The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Two Towers IV.4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”

Time for a cooking interlude, among other things, in this week’s Lord of the Rings re-read post. After the jump, comments on “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit” and spoilers for all of LotR.

What Happens

Frodo, Sam, and Sméagol travel into Ithilien, where plants are growing in the spring weather. At Sam’s request, Sméagol catches two rabbits for the hobbits, but is frightened and angry when Sam lights a fire and cooks them. Not without reason: after Frodo and Sam eat, Sam’s fire starts smoking and is spotted by four soldiers, including Faramir, Captain of Gondor.

Frodo asks the men to spare Sméagol if they come across him and identifies himself and Sam as hobbits who traveled out of Imladris (Rivendell) with Boromir and other companions. Faramir is startled and wants to hear more, but must go to battle (leaving two men behind to guard).

The guards tell Frodo that they are ambushing soldiers of Harad, come to join Sauron. The fight comes near, and in rapid succession Sam sees a dead man and a Mûmak, both of Harad. The Oliphaunt vanishes and they settle to wait for Faramir’s return.


I am pretty emphatically not at my best these days (too much work, not enough sleep), but this chapter still did not do a lot for me. I don’t think the introduction of Faramir was supposed to—I think this is setup for us seeing him differently and more sympathetically soon—but overall my reaction was just enh. Yes, even the mega-elephant.

Maybe it’s all the botany? DBratman said in comments to a prior post that this book is full of botany, and he wasn’t kidding: big long lists of plants, most of which I only recognize in general terms, so it doesn’t do a lot for me. It’s spring and things are growing, yup, I got it.

Sorry. Anyway. I do have some notes, so I guess we’ll just get started and see where we end up.

* * *

I have mixed opinions about a metaphorical device at the start of the chapter. As they creep away from the Gate, they see a “single red light” high up. In the next paragraph, it’s referred to as a “red eye (that) seemed to stare at them as they fled,” which eventually “dwindle(s) to a small fiery point and then vanishe(s).” On one hand, I can see how it’s effective to be reminded of the Eye, even though (or perhaps because) Frodo’s doing much better at the moment, and it is a very natural metaphor. On the other, I wonder how much confusion with the Eye it’s generated—I know I did a double-take when I first hit that paragraph, despite the clear geography and the lower-case capitalization.

* * *

As I said, I really don’t know very much about plants. I looked up a few of the names that I didn’t recognize, and they seem to fit the more southern landscape—tamarisk and terebinth are apparently both Mediterranean/North African-ish species, and then there’s the olive groves. If anything jumps out at my more knowledgeable readers as warranting comment, please do chime in. Otherwise, I’ll just note that in my idiom, this sentence wants a comma: “Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate(,) kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.”

Despite the plants, however, we have a handily-symbolic road made by “Men of old”: “It dwindled at last to a country cart-road little used; but it did not wind: it held on its own sure course and guided them by the swiftest way.” Weirdly, it reminds me of Gandalf.

(I’m being a little snarky about the convenient symbolism, but really, in a narrative like this, it would probably take more effort to keep descriptions of roads from being symbolic.)

* * *

There is quite a lot of character-related stuff to talk about this chapter. I mentioned above that Frodo is doing well this chapter: he is in a good mood, he sleeps well, and he has “another gentle, unrecoverable dream of peace” while Sam is cooking. (In contrast, earlier a sleeping Sméagol is animalistic and cagey: “whiffling and twitching in his secret dreams.”) But, of course, we’re not allowed to forget what Frodo’s already gone through and what’s coming next:

The early daylight was only just creeping down into the shadows under the trees, but he saw his master’s face very clearly, and his hands, too, lying at rest on the ground beside him. He was reminded suddenly of Frodo as he had lain, asleep in the house of Elrond, after his deadly wound. Then as he had kept watch Sam had noticed that at times a light seemed to be shining faintly within; but now the light was even clearer and stronger. Frodo’s face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiselling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: ‘I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.’

Gollum returned quietly and peered over Sam’s shoulder. Looking at Frodo, he shut his eyes and crawled away without a sound.

This strikes me as a very economical piece of characterization, telling us about all three of them in less than two full paragraphs. Frodo is still being . . . ground down and/or to an edge? drawn away from this world? tested to destruction, to borrow someone (probably Tom Shippey’s) metaphor? Sam is loyal and caring and inarticulate in prose. Sméagol—well, of course we don’t get his POV, but I interpret this as an indication that he cares about Frodo and that either it pains him to see Frodo looking worn or he doesn’t want to disturb his sleep (or both, they aren’t mutually exclusive). It’s the silence and the simple language that gives the sentences about him a poignant air to me.

And then, of course, we have the Great Coney Stew Debacle. This is probably another reason why I’m not enthused about this chapter, because it seems a clear step on the road to the plot outcome that I hate. I think Sam comes off unquestionably the worst here—does anyone disagree? Sméagol is right to be worried about the fire, and Sam is astonishingly careless to not have put it out right away. I consider it very rude to ask Sméagol to gather food that makes him ill (he coughs and retches at the smells of herbs as they walk), nevermind threatening him when he refuses. For that matter, Sam’s initial requests weren’t very gracious, either; yet Sméagol does catch the rabbits and fetch water, even. The only blame to be laid at Sméagol’s feet, as far as I can see, is not recognizing that his tastes in food are not universal—which is a flaw equally shared by Sam.

Sam does get his mind broadened on another front, however. He is the one to find the traces of recently-past violence in the area, burnt and gnawed bones (which, it just occurred to me, may have contributed to his reaction to Sméagol wanting them to eat the rabbits raw). And this connects up to the battle, some of which Frodo might not even see—it’s not clear, but Sam does join the guards and then climb a tree when it starts getting near, so he has a better vantage point, though it’s hard to imagine anyone missing the Mûmak. Regardless, Frodo isn’t even mentioned in this section, that’s how firmly the focus is on Sam. My hypothesis is that he needs the education more than Frodo, since he hasn’t yet been personally seriously affected by violence (unless the sleep deprivation is really putting big holes in my memory, he got a scalp scratch in Moria and showed no sign of being disturbed at having killed an orc there). Here, he gets a close look at the brutal ugliness of violence and a chance to wonder about the motivations of the mortal enemy:

Then suddenly straight over the rim of their sheltering bank, a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them. He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar. His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword.

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace—all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind.

I consider it a great pity that Tolkien couldn’t figure out a way to definitively answer those questions in the text. The Gondorians claim the southern kingdoms of Harad “were ever ready to His (Sauron’s) will,” which to me implies something more culpable than being duped; but they are obviously biased (though that doesn’t necessarily rule them out as authorial mouthpieces). I can’t remember if we get anything useful in the Appendices.

I think we’ll talk about Faramir next time, so I’ll end on a lighter note: what do you think happened to the Mûmak? The text offers two options, “escaped to roam the wild for a time,” or “raged on until he plunged in the Great River and was swallowed up.” Since elephants can swim, at least, I vote for crashing around the woods for a while. Hey, maybe he met an Ent or Entwife . . .

« Two Towers IV.3 | Index | Two Towers IV.5 »

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.


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