The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Two Towers IV.8, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”

This time in the Lord of the Rings re-read, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol,” chapter IV.8 of The Two Towers. As always, spoilers for the entire book and comments after the jump.

What Happens

Frodo, Sam, and Sméagol leave the Cross-roads and come to the valley of Minas Morgul, where the Ring drags Frodo nearly onto the bridge leading to the city. They head away, but are not out of sight when an army leaves the city, led by the king of the Nazgûl. Frodo almost puts on the Ring in obedience to an outside will, but grasps Galadriel’s phial instead, and the army passes by.

The travelers climb the Straight Stair and then the Winding Stair, where, part of the way up, they see a tower guarding the passage at the top. There Frodo and Sam talk of being in tales and then sleep. When Sméagol returns, he is moved by the sight of them and touches Frodo’s knee. Frodo cries out in his sleep, Sam wakes and speaks roughly to Sméagol, and Gollum withdraws, even after Sam apologizes. After Frodo wakes, Gollum insists on leading them to the tunnel.


This is a chapter in three parts: the scenes in the vicinity of Minas Morgul; the metafictional conversation about stories; and the point where I finally have to give up my probably-silly project of calling the character Sméagol, for he has irrevocably become Gollum. I found the first to be absolutely awesome; the second to be kind of jarring, as meta stuff in LotR tends to be for me; and the third to be less wrenching than I expected, considering how much I have dreaded the moment throughout this book.

To take them in order: Just how amazing is the Minas Morgul stuff, huh? The ghostly glow; the tower that is not just looking at you but turning its head to do so; the bridge and flowers and stream. The flowers in particular remind me of John Bellairs’ wonderfully creepy and funny novel The Face in the Frost [*], though of course any influence is the other way around, in the way they are horribly twisted yet deeply compelling: “Luminous these were too, beautiful and yet horrible of shape, like the demented forms in an uneasy dream; and they gave forth a faint sickening charnel-smell; an odour of rottenness filled the air.”

[*] Now back in print from the fine folks at NESFA Press as part of Magic Mirrors.

Then there’s the fabulous sequence when the army comes forth. It’s signaled by the loudest instance of the thunder/drums of last chapter and then an “uprushing flame” (which suggests to me that the noise had been geological rather than atmospheric). Sorry, but I just have to quote the next bit:

And Minas Morgul answered. There was a flare of livid lightnings: forks of blue flame springing up from the tower and from the encircling hills into the sullen clouds. The earth groaned; and out of the city there came a cry. Mingled with harsh high voices as of birds of prey, and the shrill neighing of horses wild with rage and fear, there came a rending screech, shivering, rising swiftly to a piercing pitch beyond the range of hearing. The hobbits wheeled round towards it, and cast themselves down, holding their hands upon their ears.

As the terrible cry ended, falling back through a long sickening wail to silence, Frodo slowly raised his head. Across the narrow valley, now almost on a level with his eyes, the walls of the evil city stood, and its cavernous gate, shaped like an open mouth with gleaming teeth, was gaping wide. And out of the gate an army came.

I love the way these two paragraphs are bookended with stark simple declarative sentences—both starting with “And,” too, hah, take that, overly-prescriptive rules of style! I love that Minas Morgul gets blue lightning to match its corpse-light, and the way the overwhelming nature of the sounds is conveyed through that long sentence and the hobbits’ reaction, and that the mouth shape of the gate is not metaphorical but literal. It is all just awesome.

(I usually try to keep comments about the movies out of these posts, but I can’t help but say here that I am even less enthused about re-watching the second movie now that I’ve realized that Peter Jackson is going to keep me from seeing the screen version of this—which I also loved—until the third movie. (For those of you just joining us, I haven’t liked the second movie in the past.))

The other thing to say about this section is what’s happening to Frodo. The first sign is more passive: very early in the chapter we’re told that immediately after the Crossroads, the Ring’s weight starts growing again. Similar to this is the great weariness that “oppresse(s)” him, “as if a heavy spell was laid on his mind and body,” and that keeps them from getting further away from Minas Morgul. More active is his hurrying toward the bridge to Minas Morgul “as if some force were at work other than his own will,” and then his hand moving toward the Ring as the Witch-king pauses—which, interestingly, ditches the “as if” and flat-out states that the command is coming from outside and moves his hand for him.

After the Witch-king and army passes, Frodo undergoes a very rapid collapse and recovery. This is so rapid that I cannot regard it as an attempt at psychological accuracy, and instead attribute it to more supernatural affects, whether intentional (the Ring?) or inadvertent (some side-effect of being used as a puppet?). As the army passes, Frodo quite rationally worries about Faramir, but then starts irrationally worrying that everyone outside of Mordor will be slaughtered before he gets to Mount Doom: “Even if my errand is performed, no one will ever know. There will be no one I can tell. It will be in vain.” Then Sam tells him to wake up, reminding him of the Shire, and he does, metaphorically: though he still feels despair, he is no longer overcome by weakness, and “even smiled grimly, feeling now as clearly as a moment before he had felt the opposite,” that his task has to be done regardless of who would know about it. (To be clear, I don’t think the irrational thoughts are unrealistic as a general matter, it’s the speed that I’m reacting to. Actually I suspect that Frodo’s thoughts work pretty well for disorder levels of anxiety and depression.)

* * *

Now, some metafiction. As I’ve said before, though I usually like metafiction, I find its appearance in LotR rather jarring. I think it’s because I’m used to characters talking about how they’re in a story in books that, hmmm, imply a more fundamental acceptance that the audience knows that the entire story is a construct? Usually it’s in works that are explicitly about stories as stories (the movie Stranger than Fiction, the anime Princess Tutu, Pamela Dean’s Secret Country trilogy, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books—see these older LJ posts for more discussion), and thus the kind of suspension of disbelief is different. But the whole of LotR tries to create verisimilitude through a sustained and consistent accretion of immersive detail, all based on the premise that there is such a thing as a One True History of the War of the Ring and that this is it. And so when Sam and Frodo talk about how they’re part of the great tale that started with the Silmarils and whether their story will ever be “read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards,” I’m jolted out of the immersive historical experience and reminded that I am reading their story out of a text that has indeed been printed in a great big book with red and black letters.

Perhaps because I’ve been jolted, the conversation itself seems unfortunately obvious to me. The choice to keep going is vital; the outcome may be uncertain but you must persevere; the tale is long and its ramifications beyond mortal foreseeing. Yes, thank you for the blinking thematic lights. However, I do like the acknowledgment that everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own stories, even Gollum. What do you all think about this section?

* * *

Finally, there’s the section I’ve been dreading all this time, when Sméagol becomes Gollum irrevocably. Weirdly, it was less painful to read than I expected, maybe because it has been headed that way for so long and I’ve been bracing myself so much.

The paragraph when Sméagol has a change or at least softening of his heart is beautifully sad:

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee — but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.

Which, of course, he is. It’s been a while since we had a reminder of the downsides of obtaining very long life just for yourself, and outliving all your loved ones is definitely first on my list.

It’s also worth noting that when Sam wakes and speaks “roughly,” Sméagol at first speaks “softly” in return, and only goes bestial (“spider-like”) when Sam calls him an “old villain”: “The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall.” Sam does apologize right after, but it’s too late: all the history leading up to this point means that the opportunity for change was so fragile that it crumbled under just a little strain. And I do think the responsibility lies on all parties: Sam, obviously; Frodo, because maybe when he woke, he could have helped Sméagol come back, if it hadn’t been for Henneth Annûn; and Gollum for making the choice, in the end. But I also think Sam and Frodo are more responsible because they had less to overcome to do the right thing.

And that’s it for this chapter. See you next time.

« Two Towers IV.7 | Index | Two Towers IV.9 »

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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