With this week’s Lord of the Rings chapter, we have only the second chapter whose title is a sentence—but “The Black Gate Is Closed” is just a bit of a contrast to “Three Is Company” (Fellowship I.3). As always, spoilers for the entire book and comments after the jump.
Frodo, Sam, and Sméagol arrive at the Black Gate and find it not just closed but very thoroughly watched indeed. Frodo declares his intention to enter regardless. Sméagol, in great distress, first asks Frodo to keep the Ring or to give it to him, and then offers to show him another way. Frodo decides to trust him enough to hear him out, but warns him that the Ring is trying to twist him and that Frodo would put on the Ring rather than let Sméagol have it.
Sméagol is terrified but eventually describes the path he found near Minas Ithil, by which, he says, he escaped Mordor. He is offended when they doubt his story but reluctantly admits that it may be guarded. As Frodo ponders, they hear noises and Sméagol sees Men from the South marching to join Sauron. Sam is disappointed that there are no oliphaunts. Frodo laughs at the oliphaunt rhyme and that breaks his indecision; they will go with Sméagol.
And here’s a chapter where really not very much happens. We’d been doing so well, too.
I don’t have much to say about the specifics of the Very Grim and Forbidding description of the Black Gate and environs, other than that there are two animal comparisons in one sentence: “Beneath the hills on either side the rock was bored into a hundred caves and maggot-holes; there a host of orcs lurked, ready at a signal to issue forth like black ants going to war.”
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There are two bits about the conversation when they first arrive at the Gate that I noticed for the first time here. One is Sméagol’s description of what will happen if Sauron gets the Ring, which is nicely in character: “He’ll eat us all, if He gets it, eat all the world.”
The other is Frodo’s warning Sméagol that he is in danger from the Ring and he will never get the Ring back:
In the last need, Sméagol, I should put on the Precious; and the Precious mastered you long ago. If I, wearing it, were to command you, you would obey, even if it were to leap from a precipice or to cast yourself into the fire. And such would be my command.
Maybe a very small subtle hint, only clear in retrospect, at what Frodo is saved from by Gollum’s taking the Ring? Since, of course, Gollum does leap from a precipice and cast himself into the fire, but not at Frodo’s command, and that’s blood he doesn’t have on his hands. (Sam thinks that Frodo looks and sounds in a way he hasn’t before, which suggests to me that this is in part the Ring’s influence.)
* * *
We’ve mentioned this before, but just for completeness’s sake: here’s where we get a description of Sauron: “‘He has only four [fingers] on the Black Hand, but they are enough,’ said Gollum shuddering.” Which is nicely economical.
A dip into Frodo’s point of view, here, after Sméagol describes his proposed alternate route, showing his evaluation of Sméagol’s sincerity and trustworthiness. This does two things: first, it shows that Frodo isn’t foolishly naive. Second, it provides a hook for the omniscient narrator to foreshadow and to link the reader back to the rest of the book:
Its name was Cirith Ungol, a name of dreadful rumour. Aragorn could perhaps have told them that name and its significance; Gandalf would have warned them. But they were alone, and Aragorn was far away, and Gandalf stood amid the ruin of Isengard and strove with Saruman, delayed by treason. Yet even as he spoke his last words to Saruman, and the palantír crashed in fire upon the steps of Orthanc, his thought was ever upon Frodo and Samwise, over the long leagues his mind sought for them in hope and pity.
Maybe Frodo felt it, not knowing it, as he had upon Amon Hen, even though he believed that Gandalf was gone, gone for ever into the shadow in Moria far away. He sat upon the ground for a long while, silent, his head bowed, striving to recall all that Gandalf had said to him.
How do people find the reference to the other characters? I like it and find it elegant, I always have, but I don’t think it would be unreasonable to find it jarring.
Also, this quote introduces a problem in the timeline. I had thought we were to understand the two Nazgûl flyovers from the last chapter as indicating that then we were contemporaneous with the end of Book III, but now it’s the next day and Gandalf is only now on the steps of Orthanc? I haven’t gone back and counted the days, but Appendix B agrees with this chapter, not the previous one, for what that’s worth.
* * *
We get a glimpse of one army of Sauron’s and a secondhand look at another. Early in the chapter, Frodo sees gleams of armor and mounted riders, and knows that “These were Men of other race, out of the wide Eastlands, gathering to the summons of their Overlord.” Then at the end, they hear voices approaching, and Sméagol looks and reports back:
‘More Men going to Mordor,’ he said in a low voice. ‘Dark faces. We have not seen Men like these before, no, Sméagol has not. They are fierce. They have black eyes, and long black hair, and gold rings in their ears; yes, lots of beautiful gold. And some have red paint on their cheeks, and red cloaks; and their flags are red, and the tips of their spears; and they have round shields, yellow and black with big spikes. Not nice; very cruel wicked Men they look. Almost as bad as Orcs, and much bigger. Sméagol thinks they have come out of the South beyond the Great River’s end: they came up that road.’
This is Sméagol talking, so his reliability is in question. However, as we’ve discussed, the text hasn’t previously hesitated to equate inner character and outer appearance, which makes me less dismissive of Sméagol’s assessment of their characters than I might otherwise be. The entirety of this description evokes stereotypes of African tribal warriors to me; whether it would have had the same effect for Tolkien, I can’t say. I also can’t remember if it’s someone from this region or another that Sam feels a moment of curiosity and empathy about, later. Regardless, I don’t recall getting much more substantive about the human societies who serve Mordor, and I do wish that Tolkien had found some way to explore who they were and why they were fighting for Sauron. Also that he didn’t equate character and appearance.
(Since I have raised race I feel the need for my ritual disclaimer. I am not saying that Tolkien was consciously racist or A Bad Person or a member of the English KKK-equivalent or whatever. I am saying that (1) I find that some of LotR has unfortunate resonances with racist attitudes; (2) said attitudes do and did permeate Western society to such a degree that it takes conscious effort not to unconsciously absorb and perpetuate them; (3) I point out places where I find LotR to be problematic not to cast aspersions on Tolkien’s character or to harsh other people’s squee but because (a) this is a close reading, after all and (b) it’s important to point out racially-problematic aspects of things because that’s how to stop unconsciously absorbing and perpetuating racist attitudes.)
* * *
I was good and tried to mentally hear Sam’s rhyme about the oliphaunts, and was thrown off-kilter when the first several rhyming couplets didn’t match up with the end of sentences. That is, it starts,
Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake
—and I expected a period, not a comma and the continuation “As I tramp through the grass; / Trees crack as I pass.” The next two sentences end in the middle of couplets, which I also find a bit odd, though not as much. I have no idea if this expectation is based in any standard of quality for poetry, but I usually don’t have anything to say about the poetry, so hey.
* * *
I mentioned last time that the first two chapters in this book ended with isolating and fearful silence. This time we get that almost at the end, just after Frodo trying to remember if Gandalf had had any advice for this problem. It’s broken by another Nazgûl flying overhead. Then the approaching army comes, which brings up the oliphaunts and allows the chapter to end on laughter for a change. It also includes Frodo hoping for a grander journey—“a thousand oliphaunts with Gandalf on a white one at their head,” which is interesting since Frodo does not know that Gandalf is now the White or riding a white horse—and then rejecting it, because he knows full well that he’s not in that kind of story. And if the reader hasn’t figured that out by now, well, I guess they can’t say Tolkien didn’t warn them.
And on that cheery note, see you next week, when stuff starts happening again.
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.