Sam’s Deep Breath: The Exquisite Ending to the LOTR

Sometimes a man gets up from his dinner
And walks outside and walks and walks and walks —
Towards a Church, that stands in the East.

And his children bless him as if he were dead.

And sometimes a man, dying in his house,
Remains inside, remains in dish and glass,
So his children are drawn out into the world
Towards the Church that he forgot.
(Rilke, Book of Hours, 2.19)

Frodo and Sam have been ones who walked and walked to the end of the quest. Since any adventure ends either in death or in a return to less adventurous reality, the chapters that ensue after the completion of the quest inevitably feel like an anticlimax in comparison to all the heroic action. Frodo is saved from the anticlimax of living by being given a special destiny in the ethereal West, but Sam has to come back down to the hobbit house of dish and glass, chair and baby. Many have felt the ending to The Lord of the Rings to be not only anticlimactic, a disappointing descent for Sam’s high aspirations — but also terrible, because in consigning him to his new domestic role Frodo has in fact abandoned Sam to a half-life in which all his rich yearning will have to be suppressed in the face of incomprehension. He apparently ends up as the third kind of person, who is not in Rilke’s poem: the one who went out, came back, and is now imprisoned for life in dish and glass. Everything depends on how we read the very last line of the novel — which, as I hope to show in this essay, is the fitting and true climax to the story, carrying the full force of the preceding thousand pages.

And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
   He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.
(311)

Rose is the mother-figure who swallows him back into comfort and domesticity. If the book had ended with this action — and put little Elanor upon his lap — we would have been left hanging in the air: we need Sam to say something, to show us where he is, to prove his commitment, otherwise the lacuna will be filled only with the reverberating grief of Frodo’s departure. What is in that “deep breath,” and what is meant when someone says “well, I’m back”?

   The final chapter takes place firmly in Sam’s point of view: The clearing up certainly needed a lot of work, but it took less time than Sam had feared. (301) For the most part it continues so, with Sam trying to make sense of what is happening:  It was a fair golden morning, and Sam did not ask where they were going: he thought he could guess. (307)  The only exception is when Frodo has a fit while Sam is away doing forestry work, but presumably the narrative gives this to us because Sam is later told about it by Farmer Cotton, who was the one who found Frodo in his fit. Three times in this short chapter the phrase “torn in two” comes up between Sam and Frodo. The first time, Sam is bringing up his dilemma of wanting to live with Rosie and Frodo at the same time:  ‘I feel torn in two, as you might say.’ (304) This is a problem with an easy practical solution, but it masks a deeper dilemma, which is not about how to live with two people, but about how to live in two worlds:

‘I wish I could go all the way with you to Rivendell, Mr. Frodo, and see Mr. Bilbo,’ said Sam. ‘And yet the only place I really want to be in is here. I am that torn in two.’
   ‘Poor Sam! It will feel like that, I am afraid,’ said Frodo. ‘But you will be healed. You were meant to be solid and whole, and you will be.’ (306)
We saw in The Fellowship of the Ring that the special thing about Sam is that he is a fusion of two opposite perfections. On the one hand he is supremely practical in taking care of people, animals, and plants; he is well suited to being the gardener of the Shire, an earthy and affectionate statesman. On the other, he is also the most lyrically rapturous of the hobbits, with his mind and heart constantly in the realm of song and legend — as when, in Lothlorien, he feels himself to be inside the song. He has two worlds, and the blessing of the quest is that for a thousand pages at least, and by the side of Frodo, he is able to inhabit them simultaneously. But how will he do that back in the Shire? Frodo understands  Sam’s torn heart, and it is striking that he interprets it as a wound: “you will be healed.” What does he mean by this? He cannot mean that both worlds will become integrated in Sam’s life in the Shire — because if that were possible, Frodo himself would not have to leave. And he cannot mean that time will take its course and sooner or later Sam’s ties to the story and to Frodo will be superseded by familial absorption; he knows all too well that Sam is governed by unshakeable loyalty, that his yearning is profound, and that if that absorption were to happen it would mean that the Sam we knew has died inside. Could Frodo’s words be mere empty consolation, based on nothing more than faith and hope? The consolation is repeated and amplified a few pages later:

‘And I can’t come.’
   ‘No, Sam. Not yet anyway, not further than the Havens. Though you too were a Ring-bearer, if only for a little while. Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.’
   ‘But,’ said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, ‘I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too. for years and years, after all you have done.’
   ‘So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you. And also you have Rose, and Elanor; and Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass, and Merry, and Goldilocks, and Pippin; and perhaps more that I cannot see. Your hands and your wits will be needed everywhere. You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone. so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on. (309)
From the perspective of legend, it would be right for all the Ringbearers to leave together, and Sam must have accompanied Frodo with this possibility in mind. This moment echoes the moment when Éowyn turns up in armor and ready for battle, only to be told to stay behind; and her acceptance of Faramir instead of Aragorn, and a healer’s life, raises the same questions as Sam’s return: is she forced into domesticity, does she surrender, or does she assent? Frodo’s consolation to Sam is that he will be needed and also surrounded by love, and that there is greater growth for him along that path — whereas the sojourn in the West is a kind of final stasis and happy embalming, with no prospect of movement or growth. Frodo knows that while he himself has been completed, finished, by the quest, Sam is not and has more work to do, which he can be happy in. 

    When Frodo leaves, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are filled with a sadness that was yet blessed and without bitterness. (309) What kind of sadness is this? There is sadness at anything good coming to an end or being lost, but most endings and losses are confused, entangled, unresolved. This one is a clean finish, with nothing left undone, and with the chance to bid a real farewell. And yet the sadness is profound.

But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. Beside him stood Merry and Pippin, and they were silent.
   At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards; and they spoke no word to one another until they came back to the Shire. but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road. (311)
To understand what Sam is feeling, we have to search into our own experience and remember a time when we actually stood for hours in silence lost in emotion. I recall once, as I lay on the top bunk of a Chinese train compartment, noticing how the old man in the opposite bunk lay there gazing for six hours at a small photograph held between thumb and index finger of his right hand, his face without expression, his body absolutely still. Such is the remembrance of a person who is saying goodbye not to a person or a thing but to a whole essential history; it is almost a farewell to life. The grand story that he has been part of, the great love that he has felt, now has to reside far inside him: hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. The three hobbits know that they have concluded this part of their lives, and that it is definitively gone; this is why they never again look back. 

   Thus Sam returns with full heart, and Rosie — if she loves him — must know it, and also understand why he isn’t beaming to be home. She has to settle him back into his role physically. He drew a deep breath: he doesn’t only take a deep breath; rather, the drawing is effortful, deliberate, a slowing down of emotions and heart, a self-settling and reorienting.  This is not easy for him. Part of him had not expected to return, after all. Well, I’m back — not just I’m back. The well is like a sigh, a gasp, expressing surprise and discovery. It is acknowledgement that he might also not have come back, and also that miraculously he has found a reason to be back. If you have ever experienced the temptation to walk away from everything and then, to your own puzzlement, nonetheless refused the temptation and returned, you yourself will have drawn that deep breath and said Well, I’m back, if only to yourself. But Tolkien is not done: the last words are he said. Sam has to utter the thought before he can truly be back, for the words are a commitment. Tolkien’s phrasing could be taken to mean “Well, I’m back” was what he said, suggesting that there are things that Sam isn’t saying and perhaps will never say, at least to these people. 

   Sam’s torn nature is his peculiar completion. Whereas Frodo’s completion renders him unable to live in the Shire, Sam can live because he has two worlds and is well established in each of them. He will never be fully here, but perhaps the other world in the background can be sublimated in his earthly work — growing plants with magical elf-dirt, for example,  and being keeper of the legends for his community, and raising his children with stories from “the church in the East.” The novel’s last line gives perfect expression — in soothing iambic pentameter — to the mystery of Sam, who — like Tolkien’s readers — have no choice but to find a way to occupy two worlds, the one we imagine and the one we have to live in. 

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Frodo’s Wound

Is The Lord of the Rings a great book or not?  In the Western tradition, from Homer and Aeschylus on, the essential mark of a great book is that it must have a dilemma. It is not enough to have a ripping yarn populated with vivid characters and eloquently written: the narrative has to be built on a crisis that cannot be solved, a conflict that cannot be won. A struggle of right versus wrong might be entertaining but is not fundamentally interesting; however, a struggle of right versus right will hold our attention for centuries. Why is this? — it must be because deep down in our hearts we know that our own lives are dilemmas, which both make us truly alive and also destroy us. Thus, the heroine of Sophocles’ Antigone is right in her stand on natural bonds, but so is her adversary Creon in his stand on political necessity. In the Iliad, who is right, Achilles or Agamemnon — and who has the greater excellence, Achilles or Hector?  In Plato’s Apology, were the Athenians right to kill Socrates, or would they have been right to let him live? All the Platonic dialogues are built on dilemmas. Even in Greek mathematics the most significant propositions involve contradiction or paradox. I would also argue that the greatest Eastern classics are also caught on horns: thus the Mahabharata, with its perplexities concerning dharma and its deep ambivalence towards its heroes, is a greater epic than the Ramayana, which is too simply black-and-white. In Chinese, Confucius and Mencius are fascinated by seemingly balanced moral alternatives; and is there a book anywhere that is as abundant with dilemmas as Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian? In short, if The Lord of the Rings is only about the war between good and evil, in which the good triumphs, then it may be a rousing and edifying epic but it is not a great book. What lifts Tolkien’s work into greatness is Frodo’s dilemma, which breaks him.

   At the beginning of the “Homeward Bound” chapter, we learn that Frodo is not well:

‘Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side.
   ‘Well, yes I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’
   ‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.
   ‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’
   Gandalf did not answer. (268)

What is this wound? We have watched him getting physically injured several times, and he has been treated by the best possible doctors — but there is something more. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. The “and” is powerful: I am hurt by a wound, but also by a memory. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. The second “and” stands out, suggesting that the real pain is not physical. Gandalf’s “alas” says that he knows what is going on, and that he knows that Frodo knows. There is no real going back: yes, there is a kind of apparent going back, but no real going back. Their conversation is like a patient talking with his doctor about a terminal cancer diagnosis. When Frodo asks Where shall I find rest? is it a rhetorical question, or a real, desperate question? Gandalf’s silence is full of meaning: either nowhere, or who knows?

   Frodo’s anguish is the profound mystery at the heart of the book; it has been prefigured by the transformation of Smeagol into Gollum. Perhaps Tolkien has too much tact to drag this mystery into the light of day and tell us straight out what it is, but it could also be that while he feels it the author himelf doesn’t comprehend it well enough to give words to it. On one level we are witnessing the post-traumatic stress of a sensitive soul who has seen pure evil and all the darkness possible in this world, face to face. After such an encounter it is not possible to return to ordinary life unshaken; the very existence of so much evil will cast everything in permanent shadow. But there is more to Frodo’s trauma. A little later, as they are heading home:

‘Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together,’ said Merry. ‘We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.’
   ‘Not to me,’ said Frodo. ‘To me it feels more like falling asleep again.’
(276)

While Merry feels that he is waking up, coming to his senses again, Frodo is sad to lose his hold on the hyper-reality of the epic world: his old hobbit life will be less vivid, less real, less interesting. The painful struggle to destroy the Ring, in all its misery and horror, is preferable to the tedium of comfortable mundane living. If it was Merry who voiced this, we would understand it more easily, because he at least has experienced the rush of battle and heroic action — but all Frodo has experienced is plodding hardship and literal torture. 

   Tolkien’s description of his fits of anguish can sound like an account of withdrawal from heroin addiction:

Sam stayed at first at the Cottons’ with Frodo; but when the New Row was ready he went with the Gaffer. In addition to all his other labours he was busy directing the cleaning up and restoring of Bag End; but he was often away in the Shire on his forestry work. So he was not at home in early March and did not know that Frodo had been ill. On the thirteenth of that month Farmer Cotton found Frodo lying on his bed; he was clutching a white gem that hung on a chain about his neck and he seemed half in a dream.
  ‘It is gone for ever,’ he said, ‘and now all is dark and empty.’
   But the fit passed, and when Sam got back on the twenty-fifth, Frodo had recovered, and he said nothing about himself. (304)

The white gem was given by Arwen in anticipation of his need: “When the memory of the fear and the darkness troubles you….this will bring you aid.” (253) It is either a magical antidote to a supernatural poison, or a more benign addiction to replace the harmful one. He clutches it in exactly the same way he used to clutch the Ring: has she given him a souvenir of hope and brightness to balance out the nightmares, or a milder version of the Ring, keeping him anchored to the period in his life when he felt most alive but without letting him be devoured by it? There is one more recurrence of the memory:

One evening Sam came into the study and found his master looking very strange. He was very pale and his eyes seemed to see things far away.
   ‘What’s the matter, Mr. Frodo?’ said Sam.
   ‘I am wounded,’ he answered, ‘wounded; it will never really heal.’
   But then he got up, and the turn seemed to pass, and he was quite himself the next day. It was not until afterwards that Sam recalled that the date was October the sixth. Two years before on that day it was dark in the dell under Weathertop.
(305)

The memory is of having been stabbed by the Witch-King and almost dying; it was Frodo’s baptism into death, his first experience of what it might be to fade away into nothing. On first consideration, this would seem to be the opposite of what I have described earlier as a more vivid hyper-reality. We have seen throughout journey to Mount Doom that Frodo has been largely absorbed in brooding, which is interrupted occasionally by Sam, who can make him laugh. It is a little like the devotional brooding of a monk, who goes through his daily tasks with his mind on God, and also like the brooding of someone enthralled by an intense inner experience that he cannot relinquish. It bears very little resemblance to Sauron’s obsession with the Ring, which is actually only an obsession with the power it represents; but we see in Frodo’s brooding, as well as in Gollum’s evident love for it, that the Ring brings much more than power. For Frodo and Gollum, putting on the Ring means connecting with something more intense than life can offer; it is not necessarily pleasant or blissful, and perhaps it cannot be expressed in any language of duality. Someone who through the Ring has experienced this higher state cannot go back and live in a world of simple moral valuations. The power of the Ring is that it releases its wearer from commitment to moral distinctions by acclimating them to the larger-than-life state of soul in which the wearer is willing to sacrifice anything to remain bound to this wonderful thing. 

   For a person of shallow character or wicked desires, this is not a problem: the Ring simply brings him what he he thinks he wants. However, for a decent person who cares about goodness and other people, the Ring comes as a terrible dilemma. It is essentially a Romantic dilemma, well expressed in poems by Coleridge, Keats, and Yeats. In Keats’ “Nightingale” Ode, the speaker seeks to escape this world of suffering into a realm of transcendent beauty through the song of the nightingale, but by the end of the poem finds himself alone and forlorn on a desolate shore. The decent, thoughtful person cannot be happy  without love, goodness, other people, the pleasures of life; but after experiencing the Ring, he also cannot live without connection to the dark, intense, inner reality in which these mere human values mean nothing. The tension between these two poles is more than Frodo can endure; it exhausts him and drains his will to live. On the surface, the epic tale is a triumph of light over darkness, with Frodo as the principal hero; but under the surface, it is a tale about the gradual breaking of a sensitive, intelligent being who loses interest in ordinary living because only the destroyed Ring could have given him something more vitally satisfying. 

   In the end Tolkien brings Frodo to a place very similar to the “magic casements opening on the foam / Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn,” where Keats’ speaker finds himself bereft:

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise. (310)

The journey to the Grey Havens is an image of a beautiful, chosen death. The poetically noble, who cannot bear to live any more in the Age of Men, decide to relinquish the world to its new owners, and Frodo — incapacitated for life — disappears with them into the dream world of legend, to which he belongs more than to this life. Is this a sad or happy ending? From the point of view of life, it is sad that the most complex, lovable character in the book, the one who has undergone and achieved the most, has been rendered unfit to live; and from the point of view of legend, Frodo is complete, has achieved everything he has set out to achieve, and he can vanish now in his fulfillment. Why wish anything more for him? He gets to fade away gracefully at his climax and not be reduced over the years, like most of us, to a boring, garrulous anticlimax who lives in the past. The dilemma of Frodo was born with the germ of unrest at the beginning of the tale, where already he knows he is not a hero of legend but also cannot be content to be just a hobbit; it then grows into something that both culminates and kills him.

   His dilemma is the heart of the entire book. Without it, we have just another tale of epic heroism. With it, we have a novel about the perplexed meeting of two incompatible worlds. It is not that the book contains no other dilemmas: Sam, Eowyn, Gollum, Faramir, and Denethor all have dilemmas that deepen the tale. But Frodo’s dilemma runs through the entire book like a diameter, and pierces it with an insoluble problem. We want long lives of pleasure and comfort, of material and social stability, of mundane virtues and cozy excellences, all warm and rounded — but we also want to risk ourselves in life-quests and life-missions, to be grand and save the world with a sword, to experience a great love and a great death. If we are lucky, like Merry, we get to partake in conventional heroism against a conventional monster; but if we are less lucky, we get to do the dirty, painful grind-work of the mission, in which we find ourselves transformed bit by bit into something very close to the darkness we are fighting — and from this transformation there is no going back. It is the same struggle we see in modern superhero stories, in which too our little lives are not enough and we have to do something stereotypically great, like save the world: some heroes do it by fighting, and others do it by becoming the villain in some way. At the end of the first war Isildur removed Sauron’s ring by cutting off his finger probably while his men hold him down; it is no coincidence that Frodo loses his own finger with the Ring. He knows what it is like to have been Sauron and Gollum, and this knowledge is the “long burden” that fulfills him, bringing out depths of power and goodness he never knew he had — and that also renders him unable to live in any earthly society.

   

   

The Multiple Endings of The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings has a false ending. It occurs at the end of the chapter called “The Steward and the King,”  and in any other novel this would have been a beautiful way to conclude:

And Frodo when he saw her come glimmering in the evening, with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her, was moved with great wonder, and he said to Gandalf: ‘At last I understand why we have waited! This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away!’

   Then the King welcomed his guests, and they alighted; and Elrond surrendered the sceptre, and laid the hand of his daughter in the hand of the King, and together they went up into the High City, and all the stars flowered in the sky. And Aragorn the King Elessar wedded Arwen Undómiel in the City of the Kings upon the day of Midsummer, and the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment. (251)

In both imagery and cadence, this is a perfect ending for the book as an epic and fairy tale: the cosmic battle of good and evil has been won, the rule of the good has been re-established, and there is peace and beauty in the kngdom again. Now we can all go home to our lives. If the reader wished to stop here and not read a single word more, it would have been a satisfying tale, concluding on the heights. But we know that there are sixty more pages to come. Why then is this ending not enough for Tolkien — why can he not stop here?

We have seen throughout that the epic tale of war is not the whole book, but a large part of the book — and it is this part that “The Steward and the King” concludes. The epic tale is embedded in a novel that starts in the Shire and that must return to the Shire. This novel is about the inner impulse to seek completion, fullness of soul; it is about a handful of hobbits’ participation in the epic tale, but their trajectory begins before the war and continues after the war. As a novelist and not a mere spinner of tales, Tolkien is less interested in the events themselves than in their impact on his characters. Gandalf himself says frankly that the war has really been a training for the hobbits:

‘I am with you at present,’ said Gandalf, ‘but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.’ (275)

That is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? What exactly is it that they do not yet understand? — that the purpose of the entire tale is to help them grow up, to take charge of their own lives, and to have no more need of the Big People? At the beginning of the trilogy the Shire seemed a sufficiently pleasant and comfortable world, amiably middle-class in the narrow security of its preoccupations — but it filled Bilbo and Frodo with restlessness because it was also an asphyxiating, infantilizing world where no one could ever grow up because they had no chance to face dangerous heights and depths. On their adventure, they developed fortitude and courage, found the hidden power of love and lost their fear of death. Moreover, they gained a broader perspective on life and death: having encountered the darkest evils and luminous visions of good, they should now find life on the middle scale more manageable and more intelligible. From the heights and the depths, they must now live on earth again. In not permitting his heroes to remain in the realm of high legend, Tolkien is a realist.

The greatest problems always come not from “enemies” but from neighbors — the people who immediately surround us and who impinge on our lives every moment, night and day. This is why Jesus in his wisdom said “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is much easier to love your enemy, because the Enemy is always a little abstract and remote. The neighbor, on the other hand, is right there, wearing away at you in all his annoying concreteness. Tolkien recognizes that Sauron is actually a great boring emptiness, and that the real threat is the people whom he influences. Now in any war, the powerful Enemy will always succeed in dividing even distant communities; there will always be some who are motivated to form an alliance with the Enemy, others who will go along with them, and others who will resist. Any Enemy worth his salt will have clever strategies to divide his opponents. Even the tranquil Shire is not invulnerable to internal divisions, and the hobbits are not done with their journey until they can deal with the depredations of their neighbors. This is always a more difficult task than destroying orcs, because neighbors have friends and families; killing off large numbers of them will only create long-term strife, and leave us with no peace and harmony to return to — that is to say, no home. This was the problem of Odysseus, who, absent for two decades, returned only to have to purge all of his neighbors, leaving a terrible mess that only the gods could solve. Perhaps there is no easy way out of this; there will always be determined allies of the enemy who will have to be eliminated, and their elimination will always have consequences.

What the hobbits find when they get home bears some striking similarities to the 20th century West. First, the Shire is being run by authoritarians who have succeeded in spreading the mantra  “We’re not allowed to.” (281) Second, the land has been marred by industrialization and the love of the ugly that so frequently accompanies it:

The travellers trotted on, and as the sun began to sink towards the White Downs far away on the western horizon they came to Bywater by its wide pool; and there they had their first really painful shock. This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world. Many of the houses that they had known were missing. Some seemed to have been burned down. The pleasant row of old hobbit-holes in the bank on the north side of the Pool were deserted, and their little gardens that used to run down bright to the water’s edge were rank with weeds. Worse, there was a whole line of the ugly new houses all along Pool Side, where the Hobbiton Road ran close to the bank. An avenue of trees had stood there. They were all gone. And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air. (283)

It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking overflow. All along the Bywater Road every tree had been felled.
   As they crossed the bridge and looked up the Hill they gasped. Even Sam’s vision in the Mirror had not prepared him for what they saw. The Old Grange on the west side had been knocked down, and its place taken by rows of tarred sheds. All the chestnuts were gone. The banks and hedgerows were broken. Great waggons were standing in disorder in a field beaten bare of grass. Bagshot Row was a yawning sand and gravel quarry. Bag End up beyond could not be seen for a clutter of large huts.
   ‘They’ve cut it down!’ cried Sam. ‘They’ve cut down the Party Tree!’ He pointed to where the tree. had stood under which Bilbo had made his Farewell Speech. It was lying lopped and dead in the field. As if this was the last straw Sam burst into tears. (296)

As with many writers who love trees — Wordsworth, Cowper, Hopkins, Chekhov, Frost — nothing in Tolkien symbolizes the desecration of nature and the destructiveness of rampant desire better than the wanton chopping down of trees. People who can cut down the Party Tree and the great chestnuts for the sake of a quarry have no perception of beauty and are enemies to life’s simple delights — yet such people are around us, and crawl into the foreground whenever a master-vandal like Sauron removes the social inhibitions. Tolkien’s lyrical realm of elves, trees, heroes, and radiant mountains is set against the tenacious, low-minded thuggery of modern life that is incarnate in the industrial wasteland, the image of nature vandalized into trash: the Party tree lying lopped and dead in the field. This mentality is the true enemy, and Sauron only its catalyst.

The impulse to soil and desecrate is fueled by envious hatred for beauty and nobility, which for a vandal are sleepy delusions cocooned far away from the spikes and rigors of the ruthless “real” world. In his defiling of other people’s contentment, the vandal characteristically uses the vocabulary of “shaking up” or “waking up”:  “This country wants waking up and setting to rights.” (284) To some extent this is not wrong; Frodo himself grew sick of Hobbiton ease and comfort, and all four of our hobbits are better for having been woken up by their adventure.

Tolkien evokes these traits of the modern vandal but does not elaborate on them. The Shire is in fact easily scoured: the bad guys are killed off without much effort and leave behind them no poisonous miasma of ill-feeling to blight the land for generations; and even the industrial disfigurement of the countryside is healed in a short time with the help of Galadriel’s magic dust. Such buoyancy may be the defining trait of hobbits in general, and it may be more poignant because every adult reader comes to the book with old, unhealed wounds, and knows that hobbits, in this respect, are not like us.

The one element in “The Scouring of the Shire” that troubles me is the presence of Saruman. Would it not have been more true to life to have disposed of him at Orthanc, and then focused solely on hobbit neighbors in the Shire? In this final phase of the novel we do not need the great villains any more, and the task now is to learn how to handle the mundane ones. I can think of two good reasons why Tolkien may have felt it right to assimilate Saruman into the life of the Shire as “Sharkey” and then draw him out to an anticlimactic death. First, throughout the book he has embodied the modern spirit: he is technologist and technocrat, the one who finds nothing natural or social that cannot be manipulated, and who is consequently easily enraged by those who resist him. It is fitting then that Saruman should preside over the industrialization and spiteful vandalism of the Shire.

More important, however, is his role as Gandalf’s alter ego: “Gandalf the White” could have become Saruman, and for a time the two are indeed indistinguishable. They are two possible manifestations of the same person. Wizards with all their power can easily be tempted to use it to bend the world to their desires. It has been a distinguishing mark of Gandalf throughout the book is that he lets others be and trusts them to perform their designated parts, even though he himself may not understand these parts. He is content, for example, to leave Frodo free to do what he has to do, and accepts the danger of Gollum in the providential patterning of the whole. Saruman, on the other hand, is constantly scheming for the upper hand, and in every conversation needs to show that he is in charge: power for him is power over people and things, whereas for Gandalf true power is built upon the strength not to need power. Gandalf accompanies the hobbits at the beginning of their journey home, but it is Saruman who, after being granted mercy by Frodo, has the last word when they are finally able to settle:

Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you! (299)

Saruman’s You have grown, Halfling, you have grown very much is a twisted echo of Gandalf’s You are grown up now. In one reading of this echo, Gandalf was asserting that the hobbits have grown into strength, integrity, wisdom — a ripening into unequivocal excellence; but Saruman, on the other hand, is describing a darkly sophisticated adult mindset, for which no virtue is free of taint, and virtue and vice always equivocal. You are wise, and cruel: he is accusing Frodo of masking perceptive malevolence with apparent mercy. The act of mercy is intended to subjugate and humiliate. To Saruman, Frodo has learned and become wise in the ways of the world; he knows how to wield irony and to use goodness as an instrument of pain. Is Saruman just projecting his own tortuous paranoia onto the innocent hobbit, or is he somewhat right in his assessment of Frodo? If he is right, Frodo in the course of his journey has lost his innocence, his capacity for faith in simple goodness, and so cannot return to a life of contentment and delight in the Shire; if he is wrong, Frodo will nonetheless reflect on these words and wonder if he has indeed lost the hope of simple happiness. Saruman will have fired a poisoned dart on his way out. Yet it is because the hobbits have lost some vital part of their innocence that they are able to read the intentions of corrupted hobbits and spiteful men, and to take appropriate action against them: they have become worldly, realistic, lethal.

Thus, close to the end of the book, we get a view of Frodo through the eyes of Gandalf’s doppelganger, and these eyes give us Frodo as he has been transformed through his experiences. “The Steward and the King” chapter closes the book’s epic action, and “The Scouring of the Shire” is a necessary trammeling of elements, like Saruman, that have burst out of the epic action — but the book cannot be concluded until we understand what the main action has done to the hearts and minds of our heroes.

“A Hutch to Trammel Some Wild Thing In”


While the plot of The Lord of the Rings is simple, linear, and compelling, the soul of the book lies in its narrative polyphony, which filters the action through personalities that on first reading do not seem to be the principal actors in the epic. Pippin’s perspective gives a brighter, more benign cast to the civilization of Gondor, while Merry gives a somewhat darker, more despondent sense of the war. One personality central to Book 5 is Éowyn, who is the anguished heart of this part of the book, and who contradicts the plot of epic fulfillment with a strain of tragic insufficiency. Without her, the trilogy would be brighter but shallower: brighter, because all the characters manage to play the roles they were assigned to play and find a place in the world for their dreams; shallower, because such a world would not know the suffering of someone whose dreams might be too big for it.

When she hears that Aragorn is about to take the Paths of the Dead, her feelings are evident to all:

Then they said no more, and they ate in silence; but her eyes were ever upon Aragorn, and the others saw that she was in great torment of mind. (57)
This torment is twofold: she has loved him since she first saw him, and she has yearned all her life to be a great hero in a house of great heroes

‘I do not choose paths of peril, Éowyn. Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell.’
For a while she was silent, as if pondering what this might mean. Then suddenly she laid her hand on his arm. ‘You are a stern lord and resolute,’ she said; ‘and thus do men win renown.’ She paused. ‘Lord.’ she said, ‘if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle.’
‘Your duty is with your people,’ he answered.
‘Too often have I heard of duty,’ she cried. ‘But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?’
‘Few may do that with honour,’ he answered. ‘But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord’s return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no.’
‘Shall I always be chosen?’ she said bitterly. ‘Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?’
‘A time may come soon,’ said he, ‘when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.’
And she answered: ‘All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.’
‘What do you fear, lady?’ he asked.
‘A cage,’ she said. ‘To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.’ (57-58)
Does she understand what he means by “wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell,” and does this understanding fuel her indifference to life? On the surface she appears a creature of fire and steel, fiercely single-minded in her desire to do something noble in battle; she is a fighter, born to ride a warhorse and wield a sword, and has always been this way. But the exchange hints at something more: she might not have known this before Aragorn appeared, but what she wants as much as all this is a great love. Freedom to fight and freedom to love are somehow connected, but if she cannot have the latter she can at least have freedom to die. This is what Merry notices in her face at once:

A young man, Merry thought as he returned the glance, less in height and girth than most. He caught the glint of clear grey eyes; and then he shivered, for it came suddenly to him that it was the face of one without hope who goes in search of death. (76)

In order to fulfil one of her dreams, she has to become another person, a man — which in itself is acknowledgement that the other dream is closed to her. She does this with remarkable calm:

Merry bowed and went away unhappily, and stared at the lines of horsemen. Already the companies were preparing to start: men were tightening girths, looking to saddles, caressing their horses; some gazed uneasily at the lowering sky. Unnoticed a Rider came up and spoke softly in the hobbit’s ear.
‘Where will wants not, a way opens, so we say,’ he whispered; ‘and so I have found myself.’ Merry looked up and saw that it was the young Rider whom he had noticed in the morning. ‘You wish to go whither the Lord of the Mark goes: I see it in your face.’
‘I do,’ said Merry.
‘Then you shall go with me,’ said the Rider. ‘I will bear you before me, under my cloak until we are far afield, and this darkness is yet darker. Such good will should not be denied. Say no more to any man, but come!’
‘Thank you indeed!’ said Merry. ‘Thank you, sir, though I do not know your name.’
‘Do you not?’ said the Rider softly. ‘Then call me Dernhelm.’ (77-78)
And so I have found myself.

At the end of this conversation “Dernhelm” is born, a name chosen to indicate either that Eowyn has gone into occlusion or that all this time there was a male warrior hiding in Éowyn: in Old English “dern” means “secret, concealed,” and “helm” derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cover, hide.”

In a book where generally good is good, evil is evil, and characters generally have unequivocal roles to play,  Éowyn is puzzling because she has two natures and is both masculine and feminine. When on the Pelennor Fields she rises to avenge her uncle, we are told by the narrator, who knows the truth, and not by Merry, who is in no position to witness Dernhelm’s tears, that

Yet one stood there still: Dernhelm the young, faithful beyond fear; and he wept, for he had loved his lord as a father. (115)

HE wept, for HE had loved HIS lord as a father: in the narrator’s voice, Éowyn has fully become Dernhelm. It is an astounding and confusing shift, but no less disorienting than the response to the Witch-king’s boast that “no living man shall hinder me”:

It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. (116)

It is Dernhelm who laughs, but it is Éowyn who now proudly avows her womanhood and daughterhood before she attacks. The narrator, or Merry, simply says:

Éowyn it was, and Dernhelm also. (116)

For one transcendent moment, Éowyn rises above dualities to achieve a kind of completion that would have been hitherto inconceivable. The only witness to this moment is Merry, the one character who has a mind capacious enough to grasp this and who is momentarily transformed by it: Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. Like Éowyn, Merry transcends himself on the Pelennor fields.

Afterwards, in the sick-room, Aragorn, Éomer, and Gandalf attempt to share their separate partial understandings of her. Aragorn has intuited her double nature but expresses it with the static, heraldic image of a steel lily; he does not see that if she is frozen, it is with the burning ice of love’s pain:

‘Alas! For she was pitted against a foe beyond the strength of her mind or body. And those who will take a weapon to such an enemy must be sterner than steel, if the very shock shall not destroy them. It was an evil doom that set her in his path. For she is a fair maiden, fairest lady of a house of queens. And yet I know not how I should speak of her. When I first looked on her and perceived her unhappiness, it seemed to me that I saw a white flower standing straight and proud, shapely as a lily, and yet knew that it was hard, as if wrought by elf-wrights out of steel. Or was it, maybe, a frost that had turned its sap to ice, and so it stood, bitter-sweet, still fair to see, but stricken, soon to fall and die? Her malady begins far back before this day, does it not, Éomer?’

‘I marvel that you should ask me, lord,’ he answered. ‘For I hold you blameless in this matter, as in all else; yet I knew not that Éowyn, my sister, was touched by any frost, until she first looked on you. Care and dread she had, and shared with me, in the days of Wormtongue and the king’s bewitchment; and she tended the king in growing fear. But that did not bring her to this pass!’ (142-43)

It is Gandalf who seems to grasp the deep desperation of someone who is caught in a living death because she cannot run after her dream of greatness:

‘Think you that Wormtongue had poison only for Théoden’s ears? Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs? Have you not heard those words before? Saruman spoke them, the teacher of Wormtongue. Though I do not doubt that Wormtongue at home wrapped their meaning in terms more cunning. My lord, if your sister’s love for you, and her will still bent to her duty, had not restrained her lips; you might have heard even such things as these escape them. But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?’

This seems to be news to Eomer, who now realizes that he never knew her — and that to the same extent, Éowyn as she truly was never really existed for him. Gandalf’s phrasing is rich. Hutch suggests small, narrow confinement, and the word itself derives from a Latin word meaning “storage chest”: Éowyn has been locked away, her excellence kept from  functioning. A trammel is a kind of reinforced fishing net and therefore, with hutch, a mixed metaphor — but it intensifies the sense that escape is absolutely impossible, and that everything has conspired to trap this wild thing. Wild is the perfect word here, for the being that is both Éowyn and Dernhelm cannot be domesticated; it is too full, too bursting, to fit in any prearranged slot.

Then Éomer was silent, and looked on his sister, as if pondering anew all the days of their past life together. But Aragorn said: ‘I saw also what you saw, Éomer. Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned. Sorrow and pity have followed me ever since I left her desperate in Dunharrow and rode to the Paths of the Dead; and no fear upon that way was so present as the fear for what might befall her. And yet, Éomer, I say to you that she loves you more truly than me; for you she loves and knows; but in me she loves only a shadow and a thought: a hope of glory and great deeds, and lands far from the fields of Rohan.’

Aragorn’s comment about what it feels like to “behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned” seems stilted and enotionally thin, but his diagnosis of Éowyn’s love may be accurate: what she loves is not Aragorn but the lofty ideal he embodies. If he is right about this, obtaining Aragorn will not solve the problem, because the ideal will remain unreachable; on the other hand, she may grow out of love for an ideal and return back to earth to love real people. If he is wrong about this, and she does indeed love Aragorn, then the love is doomed. Either way, at this moment, in the Houses of Healing, there is no way to tell if Éowyn is destined for happiness or unhappiness.

‘I have, maybe, the power to heal her body, and to recall her from the dark valley. But to what she will awake: hope, or forgetfulness, or despair, I do not know. And if to despair, then she will die, unless other healing comes which I cannot bring. Alas! for her deeds have set her among the queens of great renown.’ (143-44)

Éowyn’s mirror in the second half of the book is Frodo, because in both cases we can ask if the victory has been won at such cost that they are no longer able to live — that peace and happiness are forever out of their reach. Not only is her great love unattainable, but Éowyn’s finest moment is her defiance of the Witch-King, and every subsequent moment of the rest of her life will be felt as an anticlimax. Never again will she be both Éowyn and Dernhelm.  And unlike Bilbo, she is not one who will take pleasure or nourishment in living on tales about herself. At the end of Book 5, we leave Éowyn in suspension and have to wait to see if Tolkien can bring a satisfactory resolution to her life. Even if she achieves a kind of reconciliation with the life she will have to live, what she has brought to the tale is the sensibility of one whose dream cannot be lived — yet for one moment, she fulfills the impossible in Middle-earth and becomes both man and woman.

“The Insupportable Weight of Middle-earth”

One of Tolkien’s most felicitous inspirations is to have most of the epic action presented neither directly about nor from the point of view of heroes, but through the eyes of “little people” who have no expectations of starring roles for themselves. Because the action takes place on more than one arena, we need more than one witness — hence, both Pippin and Merry, who have been sucked from a softer, more benign world into the realm of epic warfare. The resulting narrative can sometimes resemble an account of adult activity given by small children: all the grown-ups seem very busy and unsmiling, and it is hard to understand what is going on and why they do what they do. The disadvantage of this kind of narrative is that rhe great warriors can seem as remote and one-dimensional as adults seem to children, but among the many advantages are, first, that the author is absolved from presenting a complex, mysterious figure like Aragorn from Aragorn’s point of view, and second, that the heroes and enemies will all appear radiantly magnified by being seen through a lens of childlike amazement. 

   The tone is set at the very beginning of The Return of the King:

Pippin looked out from the shelter of Gandalf’s cloak. He wondered if he was awake or still sleeping, still in the swift-moving dream in which he had been wrapped so long since the great ride began. (Ch.1, p.15)

The perspective is that of a child being carried by a grownup, and waking up in an unfamiliar world where everyone else is bigger and everything is happening too quickly. Within two sentences the physical wrapping of Gandalf’s cloak has turned into the psychic wrapping of a “swift-moving dream” — but he is “rapt” as well as “wrapped,” transported and enthralled. Pippin’s characteristic mode in the chapters that follow is simple, excited wonder:

Even as Pippin gazed in wonder the walls passed from looming grey to white, blushing faintly in the dawn; and suddenly the sun climbed over the eastern shadow and sent forth a shaft that smote the face of the City. Then Pippin cried aloud, for the Tower of Ecthelion, standing high within the topmost walls’ shone out against the sky, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver, tall and fair and shapely, and its pinnacle glittered as if it were wrought of crystals; and white banners broke and fluttered from the battlements in the morning breeze’ and high and far he heard a clear ringing as of silver trumpets. (p.23)

Pippin gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful. Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window. (24)

He is a cheerful extrovert and generally a good, curious observer, but notice how in the second passage there is a double point of view: that of Pippin as he wanders, notices, and conjectures; and that of someone who has heard the footsteps and voices ringing throughout Minas Tirith. It is possible to see this second point of view as “cheating”: Pippin, because of his ignorance, is a clear and trustworthy narrative eye, but Tolkien is worried that such an innocent point of view will not get what lies beneath the surface and therefore supplements it with a secondary voice to make sure that we don’t miss the crucial point — namely, that Minas Tirith is a dying city. 

   His concern about Pippin’s superficiality as a narrator is justified. A little later, we have a telling incident in which Theoden asks Pippin to lighten everyone’s mood by singing songs from the Shire, arguing in the face of the hobbit’s evident reluctance that it is for the sake of the possibility of jollity that they are fighting:  

‘Yes,’ said Pippin. ‘Well, yes, well enough for my own people. But we have no songs fit for great halls and evil times, lord. We seldom sing of anything more terrible than wind or rain. And most of my songs are about things that make us laugh; or about food and drink, of course.’

‘And why should such songs be unfit for my halls, or for such hours as these? We who have lived long under the Shadow may surely listen to echoes from a land untroubled by it? Then we may feel that our vigil was not fruitless, though it may have been thankless.’

Pippin’s heart sank. He did not relish the idea of singing any song of the Shire to the Lord of Minas Tirith, certainly not the comic ones that he knew best; they were too, well, rustic for such an occasion. He was however spared the ordeal for the present. He was not commanded to sing. Denethor turned to Gandalf, asking questions about the Rohirrim and their policies, and the position of Éomer, the king’s nephew. Pippin marvelled at the amount that the Lord seemed to know about a people that lived far away, though it must, he thought, be many years since Denethor himself had ridden abroad. (79-80)

Pippin only feels a puzzling reluctance but does not pause to inquire into it: could it be that he is refusing to expose something dear to his heart before the eyes and ears of a king whom he is actually growing to fear and dislike? — that there is something about Denethor, and everything he stands for, that goes against song and laughter, two essential elements of a good life? — that there is something evil about the king to whom he has pledged allegiance? It takes just one sentence to pass from Pippin’s unease to his usual reaction: Pippin marvelled at the amount that the Lord seemed to know about a people that lived far away, though it must, he thought, be many years since Denethor himself had ridden abroad. The airy swiftness of the transition is key to understanding Pippin’s blithe resilience: it is his shallowness that protects him from trauma, but it causes Denethor to underestimate him and therefore allows him to be the main agent in the saving of Faramir. 

   Merry is almost the opposite of Pippin. Coming across throughout the books as the most perceptive and quick-minded of the hobbits, he is more introverted than Pippin, and somewhat more wistful, even despondent. He tends to perceive not only the outward features of his surroundings, but also the emotional overtones:

Merry looked out in wonder upon this strange country, of which he had heard many tales upon their long road. It was a skyless world, in which his eye; through dim gulfs of shadowy air, saw only ever-mounting slopes, great walls of stone behind great walls, and frowning precipices wreathed with mist. He sat for a moment half dreaming, listening to the noise of water, the whisper of dark trees, the crack of stone, and the vast waiting silence that brooded behind all sound. He loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire. (Ch.3, p.64)

It is remarkable how these particular mountains make him feel the weight of the entire world — not just its magnitude, but its seriousness, its labor, and its suffering. He has the sensibility of a poet, and his somewhat dreamy nature makes him less observant than Pippin of his immediate surroundings — which is why Tolkien feels the need to supply a secondary point of view and point out what Merry isn’t aware of:

He was very tired, for though they had ridden slowly, they had ridden with very little rest. Hour after hour for nearly three weary days he had jogged up and down, over passes, and through long dales, and across many streams. Sometimes where the way was broader he had ridden at the king’s side, not noticing that many of the Riders smiled to see the two together: the hobbit on his little shaggy grey pony, and the Lord of Rohan on his great white horse. Then he had talked to Théoden, telling him about his home and the doings of the Shire-folk, or listening in turn to tales of the Mark and its mighty men of old. But most of the time, especially on this last day, Merry had ridden by himself just behind the king, saying nothing, and trying to understand the slow sonorous speech of Rohan that he heard the men behind him using. It was a language in which there seemed to be many words that he knew, though spoken more richly and strongly than in the Shire, yet he could not piece the words together. At times some Rider would lift up his clear voice in stirring song, and Merry felt his heart leap, though he did not know what it was about.

All the same he had been lonely, and never more so than now at the day’s end. He wondered where in all this strange world Pippin had got to; and what would become of Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli. Then suddenly like a cold touch on his heart he thought of Frodo and Sam. ‘I am forgetting them!’ he said to himself reproachfully. ‘And yet they are more important than all the rest of us. And I came to help them; but now they must be hundreds of miles away, if they are still alive.’ He shivered. (64-65)

In this instance the secondary eye is quite effective: a single mention of Merry’s failure to notice how he is seen by others makes us realize just how self-absorbed and inward-turning he is. Less exuberantly “present” than Pippin, he questions more within himself, and is poignantly aware of his own ignorance about the fates of absent friends. Even when he observes features of landscape or architecture, there is always a surprising melancholy shading to his vision:

Merry wondered how many Riders there were. He could not guess their number in the gathering gloom, but it looked to him like a great army, many thousands strong. While he was peering from side to side the king’s party came up under the looming cliff on the eastern side of the valley; and there suddenly the path began to climb, and Merry looked up in amazement. He was on a road the like of which he had never seen before, a great work of men’s hands in years beyond the reach of song. Upwards it wound, coiling like a snake, boring its way across the sheer slope of rock. Steep as a stair, it looped backwards and forwards as it climbed. Up it horses could walk, and wains could be slowly hauled; but no enemy could come that way, except out of the air, if it was defended from above. At each turn of the road there were great standing stones that had been carved in the likeness of men, huge and clumsy-limbed, squatting cross-legged with their stumpy arms folded on fat bellies. Some in the wearing of the years had lost all features save the dark holes of their eyes that still stared sadly at the passers-by. The Riders hardly glanced at them. The Púkel-men they called them, and heeded them little: no power or terror was left in them; but Merry gazed at them with wonder and a feeling almost of pity, as they loomed up mournfully in the dusk. (67)

Who but Merry would have picked up on the pitifulness of the Púkel-men — that they are little heeded, unremarked, final vestiges of a perished civilization that are now not much more than decorative rocks, and that if they were conscious would envy the passers-by for their life and motion? The most beautiful thing about this description is the word almost: what Merry feels is not exactly pity but almost pity, because he knows they are rocks, and because the pitifulness of a forgotten civilization is qualified by the wonder that so much devotion should have gone into the working of this structure. He has the heart of a poet, but he is no Romantic sentimentalist. 

   His sensitivity gives him an instant rapport with Eowyn, who would not have had any affinity with Pippin:

But when they had come almost to the end of the line one looked up glancing keenly at the hobbit. A young man, Merry thought as he returned the glance, less in height and girth than most. He caught the glint of clear grey eyes; and then he shivered, for it came suddenly to him that it was the face of one without hope who goes in search of death. (76)

Not only does Merry notice the affect of a passing facial expression, but it moves him. As with the mountains and the Púkel-men, here is no distance betwwen Merry’s eyes and his heart: what he sees moves him immediately and deeply. It is not surprising then that the battle of the Pelennor fields would end up breaking one so sensitive, plunging him into a permanent nightmare from which an awakening would be impossible by any natural means:

So Théoden and Éowyn came to the City of Gondor, and all who saw them bared their heads and bowed; and they passed through the ash and fume of the burned circle, and went on and up along the streets of stone. To Merry the ascent seemed agelong, a meaningless journey in a hateful dream, going on and on to some dim ending that memory cannot seize.

Slowly the lights of the torches in front of him flickered and went out, and he was walking in a darkness; and he thought: ‘This is a tunnel leading to a tomb; there we shall stay forever.’ But suddenly into his dream there fell a living voice.

‘Well, Merry! Thank goodness I have found you!’

He looked up and the mist before his eyes cleared a little. There was Pippin! They were face to face in a narrow lane, and but for themselves it was empty. He rubbed his eyes.

‘Where is the king?’ he said. ‘And Éowyn?’ Then he stumbled and sat down on a doorstep and began to weep again. (134)

He has witnessed the death of his king and the apparent death of Eowyn, and has seen from close up “the Nazgul lord like a shadow of despair,” the sworn enemy of all nobility and brightness. Merry’s wound is not physical; an essential part of him died with Theoden and Eowyn, and the remaining part no longer has any interest in life and light. Pippin’s finding of him is one of the most beautiful moments in the book, for it is really only Pippin, in his kind and sparkling cheerfulness, who can soothe Merry in his darkness: 

‘I’d better wait here,’ thought Pippin. So he let Merry sink gently down on to the pavement in a patch of sunlight, and then he sat down beside him, laying Merry’s head in his lap. He felt his body and limbs gently, and took his friend’s hands in his own. The right hand felt icy to the touch. (135)

The intertwining of the two old friends is a powerful image: needing each other to be  complete, they are two polar halves of one being, not always comprehending each other but always at ease when they have found each other. Tolkien’s creation of two such characters as different filters for the epic action is a stroke of genius: the glum decay of Gondor is appropriately filtered through the perky Pippin, while Rohan’s ecstatic warriorhood and Eowyn’s sad yearning can be met and sounded by Merry’s soulful intelligence. 

   In the end, the two hobbits return to earth in a practical conversation about food and tobacco. Pippin — ever mercurial in his moods, able to shift from heroic to comic in a heartbeat — acknowledges his lack of epic stamina:

‘Come on now! Longbottom Leaf it is. Fill up while I run and see about some food. And then let’s be easy for a bit. Dear me! We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can’t live long on the heights.’

It takes Merry, however, to deepen this into a simple but profound self-reflection: 

‘No,’ said Merry. ‘I can’t. Not yet, at any rate. But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them. It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little. But I don’t know why I am talking like this. Where is that leaf? And get my pipe out of my pack, if it isn’t broken.’  (146-47)

Hobbits will be hobbits, but the depth of their roots in hobbithood means that they can never be knights of Gondor or Rohan but they can recognize and admire this other way of being — and know that it is out there somewhere. Because they are settled in their natures as hobbits, there is no regret for not being something else. When we know who we are, we do not struggle with ourselves because we are not different — just as a cat will not want to be a dog. But knowing and accepting our own nature is also the gateway to sincere admiration of another nature, which we are not necessarily able to become. Merry, in his big heart and ever penetrating intelligence, is capable of seeing both the transcendent allure of warriorhood and also its bottomless mystery. So are we all when our hearts become intelligent about the difficult Other whom we love. G.K.Chesterton expressed it like this in another context: “It will generally be found, I think, that the more a man really appreciates and admires the soul of another people the less he will attempt to imitate it; he will be conscious that there is something in it too deep and too unmanageable to imitate.”

Tolkien’s Art of the “Meanwhile”


Historians develop two intellectual qualities that are also essential to novelists: the ability to understand and remember long, complex causal chains, and the ability to hold in mind events and situations going on simultaneously in different places — that is, to see multiple causal chains developing parallel and invisible to one another. It seems obvious that a historian of World War II has to understand the changing internal events and preoccupations of a dozen different countries before he can understand how a particular battle or treaty negotiation plays out. Similarly, a “domestic” novelist such as Jane Austen has to have a clear comprehension not only of the goings on in several households, but also what is happening in various rooms of the same house: while A and B are conversing and C and D are playing music together, E is in her room reading a shattering letter. When these people all sooner or later converge, their convergence is colored and permeated by their previously independent activities. A crime novelist has to be unrelenting and pedantic in keeping track of exactly what everyone is doing, where, and when: absolutely nothing can be fuzzy in a forensic investigation. Fantasy novelists might seem to have more latitude because surely fantasy is allowed to be vague and misty, but in truth the fantasy novelist has to create a probable world and therefore is even more tightly bound to laws of causation if the events of his books are to seem credible. 

   Thus the first half of The Two Towers deals with Aragorn, his crew, and the Rohirrim at war, while the second half describes the journey of Sam and Frodo to Mordor. Both halves occur simultaneously, and even though Tolkien doesn’t make a huge deal of the simultaneity it is clear that the experience of re-reading the novel gains in richness if, as we read the adventures of one party, we know precisely what the other party is doing. Tolkien is gentle in his narration, suggesting but not asserting the synchronicity : the two parties might be able to see, from their different places, the gleaming of the Anduin in the setting sun, or hear the same noise of battle. At any given point, then, the story has several layers, which can function as thematic counterpoint: for instance, the exploits of the Rohirrim and the humble tenacity of Sam and Frodo are two different views of heroism. We usually know where everyone is at any time, except Gandalf. 

   Tolkien’s maps in themselves are suggestive of a whole world with many different kingdoms and corners in which distinctive things are unfolding. We get to see some of these things, but we also get the sense that there is an abundance of stories playing out throughout Middle Earth and potentially convergent with the ones we know of. It is instructive to watch how Tolkien so deftly creates the impression of a layered world.

   Early in The Return of the King we are introduced to the great city of Minas Tirith through the admiring eyes of Pippin:

Pippin gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful. Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.

At last they came out of shadow to the seventh gate, and the warm sun that shone down beyond the river, as Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien, glowed here on the smooth walls and rooted pillars, and the great arch with keystone carven in the likeness of a crowned and kingly head. (Ch.1, 24-25)

Through a subordinate clause inside a subordinate clause — as Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien — the attentive reader is brought with a shock of recollection back to an episode in The Two Towers, just before Sam makes rabbit stew, when the two hobbits find themselves in the faintly Mediterranean, very Virgilian woodland that used to be the garden of Gondor:

The road had been made in a long lost time: and for perhaps thirty miles below the Morannon it had been newly repaired, but as it went south the wild encroached upon it. The handiwork of Men of old could still be seen in its straight sure flight and level course: now and again it cut its way through hillside slopes, or leaped over a stream upon a wide shapely arch of enduring masonry; but at last all signs of stonework faded, save for a broken pillar here and there, peering out of bushes at the side, or old paving-stones still lurking amid weeds and moss. Heather and trees and bracken scrambled down and overhung the banks, or sprawled out over the surface. It dwindled at last to a country cart-road little used; but it did not wind: it held on its own sure course and guided them by the swiftest way.

So they passed into the northern marches of that land that Men once called Ithilien, a fair country of climbing woods and swift-falling streams…

Day was opening in the sky, and they saw that the mountains were now much further off, receding eastward in a long curve that was lost in the distance. Before them, as they turned west, gentle slopes ran down into dim hazes far below. All about them were small woods of resinous trees, fir and cedar and cypress. and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them; and everywhere there was a wealth of sweet-smelling herbs and shrubs. The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness. (Part 4, ch.4, 257-58)
Frodo and Sam cannot know that this place of vegetative luxuriance will be their last occasion for pleasure and refreshment for many months. Ithilien is like Kew Gardens gone wild, a magical liminal realm where plants from every season and every zone all grow in profusion together after devastation and abandonment. The lush, disordered growth stirs hope in natural resilience, but also evokes sadness at the destruction of one of the last great civilized places:

South and west it looked towards the warm lower vales of Anduin, shielded from the east by the Ephel Dúath and yet not under the mountain-shadow, protected from the north by the Emyn Muil, open to the southern airs and the moist winds from the Sea far away. Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green; and marjorams and new-sprouting parsleys, and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam. The grots and rocky walls were already starred with saxifrages and stonecrops. Primeroles and anemones were awake in the filbert-brakes; and asphodel and many lily-flowers nodded their half-opened heads in the grass: deep green grass beside the pools, where falling streams halted in cool hollows on their journey down to Anduin.

The travellers turned their backs on the road and went downhill. As they walked, brushing their way through bush and herb, sweet odours rose about them. Gollum coughed and retched; but the hobbits breathed deep, and suddenly Sam laughed, for heart’s ease not for jest. They followed a stream that went quickly down before them. Presently it brought them to a small clear lake in a shallow dell: it lay in the broken ruins of an ancient stone basin, the carven rim of which was almost wholly covered with mosses and rose-brambles; iris-swords stood in ranks about it. and water-lily leaves floated on its dark gently-rippling surface; but it was deep and fresh, and spilled ever softly out over a stony lip at the far end. (258-59)

A little way back above the lake they found a deep brown bed of last year’s fern. Beyond it was a thicket of dark-leaved bay-trees climbing up a steep bank that was crowned with old cedars. Here they decided to rest and pass the day, which already promised to be bright and warm. A good day for strolling on their way along the groves and glades of Ithilien...(259)

All this is evoked in the reader by what is essentially a “meanwhile” — embedded in a subordinate clause that suggests sunshine that is enjoyed by both parties: and the warm sun that shone down beyond the river, as Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien, glowed here on the smooth walls and rooted pillars. Tolkien does not belabor the point; he trusts his reader’s imagination and memory, and knows that one clause will be enough to get us to think about Frodo and Sam while we are with Pippin. His conciseness is daring and astonishing. The thematic counterpoint here is a meditation on the dying civilization of Gondor. Pippin is encountering a culture made of stone, manly stone:

The door opened, but no one could be seen to open it. Pippin looked into a great hall. It was lit by deep windows in the wide aisles at either side, beyond the rows of tall pillars that upheld the roof. Monoliths of black marble, they rose to great capitals carved in many strange figures of beasts and leaves; and far above in shadow the wide vaulting gleamed with dull gold, inset with flowing traceries of many colours. No hangings nor storied webs, nor any things of woven stuff or of wood, were to be seen in that long solemn hall; but between the pillars there stood a silent company of tall images graven in cold stone.

Suddenly Pippin was reminded of the hewn rocks of Argonath, and awe fell on him, as he looked down that avenue of kings long dead. At the far end upon a dais of many steps was set a high throne under a canopy of marble shaped like a crowned helm; behind it was carved upon the wall and set with gems an image of a tree in flower. But the throne was empty. At the foot of the dais, upon the lowest step which was broad and deep, there was a stone chair, black and unadorned, and on it sat an old man gazing at his lap. In his hand was a white rod with a golden knob. (26)

It is one of those very masculine warrior cultures in which all men aspire to be statues, hard and imperishable rock-versions of their mortal selves — where women stay in the shadows, and animals are rare because they are too chaotic and dirty. There is something dead about it, something sterile and impotent. Ithilien is the counterpoint in its undiciplined profuseness: it can be wild and beautiful because the repressive, inhibited men of Gondor have gone. 

   Pippin is not aware of what Frodo and Sam are experiencing, and Frodo and Sam cannot guess the smooth marble character of Gondor from the broken, overgrown resort they see in Ithilien — but with a succinct “meanwhile,” Tolkien lets the reader into experiencing the two perspectives simultaneously. As Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien gives density and richness to the account of Pippin marveling at the glow of sun on stone. 

   Shortly after, there is another “meanwhile” moment as Beregond, explaining recent history to Pippin, brings up Faramir, who at this moment is within shouting distance of Frodo and Sam:

“And the Lord Denethor is unlike other men: he sees far. Some say that as he sits alone in his high chamber in the Tower at night, and bends his thought this way and that, he can read somewhat of the future; and that he will at times search even the mind of the Enemy, wrestling with him. And so it is that he is old, worn before his time. But however that may be, my lord Faramir is abroad, beyond the River on some perilous errand, and he may have sent tidings.” (37-38)
It is no coincidence that during this episode in Ithilien Frodo and Sam meet Denethor’s son Faramir — at about the same time as Pippin meets Faramir’s father Denethor. The “meanwhile” thus also conveys a sense of fatedness, of two events being intimately bound — not through any causal connection, since from a logical point of view one can argue that the simultaneity of the two meetings is due to chance, but from a synchronicity either poetic or prophetic, according to which Gondor and the hobbits are meant to be bound up with one another: self-consciously archetypal warrior-men and little creatures who never thought of themselves as heroes.

   

“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.