Frodo and Sam must rely on Gollum to lead them through the dead lands surrounding Mordor, but despite his friendlier demeanor, he still clearly has some ulterior motives.

‘Ha! Ha! What does we wish?’ he said, looking sidelong at the hobbits. ‘We’ll tell you,’ he croaked. ‘He guessed it long ago, Baggins guessed it.’ A glint came into his eyes, and Sam catching the gleam in the darkness thought it far from pleasant.

Alive without breath;

As cold as death;

Never thirsting, ever drinking;

Clad in mail, never clinking.

Drowns on dry land,

Thinks an island

Is a mountain;

Thinks a fountain

Is a puff of air.

So sleek, so fair!

What a joy to meet!

We only wish

To catch a fish,

So juicy-sweet!

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to much Gollum-food around (since all the hobbits have is lembas, which Gollum apparrently can’t eat due to its elvishness), which only heightens Sam’s concerns as to whether they’ll be strangled in their sleep.

‘We’ve got to get some sleep; but not both together with that hungry villain nigh, promise or no promise. Sméagol or Gollum, he won’t change his habits in a hurry, I’ll warrant. You go to sleep, Mr. Frodo, and I’ll call you when I can’t keep my eyelids propped up. Turn and about, same as before, while he’s loose.’

‘Perhaps you’re right, Sam,’ said Frodo speaking openly. ‘There is a change in him, but just what kind of a change and how deep, I’m not sure yet. Seriously though, I don’t think there is any need to fear – at present.’

Frodo trusts Sméagol more than Sam does, but more out of an understanding of the power of the Ring.  He doesn’t necessarily trust him to be “good”, but to act according to his nature and not leave the Ring or allow Sauron to capture it.  That’s actually one thing he’s good at (when he has a mind to): Keeping them all alive and uncaptured.

As they’re crossing the marshes, they start seeing lights around them…

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 name,’ 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.’

Tolkien is drawing on his memories of fighting in World War I – apparently this was something like what he saw when the trenches were flooded.  These lands are supposed to be where the memories of the horrors of war dwell, and little else. Interestingly, he actually wrote Book IV (and the beginning of Book VI, which picks up where this leaves off) before any other part of The Two Towers, and didn’t have to revise it too much.  There’s definitely something about this part of the story that’s sometimes hard to get through, but perhaps it was one of the more personal parts for Tolkien.

‘I don’t know how long we shall take to – to finish,’ said Frodo. ‘We were miserably delayed in the hills. But Samwise Gamgee, my dear hobbit – indeed, Sam, my dearest hobbit, friend of friends – I do not think we need give thought to what comes after that. To do the job as you put it – what hope is there that we ever shall? And if we do, who knows what will come of that? If the One goes into the Fire, and we are at hand? I ask you, Sam, are we ever likely to need bread again? I think not. If we can nurse our limbs to bring us to Mount Doom, that is all we can do. More than I can, I begin to feel.’

Frodo is feeling the weight of the Ring more and more, so much that it’s actually slowing him down and wearing him out.  They also see a couple of Ringwraiths flying overhead (although it’s uncertain whether they actually spotted them), which especially puts Gollum on edge.  But eventually, they reach the end of the Marshes.

Before them dark in the dawn the great mountains reached up to roofs of smoke and cloud. Out from their feet were flung huge buttresses and broken hills that were now at the nearest scarce a dozen miles away. Frodo looked round in horror. Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of the Noman-lands, more loathsome far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes. Even to the Mere of Dead Faces some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the land about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.

They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark labour of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing – unless the Great Sea should enter in and wash it with oblivion. ‘I feel sick,’ said Sam. Frodo did not speak.

For a while they stood there, like men on the edge of a sleep where nightmare lurks, holding it off, though they know that they can only come to morning through the shadows.

There are only so many ways to describe hideous landscapes, but I think Tolkien managed all of them.  Just reading that makes me feel a bit queasy, even when there’s nothing overtly horrific about it.

But while the hobbits are sleeping (or rather, when Frodo’s sleeping and Sam is pretending to), Gollum plays out a little internal debate.

‘Sméagol promised,’ said the first thought.

‘Yes, yes, my precious,’ came the answer, ‘we promised: to save our Precious, not to let Him have it – never. But it’s going to Him, yes, nearer every step. What’s the hobbit going to do with it, we wonders, yes we wonders.’

‘I don’t know. I can’t help it. Master’s got it. Sméagol promised to help the master.’

‘Yes, yes, to help the master: the master of the Precious. But if we was master, then we could help ourselfs, yes, and still keep promises.’

As Frodo predicted, the Precious is twisting Sméagol’s promise, finding the loopholes and exploiting it – although it says something he’s still fighting against that impulse, largely due to Frodo’s kindness fomenting a little loyalty in Sméagol.

‘But He’ll see, He’ll know. He’ll take it from us!’

‘He sees. He knows. He heard us make silly promises – against His orders, yes. Must take it. The Wraiths are searching. Must take it.’

‘Not for Him!’

‘No, sweet one. See, my precious: if we has it, then we can escape, even from Him, eh? Perhaps we grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths. Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum! Eat fish every day, three times a day, fresh from the sea. Most Precious Gollum! Must have have it. We wants it, we wants it, we wants it!’

It’s a foolish dream, but it’s also kind of sad that all he wants at this point is to escape from Sauron’s grasp and be able to eat – all he wants is to live, but of course the Ring wouldn’t really help him do that.  Sméagol only barely manages to keep himself from attacking Frodo in his sleep, mostly by agreeing to wait – and Gollum mentions a “she” that might be able to help them.

Sam managed to hear all this, but has enough sense to pretend he didn’t.  From this point, Gollum is clearly eager to alter their course somehow, and the increased presence of the Ringwraiths seems to make him want to give up on the endeavor altogether.

About an hour after midnight the fear fell on them a third time, but it now seemed more remote, as if it were passing far above the clouds, rushing with terrible speed into the West. Gollum, however, was helpless with terror, and was convinced that they were being hunted, that their approach was known.

‘Three times!’ he whimpered. ‘Three times is a threat. They feel us here, they feel the Precious. The Precious is their master. We cannot go any further this way, no. It’s no use, no use!’

Pleading and kind words were no longer of any avail. It was not until Frodo commanded him angrily and laid a hand on his sword-hilt that Gollum would get up again. Then at last he rose with a snarl, and went before them like a beaten dog.

Next time: The Black Gate is closed…

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