We return to Frodo and Sam, wandering the barren hills of the Emyn Muil, mere days after the end of Fellowship of the Ring.
The biggest difference between the tone of Book IV and Fellowship comes from a change in perspective: Where before Frodo was our primary POV, now Sam becomes our perspective character. Like Pippin, he’s far less knowledgable than his companion, but Sam differs because of his dedication and drive – he knows exactly what he needs to do, to be there for Mr. Frodo.
‘What a fix!’ said Sam. ‘That’s the one place in all the lands we’ve ever heard of that we don’t want to see any closer; and that’s the one place we’re trying to get to! And that’s just where we can’t get, nohow. We’ve come the wrong way altogether, seemingly. […]’
[But Frodo] did not move, and his eyes remained fixed, staring out towards the dark line and the flickering flame. ‘Mordor!’ he muttered under his breath. ‘If I must go there, I wish I could come there quickly and make an end!’ He shuddered. The wind was chilly and yet heavy with an odour of cold decay. […]
‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘It’s my doom, I think, to go to that Shadow yonder, so that a way will be found. But will good or evil show it to me? What hope we had was in speed. Delay plays into the Enemy’s hands – and here I am: delayed. […] Every day that passes is a precious day lost. I am tired, Sam. I don’t know what is to be done.’
Despite his exhaustion, Frodo is adamant about finding a way out of the hills as soon as possible, but Sam’s a little more worried about Gollum’s pursuit.
Sometimes in the silence of that barren country they fancied they heard faint sounds behind them, a stone falling, or the imagined step of flapping feet on the rock. But if they halted and stood still listening, they heard no more, nothing but the wind sighing over the edges of the stones – yet even that reminded them of breath softly hissing through sharp teeth.
With only two (or three?) characters around, the landscapes play a much bigger role in setting the tone of this book – after all, the whole point is simply getting from Point A to Point B, so any obstacles are much more significant, especially when they don’t have any horses. And then they still have Nazgûl to worry about (even if they’re not necessarily actively searching for them), because they might, say, spook Frodo and temporarily strike him blind. While he’s trying to scale a cliff. Fortunately, Sam suddenly remembers that he actually packed a rope this time.
‘Rope!’ cried Sam, talking wildly to himself in his excitement and relief. ‘Well, if I don’t deserve to be hung on the end of one as a warning to numbsculls! You’re nowt but a ninnyhammer, Sam Gamgee: that’s what the Gaffer said to me often enough, it being a word of his. Rope!’
You’re a bit more than a ninnyhammer, Sam. But that is a fantastic word!
‘[Don’t] you go doing anything risky in the dim again, Mr. Frodo! And I haven’t got over that shriek on the wind yet, if you have. Like a Black Rider it sounded – but one up in the air, if they can fly. I’m thinking we’d best lay up in this crack till night’s over.’
‘And I’m thinking I won’t spend a moment longer than I need, stuck up on this edge with the eyes of the Dark Country looking over the marshes,’ said Frodo.
With the help of their elvish rope, they manage to get down the cliff without incident – until they’re both at the bottom and realize the rope is still tied to a stump at the top, leaving an easy and obvious way for Gollum to follow them. But Sam just gives the rope a farewell tug, and it comes when he calls (despite Frodo’s skepticism that it was just a poor knot).
‘It certainly came,’ said Frodo, ‘and that’s the chief thing. But now we’ve got to think of our next move. Night will be on us soon. How beautiful the stars are, and the Moon!’
‘They do cheer the heart, don’t they?’ said Sam looking up. ‘Elvish they are, somehow.’
It’s always a good sign when you can still take pleasure in small things like moonlight, despite dire circumstances.
And then we finally meet Gollum.
‘Where iss it, where iss it: my Precious, my Precious? It’s ours, it is, and we wants it. The thieves, the thieves, the filthy little thieves. Where are they with my Precious? Curse them! We hates them.’
Sam decides to jump him after he takes a bit of a fall, but Gollum proves to be too much to handle, until Frodo threatens him with Sting.
‘If we kill him, we must kill him outright. But we can’t do that, not as things are. Poor wretch! He has done us no harm.’
‘Oh hasn’t he!’ said Sam rubbing his shoulder. ‘Anyway he meant to, and he means to, I’ll warrant. Throttle us in our sleep, that’s his plan.’
‘I daresay,’ said Frodo. ‘But what he means to do is another matter.’ He paused for a while in thought. Gollum lay still, but stopped whimpering.
I do not feel any pity for Gollum. He deserves death.
Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.
‘Very well,’ he answered aloud, lowering his sword. ‘But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.’
Although it seems like Frodo is calling up this conversation from memory, there are some differences from the lines in “Shadow of the Past” – most notably the one about dealing out death. Gandalf said nothing about “fear”, and he specifically said “in judgement”. The implication seems to be that if Frodo were to kill him now, it would only be out of fear, and possibly a miscarriage of justice.
I’m honestly torn about the movie version of this stuff. On the one hand, Gollum is a marvel, but on the other hand, Frodo is seriously dumbed down. Here, he clearly understands what a danger Gollum is, and that makes his decision not to kill him so much more significant – especially considering that the idea of him serving as a guide to Mordor hadn’t occurred to him yet.
‘Nice hobbits! We will come with them. Find them safe paths in the dark, yes we will. And where are they going in these cold hard lands, we wonders, yes we wonders?’ He looked up at them, and a faint light of cunning and eagerness flickered for a second in his pale blinking eyes. […]
Frodo looked straight into Gollum’s eyes which flinched and twisted away. ‘You know that, or you guess well enough, Sméagol,’ he said, quietly and sternly. ‘We are going to Mordor, of course. And you know the way there, I believe.’ […]
‘Yess. Yess. No!’ shrieked Gollum. ‘Once, by accident it was, wasn’t it, precious? Yes, by accident. But we won’t go back, no, no!’ Then suddenly his voice and language changed, and he sobbed in his throat, and spoke but not to them. ‘Leave me alone, gollum! You hurt me. O my poor hands, gollum! I, we, I don’t want to come back. I can’t find it. I am tired. I, we can’t find it, gollum, gollum, no, nowhere. They’re always awake. Dwarves, Men, and Elves, terrible Elves with bright eyes. I can’t find it. Ach!’ He got up and clenched his long hand into a bony fleshless knot, shaking it towards the East. ‘We won’t!’ he cried. ‘Not for you.’
It’s amazing how much conflict Tolkien is able to portray within one character in a single chapter. He’s not just being driven by his own desires (although that’s obviously a significant part), but by fear of Sauron and some commanding wish of his. But he’s utterly incapable of resisting at this point, and he’s tired, too.
Frodo makes it a point of calling him “Sméagol”, his original “hobbit” name, from this point on, evidently hoping to salvage whatever goodness may be left in him. But Gollum’s still not quite won over, attempting to escape again as soon as he thinks they’re asleep. When they try to tie him with that Elven rope, he finally breaks down and says that he’ll swear to help them.
‘Sméagol,’ said Gollum suddenly and clearly, opening his eyes wide and staring at Frodo with a strange light. ‘Sméagol will swear on the Precious.’
Frodo drew himself up, and again Sam was startled by his words and his stern voice. ‘On the Precious? How dare you?’ he said. ‘Think!
One Ring to rule them all and in the Darkness bind them.
Would you commit your promise to that, Sméagol? It will hold you. But it is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware!’ […]
‘No, not on it,’ said Frodo, looking down at him with stern pity. ‘All you wish is to see it and touch it, if you can, though you know it would drive you mad. Not on it. Swear by it, if you will. For you know where it is. Yes, you know, Sméagol. It is before you.’
For a moment it appeared to Sam that his master had grown and Gollum had shrunk: a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud, and at his feet a little whining dog. Yet the two were in some way akin and not alien: they could reach one another’s minds.
Despite the power differential, they are both ring-bearers, and that alone is a profound shared experience. Frodo can empathize with Gollum, but he can also recognize the malevolent nature of the Ring.
At once Gollum got up and began prancing about, like a whipped cur whose master has patted it. From that moment a change, which lasted for some time, came over him. He spoke with less hissing and whining, and he spoke to his companions direct, not to his precious self. He would cringe and flinch, if they stepped near him or made any sudden movement, and he avoided the touch of their elven-cloaks; but he was friendly, and indeed pitifully anxious to please. […] Sam said little to him of any sort. He suspected him more deeply than ever, and if possible, liked the new Gollum, the Sméagol, less than the old.
Until next time…