In one of my favorite chapters, we get a brief reprieve from the horrors of Mordor – and meet another Tolkien avatar!
Before them, as they turned 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 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.
It’s passages like this that keep me coming back to this series. Although Ithilien is still enemy territory, it was only captured a generation or so ago, and it at least has plenty of shelter to hide in. Frodo and Sam are both cheered now that Certain Doom has been postponed, and even Gollum is in a peaceable mood now that he’s not literally starving.
Sam had been giving earnest thought to food as they marched. Now that the despair of the impassible Gate was behind him, he did not feel so inclined as his master to take no thought for their livelihood beyond the end of their errand; and anyway it seemed wiser to him to save the waybread of the Elves for worse times ahead. Six days or more had passed since he reckoned that they had only a bare supply for three weeks.
‘If we reach the Fire in that time, we’ll be lucky at this rate!’ he thought. ‘And we might be wanting to get back. We might!’
Frodo always did need his friends to look out for him, and now it seems he needs Sam to hold onto hope for him, too. And to cook for him, now that there’s actually stuff to cook. Gollum’s in a decently charitable mood, so Sam convinces him to catch some meat for them while he’s off hunting.
Sam looked at [Frodo]. The early daylight was only just creeping down into the shadows under the trees, but he saw his master’s face very clearly, and his hands, too, lying at rest on the ground beside him. He was reminded suddenly of Frodo as he had lain, asleep in the house of Elrond, after his deadly wound. Then as he had kept watch Sam had noticed that at times a light seemed to be shining faintly within; but now the light was even clearer and stronger. Frodo’s face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiselling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: ‘I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow.’
Gollum returned quietly and peered over Sam’s shoulder. Looking at Frodo, he shut his eyes and crawled away without a sound.
That “inner light” seems like its supposed to be Frodo’s spirit, like the light that came from Glorfindel when Frodo was seeing the spirit-realm. It’s interesting how Gollum seems to sense it, too, and he even seems moved by it, although he wouldn’t want to show it.
Anyhow, Gollum caught a pair of rabbits for them, so Sam finally puts his cooking gear to use and prepares to stew them, much to Gollum’s chagrin. He’s partly worried about the cooking fire giving them away, but he’s clearly more disturbed by the idea of cooking perfectly good meat. And eating plants.
‘Sméagol won’t go, O no precious, not this time,’ hissed Gollum. ‘He’s frightened, and he’s very tired, and this hobbit’s not nice, not nice at all. Sméagol won’t grub for roots and carrotses and – taters. What’s taters, precious, eh, what’s taters?’
‘Po-ta-toes,’ said Sam. ‘The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty belly. But you won’t find any, so you needn’t look. But be good, Sméagol and fetch me the herbs, and I’ll think better of you. What’s more, if you turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned, I’ll cook you some taters one of these days. I will: fried fish and chips served by S. Gamgee. You couldn’t say no to that.’
‘Yes, yes we could. Spoiling nice fish, scorching it. Give me fish now, and keep nassty chips!’
We’re getting to the part of the story where they added a lot of “filler” in the movies, and since they also separated Book IV so that it would appear in appropriate chronological order (the last few chapters are concurrent with the beginning of Return of the King), at times it feels both drawn-out and overstuffed. Fortunately, Gollum picks up much of the slack in the movies (or at least in The Two Towers), and his internal debate where Sméagol finally seems to win out against Gollum is positively iconic. It’s fun seeing a Sméagol who’s genuinely helpful (at least to Frodo) – in the movie, it’s his idea to give them rabbits (even if he’s still appalled at the idea of cookery).
But it turns out Gollum was right to be concerned about the fire, as Sam doesn’t quite put it out properly, leading someone to discover them.
‘We have not found what we sought,’ said one. ‘But what have we found?’
‘Not Orcs,’ said another, releasing the hilt of his sword, which he had seized when he saw the glitter of Sting in Frodo’s hand.
‘Elves?’ said a third, doubtfully.
‘Nay! Not Elves,’ said the fourth, the tallest, and as it appeared the chief among them. ‘Elves do not walk in Ithilien in these days. And Elves are wondrous fair to look upon, or so ‘tis said.’
‘Meaning we’re not, I take you,’ said Sam. ‘Thank you kindly. And when you’ve finished discussing us, perhaps you’ll say who you are, and why you can’t let two tired travellers rest.’
The tall green man laughed grimly. ‘I am Faramir, Captain of Gondor,’ he said. ‘But there are no travellers in this land: only servants of the Dark Tower, or of the White.’
This is another popular candidate for the Two Towers: Barad-dûr and Minas Tirith!
Frodo mentions that they came out of Rivendell with Boromir, whom all the men clearly recognize, and then brings up the dream-riddle that Boromir had been asking about, which Faramir at least is familiar with. That’s enough to at least convince them that Frodo isn’t an enemy, so they leave two guards and continue their mission: Ambushing a convoy of Southron men.
‘These cursed Southrons come now marching up the ancient roads to swell the hosts of the Dark Tower. Yea, up the very roads that craft of Gondor made. And they go ever more heedlessly, we learn, thinking that the power of their new master is great enough, so that the mere shadow of His hills will protect them. We come to teach them another lesson. Great strength of them was reported to us some days ago, marching north. One of their regiments is due by our reckoning to pass by, sometime ere noon – up on the road above, where it passes through the cloven way. The road may pass, but they shall not! Not while Faramir is Captain. He leads now in all perilous ventures. But his life is charmed, or fate spares him for some other end.’
Faramir is the last of Tolkien’s author avatars to be introduced, and I think it’s safe to say that he was based largely on his wartime experience. I’ll have to wait until the next chapter to really discuss him, though.
Sam, eager to see more, went now and joined the guards. He scrambled a little way up into one of the larger of the bay-trees. For a moment he caught a glimpse of swarthy men in red running down the slope some way off with green-clad warriors leaping after them, hewing them down as they fled. Arrows were thick in the air. Then suddenly straight over the rim of their sheltering bank, a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them. He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar. His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen plates were rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched in blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword.
It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace – all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind.
These flashes of empathy are another reason why I keep coming back. I appreciate that they give those last few lines to Faramir in the Extended Edition (Faramir gets a lot more screentime in the Extended Edition, which I approve of), even if it seems a bit too innocent for him.
To his astonishment and terror, and lasting delight, Sam saw a vast shape crash out of the trees and come careering down the slope. Big as a house, much bigger than a house, it looked to him, a grey-clad moving hill. Fear and wonder, maybe, enlarged him in the hobbit’s eyes, but the Mûmak of Harad was indeed a beast of vast bulk, and the like of him does not walk now in Middle-earth; his kin that live still in latter days are but memories of his girth and majesty. On he came, straight towards the watchers, and then swerved aside in the nick of time, passing only a few yards away, rocking the ground beneath their feet: his great legs like trees, enormous sail-like ears spread out, long snout upraised like a huge serpent about to strike, his small red eyes raging. His upturned hornlike tusks were bound with bands of gold and dripped with blood.
[…] On the great beast thundered, blundering in blind wrath through pool and thicket. […] Soon he was lost to view, still trumpeting and stamping far away. What became of him Sam never heard: whether he escaped to roam the wild for a time, until he perished far from his home or was trapped in some deep pit; or whether he raged on until he plunged in the Great River and was swallowed up.
Sam drew a deep breath. ‘An Oliphaunt it was!’ he said. ‘So there are Oliphaunts, and I have seen one. What a life! But no one at home will ever believe me.’
Until next time…