Chapter VII: Journey to the Cross-Roads
In the morning, Faramir bids the hobbits farewell. He gives them some provisions and a couple of walking sticks cut down to their size. The sticks have a virtue of finding and returning, and he hopes they will aid the hobbits in their journey. They walk together for a while, but then their paths diverge. He gives them advice for the journey, the goodwill of all good men, and then bids them farewell.
After finding an unexpected friend and a few days of peace, Frodo and Sam must trust Gollum again in an empty land of twisted trees and eerie silence. They may be in a forest and not a wasteland, but it’s not a pleasant place. The land is land being slowly poisoned by the evil of Mordor. Everything that can leave has left, and the air itself is growing stale: “That day passed much as the day before had gone, except that the silence seemed deeper; the air grew heavy, and it began to be stifling under the trees. It felt as if thunder was brewing.” This land is anticipating a great storm, holding its breath as it were, and waiting in silence. It continues like this for days while the forest gets sparser and more twisted as they go.
This is a quiet chapter with a lot of exposition and not much conversation, but all throughout it, the dread is building. The land grows more corrupt, the trees more twisted, the air heavier and more stale. The land breaks up as it heads steadily upward toward the Ephel Dúath, the shadowy mountains on the edge of Mordor. Then one night, a strange shadow blots out the stars, and when morning comes it is still dark: “But no day came, only a dead brown twilight. In the East there was a dull red glare under the lowering cloud: it was not the red of dawn.” Not so far away stands a volcano: Orodruin. Mount Doom, where they must take the Ring. It has awakened again, sending a fog of poisonous fumes over the land, blotting out the sunlight so Sauron’s forces might have continual darkness to move in.
In spite of the growing dread, though, the hobbits continue on and after days of travel through this eerie land, they finally make it to the crossroads and the path that will take them to Cirith Ungol. The outlook here is no better, but for a moment there is light- the sun is low enough that its light reaches under the brown fumes, its rays falling upon the broken head of a statue of an ancient king that is covered over with flowers. For a moment, the king has a crown again and it lifts Frodo’s spirits. But then the sun drops below the mountains and it grows dark again.
Chapter VIII: The Stairs of Cirith Ungol
They’ve finally reached it: the Morgul Vale below Minas Morgul, the ancient tower of the moon that Sauron captured and corrupted. The tower is still white, but it glows with what Tolkien describes as ‘corpse light’, a sickly glow that doesn’t illuminate anything. It’s a terrifying place, and the hobbits are frozen with fear until Gollum drags them forward and they stumble on to pass by the white bridge over the poisonous stream flowing through the vale and to the cliffs beyond.
But the Ring senses it’s near its allies, and though the purity of Ithilien helped Frodo fight its influence, it nearly gains the upper hand in the Morgul Vale. Frodo finds himself staggering toward the bridge and can’t stop himself until Sam and Gollum stop him and guide him away. They stagger on through the gloom until Frodo nearly collapses again: “‘Not here,’ he said, ‘not yet.’ Weariness and more than weariness oppressed him; it seemed as if a heavy spell was laid on his mind and body. ‘I must rest,’ he murmured.”
Gollum and Sam convince him to get up so they can find a hiding place, but it’s too late. There is a crash like thunder and a flash of red light from beyond the mountains, and an answering flash of eerie blue light comes from the Minas Ithil. There’s a horrid, ear-shattering screech, and then the great doors open to let out a vast army dressed in black. At the head of this army rides the Lord of the Nine Riders, the Witch-king of Angmar, who stabbed Frodo on Weathertop.
There seems to be a moment of mutual recognition. Frodo feels a stabbing chill in his shoulder, and the Witch-king pauses like he’s sensed something. The Ring has called out to him, perhaps. It is definitely influencing Frodo’s actions: “There was no longer any answer to that command in his own will, dismayed by terror though it was, and he felt only the beating upon him of a great power from outside. It took his hand, and as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing it but in suspense (as if he looked on some old story far away), it moved the hand inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck.” The Ring has taken control, just for a few moments, but Frodo digs deep, finds his own will, and clutches the Phial of Galadriel instead. Thoughts of the Ring vanish from his mind, its hold over him is temporarily broken, and the Witch-king continues on.
But while the Phial has saved Frodo for the moment he quickly realizes that this vast army is meant to destroy the good people of Middle-Earth, and so even if he manages to complete the Quest and destroy the Ring, there may be no one to go back to. “‘All is lost. Even if my errand is performed, no one will ever know. There will be no one I can tell. It will be in vain.’ Overcome with weakness he wept.”
Then he hears a voice out of his memories of the Shire, as though this is all a horrid dream and Sam is merely waking him up for breakfast. Sam’s call rouses Frodo enough to get him moving again. His despair has passed, leaving resolve behind. Whether or not Faramir or Gandalf or anyone else is left alive after the end of the Quest is beside point. He’s not doing this for glory or recognition, but because it must be done. Great deeds like this need doing for the benefit of all, regardless of whether or not there is recognition afterwards. He gets to his feet, and they begin the climb.
The stairs of Cirith Ungol aren’t a proper set of stairs in a staircase. They’re more like a ladder, just slashes carved out of the cliffside. They’re shallow and crumbling, nearly straight up the side of the mountain. There is no place to rest or to hide. You just have to go up and hope the rock doesn’t crumble and send you falling to the valley floor. After what could have been hours, Frodo and Sam reach the top of this stairway. They’re exhausted, but there’s yet another stair, this one longer than the first but not as treacherous. The hobbits want to rest, but there’s no good place for it where they are, so they continue on to the Winding Stair. After another long, long climb they reach the top of the Winding Stair and can at last stop and rest. They need it by now, as they haven’t eaten all day and they are thirsty. They eat a little, take a mouthful of water, then notice that Gollum has disappeared again. Neither are pleased about it, but what can they do? If he’s up to mishief there is nothing they can do about it now.
While they rest, the hobbits chat. Frodo says that he hates it there, but here is where their path has brought them, so here they are. Sam agrees but then goes on about heroes in stories. It’s a famous passage and brings up the idea of fate vs. free will that comes up now and then: “The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for… because they were exciting and life was a bit dull… But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered…Folk seem to have been just landed in them usually- their paths were laid that way… But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.” Like Frodo and Sam, the heroes of the old tales didn’t know what joy or grief they would find in their journeys, but they did not turn back, even when they could have. Fate put them on their paths, but their own choices kept them there.
Then Sam realizes that ages ago, Beren and Lúthien sought the legendary Silmarils, Earendil took one of those Silmarils with him into the sky, and now Frodo carries the light of it in the Phial of Galadriel. Long ages have passed, but the light connects them all. The ancient stories haven’t ended yet, and hobbits are writing another chapter within it. Sam imagines the story of Frodo and the Ring, and Frodo insists he’s leaving out the chief character– Samwise the Stouthearted, because Frodo wouldn’t have gotten far without Sam.
Then Frodo wonders if the hypothetical children will want to shut the book and stop reading at this point. Sam says he wouldn’t.
Hours later, Gollum finally returns. The hobbits are asleep, Frodo with his head in Sam’s lap, and Sam with a hand on Frodo’s forehead. They look peaceful, and as Gollum stands there watching them, the old gleam fades from his eyes. He shudders, looks at the pass he’s been leading them toward (with no good intentions), and shakes his head like he’s fighting an internal battle. He turns away for a moment, then come back and stretches out a hand toward Frodo. He doesn’t look like a pathetic little creature anymore, just like a sad old hobbit who has been through too much.
At this moment, Gollum could redeem himself. He’s been without friendship and love for centuries, but he hasn’t forgotten what they are and here in this horrid place, watching the two hobbits– longtime friends– sleeping peacefully, he can remember what it was like to have a real friend. He reaches out to the hobbits and is ready to give up his treachery.
But when he touches Frodo (gently) on the knee, Frodo makes a sound that wakes Sam. All Sam sees is sneaky old Gollum pawing at Frodo, and he reacts with suspicion, accusing him of sneaking around and being a villain. It was a knee-jerk reaction and Sam apologizes for it, but the damage is done. The gleam comes back into Gollum’s eyes. He’s going to continue on with his plans. There was a moment when he could have come back into the light, one more chance for him to be good again, but it was ruined in an instant. What good was left in Gollum is gone forever.
I’ve heard it said that Tolkien wept when he wrote this passage. Knowing what I do about Gollum’s life, I understand why.
Next Week: Frodo and Sam encounter a horror from their worst nightmares, and Sam faces the worst choice of his life in ‘Shelob’s Lair’ and ‘The Choices of Master Samwise’.