The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Two Towers IV.10, “The Choices of Master Samwise”

And now, the conclusion of The Two Towers, “The Choices of Master Samwise.” As always, spoilers for all of Lord of the Rings and comments after the jump.

What Happens

Sam runs up to where Shelob is beginning to drag Frodo away, grabs Sting, and stabs Shelob in the foot and eye. Shelob attempts to smother him with her bulk but instead impales herself upon Sting. The light of Galadriel’s Phial drives her back and she vanishes.

Sam cannot find a heartbeat or any other sign of life in Frodo. After a period of despair, he debates with himself and decides he must take the Ring. As he walks away, he is assailed by doubts and then hears Orcs coming toward him. He puts on the Ring and overhears a conversation between two Orc leaders, one from the tower guarding the pass and one from Minas Morgul. He learns that prisoners are to have all belongings sent to Lugbúrz (Barad-dûr) and to be kept whole until Sauron’s orders are received, that the Orcs think a dangerous Elf warrior is on the loose (him), and that Frodo is not dead but paralyzed.

Unfortunately Sam is too far away to catch them when he hears this news, and the chapter, book, and volume end thusly:

The great doors slammed to. Boom. The bars of iron fell into place inside. Clang. The gate was shut. Sam hurled himself against the bolted brazen plates and fell senseless to the ground. He was out in the darkness. Frodo was alive but taken by the Enemy.


Eventful chapter! Cliffhanger!! Lots of stuff to talk about!!! Many exclamation points!!!! Obligatory Pratchett reference!!!!!

I guess we’ll start where the chapter does, with Shelob. We were talking some, last time, about references to Middle-earth’s deep history; here we have a nice reference to its more recent history, when the narration notes that “Shelob was not as dragons are” with a soft spot in her hide. We also have another instance of evil containing the seeds of its own destruction, with Shelob impaling herself on Sting. And, as sps49 noted last time, force is nevertheless insufficient: it is explicitly the light that drives Shelob away—a light that blazes bright “as if” fueled by Sam’s defiance. (In passing, it is astonishing how I can’t stop noticing each and every “as if,” and how Tolkien just doesn’t vary that phrase.) Oh, and after Sam got his turn to speak in Elvish without knowing what he was saying—I like that it’s the comment in Westron, not Elvish, that appears to prompt the light increase.

Finally, there’s Shelob’s exit, which is deliberately left ambiguous:

Shelob was gone; and whether she lay long in her lair, nursing her malice and her misery, and in slow years of darkness healed herself from within, rebuilding her clustered eyes, until with hunger like death she spun once more her dreadful snares in the glens of the Mountains of Shadow, this tale does not tell.

I’m used to “whether” coming with an “or not,” so at first I found this confusing, and indeed even now I can’t quite decide if I’m supposed to understand that the other option is that she dies or that she just ceases to be a problem. Regardless, the last word on her is unquestionably horrific.

* * *

And now we come to the section that I always skimmed in wanting to get to stuff happening again, Sam finding Frodo apparently dead. I found this both emotionally moving and intellectually troubling.

The moving bit should be pretty obvious: the progression from “master” to “me dear” when Sam begs Frodo to wake, the shifts from disbelief to anger to despair to sorrow—“And your star-glass, Mr. Frodo, you did lend it to me and I’ll need it, for I’ll be always in the dark now.” *sniff* Excuse me, I have to go find a tissue—it’s this bronchitis, really it is . . .

Then Sam tries to figure out what to do next, a section I also like. He feels that he has something to do, based on his long-ago statement, and rejects revenge and suicide. Then it occurs to him to take the Ring and continue the quest on his own; he’s unsure whether this is the path to take, so reasons it out:

‘Let me see now: if we’re found here, or Mr. Frodo’s found, and that Thing’s on him, well, the Enemy will get it. And that’s the end of all of us, of Lórien, and Rivendell, and the Shire and all. . . . it’s sit here till they come and kill me over master’s body, and gets It; or take It and go.’ He drew a deep breath. ‘Then take It, it is!’

But he’s still not sure, because “what he was doing was altogether against the grain of his nature.” Then, when he hears the Orcs find Frodo, he has a revelation:

He flung the Quest and all his decisions away, and fear and doubt with them. He knew now where his place was and had been: at his master’s side, though what he could do there was not clear. . . .

‘ . . . I wonder if any song will ever mention it: How Samwise fell in the High Pass and made a wall of bodies round his master. No, no song. Of course not, for the Ring’ll be found, and there’ll be no more songs. I can’t help it. My place is by Mr. Frodo.’

And here is my problem. To plagiarize myself: If it’s ever a choice between saving my life and saving the whole world?

Save the fucking world, already.

And if you think I’m already dead and you’re just defending the honor of my corpse? Even less of a contest.

This is just not a mindset I understand. And I don’t think I see any reason to want to, either.

I hate this kind of thing in regard to romantic relationships (the original quote is about just that), so I don’t think this is me knee-jerking about the existence of a master-servant relationship and whatever extent that affects Sam’s decision. I can’t think of any relationship in which I would agree with Sam’s decision.

Interestingly, I thought at first that the narrative approved of Sam’s decision, but on looking closer I don’t see any narrative statements either way, just comments from Sam’s POV. Can we infer a position of the narrative, nonetheless?

The best I can do is consider whether the plot would have come out better if Sam had stayed with Frodo. And though I’m terrible at coming up with counterfactuals (one reason why I don’t write fanfic, along with having no creative writing ability whatsoever), I don’t think it would have.

If Sam had stayed, I don’t see how he could have hidden Frodo somewhere where the Orcs couldn’t find them, considering that the Orcs were looking for intruders. Sam would have had the Ring, but (1) we have no reason to think that the Ring would hide something as large as a body that’s in contact with a wearer, and (2) the Ring wants to be found, has explicitly grown in power since getting to Mordor, and managed to betray Isildur to his death: if it doesn’t get itself found here, it’s no instrument of Ultimate Evil. And that, as Sam so rightly thinks, is game over for free civilization in Middle-earth.

So that might be an implicit position in the narrative, but it’s a very quiet one if so. Obviously I don’t recall if Sam ever reconsiders or if the narrative takes a more explicit position.

* * *

The other thing about this chapter is the lengthy overheard conversation between the two Orc leaders. I have many passages marked for this, but they’re too scattered to quote, so let me sum up:

They are hardly pure saintly types who are only working for Mordor because they are being forced: Gorbag looks forward to frightening Frodo with tales of torture, and when they wish to slip away and be their own bosses, they envision “somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy,” not, you know, good agriculture. Nevertheless, they do have their own opinions, they criticize higher-ups and feel put-upon by them, and they would like to be in charge of their own lives. They are capable of fear (the Nazgûl give them the creeps). They have varying levels of intelligence and intrinsic optimism, but are not stupid. They have a low opinion of Elves and believe they behave poorly: Gorbag calls it a “regular Elvish trick” to just leave Frodo lying in the tunnel. In short, they seem to me pretty much within the range of ordinary people.

I do wish we’d gotten this kind of look at the humans who fight for Sauron.

* * *

Now that we’re done with Book IV and The Two Towers, I thought I’d consider the question of the split narrative structure. What would The Two Towers have looked like if it weren’t split into two books?

It’s hard to say, because Book III is split not chronologically but at places related to each other: we go back to Merry and Pippin after Aragorn tracks them to Fangorn and see what happened leading up to and after they get to Fangorn; transition back to Aragorn et al.’s concern about Saruman when Merry and Pippin arrive at Isengard; and then backtrack when the parties reunite at Isengard. There’s no such relationship to the Frodo & Sam bits to provide logical break points.

Structurally, roughly the middle third of Book IV is the interlude with Faramir, which would seem to provide natural chunks for interleaving. But then the Faramir section is no longer a break from the dreary terror of Mordor, which removes some of its function. And, if the whole volume were going back and forth between all the threads, I think Frodo and Sam would feel less isolated. Which I might enjoy, but which is probably not the most effective thing for the story. So I think I’m slightly in favor of the structure at this point.

Also: cliffhangers: evil. Did anyone here read this volume without the third on hand? How long did you have to wait, and how awful was it?

Right. Cinematic interlude next—yes, I’ll watch the extended version, just so no-one can say I didn’t give it a fair shake if I still hate it—and then we’ll address those cliffhangers.

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

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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