The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Two Towers IV.1, “The Taming of Sméagol”

We embark on the second half of The Lord of the Rings with chapter IV.1 of The Two Towers, “The Taming of Sméagol.” As always, spoilers for the entire book and comments after the jump.

What Happens

Frodo and Sam have been trying to get out of the Emyn Muil for three days, and finally that night come to a cliff that they can descend with the help of a handy self-untying Elven rope, after a brief pause for Nazgûl-inspired terror and blindness. As they rest near the bottom, they see Gollum, who they saw was following them the first night, coming down the cliff. He falls near the bottom (having no rope of his own), and Sam pounces on him, but is bitten and nearly throttled before Frodo pulls out Sting.

Frodo, remembering Gandalf’s words about pity, decides not to kill Gollum but to force him to accompany them so they can keep an eye on him. Gollum agrees but then makes a break for it when the hobbits feign sleep. They catch him easily and tie his ankle with their rope. However, the Elf-made rope causes Gollum pain, so Frodo agrees to take it off in return for his oath on the One Ring. Gollum, now calling himself Sméagol, becomes abjectly devoted to Frodo and begins guiding them to Mordor.


Let’s start with Frodo, who is more tired and worn out at this point than I’d remembered. At the start of the chapter, as they try to figure the way to Mordor, he says, “All my choices have proved ill. . . . Every day that passes is a precious day lost. I am tired, Sam. I don’t know what is to be done.” He recovers pretty well during the chapter—and I’m certainly not blaming him!—but I hadn’t expected to see that kind of comment this early in the book.

Also, just in case anyone’s unfamiliar with the usage: when Frodo says “It’s my doom, I think, to go to that Shadow yonder, so that a way will be found,” he’s using “doom” in the older sense of “fate,” not “doom and gloom.” Which belatedly makes me wonder what sense the drums in Moria were using the word . . .

* * *

Frodo remains more suspectible to the Nazgûl than Sam, being temporarily struck blind at the sound of its cry. The rope appears to play a role in Frodo’s sight returning. I wonder if it shimmers generally, not just in response to significant evil? I’m not sure I’d take odds either way, since the Elves are so associated with light: Galadriel’s phial and the Silmarils back in the First Age, but even the cloaks, which control light through their color-blending properties.

The very convenient rope (remembered to be in Sam’s pack, very light, longer than they expect, stronger than they expect, lifts their hearts) becomes a little too convenient for me when it unties itself at Sam’s wish and invocation of Galadriel. I’m also not sure it really makes a difference: yes, if Gollum had had a rope it would have been harder for the hobbits to catch him at first, but I think a way could have been found.

Also, the storm that accompanies the Nazgûl appears ordinary at first, but a later passage suggests otherwise:

The skirts of the storm were lifting, ragged and wet, and the main battle had passed to spread its great wings over the Emyn Muil, upon which the dark thought of Sauron brooded for a while. Thence it turned, smiting the Vale of Anduin with hail and lightning, and casting its shadow upon Minas Tirith with threat of war. Then, lowering in the mountains, and gathering its great spires, it rolled on slowly over Gondor and the skirts of Rohan, until far away the Riders on the plain saw its black towers moving behind the sun, as they rode into the West. But here, over the desert and the reeking marshes the deep blue sky of evening opened once more, and a few pallid stars appeared, like small white holes in the canopy above the crescent moon.

I point this out for three reasons: I hadn’t noticed it before; it adds a layer of menace to the storm, which was already physically dangerous and had a bonus Nazgûl, to have Sauron’s thought linked to it; and it’s a nice reminder of the other things that are going on. I’m not sure what I’m going to end up thinking about the splitting of the story into separate chunks, but I do recall that Tolkien makes an effort to remind readers of how the timelines match up and show that the characters are thinking of each other.

* * *

And now, Gollum and Sméagol. A question for you all, to start: has anyone with a better sense of rhythm than I analyzed Gollum’s speech to see if there’s some pattern lurking there? It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that his uses of repetition, pauses, non-standard plurals, and interjections—which are so characteristic and flow so well—are part of a modified verse form or some such.

Frodo decides not to kill Gollum because of his conversation with Gandalf, which is described with a slightly different emphasis than I remembered. The dialogue is introduced like this: “It seemed to Frodo then that he heard, quite plainly but far off, voices out of the past.” And after, Frodo’s reaction suggests this was more literal than metaphorical, as he “answer(s) aloud” and “seem(s) to be speaking to some one who was not there.” But I don’t believe that Gandalf actually spoke to him now or stirred that memory from afar, as he did on Amon Hen; it just feels wrong. What do you all think?

After Frodo answers out loud, the viewpoint for the rest of the chapter shifts to Sam; to this point, it had been mostly Frodo. (Oh, and the intrusive narrator made a brief appearance when Sam attempted to go over the cliff first: “It is doubtful if he ever did anything braver in cold blood, or more unwise.”) The effect is of alienation and distance, emphasizing the ways that Frodo is like Sméagol and moving away from Sam; indeed, Sam thinks that “the two were in some way akin and not alien: they could reach one another’s minds.” And Frodo does show surprising insight. He is the first to call Gollum “Sméagol,” perhaps prompted by the memory of his conversation with Gandalf, but that conversation hadn’t made clear the significance of the name the way that Gollum does, shortly after:

Then suddenly his voice and language changed, and he sobbed in his throat, and spoke but not to them. ‘Leave me alone, gollum! You hurt me. O my poor hands, gollum! I, we, I don’t want to come back. I can’t find it. I am tired. I, we can’t find it, gollum, gollum, no, nowhere. . . . ’ He got up and clenched his long hand into a bony fleshless knot, shaking it towards the East. ‘We won’t!’ he cried. ‘Not for you.’ Then he collapsed again. ‘Gollum, gollum,’ he whimpered with his face to the ground. ‘Don’t look at us! Go away! Go to sleep!’

‘He will not go away or go to sleep at your command, Sméagol,’ said Frodo. ‘But if you really wish to be free of him again, then you must help me. . . . ’

Gollum sat up again and looked at him under his eyelids. ‘ . . . Don’t ask Sméagol. Poor, poor Sméagol, he went away long ago. They took his Precious, and he’s lost now.’

‘Perhaps we’ll find him again, if you come with us,’ said Frodo.

‘No, no, never! He’s lost his Precious,’ said Gollum.

(Note also the switching between “I” and “we” in the remembered statements in Mordor. He and Mark Vorkosigan might have some interesting conversations . . . )

The first time Sméagol refers to himself by that name is when he offers to swear on the Ring. The resulting promise also contains mixed speech patterns: “‘We promises, yes I promise!’ said Gollum. ‘I will serve the master of the Precious. Good master, good Sméagol, gollum, gollum!’” Which probably ought to have been a warning sign to Frodo.

(Who, despite telling Gollum to beware swearing on the One Ring, that it is “treacherous” and “may twist your words,” doesn’t seem to notice the ambiguity in this promise, the ambiguity that Gollum will later exploit. That twisting can go more than one way, Frodo . . . )

And then Sméagol gets the dog imagery that once upon a time was applied to Sam, only more so: “like a whipped cur whose master has patted it,” “like a dog inviting them for a walk.” I’m fully with Sam on this one, for a change:

[Sméagol] would cackle with laughter and caper, if any jest was made, or even if Frodo spoke kindly to him, and weep if Frodo rebuked him. Sam said little to him of any sort. He suspected him more deeply than ever, and if possible liked the new Gollum, the Sméagol, less than the old.

Well, maybe not so much on the suspicion, but definitely on the dislike. Pity, too, but his abjectness makes my skin crawl. To go back to the dog metaphor: if I step on my dog’s paw by accident, she will yelp and then immediately start licking my hand and wagging her tail, as if to say, “I’m a good dog, really I am, don’t hurt me, see, I’m a good dog!” Which I hate. I would much rather she go sulk for a while, odd as that may sound, because it wouldn’t make me feel like a domestic abuser (especially when I apologize by petting her, which I can’t help but suspect is reinforcing the dynamic).

 . . . that is probably a controversial example, so let’s just say that one person’s self-worth ought not depend so wholly and intensely on another person’s opinion of them, which I think we can all agree on. I have no idea if Frodo does anything to try and discourage this, or if it’s even something he has the capacity to comprehend as a problem as the Ring begins to wear on him more.

Oh, yes: I wondered last time if it would feel weird, coming back to Frodo and Sam after so long away. It did at first, especially since we are plunked right down into Sam’s idiom in the first line, so different from what we’ve been hearing: “‘Well, master, we’re in a fix and no mistake,’ said Sam Gamgee.” But from there I fell back into the story very easily. I don’t know if that was familiarity or technique, and would be particularly interested in other people’s experiences.

« Two Towers III.11 | Index | “Frodo and the Great War” »

Kate Nepveu is, among other things, an appellate lawyer, a spouse and parent, and a woman of Asian ancestry. She also writes at her LiveJournal and booklog.


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