The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Two Towers IV.7, “Journey to the Cross-roads”

We return to the Lord of the Rings re-read with The Two Towers Book IV, chapter 7, “Journey to the Cross-roads.” I think (she says, crossing her fingers) that work has settled down a bit, so at present it appears we’re on track to finish The Two Towers the week that ends in Christmas. I suspect we’ll go on to talk about the movie after the New Year, not between Christmas and New Year’s, but we’ll see when we get closer to.

And now, as always, spoilers for all of LotR after the jump.

What Happens

Faramir gives Frodo and Sam food and walking sticks. They are blindfolded along with Sméagol, at Frodo’s request, and led out of Henneth Annûn. Though the land is oddly quiet, Faramir advises them to keep to the edge of the forest for safety, and bids them farewell.

They walk for three days in a silence that grows more ominous, and come to the end of the forest and the road from Minas Morgul. There they switch to traveling at night, for fear of the road’s nearness. But the next morning brings no dawn, only a growing darkness. Saying they are in danger, in the dim afternoon Sméagol forces them to hurry to the Cross-roads, where a brief glimpse of the setting sun illuminates the stone head of a king, knocked from its statue but crowned with a flowering plant, before night falls.


I regret taking a chapter-hiatus here, because so little happens in this chapter; but, well, it was open thread or nothing for quite a while at the time, truly.

So, what have we got here? Short transitional chapter, mostly thematic, little action, lot of landscape. It has to be chapters like these that gives me the impression that the journey through Mordor is a slog.

Let’s start with the silence, since Faramir opens the chapter telling Frodo and Sam about it, and it persists throughout. I have absolutely no memory what this is, unless it’s Sauron gathering forces, and for some reason I thought that was later. Regardless, big shiny gun on the mantel, so noted.

The silence, and the way it develops of the chapter, reminds me of an M. Night Shyamalan movie [*], where the silence draws out and draws out and you keep waiting for it to break, real soon, someone’s going to scream, maybe now?, or something’s going to jump out at you, maybe from around this corner?, any minute now, or something’s going to go bang, maybe now, or something’s going to OH PLEASE JUST SHOW US, I CAN’T TAKE IT ANY MORE.

Ahem. That is, the lack of action can build tension all by itself, though obviously this is a tricky technique because it can easily go just the other way. Here, the silence starts as a “waiting silence” and “a false peace,” and then is temporarily less threatening because it’s tied to daylight: “The sun rose and passed overhead unseen, and began to sink, and the light through the trees to the west grew golden; and always they walked in cool green shadow, and all about them was silence.” It later grows “deeper” as the air in the forest becomes “stifling.” Finally, when the darkness begins, they are “oppressed by the gloom and by the absolute stillness of the land.”

[*] Well, one of the two I’ve seen, The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. I am really highly susceptible to tension on screen, and though I believe most people don’t think highly of Unbreakable, toward the end the silence was getting on my nerves so badly that I just shut my eyes and pretended I was somewhere else.

The silence dovetails with the loss of light, the other major feature of this chapter. This starts with sunset as they come to the forest’s end, which would be unremarkable except that they get an eerie glimpse of Minas Morgul:

To the left lay darkness: the towering walls of Mordor; and out of that darkness the long valley came, falling steeply in an ever-widening trough towards the Anduin. . . . a road went winding down like a pale ribbon, down into chill grey mists that no gleam of sunset touched. There it seemed to Frodo that he descried far off, floating as it were on a shadowy sea, the high dim tops and broken pinnacles of old towers forlorn and dark.

I like the otherworldiness and remoteness of this image, the dark mirror of castles in the air.

The darkness gets ominously concrete real quick: later that night, as they leave the forest, they see what seems to be “a great blackness looming slowly out of the East, eating up the faint blurred stars.” In the next sentence, the blackness is revealed to be only a cloud, but the level of menace is kept constant by its “pursuing” the moon, which escapes but only “with a sickly yellow glare.” In contrast, the failure of daylight to appear is not as threatening, perhaps because it is a gradual realization: no sun, no sun, and . . . yep, still no sun. The effect is thus generally dreary rather than menacing, such as when Sam sees “only a dun, shadowless world, fading slowly into a featureless, colourless gloom.”

Finally for environmental changes, there’s a sound like thunder or drums, about which I got nothing.

* * *

Might as well cover the Cross-roads here and get all the environmental stuff out of the way at once, even though it comes at the end of the chapter. I had somehow managed to completely avoid getting a mental picture of this location until now, so there’s my second new thing for re-reading this chapter. (The first was looking up “ilexes,” earlier on, which (if the Internet can be believed) are holly plants.)

The trees surrounding the Cross-roads echo Frodo’s glimpse of Minas Morgul, with “tops (that) were gaunt and broken, as if tempest and lightning-blast had swept across them, but had failed to kill them or to shake their fathomless roots.” Of course, the foundations of Minas Morgul must also be reasonably sound or the towers wouldn’t still be there, but since this is the section where a bit of hope is dangled before Frodo, it’s important that the description of the trees explicitly state the positive rather than leave it implicit.

And then geography, meteorology, and symbolism combine to give us a ray of sun coming down the West road. With it comes four paragraphs jam-packed with reversals: the light lands on Sam (yay), then on a defiled statue (boo), then on the head of the statue with a floral crown (yay):

‘They cannot conquer for ever!’ said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell.

Which, wow. The last time we had an ending that brutal was, hmmm, probably “The King of the Golden Hall,” when Éowyn is left alone before Edoras.

* * *

Now to the characters, after all this time on the landscape and environment (as the chapter does, more or less).

Faramir gives them staves “made of the fair tree lebethron, beloved of the woodwrights of Gondor.” I don’t know what makes a tree beloved or whether this is obviously modeled on something, but in case someone else does and would like the chance to share, here you go.

Frodo tells Faramir that his friendship “turns evil to great good.” I admit my immediate reaction was, “It did? Seriously?” But Frodo doesn’t seem to know that the effects on Sméagol are not good—more on that in a moment—and he needs the morale boost much more than me. Also, you know, food is a good thing. So I can see that Frodo isn’t merely being polite.

Sméagol, when he first appears, “seemed better pleased with himself than he had been,” which immediately put me on my guard. After they leave Henneth Annûn, he tells Frodo that he “forgives . . . Master’s little trickses,” so he definitely hasn’t forgotten what Frodo did. But this is a very exterior chapter with one exception, so we don’t know if this makes Frodo at all wary—I don’t think so, though, or he might have mentioned it when Sam wonders if he’ll ever be useful or is up to tricks. I think it probably should have, but then Frodo is not exactly in the best of shape, temporary reprive notwithstanding. (By the way: listening and sniffing is how Sméagol tells the time of night? Is this something known in human or animal senses, or is it something we just have to roll with?)

In the one really interior moment, Sam has a dream about looking for something in an overgrown garden at Bag End: “‘A job of work for me, I can see, but I’m so tired,’ he kept on saying.” That’s obvious enough—especially since right after this is the conversation when Frodo says he thinks they’re near the end of the line, err, journey, and Sam says “where there’s life there’s hope.” More interesting is that Frodo is probably dreaming of Gandalf—Sam thinks he hears Frodo say his name in his sleep—but we aren’t told what those dreams are. I don’t think we have any indication, from later on, that they’re actively communicative.

And that’s all I got for this chapter. Next time, we arrive at Cirith Ungol.

« Open thread: fiction responses | Index | Two Towers IV.8 »

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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