This chapter is mainly focused on the balance of power between Frodo and Gollum (and Sam’s misconceptions thereof).
Upon the west of Mordor marched the gloomy range of the Ephel Dúath, the Mountains of Shadow, and upon the north the broken peaks and barren ridges of Ered Lithui, grey as ash. But as these ranges approached one another, being indeed but parts of one great wall about the mournful plains of Lithlad and of Gorgoroth, and the bitter inland sea of Núrnen amidmost, they swung out long arms northward; and between these arms there was a deep defile. This was Cirith Gorgor, the Haunted Pass, the entrance to the land of the Enemy. High cliffs lowered upon either side, and thrust forward from its mouth were two sheer hills, black-boned and bare. Upon them stood the Teeth of Mordor, two towers strong and tall. In days long past they were built by the Men of Gondor in their pride and power, after the overthrow of Sauron and his flight, lest he should seek to return to his old realm. But the strength of Gondor failed, and men slept, and for long years the towers stood empty. Then Sauron returned. Now the watch-towers, which had fallen into decay, were repaired, and filled with arms, and garrisoned with ceaseless vigilance. Stony-faced they were, with dark window-holes staring north and east and west, and each window was full of sleepless eyes.
This is the first mention of “two towers” – perhaps not the titular towers, or perhaps so. They were originally made for good, to keep evil from taking root, but their keepers became complacent, and so evil took root within the towers themselves. Now they guard the Black Gate for Sauron.
‘I suppose it’s no good asking “what way do we go now?” We can’t go no further – unless we want to ask the Orcs for a lift.’
‘No, no!’ said Gollum. ‘No use. We can’t go further. Sméagol said so. He said: we’ll go to the Gate, and then we’ll see. And we do see. O yes, my precious, we do see. Sméagol knew hobbits could not go this way. O yes, Sméagol knew.’
‘Then what the plague did you bring us here for?’ said Sam, not feeling in the mood to be just or reasonable.
‘Master said so. Master says: Bring us to the gate. So good Sméagol does so. Master said so, wise master.’
‘I did,’ said Frodo. His face was grim and set, but resolute. He was filthy, haggard, and pinched with weariness, but he cowered no longer, and his eyes were clear. ‘I said so, because I purpose to enter Mordor, and I know no other way. Therefore I shall go this way. I do not ask anyone to go with me.’
‘No, no, master!’ wailed Gollum, pawing at him, and seeming in great distress. ‘No use that way! No use! Don’t take the Precious to Him! He’ll eat us all, if He gets it, eat all the world. Keep it, nice master, and be kind to Sméagol. Don’t let Him have it. Or go away, go to nice places and give it back to little Sméagol. Yes, yes, master give it back, eh? Sméagol will keep it safe; he will do lots of good, especially to nice hobbits. Hobbits go home. Don’t go to the Gate!’
Gollum suggests taking a different, “more secret” way into Mordor, and Sam is naturally dubious.
Sam frowned. If he could have bored holes in Gollum with his eyes, he would have done. His mind was full of doubt. To all appearances Gollum was genuinely distressed and anxious to help Frodo. But Sam, remembering the overheard debate, found it hard to believe that the long submerged Sméagol had come out on top: that voice at any rate hadn’t had the last word in the debate. Sam’s guess was that the Smeagol and Gollum halves (or what in his own mind he called Slinker and Stinker) had made a truce and a temporary alliance: neither wanted the Enemy to get the Ring; both wished to keep Frodo from capture, and under their eye, as long as possible – at any rate as long as Stinker still had a chance of laying hands on his ‘Precious’. […]
‘And it’s a good thing neither half of the old villain don’t know what master means to do,’ he thought. ‘If he knew that Mr. Frodo is trying to put an end to his Precious for good and all, there’d be trouble pretty quick, I bet.’
Sam assumes that Frodo only trusts Gollum because he believes that friendly “Sméagol” persona and doesn’t realize how much of a hold “Gollum” still has, mistaking kindness for blindness – and that does seem to be the idea they presented in the films, focusing more on the likeness between Frodo and Gollum, even to the exclusion of Sam. But I think it’s more accurate to say Frodo “believes in” Sméagol than that he simply “believes” him.
‘Sméagol,’ he said, ‘I will trust you once more. Indeed it seems that I must do so, and that it is my fate to receive help from you, where I least looked for it, and your fate to help me whom you long pursued with evil purpose. So far you have deserved well of me and have kept your promise truly. Truly, I say and mean,’ he added with a glance at Sam. ‘For twice now we have been in your power, and you have done no harm to us. Nor have you tried to take from me what you once sought. May the third time prove the best! But I warn you, Sméagol, you are in danger.’ […]
‘I did not mean the danger that we all share,’ said Frodo. ‘I mean a danger to yourself alone. You swore a promise by what you call the Precious. Remember that! It will hold you to it; but it will seek a way to twist it to your own undoing. Already you are being twisted. You revealed yourself to me just now, foolishly. Give it back to Sméagol you said. Do not say that again! Do not let that thought grow in you! You will never get it back. But the desire of it may betray you to a bitter end. You will never get it back. In the last need, Sméagol, I should put on the Precious; and the Precious mastered you long ago. If I, wearing it, were to command you, you would obey, even if it were to leap from a precipice or to cast yourself into the fire. And such would be my command. So have a care, Sméagol!’
Frodo’s finally starting to leverage the power of the Ring, and I really don’t think that’s a good thing for him. Although he probably understands the conflict within Gollum far better than Sam does, it was his kindness and mercy that initially won Sméagol over, and fear only makes him rely more on Gollum.
Gollum describes a pass through the mountains on the western side of Mordor, leading past the old Tower of the Moon, Minas Ithil, now long since overrun and changed to Minas Morgul, Tower of Sorcery. He says he discovered it when he escaped from Mordor the last time.
‘Is it not guarded?’ asked Frodo sternly. ‘And did you escape out of the darkness, Sméagol? Were you not rather permitted to depart, upon an errand? That at least is what Aragorn thought, who found you by the Dead Marshes some years ago.’
‘It’s a lie!’ hissed Gollum, and an evil light came into his eyes at the naming of Aragorn. ‘He lied on me, yes he did. I did escape, all by my poor self. Indeed I was told to seek for the Precious; and I have searched and searched, of course I have. But not for the Black One. The Precious was ours, it was mine I tell you. I did escape.’
Frodo felt a strange certainty that in this matter Gollum was for once not so far from the truth as might be suspected; that he had somehow found a way out of Mordor, and at least believed that it was by his own cunning. For one thing, he noted that Gollum used I, and that seemed usually to be a sign, on its rare appearances, that some remnants of old truth and sincerity were for the moment on top. But even if Gollum could be trusted on this point, Frodo did not forget the wiles of the Enemy. The ‘escape’ may have been allowed or arranged, and well known in the Dark Tower. And in any case Gollum was plainly keeping a good deal back.
This little exchange makes it clear that if all had gone according to plan and Aragorn had come with Frodo, they would never have gotten any help from Sméagol. As it is, he’s still less forthcoming about the new route than they’d like, only admitting that it might be guarded, although even a “might” sounds a bit more hopeful than the Black Gate at this point.
[Frodo] sat upon the ground for a long while, silent, his head bowed, striving to recall all that Gandalf had said to him. But for this choice he could recall no counsel. Indeed Gandalf’s guidance had been taken from them too soon, too soon, while the Dark Land was still very far away. How they should enter it at the last Gandalf had not said. Perhaps he could not say. Into the stronghold of the Enemy in the North, into Dol Guldur, he had once ventured. But into Mordor, to the Mountain of Fire and to Barad-dûr, since the Dark Lord rose in power again, had he ever journeyed there? Frodo did not think so. And here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside, expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go. It was an evil fate. But he had taken it on himself in his own sitting-room in the far-off spring of another year, so remote now that it was like a chapter in a story of the world’s youth, when the Trees of Silver and Gold were still in bloom. This was an evil choice. Which way should he choose? And if both led to terror and death, what good lay in choice?
They sense the Ringwraiths high in the air above them, and although that disturbs Frodo’s thoughts, it brings him no closer to a conclusion. It’s not until Sam diverts his thoughts in a different way that he’s able to make a decision.
Sam stood up, putting his hands behind his back (as he always did when ‘speaking poetry’), and began:
Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old, and tall.
If you’d met me
You wouldn’t forget me.
If you never do,
You won’t think I’m true;
But old Oliphaunt am I,
And I never lie.
‘That,’ said Sam, when he had finished reciting, ‘that’s a rhyme we have in the Shire. Nonsense maybe, and maybe not. But we have our tales too, and news out of the South, you know. […] So when you said “Men out of the South, all in red and gold,” I said “were there any oliphaunts?” For if there was, I was going to take a look, risk or no. But now I don’t suppose I’ll ever see an oliphaunt. Maybe there ain’t no such beast.’ He sighed.
[…] Frodo stood up. He had laughed in the midst of all his cares when Sam trotted out the old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt, and the laugh had released him from hesitation. ‘I wish we had a thousand oliphaunts with Gandalf on a white one at their head,’ he said. ‘Then we’d break a way into this evil land, perhaps. But we’ve not; just our own tired legs, that’s all. Well, Sméagol, the third turn may turn the best. I will come with you.’
Until next time…