Mount Doom: Climax or Anticlimax?


In English there are several good words for the moment in a plot when everything “comes to a head,” the moment to which the entire previous action has been building up. The word “climax” comes from a Greek word meaning “ladder,” and was used in the sense of “point of highest intensity” only through a late 18th century misunderstanding; before that, it was a term in rhetoric referring to a sequence of propositions arranged in order of increasing effectiveness. The word “culmination” comes from a Latin word meaning “top, gable, peak, summit,” and before the 18th century was more commonly used in astronomy for the position of a celestial body when it crosses the meridian. The 18th century French term dénouement literally means “unknotting” or “unraveling,” and seems obviously appropriate to both comic and tragic endings, in which everything “comes apart” at the conclusion,  in the senses both of “disintegrating” and “becoming clear.” What is the climax, culmination, or dénouement of The Lord of the Rings?

   For over 800 pages we have followed Frodo and Sam in their journey from the Shire to the Crack of Doom, where they are to destroy the Ring. While hundreds of pages have been spent detailing the slow struggle over difficult terrain, the actual destruction of the Ring takes only one page, and the dissolution of Sauron, his armies, and his kingdom takes another page. The account of the scuffle over the Ring is terse, opaque, confused, leaving the reader wondering exactly what happened and how it happened. Tolkien does not extend the fight, linger on the Ring as it falls into the fire, or create any confrontation with Sauron — whereas a lesser writer would have found it irresistible to do all of these. Moreover, a glance at the Contents page tells us that after this there will be six more chapters, so if this scene is indeed the climax of the whole book, what follows must be eighty pages of obligatory wrapping-up. 

   We have seen in previous essays that at crucial moments Tolkien tends to be laconic, especially where Frodo is concerned. Let’s look carefully at what happens:   

Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
   ‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight. Sam gasped, but he had no chance to cry out, for at that moment many things happened.
   Something struck Sam violently in the back, his legs were knocked from under him and he was flung aside, striking his head against the stony floor, as a dark shape sprang over him. He lay still and for a moment all went black.

The three hobbit protagonists of the Mordor part of the story all converge here in one action. Physically, the details are vague: we know that there is a fire chasm, and that there are rock walls to this cave, but we do not know how far Frodo is from Sam or where exactly Sam lands in relation to the chasm. In a film, topography and relative distances have to be clear, but in prose spatial opaqueness can function to various ends — for instance, giving an effect of disorientation, or putting the moral and psychological relationships more in the foreground. When all went black, we also have temporal vagueness, because we don’t know how long after this Sam comes back to consciousness.

   At this point the narrative is disrupted by a startling change in point of view: for the first time in the book, we are allowed to enter  Sauron’s mind as he becomes aware of what is happening behind his back:

And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.
   From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain. At his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgûl the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom.

It is remarkable that Tolkien makes Sam’s moment of blackness coincide with Sauron’s moment of awakening — as if Sam, with his instinct for lyrical transcendence and his invincible earthy faith, has to be removed before the dark, malicious mind of Sauron can manifest in the book. For one instant, Sauron becomes intelligent and sees; the implication is that in this instant both he and Frodo see each other, but the instant is private to the two of them and closed to Sam, who now wakes up.

Sam got up. He was dazed, and blood streaming from his head dripped in his eyes. He groped forward, and then he saw a strange and terrible thing. Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe. To and fro he swayed, now so near the brink that almost he tumbled in, now dragging back, falling to the ground, rising, and falling again. And all the while he hissed but spoke no words.
   The fires below awoke in anger, the red light blazed, and all the cavern was filled with a great glare and heat. Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was wrought of living fire.
   ‘Precious, precious, precious!’ Gollum cried. ‘My Precious! O my Precious!’ And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone. (Ch.3, 223-24)

Frodo temporarily disappears into the Ring, and only Gollum’s savage amputation restores him back to flesh-and-blood visibility. Gollum is twice described as like a mad thing: what is it to fight like a mad thing, and then dance like a mad thing? It is Sam’s perspective that gives us this view of the action; he seems paralyzed, too dazed to act, and is also horrified by Gollum’s inhuman frenzy — like a mad thing. The suddenness of Gollum’s death is true to life: people who witness their friends falling off a ledge describe the shock of a literal “now you see him, now you don’t” experience. 

   At that moment many things happened — and not only physical things. Gollum, Sam, Frodo, and Sauron all converge, and what happens is as none of them would have expected. 

   Sam, shortly before this, has felt a resurgence from a mood of mortal doubt to one of the purest heroism, ready for anything, willing to do anything, unshakeable:

But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue. (211)

But he is abruptly eliminated from the action and is for a short while not aware of what has happened. 

   Frodo has reached a disturbing new state of clarity and acceptance, but he has been stripped of his hobbit capacity for enjoying life :

‘Do you remember that bit of rabbit, Mr. Frodo?’ he said. ‘And our place under the warm bank in Captain Faramir’s country, the day I saw an oliphaunt?’
   ‘No, I am afraid not, Sam,’ said Frodo. ‘At least, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark. Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.’ (215)

What is “the wheel of fire”? In Greek mythology Ixion is strapped by Zeus to a wheel of fire for lusting after Hera, and in King Lear the phrase is used to convey purgatorial or infernal suffering: “But I am bound upon a wheel of fire…” Frodo’s torture is to have lost his nature, his hobbit love of sensory pleasures as well as his poetic soul: he cannot even remember these things from his previous life. It is as if Frodo-the-hobbit has been nothing but clothing, and now this clothing has been torn away and thrown into the fire, leaving a poor, naked, defenseless being exposed to this wheel of fire. The image is repeated a few pages later, this time seen by Sam with his own waking eyes:

Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice. (221)

The wheel of fire has become the Ring. Its burning is not a kind of general pain without particularized content, but the full pain in which our very identity, including the things in us that are dear to us, are burned away, burned off, melted down, almost to voidness. Frodo himself is aware that this could mean being reduced to Gollum’s state of being scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, but at this point he is able to attain a lofty, sacrificial dignity in the bearing of the Ring.

   Gollum is intensely aware of having been diminished, ground down, pulverized:

Let us live, yes, live just a little longer. Lost lost! We’re lost. And when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into the dust.’ He clawed up the ashes of the path with his long fleshless fingers. ‘Dusst!’ he hissed. (221)

This  word “dust” carries connotations of “house dust” that we sweep out, inescapable mortality (ashes to ashes dust to dust), and trash (dustbin, dustman, dustpan, dust heaps). In this passage dust and lost are linked by consonance, as are precious and ashes. Gollum knows what the Ring has brought him to but, like an addict, he clings to it as the final barrier between himself and nullity. In what sense does he see himself as “lost”? — lost to meaning, lost to every possibility of happiness, or abandoned and irrecoverable? And when he speaks of dying into the dust, he clearly doesn’t mean dust literally; die into suggests willful self-annihilation, the deliberate turning into worthless nothing that lies under people’s feet. 

   All three feel grim determination to effect an end, but their individual plots all go awry: Sam doesn’t mean to be knocked out, Frodo hasn’t planned to keep the Ring or to fight with a mad thing for it, and Gollum doesn’t intend to slip into the crack at the height of his jubilation. For each of them the actions at the Crack of Doom are anticlimactic, because messy and accidental. Heroism has become irrelevant and has given way to something less noble but more mysterious. Only Frodo has had the strength of heart and the interest in heroism to bring the Ring as far as the brink; only Sam has had the physical fortitude, selfless devotion, and spontaneous courage to make sure Frodo gets there; and only Gollum has the mad, obsessive desperation to get it by biting off Frodo’s finger and then perish by momentarily forgetting where exactly he is. Through the coming together of this trio, the world is saved — and the one who has been brought down lowest by the Ring turns out to be the one who bring down the one seated in the highest place. Frodo recognizes this:

‘But do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! (225)

He is referring to what Gandalf had said near the beginning of The Fellowship, 800 pages ago:

…even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least. (Fellowship, ch.3)

Gollum is able to be there at the ending of the Ring because of Bilbo’s mercy many decades ago. There has been something providential about the long chains of causation that have yoked these three beings together in this monumental task: who could have foreseen that Sauron would be destroyed by these particular hobbits? Certainly not Sauron, who is locked into rigid stereotypes of conflict, power, and victory — and therefore cannot understand quirky, paradoxical ways of thinking. Only at the moment of his defeat does he become aware of his own stupidity and lack of imagination. We do not get a substantial account of conflict between Sauron and our heroes precisely because Sauron is a nonentity, a being constructed only out of the same tedious old fantasies of power and animated by no vision of worthy or interesting ends of life. His sole function is to negate such ends, and so, as negation incarnate, no conflict is possible: he either annihilates or, when his enemies succeed, evaporates. His essence is anticlimactic, his purpose to frustrate good culminations. 

   In The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam had given heart to each other by invoking the tales that will be told of them in future generations, so that now — even if they should perish — they can continue in this adventure knowing that it will be a good story starring Sam and Frodo. Because their mission is really a suicide mission, they are free to be themselves. The same is true of Gollum, who is held by no fears or inhibitions. On the great field of battle, too, Aragorn and his troops have dedicated themselves to their only hope and, happily resigned to their own deaths, are fighting to buy time for the Ringbearer to accomplish his mission. All are indifferent to death, and this indifference releases them to do their utmost, like arrows shot from a bow. It is only because of this inner freedom from fear that what providence there is in this world can flow through their actions and accomplish their end for them in spite of themselves. Only Sauron craves control and the maintenance of security; the anxiety that narrows his actions also dulls his intelligence, and he is no match for antagonists who have nothing more to lose. 

   The disintegration of Sauron and his empire is only the beginning of the long climax to the Lord of the Rings, which will unfold over the next eighty pages and not release us until the last line. Tolkien is less interested in the plot of the struggle over the Ring than in the deep impact of this struggle. The novel’s dénouement or unknotting takes place in the political realm, as Gondor and Rohan get their souls back, and as the Shire recollects and recovers its ancient goodness; and also in the hearts of our protagonists, as Eowyn, Sam, and Frodo have to find repair and resolution after all the tearings they have witnessed. 

   

“An Evil Thing in Spider-Form”

Why must the entrance to Mordor be guarded by an ancient “evil thing in spider-form”? Why do Frodo and Sam have to pass through the dark, spiraling tunnel of Shelob’s lair before they can reach Mount Doom? Not only is the spiral path up a cone reminiscent of Dante’s spiral journey downwards in the Inferno and then upwards in the Purgatorio, but the figure of Shelob — like the Balrog in the Mines of Moria — also recalls the various guardian beasts that Dante places at crucial transitions. Although Tolkien insists that he is not writing allegory, his guardian monsters nonetheless carry allegorical resonances beyond their function as physical obstacles in the narrative. To get at Shelob’s peculiar resonances, we have to pay attention to the way Tolkien handles her in the narrative as well as the unusual, sometimes startling words he uses to describe her. 

Whenever a skillful writer seems to break one of his own implicit “rules,” it is a signal to the reader to sit up and prick the ears. Near the climax of The Two Towers, when Frodo and Sam have found a way out of Shelob’s lair and are running towards the summit, Tolkien interrupts the action by doing something that he never does, at least in the Lord of the Rings: at this crucial moment, in the midst of a breakneck escape, the narrator pauses to give us “background.” Ordinarily, Tolkien supplies background through his characters, as when Elrond gives an account of the war, or when Gandalf tells us what he knows about the Balrog, or when Tom Bombadil is described by Goldberry, Gandalf, and himself. This way of rendering the world may carry less authority than a clear account from an omniscient narrator, but has the effect of being more honest to how we really form a picture of the world: do we not work with our little experience of what the person or thing says and does, the words about it uttered by other people, and our fluid interpretations of our experience and other people’s words? In our own lives we can never take an encyclopedic perspective. Besides, Tolkien knows well that a habit of presenting background to every personage and situation makes for a clumsy and boring narrator. 

   At first Shelob is presented piecemeal, through the sensory experience of the hobbits. First, there is pitch-blackness, in which the absence of markers causes all sense of time to disappear:

 Gollum led the way close under the cliff. For the present they were no longer climbing, but the ground was now more broken and dangerous in the dark, and there were blocks and lumps of fallen stone in the way. Their going was slow and cautious. How many hours had passed since they had entered the Morgul Vale neither Sam nor Frodo could any longer guess. The night seemed endless. (Ch.8, p.319)

If eternity is a state beyond time, then this is a kind of negative eternity, in which no calibration of progress or regress, motion towards or away from, location or destination, is at all possible. This darkness, however, is not void of any quality, for it does give out an overpowering stench: 

Darker it loomed, and steadily it rose as they approached, until it towered up high above them, shutting out the view of all that lay beyond. Deep shadow lay before its feet. Sam sniffed the air.

`Ugh! That smell!’ he said. `It’s getting stronger and stronger.’

Presently they were under the shadow, and there in the midst of it they saw the opening of a cave. `This is the way in,’ said Gollum softly. `This is the entrance to the tunnel.’ He did not speak its name: Torech Ungol, Shelob’s Lair. Out of it came a stench, not the sickly odour of decay in the meads of Morgul, but a foul reek, as if filth unnameable were piled and hoarded in the dark within.

`Is this the only way, Sméagol? ‘ said Frodo.

‘Yes, yes,’ he answered. ‘Yes, we must go this way now.’

‘D’you mean to say you’ve been through this hole?’ said Sam. `Phew! But perhaps you don’t mind bad smells.’

Gollum’s eyes glinted. `He doesn’t know what we minds, does he precious? No, he doesn’t. But Sméagol can bear things. Yes. He’s been through. O yes, right through. It’s the only way.’

`And what makes the smell, I wonder,’ said Sam. `It’s like – well, I wouldn’t like to say. Some beastly hole of the Orcs, I’ll warrant, with a hundred years of their filth in it.’ (Ch.9, p.326)

In general, Tolkien is not a writer who notices smells; even his corpse-strewn battlefields do not reek of slaughter and decay. He describes the other-worldly fragrance of healing herbs in The Return of the Kng, but in The Two Towers there is only a stench so tangible that it is felt like a blow:

At length Frodo, groping along the left-hand wall, came suddenly to a void. Almost he fell sideways into the emptiness. Here was some opening in the rock far wider than any they had yet passed; and out of it came a reek so foul, and a sense of lurking malice so intense, that Frodo reeled. And at that moment Sam too lurched and fell forwards. (ch.9, p.328)

Gollum’s words are suggestive: He doesn’t know what we minds, does he precious? — as he addresses the Ring, his only companion during his many years in the depths. Sam implies that they are standing above something like a vast grave and privy, holding — hoarding — the vile refuse of hundreds of years of Orc and spider bowels; and when Gollum uses the words through, right through, he too evokes bowels, an alimentary passageway which has even been his home for a while. Gollum has lost all squeamishness, and seems not even to notice the smell. To beings not inured to it, however, the badness of the smell is not physical but moral; it is as if this particular stink is intended to offend and brutalize — for why else would something smell so unnaturally bad?

   The third aspect of Shelob, as she manifests herself bit by bit in the darkness, is her sound, startling and horrible in the heavy padded silence: a gurgling, bubbling noise, and a long venomous hiss (328) — a mixture of poisonous snake and diabolical cauldron, a vat for processing meat. It is after the hobbits break out and manage to see her whole that Tolkien the narrator interrupts the action to give us the “background” to Shelob, just in case we were tempted to think of her as only a monster to be defeated on the way to the goal:

There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form, even such as once of old had lived in the Land of the Elves in the West that is now under the Sea, such as Beren fought in the Mountains of Terror in Doriath, and so came to Lúthien upon the green sward amid the hemlocks in the moonlight long ago. How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells, for out of the Dark Years few tales have come. But still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dûr; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness. Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen, from the Ephel Dúath to the eastern hills, to Dol Guldur and the fastnesses of Mirkwood. But none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.

Her past is essentially impenetrable: is she older than Tom Bombadil? Who is Ungoliant, and does Ungoliant have an origin?  Does Shelob have to be coeval with her food, Men and Elves? Does she eat flesh? — or is she an ancient vampire, living on blood and then casting the drained husks into the pit below? At this point the description starts to go beyond the physical: how does a creature grow fat with endless brooding on her feasts? Can brooding make one fat? What is it to weave webs of shadow? And what does it mean to say all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness? What is it for her to vomit, and how can darkness be vomited? Are the webs of shadow her vomit? What does this have to do with brooding, and what does the conjunction for mean here? Why not and? Physically, the description makes no sense, but spiritually it makes powerful sense in its evocation of a spreader of corruption and degradation. 

   Gollum treats her like a pagan god, either because he really thinks of her as one, or because he knows that she thinks of herself as a deity deserving worship and sacrifice:

Already, years before, Gollum had beheld her, Sméagol who pried into all dark holes, and in past days he had bowed and worshipped her, and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret. And he had promised to bring her food. But her lust was not his lust. Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her.

Tolkien’s diction in these passages is thick, gnarled, full of knots: and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret? “Darkness of her evil will” is intelligible, suggesting a brew of malice, hatred, blindness, and inscrutability — but in what sense does such a will “walk” beside someone, and does “all the ways of his weariness” mean “eveywhere he went in his exhaustion,” or “all the actions and movements that came from his despair”? Does this evil will “cut him off from light and from regret” because under Shelob’s influence he deprives himself not only of actual daylight but also of his capacity for moral insight and innocent joy (two connotations of “light”), and is also rendered morally numb. The sentence reminds us that Gollum once had “light and regret” — but are these permanently gone, or can they be revived when he is out of Shelob’s reach? We are then told that she only desired death for all others, mind and body: thus, it is not merely the physical food of flesh that nourishes her, but the death of all others — and how would death of mind feed her, except as the profound  spiritual malice that delights in crushing love and hope? The foulness of Shelob is an expansive, metaphysical foulness that goes way beyond vampirism. She embodies the anti-life and anti-spiritual, and thus is uncontainable by anything merely geological: swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her. What is meant by “the darkness”? — the one inside the mountain, or the one she vomits, which comes from inside herself and must be a moral or spiritual darkness? The implication is that she cannot be limited and, from inside herself, is unceasingly extending her borders. This, then, is no simple spider, but a spirit of negation.

   As the description progresses, the resonances amplify:

But that desire was yet far away, and long now had she been hungry, lurking in her den, while the power of Sauron grew, and light and living things forsook his borders; and the city in the valley was dead, and no Elf or Man came near, only the unhappy Orcs. Poor food and wary. But she must eat, and however busily they delved new winding passages from the pass and from their tower, ever she found some way to snare them. But she lusted for sweeter meat. And Gollum had brought it to her. (332-3)

Infinitely ingenious in her snaring of food, Shelob is not satisfied  only by meat: she lusted for sweeter meat — innocence , joy, love, which Gollum knows he can deliver in the form of Frodo and Sam. Does she communicate her lust by speaking to Gollum, or does he figure it out through some kind of latent sympathy? If she can speak her lust, it would seem that she has the deliberative, persuasive intelligence of a creature who is not fundamentally alone; but if Gollum can pierce her darkness to guess this desire, he must understand from within himself the satisfaction of devouring the morally sweet. He can understand that from her point of view he will be bringing “nice food”:

`We’ll see, we’ll see,’ he said often to himself, when the evil mood was on him, as he walked the dangerous road from Emyn Muil to Morgul Vale, ‘we’ll see. It may well be, O yes, it may well be that when She throws away the bones and the empty garments, we shall find it, we shall get it, the Precious, a reward for poor Sméagol who brings nice food. And we’ll save the Precious, as we promised. O yes. And when we’ve got it safe, then She’ll know it, O yes, then we’ll pay Her back, my precious. Then we’ll pay everyone back! ‘ (323)

We now see what Gollum has grown not to mind. He doesn’t mind digging around in the chewed bones of his former companions, and by implication, if he doesn’t find his Precious there, he also won’t mind searching for her in the pit of Shelob’s excrement. We realize that in his years hiding in the mountain Gollum has become a denizen of the sewer, and both physically and morally, nothing is too dirty for him. If this utter loss of inhibition comes about through badness or weakness of character, Gollum would be straightforwardly loathsome or contemptible — but the reality is more disturbing: his corruption issues from nothing less than love, which can value preciousness in something outside himself. 

   In contrast, both Sauron and Shelob find nothing precious but themselves, and every other being a means for their own satisfaction. Their relationship is symbiotic:

And as for Sauron: he knew where she lurked. It pleased him that she should dwell there hungry but unabated in malice, a more sure watch upon that ancient path into his land than any other that his skill could have devised. And Orcs, they were useful slaves, but he had them in plenty. If now and again Shelob caught them to stay her appetite, she was welcome: he could spare them. And sometimes as a man may cast a dainty to his cat (his cat he calls her, but she owns him not) Sauron would send her prisoners that he had no better uses for: he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made. (323)

What could be worse than Shelob’s horrifying, deadening darkness? — Sauron’s delight in hearing the reports of her play with victims. We can only imagine the questions he would ask and the pleasure of his contemplation. In Shelob, we see a mindless lust to devour goodness, but in Sauron — more sinister because Tolkien only hints at it and lets us imagine — we encounter contemplative, aesthetic sadism, a refined evil.

   Others have written about The Two Towers as a book of war, in which Tolkien draws from his experience as a soldier in some of the worst battles of World War I — for example, how the journey through the Dead Marshes resembles the experience of crawling through No Man’s Land during the battle of the Somme:

Hurrying forward again, Sam tripped, catching his foot in some old root or tussock. He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere. There was a faint hiss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled. 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 names,’ 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 when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them.’ Frodo hid his eyes in his hands. ‘I know not who they are; but I thought I saw there Men and Elves, and Orcs beside them.’

`Yes, yes,’ said Gollum. `All dead, all rotten. Elves and Men and Orcs. The Dead Marshes. There was a great battle long ago, yes, so they told him when Sméagol was young, when I was young before the Precious came. It was a great battle. Tall Men with long swords, and terrible Elves, and Orcses shrieking. They fought on the plain for days and months at the Black Gates. But the Marshes have grown since then, swallowed up the graves; always creeping, creeping.’ (Ch.2, p.235)

The passage also invokes Dante’s journey over the frozen Lake Cocytus, where he sees innumerable bodies in the ice. Shelob, the ancient goddess presiding over an abyss of blood, bones, and excrement, at the climax of a book of war, can be read as an incarnation of the mindset that doesn’t mind war, and that can live quite happily suspended over this nasty abyss.

   But I think Tolkien means her to be much more. The poets of the Upanishads saw our universe as an unending process of hunger and consumption: for a being to survive, something else has to die — and our lives, moment by moment, are made up of eating, digesting, and excreting other beings. We too are food; we do not get to escape the universal process. Shelob’s malice consists in trying to prove to us that we are nothing but this process: we are essentially food and shit, and essentially beings that reduce everything else to food and shit. This is the meaning of the overwhelming stench. Shelob is a vision of ultimate degradation, in which all higher aspiration quails to nothing. Sauron comprehends that all those trying to enter his kingdom via Shelob’s lair will perish as much from despair and demoralization as from fangs; to survive Shelob, we will need the invincibility of genuine love, which is why Sam and Frodo can make it, and also Gollum, who loves one thing. Of course, Sauron does not believe in this, so he expects Shelob to batten on all intruders.

   The narrator, having given us this important background to Shelob, then returns to the action. While we the readers now have a fuller sense of what Sam and Frodo are facing, they do not know what we know:

But nothing of this evil which they had stirred up against them did poor Sam know, except that a fear was growing on him, a menace which he could not see; and such a weight did it become that it was a burden to him to run, and his feet seemed leaden. (323)
The horror of Shelob is moral and spiritual in its reverberation, but through our heroes — who are not simple, but sensitive and innocent — such horror is felt with visceral immediacy, for true evil cannot be hidden but is atmospherically evident to the pure of heart. That we are allowed to know what they have no suspicion of makes them more helpless, more vulnerable, but also perhaps more capable of action; to have brooded over the meaning of Shelob might only have paralyzed them, and Sam’s heroism will be founded on love, not knowledge. 

Frodo’s Laughter


In life, it is almost impossible to predict what a rescue or victory will look like before it happens: often, an apparent victory is Pyrrhic, and an apparent rescue may be “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” In fiction, victories and rescues can take obvious, stereotypical forms, such as the valiant destruction of the enemy in battle, or the seizing of the doomed hero from the maw of death; without doubt, we find these more predictable climaxes in The Lord of the Rings. But what distinguishes Tolkien’s power as a writer is his insight into the small and seemingly insignificant moments that most people do not notice — which is one reason he chooses to centre his epic on hobbits, beings whom no one could have expected to play the pivotal role in a cosmic conflict. He knows that the greatest turns in a story may come through a look, a gesture, a word — for such “little” things can change minds and hearts, and since all actions issue from minds and hearts, it is the “little” events in the soul that create the story. They are only considered “little” because they are not obvious to us, and they are not obvious to us not because they are little but because we are not good at noticing such things.
   In the second half of The Two Towers, nestled in dark crannies far away from the great battles, we witness a great transformation in Frodo’s spirit, effected by nothing less than the words of Sam. In chapter 3 of Part 4, Frodo finds himself paralyzed by a sense of hopeless inadequacy:

He sat upon the ground for a long while, silent, his head bowed, striving to recall all that Gandalf had said to him. But for this choice he could recall no counsel. Indeed Gandalf’s guidance had been taken from them too soon, too soon, while the Dark Land was still very far away. How they should enter it at the last Gandalf had not said. Perhaps he could not say. Into the stronghold of the Enemy in the North, into Dol Guldur, he had once ventured. But into Mordor, to the Mountain of Fire and to Barad-dûr, since the Dark Lord rose in power again, had he ever journeyed there? Frodo did not think so. And here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go. It was an evil fate. But he had taken it on himself in his own sitting-room in the far-off spring of another year, so remote now that it was like a chapter in a story of the world’s youth, when the Trees of Silver and Gold were still in bloom. This was an evil choice. Which way should he choose? And if both led to terror and death, what good lay in choice? (Ch.3, p252)

This is the despair of one who has just realized that he has undertaken a task impossible for him, and that the only outcome of the undertaking is “terror and death.” It is the sense that some of us wake up to in mid-life that we are unrescuably embarked on a course from which no success or happiness can be reasonably expected, and in which there is no guidance from anyone: we are on our own, without even the light of old hope. And Frodo is also exhausted.

   What starts to lift him out of his despondency is Sam’s unexpected reaction to Gollum’s report of a sighting of men:

`Were there any oliphaunts?’ asked Sam, forgetting his fear in his eagerness for news of strange places.
   `No, no oliphaunts. What are oliphaunts? ‘ said Gollum.
   Sam stood up, putting his hands behind his back (as he always did when ‘speaking poetry’), and began:
Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house.
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old, and tall.
If ever you’d met me
You wouldn’t forget me.
If you never do,
You won’t think I’m true;
But old Oliphaunt am I,
And I never lie. 

‘That,’ said Sam, when he had finished reciting, `that’s a rhyme we have in the Shire. Nonsense maybe, and maybe not. But we have our tales too, and news out of the South, you know. In the old days hobbits used to go on their travels now and again. Not that many ever came back, and not that all they said was believed: news from Bree, and not sure as Shiretalk, as the sayings go. But I’ve heard tales of the big folk down away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call ’em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts, ’tis said, when they fight. They put houses and towers on the oliphauntses backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another. So when you said “Men out of the South, all in red and gold,” I said “were there any oliphaunts? ” For if there was, I was going to take a look, risk or no. But now I don’t suppose I’ll ever see an oliphaunt. Maybe there ain’t no such a beast.’ He sighed.
(255)

Nowhere previously in the narrative has there been any mention of “oliphaunts,” a word from Old French that evokes wild imaginings of the great animal in medieval courtly romances. The possibility of an oliphaunt appearing pops suddenly out of Sam’s mouth, and it is one of those indications that Sam has an inner life that we are not privy too: his mind bursts with legend and lore, and throughout the journey, in his long stretches of silence, he must be thinking about things like oliphaunts. Moreover, even though they are in one of the darkest episodes of the journey, his excited curiosity temporarily banishes fear. This is a lesson for us: curiosity can kill fear, not just the cat. 

   When he “sighs” at the thought that he might never see an oliphaunt, his sad resignation is both insane and exhilarating: Now, at this terrible moment when you are staring failure and death in the face, you are worried that you might never see one of those mythical beasts from the poems of your childhood?! What exhilarates is the evidence that Sam doesn’t fully live here, in his immediate physical surroundings. This is why for him curiosity can conquer fear: his inner world, mostly hidden from us but occasionally manifest in his encounters with Elves, is much larger and more beautiful than his physical world, and it may be more real and vivid. What moves him most deeply, as we saw in Lothlorien, is the discovery that his inner world of image and story can spill over into the material universe in which he has to eat, act, and die. Unlike Frodo, who is driven by a heroic quest, Sam is on this journey because he wants to find out if the legends that have shaped his life are true or not — that is, whether in his own experience it may be possible for a legend and an actual life to tread the same ground. His concern for oliphaunts is far from trivial. 

   Gollum of course isn’t interested, and we don’t yet know that he has already hatched his plan to kill them both. What is interesting is that he maligns his old self: Smeagol, obsessed with finding the secrets of the world, would have been very interested in oliphaunts, but Gollum seeks to emphasize that he only thing that interests him now is safety. Frodo, however, is something of a mean between Gollum, who has long since given up the dream of happiness for himself, and Sam, who is invincible because most of his being is alive in a dream of happiness. This is why be can understand both: Gollum and Sam are two poles of Frodo.

`No, no oliphaunts,’ said Gollum again. ‘Sméagol has not heard of them. He does not want to see them. He does not want them to be. Sméagol wants to go away from here and hide somewhere safer. Sméagol wants master to go. Nice master, won’t he come with Sméagol?’

Frodo stood up. He had laughed in the midst of all his cares when Sam trotted out the old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt, and the laugh had released him from hesitation. `I wish we had a thousand oliphaunts with Gandalf on a white one at their head,’ he said. `Then we’d break a way into this evil land, perhaps. But we’ve not; just our own tired legs, that’s all. Well, Sméagol, the third turn may turn the best. I will come with you.’ (255)

He had laughed: Only now are we told that the background accompaniment to Sam’s recitation was Frodo’s laughter. I can imagine that the laughter began when Sam adopts his recitation posture of standing straight with arms behind his back, a posture in which the poetry can shine proudly forth through face and chest. It is also the posture of a confident 10-year-old boy declaiming on stage — Sam’s unbreakable inner child, ready to stand and recite in even the darkest times. This magnificent vision is the first that loosens Frodo from his despair.

    Later, when they catch sight of the troop of men,


To his astonishment and terror, and lasting delight, Sam saw a vast shape crash out of the trees and come careering down the slope.
(269)

Again, “lasting delight” balances out “astonishment and terror” — and it is “lasting” because it can be savored in words and memories forever. The apparition of a real oliphaunt brings about a contact with immortality that completes a life and thereby renders death harmless:

Sam drew a deep breath. ‘An Oliphaunt it was!’ he said. `So there are Oliphaunts, and I have seen one. What a life! But no one at home will ever believe me. Well, if that’s over, I’ll have a bit of sleep.’ (270)

What a life! The greatest satisfaction would be to find ourselves living the life that we only dreamed about in our childhoods; only then could we go to sleep happy and fulfilled, even in the midst of battle.

   Frodo’s reinvigoration continues when, a few chapters later, the same conversation is resumed — once again, when he expresses grim hopelessness:

‘I don’t like anything here at all.’ said Frodo, `step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.’
‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. `And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. 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 wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into? ‘

   `I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.‘ (320-21)

And you don’t want them to: in other words, to be a participant in a story, you cannot be omniscient, because what it means to be someone in a story is that you don’t know how things are going to go or what the next moment will be, and you cannot really choose how things will turn out. Without the ignorance and terrifying uncertainty, there would be no stories and no heroes, only a chain of actions and events no more significant than any other. 

   As before, Sam is always fascinated by where tales end and “life” begins: do the two worlds councide or leak into each other, is the world of legend infinite like time and the universe? In these passages we witness Sam thinking aloud; perhaps these are good examples of what goes on in his head during the long trudge to Mordor. He may be the only character in the Lord of the Rings permitted to unveil his interior monologue, the swirl of his private preoccupations apart from the demands of the immediate action. Because Sam lives in two worlds, he is always wondering about his place in them and about how they might go together.

   What happens next in the conversation is surprising and powerful, because it holds the key to how Frodo finds the strength to go on:

‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. `But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.’
   ‘And then we can have some rest and some sleep,’ said Sam. He laughed grimly. ‘And I mean just that, Mr. Frodo. I mean plain ordinary rest, and sleep, and waking up to a morning’s work in the garden. I’m afraid that’s all I’m hoping for all the time. All the big important plans are not for my sort. Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, or course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring! ” And they’ll say: “Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave. wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”‘
   `It’s saying a lot too much,’ said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again. ‘Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad? ” ‘
(331-22)

In the course of the conversation there arises in Frodo a new way to view his struggle: he learns, through Sam, to see himself as a character in a great story. No longer is he merely Frodo the hobbit, but now he is Frodo and the Ring, accompanied by Samwise the Stouthearted. From now on they will be the inspiration of books and movies, and of radiant faces enthralled by their story. The sudden realization is what makes Frodo laugh his long clear laugh. All the other characters are some how locked into dull, rigid programs: the warriors have to be warriors and they know at every step the grim duty they must follow, and the villains pursue their own narrow ends without humor. Warriors and elves have genealogies and histories, and it is for these that they live — to fix their names, and ensure their legacies. But genealogies and histories are not tales: tales exist for the sake of “lasting delight,” and they contain such beings as hobbits and oliphaunts — improbable creatures. Tolkien’s warriors are never astonished by their own improbability. It takes the comic sensibility of a hobbit to be amazed by self-recognition, and to laugh in it. The comic mind can step outside itself and see itself from new angles, precisely because it does not have a deadly investment in taking itself seriously. It’s okay, even wonderful, to be a character in a tale.

   In this tale, Sam will act Sam to the hilt, Frodo will be Frodo, and Gollum will be Gollum: each will play their roles perfectly, and thereby fulfill their tale. This is a tremendous lesson for those of us who feel ourselves mired, even doomed, in hopeless situations: we really don’t know how it will turn out, and at the present moment it may free us to imagine ourselves as characters in a great tale — not the noblest characters, far from perfect, and often unintelligent. What more can we do than play ourselves wholeheartedly and leave the world another story to enjoy? — for even when we fail miserably and die, we can still make an extraordinary and satisfying tale.

   This is why, when Gollum returns from his dubious excursion, he finds Sam and Frodo happily asleep: Peace was in both their faces. (323)

 


 

Tolkien’s Subtlety

The Lord of the Rings, with its sweeping Manichaean conflict and monochrome heroism, would not be an obvious candidate for the adjective “subtle” — but at his best, Tolkien is indeed a subtle writer capable of moments of concise, suggestive power. Before going to two passages in The Two Towers that demonstrate this, I want to start with a section from Jane Eyre, which for me sets the gold standard for “concise, suggestive power.” Here we find ourselves at a girls’ boarding school, where punitive sadism masquerades as moral discipline. The supervisor of this school, Mr.Brocklehurst, is holding forth to the sympathetic Ms.Temple:

“Madam, allow me an instant. You are aware that my plan in bringing up these girls is, not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying. Should any little accidental disappointment of the appetite occur, such as the spoiling of a meal, the under or the over dressing of a dish, the incident ought not to be neutralised by replacing with something more delicate the comfort lost, thus pampering the body and obviating the aim of this institution; it ought to be improved to the spiritual edification of the pupils, by encouraging them to evince fortitude under temporary privation. A brief address on those occasions would not be mistimed, wherein a judicious instructor would take the opportunity of referring to the sufferings of the primitive Christians; to the torments of martyrs; to the exhortations of our blessed Lord Himself, calling upon His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him; to His warnings that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God; to His divine consolations, “If ye suffer hunger or thirst for My sake, happy are ye.” Oh, madam, when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge, into these children’s mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!”


Mr. Brocklehurst again paused — perhaps overcome by his feelings. Miss Temple had looked down when he first began to speak to her; but she now gazed straight before her, and her face, naturally pale as marble, appeared to be assuming also the coldness and fixity of that material; especially her mouth, closed as if it would have required a sculptor’s chisel to open it, and her brow settled gradually into petrified severity.
Meantime, Mr. Brocklehurst, standing on the hearth with his hands behind his back, majestically surveyed the whole school. Suddenly his eye gave a blink, as if it had met something that either dazzled or shocked its pupil; turning, he said in more rapid accents than he had hitherto used —


“Miss Temple, Miss Temple, what — what is that girl with curled hair? Red hair, ma’am, curled — curled all over?” And extending his cane he pointed to the awful object, his hand shaking as he did so.
“It is Julia Severn,” replied Miss Temple, very quietly.

(Jane Eyre, ch.7)

This writing is a little miracle. To begin with, Brocklehurst’s speech is the kind of self-righteous harangue that Victorian novelists excelled at: it is calm and plausible on the surface, almost rational — yet we can sense that it is coming from a place in the heart that is cold, cruel, insane. The speaker appears to himself to be absolutely sane and reasonable as well as pious and full of good intentions. But is there any reader who could take him at his own valuation? It is the mark of a healthy soul to respond to such a speech with hatred of religious hypocrisy and tyranny, but the author doesn’t need to tell us how to react: she respects our moral capacity to respond with anger where anger is deserved, and to see accurately through the foul smoke of righteousness. Mr. Brocklehurst again paused — perhaps overcome by his feelings: it is the perhaps that makes this so damning, because if he is really “overcome by his feelings” at this moment it would be an unmistakeable sign of derangement, and if he is not, then the speech has been crafted for effect. The perhaps indicates that Brocklehurst would be unable to tell the difference between these two — just as all morally manipulative people are blind to their own contrivances — and therein lies the true wickedness: the obscuring of any difference between love and control.

   Charlotte Bronte does not have Ms.Temple respond with words or with thoughts, but instead gives us a description of her facial movements so clear and so precise that we are in no doubt that Ms.Temple is on our side. Miss Temple had looked down when he first began to speak to her; but she now gazed straight before her, and her face, naturally pale as marble, appeared to be assuming also the coldness and fixity of that material; especially her mouth, closed as if it would have required a sculptor’s chisel to open it, and her brow settled gradually into petrified severity. If you have ever tried to describe how a face moves you will recognize immediately what a marvel this sentence is. Ms.Temple cannot express her true feelings to this petty dictator. Her very silence is evidence of tyranny, but it goes even further than biting her lip: Brocklehurst’s moral sadism does not merit a response dignified by words because sense cannot penetrate such hardness of heart. It cannot be dignified even by eye contact, since that would acknowledge mutual humanity. Because the reaction is wordless, we can feel almost physically Ms.Temple’s scorn and revulsion. And because we are not told in words what to feel, we are left to find in ourselves the right reaction to Brocklehurst. This is why writers like Charlotte Bronte are so morally nourishing: they let us reconnect to some core of goodness in ourselves that is undeceived by the whited sepulchres around us. Part of the miraculous in this writing is that it seems to be what the narrator is observing, but in fact the author has created a dramatic scene as well as a narrator who observes what Brocklehurst is oblivious to — thus further enphasizing the self-blindness of the Pharisee.

   While Charlotte Bronte is relentlessly perceptive most of the time, Tolkien is often capable of such craft and insight. 

Gollum disappeared. He was away some time, and Frodo after a few mouthfuls of lembas settled deep into the brown fern and went to sleep. Sam looked at him. The early daylight was only just creeping down into the shadows under the trees, but he saw his master’s face very clearly, and his hands, too, lying at rest on the ground beside him. He was reminded suddenly of Frodo as he had lain, asleep in the house of Elrond, after his deadly wound. Then as he had kept watch Sam had noticed that at times a light seemed to be shining faintly within; but now the light was even clearer and stronger. Frodo’s face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiselling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: `I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.’ Gollum returned quietly and peered over Sam’s shoulder. Looking at Frodo, he shut his eyes and crawled away without a sound. Sam came to him a moment later and found him chewing something and muttering to himself. On the ground beside him lay two small rabbits, which he was beginning to eye greedily.
‘Sméagol always helps,’ he said. `He has brought rabbits, nice rabbits. But master has gone to sleep, and perhaps Sam wants to sleep. Doesn’t want rabbits now? Sméagol tries to help, but he can’t catch things all in a minute.‘ (260)

Two aspects of this passage are striking to me. The first is how lovingly Tolkien renders Sam’s absorption in Frodo, fusing memory and perception in a few sentences, such that we get a picture of Frodo’s transformation over time as well as Sam’s own deepening of character, which comes about through his deepening love. The narrator makes himself explicit: Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself — as if Sam’s reaction actually consists of two voices working together. The narrator has stepped into Sam, recognizing that only through Sam can Frodo be seen. What Sam thinks to himself is: `I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.’ It is the kind of sentence that Charlotte Bronte — nearly always clear-headed and strong-minded — would never be sentimental enough to write, but it captures Sam’s capacity to brim over with a devotion so uncontainable and mysterious that it can burst words open: He’s like that... somehow…whether or no. 

   Tolkien’s triumph in this passage is what he does in the next sentence: Gollum returned quietly and peered over Sam’s shoulder. Looking at Frodo, he shut his eyes and crawled away without a sound. Sam, in his devotion to Frodo, is blind to Gollum, as he often is. Tolkien lets us see Gollum, but doesn’t describe the facial expression — only that he shut his eyes and crawled away. The secret of Gollum’s soul is in these words, and Tolkien trusts us to imagine it. Does Gollum see in Frodo what Sam sees, and is he moved by the gently radiant beauty of the sleeping hobbit? — does he even feel something of what Sam feels? If he does, then the act of shutting his eyes might signify either a great refusal or a resignation to the eternal loss of his own peace. Peering over Sam’s shoulder, he might feel himself excluded from companionship — thus the shutting of the eyes might be sadness or anger or both together. The phrase crawled away is abject and also sinister: is it the crawling of a broken being, or the crawling of stealthy malice? — or both? Tolkien’s reticence suggests a state of soul that cannot be described unequivocally because it is ambiguous and conflicted — probably even to Gollum himself.

   It is one of Tolkien’s weaknesses that he will attempt the same thing more than once, because he doesn’t completely trust us to get it. A few chapters later, he gives us the same configuration, with some revealing variations:

And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.

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.

But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum – `pawing at master,’ as he thought.

`Hey you!’ he said roughly. `What are you up to?’

‘Nothing, nothing,’ said Gollum softly. `Nice Master!’

`I daresay,’ said Sam. ‘But where have you been to – sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain? ‘

Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spider-like he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes. The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall. (323-24)

In this version, both Sam and Frodo are asleep, but we get to observe the motions of Gollum’s face. This may be the only time in the whole book when we are allowed intimacy with Gollum, but overtly mediated by the narrator, who, unhelpfully, calls his expression “strange”: in what way strange, and what are we supposed to be imagining? The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him: if what he sees is their love and peacefulness, then the twisting pain would seem to express both agony at a world that is closed to him as well as remorse for what he has planned. “Twisting” suggests spiritual convulsion, for what is being twisted is not only “his face” but him, his being; and it also suggests moral torsion or distortion, as if the pain of his fate is forcing him into impossble positions. As he turns away, shaking his head is a powerful expression of both self-disagreement and also disapproving rejection of the hobbits’ innocence: he is torn and angry, at himself and them. Tolkien, not trusting us, errs momentarily by adding as if engaged in some interior debate — but then he tells us, Then he came back — as if for a few seconds Gollum had left, gone somewhere. This emphasizes the narrator’s intense presence in the scene, such that he can notice a character’s wandering attention. What is the meaning of Gollum’s touch? — helpless love, a yearning for contact, even if it be with something as lowly as a knee? And why “almost” a caress? — does it not dare to be a caress, or does it refuse to be a caress? Gollum wants but doesn’t want, dares but doesn’t dare, loves and doesn’t love, hates and doesn’t hate: it is the fused opposition of extreme emotions that puts him beyond the pale in a no-man’s-land where nothing is clear or whole any more. 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. The passage carries overtones of a banished Cain as well as Milton’s Satan as he beholds the happiness of Adam and Eve, happiness from which he has exiled himself, secretly wants, and has vowed to destroy. Tolkien wisely refrains fom unpacking what is going on inside Gollum because he knows it cannot be unpacked: it is a storm at night, a raging ocean, unintelligible to the being experiencing it. 

  “I wonder if he thinks he’s the hero or the villain?

  “Gollum!” he called. “Would you lke to be the hero? — now where’s he got to again?” (Frodo to Sam, 322)

   In a book that tends towards crude black-and-white moralism, in which it is clear to everyone what is good and what is bad, it is the character of Gollum that takes us into the confused depths of the soul, where all things are possible. Without these depths, The Lord of the Rings would be two-dimensional and soulless. Tolkien’s description of Gollum in these passages is careful, crafty, fascinated: he couldn’t have succeeded if he didn’t somehow love Gollum, and respect him.