shocked as he was by Shelob's horror and Frodo's death.
Tony Zbaraschuk
20. tonyz
From Merry and Pippin's time in captivity we learn that Hobbits, at any rate, believe that Orcs might very well eat the flesh of sentient creatures (is it cannibalism if it's a different species?) and the Orcs certainly throw the same accusation at each other, though it's fighting words.

One thing I think to keep in mind is that we see less and less of Frodo's viewpoint as the story goes on, and more and more of Sam's. And while there are story reasons for this (it's Sam who finishes the Red Book, after all), I think it's also that more and more of Frodo's will is being taken by resisting the Ring. We can't even begin to imagine the effort it must have taken.
Kathleen J
21. tanaudel
It was really interesting to read this, because I've just finished reading The Pickwick Papers and was struck increasingly by how much Sam Weller reminded me of Sam Gamgee, with his "stubborn faithfulness" (as dsolo said above)... although Sam Gamgee didn't seem to have the same desire to knock down Pippin and Merry as Weller did Mr Pickwick's friends. (Samuel Pickwick, however, is more of a Bilbo than a Frodo, and the very end of the book is like Hobbiton in happier days).
22. sunjah
Re: Cliffhanger!!!

When I was a teen, I read the LOTR as a serial to my younger brother. How he howled and laughed and pounded on the floor in frustration and delight, when he realized the Next Chapter goes back to Pippin's POV. I can't help thinking JRRT would have been pleased.
Ron Griggs
23. RonGriggs
The conversation of Shagrat and Gorbag is one of those few times we have some insight into the lives of orcs. When Gorbag makes his suggestion to slip off and set up an independent orc gang, Shagrat says "Ah! Like old times." I've pondered what he meant by that.

If he means the days before the return of Sauron to Mordor, that meant almost 80 years ago. And the Nazgul had seized Minas Ithil over a thousand years ago. How old are Gorbag and Shagrat? So I wondered if that passage suggests that orcs, like Elves, are immortal within the world and is consonant with the "Orcs are ruined Elves" theory of origin.

If on the other hand, Shagrat refers to old times he has heard about in tales of the free days before the Big Bosses returned, then it suggests an orkish culture with a sense of history that is beyond the reach of the brutish monstrosities portrayed in the movies. At other times, orcs refer to the Elves as "rebels," a term that could hearken back to events of the First Age.

In either case, the glimpses of orc conversation Tolkien shares with us are unappealing and horrid, but perhaps even more frightening because you know that there is someone behind those eyes who is degraded and evil but understandable: someone that you could become. Not just the nightmare monsters of Gimli's grim competition at Helm's Deep.
Wesley Parish
24. Aladdin_Sane
I think Sam's thoughts of standing and defending Frodo's body, are taken directly from Old English expectations of the heroic. Tolkien was after all, intimately familiar with the Old English verse where that was expected - The Battle of Maldon for one example.

As regards the orcs, he did comment on not wanting to use much of their conversation anyway in the Appendices, pointing out that you could hear that sort of talk any day amongst certain types of humans anyway.
25. DBratman
Kate: Remember how in the comments to the previous chapter, I said to take note of the importance of the tactical decisions made by the characters? In your commentary on this chapter, you have zeroed in precisely on the point that most interests, and puzzles, me about this chapter: Sam's decisions to take the Ring and leave, and then to come back.

In one sense, you're absolutely right: Sam's taking these two decisions, and doing so at the times he did, are the only way for him to accomplish the plot purpose of not being there when the Orcs find Frodo (and thus inevitably be captured himself: wearing the Ring would not be a good idea here), and yet come back in order to find that Frodo is not dead.

What's even more interesting to note is that both of Sam's decisions are wrong, but in different ways. His decision to take the Ring and leave is wrong factually: he thinks Frodo is dead, but he is mistaken. And his decision to come back and die with his master is also wrong, for the reason he states it's wrong: if Frodo is dead, as he still thinks at that moment, it's his job to carry the ball.

What makes this interesting is that, though the decisions are both wrong, they both come out for the right: taking the Ring does save him from capture (and also gives him valuable insight into the weight of Frodo's burden, which will serve him well later on), while coming back not only saves Frodo from torture and death (well, it will eventually), it also probably saves the Quest, even though Sam thinks it's lost, because Sam, frankly, could never have gotten to Mount Doom by himself. He's not even sure where to head. ("How far is there to go?" asks Frodo at the very foot of the Mountain. "I don't know," replies Sam, "because I don't know where we're going.")

On Orcs and the "regular Elvish trick" - Tom Shippey has a great article noting that while Orcs are scornful of their enemies, as they think, abandoning their comrades to Shelob, the Orcs do exactly the same thing and think it funny. (See Shagrat talking about Ufthak.) Orcs, Shippey points out, are complete hypocrites and don't notice it.

When you write "What would The Two Towers have looked like if it weren’t split into two books?" I guess you are talking about cutting back and forth frequently between the stories as dramatizations do. One of the great things about novels is that they don't have to do it; novels with frequent intercutting read to me like narrative versions of screenplays.

But it's also worth noting, on the wider scale, that Tolkien never wrote The Two Towers. He wrote The Lord of the Rings, and the three volumes are an artificial division. One reason Tolkien disliked doing that is that volume 2 in particular had no internal unity. He came up with the title, but left it ambiguous as to exactly which two towers it means. There's a lot of towers in this book.
26. Your mailbox is full.
Hmm. So many things to consider, and so little time.

I use "whether" in the same context as Tolkien, and I come from the same region of the UK... I don't know whether that is relevant.

SoonLee et al: I agree, based on personal experience, that deep grief is about as far away from logical as it is possible to get.

The evilness of the orcs: As Pterry said (I can't remember about which Discworld character; possibly the secretary of the Musician's Guild), "a sort of low-grade evil, which slightly tarnishes the soul of everyone who comes into contact". I think that this little exchange clearly shows Tolkien's uncertainty about the origins of the orcs and their nature - and that the movie Got It Wrong. I agree that a similar sort of conversation between Southrons would have gone a great way towards appeasing modern sensibilities.
Portraying them as "just guys" adds a whole new layer of horror. It's easy to hate a monster. Much harder to hate someone who evokes sympathy, however infinitesimal (cf the portrayal of Hitler in the movie "Downfall" - very uncomfortable viewing).

Sam debating whether to leave Frodo, and subsequently thinking that he should have stayed with him: This seems to me to be in line with the Norse theory of courage, with which Tolkien was enamoured (see Shippey's "Author of the Century"). Sometimes you should do the "right thing" even if you know that the ending will be dark. The same theory is applied to the whole quest for Mount Doom, and I think it is stated quite early on that they should attempt the destruction of the ring even if they don't expect to achieve it. I'm not sure whether I agree with it.
Nancy Lebovitz
27. NancyLebovitz

I think Tolkien's doing something more subtle than saying that it's virtue rather than might which defeats the darkness.

Instead, it's virtue with some might backing it up. Even if it took a pathetic hopeless feint for Gondor to distract Mordor for long enough Frodo and Sam to get to the Cracks of Doom, it still needed to be an army, and it's a good thing there was some force to keep the orcs from setting up gangs.

The Nazgul were swept away in a magical flood. The scouring of the Shire wasn't just a matter of strong words.

I'd need to reread the Silmarillion to recover the details, but I noticed that things didn't always go wrong the same way. Sometimes people were too hasty, sometimes they were too hesitant. There was no simple advice to be had.
28. Scottc
"Because the needs of the one... outweigh the needs of the many." From ST3. to mix genres, but apropos. The definition of friendship and the love it contains. Many good things can come of a seemingly selfish sacrifice- at least in novels.
Kate Nepveu
29. katenepveu
Hi, everyone. Wow, lot of great comments.

MariCats @ #1, though I loathe insects, Shelob on the page just doesn't have that effect on me. It may be my relatively non-visual style of reading, or that I've known for so long that she doesn't come back.

Jamsco @ #2, someone has made a map halfway down this page, which looks to fit my understanding of the situation from what I recall.

SusanJames @ #5, I would have less trouble with Sam's acting irrationally in grief if he hadn't previously acted quite rationally, you know?

Lsana @ #6, interesting. As a lawyer, the first thing I'm going to do when you present me with a slippery-slope argument is poke at the angle of the slope and the place you've drawn the line--but that said, as a matter of characterization, you may have a point.

jaspax @ #7, thanks--as you may have inferred, I assumed that the narrative approved of Sam's decision, and that may well be one of the reasons my subconscious had seized upon. Though I think NancyLebovitz @ #27 has an important caveat.

philbert @ #8, I don't agree with your characterization of Frodo, but I do seem to recall that the book gets further away from Frodo as they get further into Mordor, because Sam is forced to take on a more active role (as tonyz @ #20 points out).

rickg @ #10, and we can be pretty well sure, thanks to this episode, that if Gollum weren't around at Mount Doom, Sam wouldn't be able to take the Ring from Frodo.

EricBraddock @ #11, great picture!

sps49 @ #13, Varda "hollering at her Feanorian flatscreen palantir" wins the Internets for today. I love it.

DemetriosX @ #16, I gave the wrong impression--no, the Orcs aren't supposed to be sympathetic, but they're still so recognizable that it really caught my attention.

The elven warrior thing is another good clue that I was probably picking up when I assumed the narrative approves of Sam's decision, thanks.

tapsi @ #19, I would never have guessed you aren't a native speaker! And my usage may be idiosyncratic, anyway; don't worry about it.

sunjah @ #22, great story about reading _LotR_ out loud. I'm sure JRRT would have been pleased--what better reaction than wanting to know what happens next?

RonGriggs @ #23, I like your speculations about "old times" for the Orcs. I certainly got a sense of orcish cultural beliefs with the comment about Elves, but hadn't thought it through further than that.

Aladdin_Sane @ #24, Your mailbox is full. @ #26, thanks--my lack of familiarity with English & Norse mythology keeps being an issue here.

DBratman @ #25, thanks for reminding me about the future consequences of Sam's decision--I had forgotten Sam's comment about not knowing where they were going, besides the problem of Gollum and so forth. And for Orc hypocrisy--very true.

And you remind me that I meant to link to Adam Roberts's re-read posts talking about _The Two Towers_ on this topic:

my sense of Two Towers I was of a book artfully, and I think eloquently, passing from the tower of Death to the tower of Life (Gandalf, dead, revivifying; Theoden, a living corpse, returned to youth; Trees, rooted and insentient, transformed by Tolkien's imagination into roving, powerful Ents). Two Towers II, in complementary fashion, seems to me now to trace the opposite trajectory; from Life to Death, or some ghastly state in between which is not yet dead but not quite life.

Which I think is a very interesting theme that I have pretty much not talked about, err, at all.

So: discuss!

(Or wait until we start up the text again, I'm sure there'll be opportunities.)
30. Molly M.
Re Tolkein's comment about being an orc: I have always thoughts of orcs as beings bred as foot soldiers to serve the will of their master and took his remark to mean he was cannon fodder.
Tony Zbaraschuk
31. tonyz
Morgoth certainly intended the Orcs to serve as foot soldiers (though he may also have taken a certain amount of pleasure in the sheer process of breaking the Children of Iluvater into his would-be pattern.) The various conversations we overhear suggest that the Orcs aren't entirely content with their lot in life, but they've been shoved down so far it's hard for them to really conceive alternatives.
j p
32. sps49
I was 14 when I first read LotR, and enjoyed it the most then before thinking about the whys and hows, but the Appendices and Silmarillion do contain other examples of characters making a stand over fallen comrades. Thorin III over Brand's body is one, and I was going to type Húrin, but his stand covered Turgon's retreat.

Recalling the Silmarillion reminds me of one time when the foes of evil had the might in arms, but lost their virtue- Númenor under Ar-Pharazôn winning in the field against Sauron.

The debate over the origin of the Orcs is less clear. I believed they were descended from twisted Elves, and their portrayal in this chapter reinforced that for me, because I believe we all carry within the seeds of selfishness and evil that any group has. But I have read second-hand that Tolkien changed his mind later.
33. DBratman
Those who find the geography of this chapter confusing should not consider themselves dim. Everyone has trouble with the geography of this chapter, and some find geographical discrepancies in it.

In fact I have read a highly speculative article explaining this by suggesting that passing through Shelob's Lair interferes with one's sense of space the way that passing through Lorien interferes with one's sense of time (something that Sam, in particular, notes when it happens).

However, such speculation regarding the Lair reminds me of all the elaborate attempts to explain how, for instance, Dr. Watson's wound migrated from his shoulder to his leg, when the obvious explanation is that the author forgot.

Regarding the cliffhanger ending: this was of course intended only as a mild cliffhanger when the author wrote the book, intending as he did a single large volume. But when it was published as the end of a book, and when the third book's expected publication date was delayed by about six months (the narrative was finished, but Tolkien was still desperately trying to finish up the Appendices) ... the increasingly desperate letters received by the publisher during that interval was, he later said, his first exterior evidence that he really had published a classic.
34. formerly DaveT
I was taught that 'whether' implies "or not", and that you only add the "or not" for extra emphasis -- sort of like the difference between "Are you coming?" and "Are you coming or not?".

(I was also taught that using 'if' in place of 'whether' when musing about future outcomes or unknowns is incorrect, and I still reflexively change things like "He wondered if it would rain" when I edit other people's writing.)
Soon Lee
35. SoonLee
Re: Sam's choices.

It occurs to me that faith & emotion play a much bigger role than rationality in LotR. There are many places where choices are made more on the basis of emotion & faith than logic.
Geoffrey Dow
36. ed-rex
I hate this kind of thing in regard to romantic relationships (the original quote is about just that), so I don’t think this is me knee-jerking about the existence of a master-servant relationship and whatever extent that affects Sam’s decision. I can’t think of any relationship in which I would agree with Sam’s decision.

Agreed; from my vantage point also, there's really nothing to debate.

But I'm commenting because you compared the scene to those found in romantic relationships. Although I'm sure Tolkien did not mean it to be taken that way at all, I've long thought that at least Sam's side of the Frodo/Sam relationship could be read as a (romantic) love story, not just a friendship.

Indeed, looking at it from that point of view, it reads as more realistic than that between Faramir and Eowyn to come.

But as I said, I know Tolkien didn't mean it that way.
Geoffrey Dow
37. ed-rex
And furthermore ...

Also: cliffhangers: evil. Did anyone here read this volume without the third on hand? How long did you have to wait, and how awful was it?

I've never not had The Return of the King on hand, but that doesn't really matter; you still have to get through the return to Minis Tirith before you return to Sam and Frodo.

Had Tolkien been a lesser writer, I would have gone back in time and throttled him for that cliff-hanger.
38. clovis
Another reason for Sam returning to Frodo's corpse might be a strong cultural distaste/abhorrence of leaving the dead untended. This is still around today, and was, I would wager, stronger in Tolkien's day (after all he had lived through the mass formal interment of the WWI dead in the 1920s, the building of the cenotaph etc). It is also implicit, I think, within the LOTR world. After all, don't Aragon et al hang around debating what to do with Boromir's corpse when a)they're in a bit or a hurry and b)Aragon believes that Boromir was a traitor? Yet not only do they arrange a respectful funeral for him, they even sing a lament. Sam's instinct to return to the corpse, though it infuriated me too at first reading, perhaps fits better in this context.
39. Dr. Thanatos
Sam's actions in this sequence have always felt inspiring to me.

Here's this guy who's born into a culture where he's a servant who is for the first time thrust into the lead. He really hasn't been anything other than a sidekick up to this point. And rather than let it go to his head he is ruled by his "plain hobbit sense." And this doesn't mean his sense of keeping in his place; Sam can not be tempted. He is more resistant to the lure of the Ring than anyone else other than Bombadil with whom he shares some interesting virtues and traits, I just realized!]---I mean Boromir was tempted and fell; Gandalf and Galadriel were tempted and really had to fight hard to resist ---Sam just shrugged it off as common sense that he was just a gardener and not a conqueror. And what happened next? He's the only person in the whole history who hands over the Ring to someone else without a struggle or assistance.

I see this as the big turning point for Sam; he's proven his worth and it's just assumed from here on that he's a leader. And he didn't earn it by right of battle or by showing magical healing powers or by having had to prove the right ancestry . Sam's rise to the role of leader and hero is marked by his humility. He knows who he is and what his limitations are; exactly the kind of thing the Ring can't stand.

Sam's returning to Frodo, in this context, makes perfect sense. It's exactly what you would expect him to do. He is first, last, and always, Frodo's Sam.
Michael Ikeda
40. mikeda
Dr Thanatos@39

I think you're overstating any difference between Sam's reaction and that of Gandalf, Galadriel, etc.

Sam IS tempted. "Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason." And in the next paragraph: "In that hour of trial..." He does resist like several others before him, but his reaction seems more similar than different to the others who successfully resisted.

I also suspect the Ring is partly at work a few pages later "Now it had come to it, Sam felt reluctant to give up the Ring and burden his master with it again." and still later at Mt. Doom when Sam suggests he carry the Ring for a while.
41. Dr. Thanatos

Yes, Sam was reluctant. I never said the Ring wasn't trying and that Sam wasn't tempted. But Sam handed the Ring over without more than a moment's reluctance. Contrast that with the emotional turmoil that Gandalf and Galadriel appeared to go through .

He's still the only one to transfer the Ring willingly and without direct assistance from Gandalf---and I maintain that this is a big flashing sign that tells us something about Sam.
Francesca Forrest
42. Asakiyume
Regarding Sam's actions, there's a line from the online comic "Pictures for Sad Children" that goes "You did what you thought was best but you were wrong." Here, it seems as if we could modify that line to be "You did what seems to be a ridiculous thing, but it turned out to be right." I like what others have said about the Valar in the background. And I agree that it's in keeping with Sam's character.

Regarding Sam's temptation versus Galadriel's or Gandalf's--is it a case of each tempted according to his means, so to speak? Galadriel and Gandalf have the capability of doing a lot more with the ring than Sam does. So what they're giving up is WORLD DOMINATION, but what Sam's giving up is--the possibility of turning into Gollum. Not such a tempting fate. Not that he would have thought about it consciously, of course. He's still goodhearted--after all, he *doesn't* succumb to temptation, wheres Smeagol does.
Kate Nepveu
43. katenepveu
Hi, everyone. Sorry for the very long absence. Life, you know.

sps49 @ #32, Dain, actually, standing over Brand's body, "before the Gate of Erebor until the darkness fell", which does suggest some military necessity as well to me.

DBratman @ #33, as others have said, even if _LotR_ had originally been published between just two covers, there's still all of Book V to get through . . .

ed-rex @ #36, as I'm sure you know many people have agreed with your reading. Me, I have a bias toward friendships in fiction because I think they're too rare, and yet the thought crossed my mind as well.

clovis @ #38, you're unquestionably right about the cultural context, and I think I noted at the time how much more interested the text was in Boromir's funeral than his fight to the death.

Dr. Thanatos @ #39, I was with you up until your last paragraph!
44. DonnaIsme
@39 & 41 -- I assume that when you say "Sam's the only one..." you mean "the only one besides Frodo"? Frodo hands over the ring with only a feeling of reluctance twice -- first to Gandalf and then to Bombadil. Both times are before he's had to carry the ring very far. These incidents are similar in description to Sam being able to hand over the ring to Frodo, when he has not had possession of it for very long.
Andrew Foss
45. alfoss1540
@44 Both times Frodo handed it over, he was the ringbearer and had full expectation that he would get it back. Sam will hand it back to Frodo, knowing he will not, because it rightfully belongs to Frodo.

Kate - Look forward to your movie comments. Keep the Tums close!
46. DonnaIsme
I don't think that makes a difference. I suspect that a few months later, at Rivendell or anytime after, Frodo would not have willingly handed the ring to anyone.

Anyway, I don't mean to make Sam less inspiring -- I agree with Thanatos that he is. But I'm dubious that he's more resistant to the lure of the ring than Frodo.

It's interesting, isn't it, that we never get a picture of the lures that the Ring presents to Frodo? We know what Sam sees -- making a garden of the world. We get a glimpse of Boromir's temptation. We even know what Gollum sees, in that little bit of fantasizing about being The Gollum and having lots of fish. But all Frodo tells us is that he sees a wheel of fire.
Kate Nepveu
47. katenepveu
alfoss1540 @ #45, more like Tylenol for my poor head . . .

Watch for all the headdesking, coming very soon to a near you.

DonnaIsme @ #46, now that _is_ interesting: what does Frodo see? Maybe it's not anything specific, just a beating on his will, because it's such a long-term thing? But that doesn't seem in-character. Hmm.
48. DonnaIsme
By the way, I first read LOTR in high school, I believe in the summer between 10th and 11th grade. I remember that I bought The Fellowship of the Ring while I was at music camp. I spent about 4 or 5 days reading it, going at a leisurely pace from the shire to Rivendell, and then zipping through Moria and the rest. I immediately ran out and got The Two Towers and The Return of the King and didn't come up for air until I read Sam's final words when he returns from the Havens. I wasn't just in an agony of suspense after TT Book II -- I was in suspense after almost every chapter!

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