The Ring passes the fortress of the Ringwraiths, and then Tolkien gets meta.
A long-tilted valley, a deep gulf of shadow, ran far back into the mountains. Upon the further side, some way within the valley’s arms, high on a rocky seat upon the black knees of the Ephel Dúath, stood the walls and tower of Minas Morgul. All was dark about it, earth and sky, but it was lit with light. Not the imprisoned moonlight welling through the marble walls of Minas Ithil long ago, Tower of the Moon, fair and radiant in the hollow of the hills. Paler indeed than the moon ailing in some slow eclipse was the light of it now, wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing. […] For a moment the three companions stood there, shrinking, staring up with unwilling eyes. Gollum was the first to recover. Again he pulled at their cloaks urgently, but he spoke no word. Almost he dragged them forward. Every step was reluctant, and time seemed to slow its pace, so that between the raising of a foot and the setting of it down minutes of loathing passed.
It just occurred to me how terrified Gollum must be to communicate by tugging on their elven-cloaks, the touch of which he’d always avoided (since it presumably “burns” him like the elven-rope).
Tolkien seems to be alluding to the Dead Marshes with his mention of a “corpse-light”, a place of slaughter overtaken by decay, but also preserved, zombiefied. What was once a thing of beauty is now dead and rotting, because nothing is ever evil to begin with.
Then Frodo starts running toward the city.
Both Sam and Gollum ran after him. Sam caught his master in his arms, as he stumbled and almost fell, right on the threshold of the bridge.
‘Not that way! No, not that way!’ whispered Gollum, but the breath between his teeth seemed to tear the heavy stillness like a whistle, and he cowered to the ground in terror.
‘Hold up, Mr. Frodo!’ muttered Sam in Frodo’s ear. ‘Come back! Not that way. Gollum says not, and for once I agree with him.’
The one thing Sam and Gollum can agree on is that Frodo mustn’t be captured.
And then the Lord of the Ringwraiths appears, the one who stabbed Frodo on Weathertop, leading an army against the world of Men.
There was a pause, a dead silence. Maybe it was the Ring that called to the Wraith-lord, and for a moment he was troubled, sensing some other power within his valley. This way and that turned the dark head helmed and crowned with fear, sweeping the shadows with its unseen eyes. Frodo waited, like a bird at the approach of a snake, unable to move. And as he waited, he felt, more urgent than ever before, the command that he he should put on the Ring. But great as the pressure was, he felt no inclination now to yield to it. He knew that the Ring would only betray him, and that he had not, even if he put it on, the power to face the Morgul-king – not yet. There was no longer any answer to that command in his own will, dismayed by terror though it was, and he felt only the beating upon him of a great power from outside. It took his hand, and as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing it but in suspense (as if he looked on some old story far away), it moved the hand inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck. Then his own will stirred; slowly it forced the hand back and set it to find another thing, a thing lying hidden near his breast. Cold and hard it seemed as his grip closed on it: the phial of Galadriel, so long treasured, and almost forgotten till that hour. As he touched it, for a while all thought of the Ring was banished from his mind. He sighed and bent his head.
Frodo understands the Ring much better now than he did at Weathertop – but he still couldn’t resist its will without the aid of Galadriel’s starlight. It’s concerning that he’s also begun to think of it in terms of the power he could wield with it – even just threatening Gollum with it means that he’s already started to leverage its power.
Frodo raised his head, and then stood up. Despair had not left him, but his weakness had passed. He even smiled grimly, feeling now as clearly as a moment before he had felt the opposite, that what he had to do, he had to do, if he could, and that whether Faramir or Aragorn or Elrond or Galadriel or Gandalf or anyone else ever knew about it was beside the purpose. He took his staff in one hand and the phial in his other. When he saw that the clear light was already welling through his fingers, he thrust it into his bosom and held it against his heart.
If future generations can live without knowing the evil of Sauron, even if they forget how they were delivered, then that alone is worth the effort. And while Frodo’s contemplating his legacy (or lack thereof), Sam is thinking of stories.
‘I don’t like anything here at all,’ said Frodo, ‘step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.’
‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, of we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because life they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’
‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’
I find it particularly fascinating how this conversation was changed in the films – not just in terms of context (although making it essentially the thesis of The Two Towers certainly helped bring the movie together), but the ultimate point. Where the movie concludes with a fairly rote (if well-executed) “there’s good worth fighting for”, this passage takes a more nuanced stance. It’s not that all those heroes were fighting for the same thing (even something as nebulous and universal as “good”), just that they carried on, and the alternative was not necessarily “evil wins”, but that they wouldn’t have been remembered in the first place. This is honestly way more applicable to daily life, since good and evil are rarely clear to see, but the point is that if you don’t stand up for what’s right, someone will, sooner or later, and you’ll just be forgotten to time.
‘Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it – and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got – you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! Don’t the great tales never end?’
‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. ‘But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.’
The old tales are lights to help us through the darkness of our own trials, and maybe we can be lights for the future as well. I also love how Sam counters Frodo’s obvious pessimism with an assumption that they’ll not only be remembered, but make it home to resume their ordinary lives.
Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.
I can’t. Why do you have to make me care, Tolkien?
Next time: Shelob’s lair…