Chapter III: The Black Gate is Closed
At last, Frodo and Sam have reached Mordor. As promised, Gollum led them to the Morannon, the Black Gate that guards the most direct road into that dark country. It’s been a bleak journey there, and the outlook gets worse with every step. The rocky cliffs are riddled with little caves resembling maggot-holes, and there are so many guards that they look like a swarm of black ants. It’s an ugly land full of ugly creatures who wake every morning to a miserable existence.
Needless to say, the hobbits are not happy to be here, and Sam puts it into words: “My word, but the Gaffer would have a thing or two to say, if he saw me now! Often said I’d come to a bad end, if I didn’t watch my step, he did. But now I don’t suppose I’ll ever see the old fellow again. He’ll miss his chance of
I told ‘ee so, Sam…”
With the gate shut and orcs everywhere, there is no chance of entering Mordor. Still, Frodo is determined to try:“His face was grim and set, but resolute. He was filthy, haggard, and pinched with weariness, but he cowered no longer, and his eyes were clear. ‘I said so, because I purpose to enter Mordor, and I know no other way. Therefor I shall go this way. I do not ask anyone to go with me.'”
Gollum has more sense in the matter, though his intentions are self-serving. He begs Frodo not to go, but Frodo is resolute. He’s bound to see out the Quest for as long as he can, and because he knows no other way into Mordor, he’s going to keep going. He’s beyond hope or despair; he’s just putting one foot in front of the other and doing what he can to do the job. Sam, of course, will follow Frodo to whatever end, and knows there’s nothing he can do to convince Frodo to change his mind. This is the moment where he knows real despair. If they try to enter here, they will be captured and the Quest will fail. If they turn back, the Quest will fail. He’s spent all this time putting off thoughts of doom, but he can’t put them off any longer. Whether they make it through the gate or not, Mordor is the end of the road for him and for Frodo.
Gollum speaks up then. He knows of another way, but Frodo had commanded him to lead them to the Black Gate, and so he did.
So now what? They’re between a rock and a hard place. Do they make an attempt at slipping through the Black Gate, or do they trust Gollum and follow him to this other way?
Frodo takes a long time to think- about the lands around them and his vision of marching armies back at Amon Hen. While he’s thinking, an army comes marching across the plains toward the gate. It has come to join Sauron’s ranks. Suddenly, Frodo realizes how vulnerable they are, and he makes up his mind. Gollum has had two opportunities to betray them, and did not break his work. Frodo will trust him a third time, and hope that this ‘other way’ will get them into Mordor. But he doesn’t blindly follow Gollum; Frodo warns him of the danger he faces, not from the journey alone but also from the perils of the Ring. He says, “‘You will never get it back. But the desire of it may betray you to a bitter end. You will never get it back. In the last need, Smeagol, I should put on the Precious; and the Precious mastered you long ago. If I, wearing it, were to command you, you would obey, even if it were to leap from a precipice or to cast yourself into the fire.'”
From Sam’s point of view, this is a shocking declaration. In his eyes, Frodo was a wise and kind hobbit, but this kindness surely made him soft-hearted and unable to make hard decisions. Yes here he is, kindly Mister Frodo, declaring that he would command Gollum to leap into the fire. Sam has made the same mistake that most people do; he assumes that kindness must equal naivete, but that’s not the case. Kindness is its own kind of strength, and just because a person displays it doesn’t mean that they’re stupid or naive. Sam sees that now, and while it could be the Ring influencing Frodo’s words, I remember a time way back in the Shire when Frodo thought his neighbors could use a good dragon attack to shake them out of their ways.
Regardless, Frodo’s promise frightens Gollum, but he tells the hobbits about this other way up a twisting path toward a terrifying fortress called Minas Morgul. To get there, they will have to take the pass of Cirith Ungol. Gandalf would have warned them against it, but Gandalf isn’t there. Frodo has only his own judgment to rely on, and so he tells Gollum to lead them there. And so they march through the wilderness, with terrifying creatures flying overhead and armies marching to join the ranks of Sauron.
Chapter IV: Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Let’s get one thing out of the way before we go any further. On a couple of podcasts and several articles dealing with foods from fantasy novels, someone will invariably bring up the notion that Tolkien got it wrong. “Stew,” they say, “takes hours to cook. It’s not something you throw together at the side of the road.” To this, I say, the critics aren’t paying attention. Sam does not make rabbit stew. He makes stewed rabbit. Stewing is a method of cooking where you cook something in a liquid using a pan with a lid. I looked up a recipe for stewed rabbit, and lo and behold the cooking time listed was roughly equal to the amount of time Sam took to stew the rabbits. Stewed rabbit, not rabbit stew.
The hobbits follow Gollum away from the Black Gate along the road leading south. They eventually come out of the wastelands below the Ered Lithui (the mountains that make of the border of Mordor), and discover that the land is steadily growing greener and more beautiful. Birds are singing, and all around them they see signs of Spring. They see strange trees budding and putting off a lovely scent, streams flow everywhere, and there are herbs and flowers all about. They’ve reached the land of Ithilien. “Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green fingered, small flowers were upeining in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.”
When people talk about the pages and pages of descriptions Tolkien wrote, this passage is one of them. There are three and a half pages describing the land from below the Morannon and down into Ithilien. There’s no action, no excitement, just a lot of trees. And you know what? I like it. After three chapters of unrelenting bleakness, Frodo and the others have found a beautiful place where they can rest for a while and find food and water.
What else does this passage do? It reminds us of Nature’s beauty and its ability to endure. It also shows us what Sauron would destroy if he had his way. The forces of darkness are ever willing to destroy nature, silence birds, and poison streams in order to get what they want.
Now that they’ve found this little paradise, Sam has a mind to find food. Not just because he’s a hobbit and hobbits love their meals, but because he doesn’t know how long they’re going to be on the road, and they need to make their meager provisions last. He asks (yes, ASKS) Gollum to find whatever food he can find, and then he and Frodo settle down to rest. Frodo falls asleep, and in this idyllic setting with the sun shining above them, he looks old, peaceful, and wise, like there’s a light shining from within. Sam notes the change and says, “‘I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.'” This isn’t romantic love. Sam is not lusting after Frodo here. It’s a different kind of love; one that pop culture likes to forget about because it’s apparently not as interesting as a romance. Sam loves his friend Frodo. It’s a friendship built upon a master/servant foundation, but one that transcends it completely. Both the hobbits rely on each other. Friendship is a key element of The Lord of the Rings, and it’s hard to find a pair of friends closer than Frodo and Sam.
Eventually Gollum returns with a brace of coneys (that is, a pair of rabbits), which Sam decides to stew, prompting a discussion of herbs and potatoes. Gollum hasn’t heard of potatoes, prompting Sam to describe them and offer to someday make Gollum some nice, crispy fish and chips. Gollum spurns the offer. Sam says he’s hopeless and tells him to go to sleep.
The hobbits share their hot if spare meal of herbs and stewed rabbits while Gollum takes off to find food for himself. While he’s away, Sam realizes that his little cooking fire has put off smoke. He hadn’t meant for it to, but it’s happened and now they could be in danger.
Before they know it, they surrounded by tall Men dressed in green and armed with spears and bows. One introduces himself as Faramir, Captain of Gondor and demands to know what they’re doing there. Frodo is, obviously reluctant to tell this Faramir anything about himself, but eventually gives in, telling the Men their names, where they came from, and that they came from Imladris with several companions, including Boromir of Gondor.
The Men are surprised by this. Faramir wants to know what business Frodo had with Boromir. Frodo gives him a vague answer with satisfied Faramir for the moment. He has to leave, though, and leaves the hobbits with a couple of men from his company. There they wait for hours. Sam falls asleep and wakes to the sounds of horns blowing. There is a battle going on, and it’s close enough they can hear the clatter of weapons and the calls of the fighters. Suddenly, a Man dressed in red and gold runs down the slope but is struck by an arrow and falls dead. “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…” In light of Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches of World War I, I can’t help but wonder if at some point he had seen a dead young German soldier and wondered the same thing Sam does. It should be a reminder to all of us to stop a moment and think about our enemies and consider if they really want to be our enemies at all. Perhaps they, too, would rather be at home in peace.
Next Week: Frodo and Sam discover the secret identity of Faramir, Captain of Gondor and Gollum takes an ill-advised swim in ‘The Window on the West’ and ‘The Forbiden Pool’.