This week in the Lord of the Rings re-read, we consider “The Land of Shadow,” Chapter 2 of book VI of The Return of the King. The usual comments and spoilers after the jump.
Sam and Frodo flee from Cirith Ungol and head as best they can for Mount Doom. They overhear two Orcs, one tracker and one soldier, quarreling about their orders to search for Gollum (which ends in the tracker murdering the soldier), and later Sam sees Gollum coming near a resting Frodo. Orc camps and fortifications leave Sam and Frodo no choice but to take a road cut down the side of a cliff, on which they are overtaken by Orcs and thought to be deserters. They come down to the plain and manage to escape before they are forced into a gated camp, when several companies of Orcs collide and create a great deal of confusion.
Maybe it’s this chapter I think of when I think how long the journey across Mordor is, when it’s really only three chapters of this book? Because this feels like a pretty long chapter and yet the actual events, as you can see, do not take much summarizing, when you leave out the “they walked and rested and were miserable.” I also had a rotten time visualizing the geography of Udûn, the Isenmouthe, and so on, though that say more about my attention level than anything else. I’d like to find something more enjoyable in these chapters than I remember, truly I would, because it’s been so lovely when I’ve found things elsewhere, but they are still just not doing very much for me.
* * *
I had a bit of carryover from last time’s noticing how everything was set up to help them escape, when in the second paragraph of this chapter, they “escape() for the moment” by getting “out of sight (of) the Tower.” Except as the end of that paragraph says, there is a Nazgûl “(p)erching now on the wall beside the ruined gate”—or, to be precise about it, the winged creature that the Nazgûl is riding is perching on the wall, and therefore temporarily being “out of sight” really ought not constitute safety. Especially since the Nazgûl are stronger now that they are in Mordor. No aerial searches? No sensing the Ring that’s only “fifty paces” away? Really?
I didn’t have the same reaction to their escape from the Orcs at the end of the chapter, on the other hand. Perhaps that’s a sign I was getting into the story a bit more by then, or maybe it was just more intrinsically plausible.
* * *
Frodo. The effects of the Ring seem to be affecting more and more of his mind. He tells Sam that while in prison, he tried to remember various Shire landscapes (and I find it telling that he specifically mentions landscapes, not people) but “can’t see them now,” because “this blind dark seems to be getting into my heart.” Shortly after that, the wind changes, they get a bit of light [*], and they hear a Nazgûl bringing bad news (which they don’t know is the Witch-king’s death), but even that doesn’t help Frodo. Sam asks him if he has some hope now, and Frodo says no: he is beginning to see the Ring in his mind all the time, “like a great wheel of fire.” But he’s still maintaining the attitude he had in last chapter, that he doesn’t expect or even hope to succeed, but must do his best anyway.
[*] With an orientation paragraph that rips out my heart in its matter-of-factness:
It was the morning of the fifteenth of March, and over the Vale of Anduin the Sun was rising above the eastern shadow, and the south-west wind was blowing. Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields.
We also get a look at another change in him, when he gives Sting to Sam, telling him, “I do not think it will be my part to strike any blow again.” He also casts aside his armor earlier, which is framed as reducing the weight he must carry, but gains new significance in light of giving up his weapon. And then they’re forced to pretend to be Orcs, put back in the role of soldiers that Frodo’s just tried to give up; I think it’s not just the physical exertion that weighs so heavily on Frodo as a result of this episode.
Sam is mostly being Sam here, loyal and practical and self-sacrificing. He is, however, the one who maybe-sorta-possibly has a wish granted. He tells Frodo that if only Galadriel could hear or see them, he’d tell her that all they want is light and water. And then they find both and he credits her: “If ever I see the Lady again, I will tell her!” Of course Galadriel could perfectly well see or hear them (did he forget the Mirror, do you think, or was his comment not actually rhetorical as I initially read it?), and perhaps she was able to guide them subtly to the stream. Or not—there’s no way to tell.
Sam also receives an insight that has “significant message” written all over it:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
A footnote in the Appendices identifies the star as Eärendil, which links this to the entire mythic history of Middle-earth and makes it more likely, as far as I’m concerned, that the thought was sent to Sam. I wonder if this is the thought that could bring help to him from the prior chapter?
* * *
I suppose I ought to say something about the setting besides that I found the geography difficult, but, ugh. Okay, to be fair, part of the ugh is that the description of the bugs made the skin on the back of my neck and shoulders try and crawl off my muscles (buzzing around with “red eye-shaped blotch(es)” on them, arrrrgh arrrrgh arrrrgh).
There is a mention of how everyone in Mordor gets fed: there are “great slave-worked fields away south,” and “tributary lands” to the south and east that send “long waggon-trains of goods and booty and fresh slaves” along “great roads.” The little I once knew about historical agricultural societies has fallen away, so I’m not sure how far a separation between fields and cities there’s historical precedent for given this level of transportation technology, but hey, at least it’s mentioned.
While we’re talking logistics, I should note that I was surprised that a Nazgûl could make it to Frodo and Sam’s vicinity from the Pelennor Fields as quickly as it apparently did (we’re told that “Théoden lay dying,” and in the very next sentence that “(a)s Frodo and Sam stood and gazed, . . . they saw a shape, moving at a great speed out of the West,” which eventually turns out to be the Nazgûl). I don’t know if there’s any straight-line calculations of that distance anywhere, but the Éowyn Challenge makes it about 100 miles on the ground from Minas Tirith to the Black Gate, and if the internet can be believed, a normal flight speed for bald eagles is around 40 miles an hour. For whatever all that’s worth.
By the end of the chapter, Frodo thinks they are about sixty miles from Mount Doom and that it will take them at least a week to get there. Looking at Appendix B, he was spot-on about the time, at least.
* * *
The omniscient narrator tells us that Aragorn’s distraction attempt with the palantír was successful: “The Dark Power was deep in thought, and the Eye turned inward, pondering tidings of doubt and danger: a bright sword, and a stern and kingly face it saw, and for a while it gave little thought to other things.”
The tracker Orc is described as “black-skinned.”
Word looked up: “ghyll,” which the internet claims is either a ravine or a stream, and since water is so hard to come by here I’m going with ravine as the intended meaning.
Mount Doom next time, guys!
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.