The Two Towers, Book IV
Chapter I: The Taming of Sméagol
When I hear people discuss The Lord of the Rings, they always seem to say the same thing: The Two Towers is the boring part. I have to assume they’re talking about the second part because the first half with Aragorn, Merry, and Pippin is full of action. Ents! The Rohirrim! Gandalf returns! The Battle of Helm’s Deep and the fall of Isengard! Things are happening fast, and we’re covering a lot of territory. But the second half is another thing altogether. Rather than hopping from one point of view to the next, we only get Frodo and Sam’s perspectives. And they do a lot of walking. When Book Four opens, they’re walking around lost. They meet Gollum, get un-lost, and do some more walking. Then they meet a guy who rambles on about history and philosophy and then they do even more walking.
What we get in Book Four is not an action story, but a profoundly psychological one. Here is where we start to truly see the effect the Ring is having on Frodo’s psyche, especially now that Gollum is in the picture. Gandalf can lecture all day about the Ring’s corruptive influence, but until we actually see what it does to a fundamentally good person like Frodo, we’re not going to fully understand it. Gollum’s presence underscores this corruption to both us and to Frodo. Though Sméagol was a mean-spirited person when he found the Ring, he wasn’t wholly evil. But hundreds of years of bearing the Ring have utterly broken him, turning him against everything and everyone, shriveling him into a pathetic wretch whose only desire is to get the Ring back.
Months ago, in the comfort of Bag End, with no idea of what the Ring really was, Frodo said he wished Bilbo had killed Gollum. Gandalf counseled pity and told Frodo that, if he saw Gollum, he wouldn’t say such harsh things. Now that Frodo has finally seen Gollum for himself and knows what the Ring has done to both of them, he understands. But this doesn’t mean Frodo is entirely merciful.
Our first full view of Gollum comes when he leaps on the hobbits in the dark. Both of them were aware of his presence and were ready for it, but Gollum nearly chokes the life out of Sam until Frodo draws his sword and threatens Gollum. “‘Let go! Gollum,’ he said. ‘This is Sting. You have seen it before once upon a time. Let go, or you’ll feel it this time! I’ll cut your throat.'”
Think of it. Frodo, the mild-mannered, middle-class hobbit who wanted nothing more than to stay at home in his beloved house and let the world go by is now seriously threatening to cut someone’s throat. Perhaps it’s an empty threat made to get Sam out of danger, but I think he meant it. The Ring grants power according to its bearer’s station, and in the heat of the moment with a sword in his hand and the Ring in his possession, Frodo has a lot of power over Gollum. Fortunately for everyone, Gollum releases Sam.
Now that Frodo has had a chance to calm down and look at Gollum, he remembers Gandalf’s words about mercy, and realizes now what the wizard meant, that as twisted at ruined as Gollum is, he is pathetic and pitiable. Trying to understand Gollum is the best thing Frodo can do for him. “‘But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.'” It’s easy to judge people from far away, but once you’ve seen them with your own eyes and have had a chance to understand their situation, black and white judgments are not so easy.
Frodo extracts a promise from Gollum: he will serve Frodo and not harm him, but will only do so if he can swear on the Precious- the Ring. Frodo’s response to this is severe: “… Sam was startled by his harsh words. ‘On the Precious? How dare you? he said. ‘Think! One ring to rule them all and in the Darkness bind them. Would you commit your promise to that, Sméagol? But it will hold you. It is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware!'”
Gollum, desperate to be near his Precious again, promises to serve them. It’s a fateful moment, but none of them realizes it. Frodo wants to get on with the Quest, and Gollum is a creature he must come to terms with in order to complete it.
Through all of this, Sam has been quiet. He’s Frodo’s servant and doesn’t want to interfere with his master’s business, but too, he’s finally seeing the Ring’s effects on Frodo. Until now, they’ve been traveling with friends or with each other. They haven’t fought with each other, and Sam’s relentlessly cheerful nature has kept Frodo’s spirits up. Now that Gollum’s there to disrupt their friendly dynamic, Sam’s getting a glimpse of what’s going on under the surface. He’s seeing a new, unpleasant side of Frodo and it shocks him.
And it’s only going to get worse.
Chapter II: The Passage of the Marshes
With the barren, rocky passages of the Emyn Muil behind them, Gollum leads Frodo and Sam into the Dead Marshes, a wide swath of land in the lowlands below the mountains surrounding Mordor. It’s another lifeless, unhappy land with a dark history. Long ago, a great battle was fought here between Elves, Men, and the forces of Sauron. The graves left behind were slowly swallowed up by the expanding marshes. It’s the safest road for the hobbits to take, but it has its dangers, too. There is no food or water to be had, the paths are ever-shifting, and there are strange apparitions in the water.
I’ve mentioned before that Tolkien hated giving books a biographical reading, as though there was no way for a writer’s work to escape his/her life story, but the Dead Marshes would seem to recall Tolkien’s time in the trenches during World War I. He was familiar with No Man’s Land, the blighted area between English/French lines and their German enemies. If a man or horse fell in that area, they would likely remain there in whatever bit of mud or puddle they died in, unable to be retrieved by their own side. We catch glimpses of this through Sam’s perspective: “For a moment the water below him looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering. Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry. ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water,’ he said with horror. ‘Dead Faces!’
Gollum laughed. ‘The Dead Marshes, yes, yes: that is their name,’ he cackled. ‘You should not look in when the candles are lit.’
‘Who are they? What are they?’ asked Sam, shuddering, turning to Frodo, who was now behind him.
‘I don’t know,’ said Frodo in a dreamlike voice. ‘But I have seen them too. In the pools with the candles were lit… I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faced proud and fair, and weeds in their silver fair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead…'”
It’s as though the land remembers that long ago and refuses to let the people of Middle-earth- the ones that dare enter the Dead Marches- forget it.As much as I talked about the darkening of Frodo in the previous chapter, something has to be said for the changes Sam is undergoing. He doesn’t understand why Frodo has invited Gollum along and he, wisely, refuses to trust Gollum. He knows full well that Gollum wants the Ring back and will do just about anything, including murder sleeping hobbits to get it back. As Sam loves Frodo dearly, he’s willing to do anything to protect him, but I can’t picture the Sam from ‘The Shadow of the Past’ thinking of killing anyone, even Gollum. And yet those thoughts start to cross his mind here in the Dead Marshes: “He restrained the thoughts of his sword and the rope that sprang to his mind, and went and sat down by his master.” I wonder if those thoughts are Sam’s alone, or if the Ring is attempting to influence him. Regardless, Sam is true to his nature and doesn’t harm Gollum.
Sam’s suspicions are not unfounded, though. For all his subservience, Gollum has mischief in mind. One night while they’re resting, Sam happens to wake up and overhears Gollum talking to himself. There seem to be two voices, Gollum’s regular voice and one that is his, but squeaks and hisses. These two voices are debating something- how to get the Ring back after making such a strong promise. He can’t hurt Frodo but claiming the Ring must, of course, involve harming the Baggins. Sam listens to it right up to the point when Gollum’s dual sides begin to debate letting some unknown “She” help him. Unwilling to let this go any farther, Sam pretends to wake up, ending the debate and prompting another march into the dead lands.
While most of chapter one was from Frodo’s point of view, the perspective has been changed up in this chapter. It’s mostly from Sam’s point of view, giving us an alternate, less merciful view of Gollum. Where has Frodo been through all of it? In an exhausted, fatalistic state; he’s beginning to understand that there’s no going back from this. The Quest will probably kill him, and every step he takes toward Mordor brings him closer to Sauron’s watchful, terrible gaze. “The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you; to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable. So thin, so frail and thing, the veils were become that still warded it off.”
Here in this bleak and lifeless wilderness, these two hobbits are contending with presences far darker and more twisted than anything that could ever have imagined back in their comfortable homes in the Shire.
Next Week: Frodo and Sam have a go at making it past Mordor Customs and Border Control, and meet someone they did not expect in ‘The Black Gate is Closed’ and ‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit.’