In the eighth chapter of the second book of The Two Towers, HOW MUCH MORE MUST I TOLERATE OF THIS INTENSITY? Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.
CHAPTER EIGHT: THE STAIRS OF CIRITH UNGOL
My god, this is a nightmare. A NIGHTMARE. This whole chapter stressed me the fuck out. Unsurprisingly, it’s also some of Tolkien’s best writing in the whole book. He combines numerous physical feelings to give the atmosphere of the stairs of Cirith Ungol this oppressive, horrific weight, from the heaviness of the Ring itself to the pervasive sense of hopelessness that rests on Sam and Frodo. More than ever before, Frodo is exhausted by the journey, and as he moves closer to Mordor, he can feel the Ring around his neck pull his head down to the ground. But the three have no real choice left but to stay and get caught, or to press on and avoid detection.
When they do make their way to the city of the Ringwraiths, SHIT IS REAL AND IT HASN’T EVEN GOTTEN REAL YET. The place is light by a “corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing” from the tower of Minas Morgul. EVEN THE NAME IS CREEPER. But there is nothing more unsettling to me than the white bridge that passes over the stream in the middle of the valley. For real, there are flowers that looks like mutants and smell rotten that line the banks of the stream. The entire place is just evil incarnate, and I honestly think this is my favorite bit of world-building in Middle-earth. I’m not necessarily surprised by the details because Tolkien’s been hinting all along that the lands that the Enemy took over have been physically rendered into ugliness. I just didn’t expect this all in such painstaking detail. I didn’t expect Frodo to basically be controlled by some sort of force in that valley, causing him to run to the threshold of the bridge. Was it the Ringwraiths? The power of the Enemy? What was it about the tower that drew Frodo there? AM I GOING TO HAVE NIGHTMARES ABOUT THIS TONIGHT? Probably!
Gollum helps pull Sam and Frodo the correct way, up a narrow path that ascends further into the valley, giving them all a respite from the terror of the bridge and those awful flowers. But yet again, something makes them feel so tired that it’s as if they’ve been walking for days with no rest. It’s so bad that Gollum starts to freak out, insisting that they not stop because they could possibly be seen. Of course, right when Frodo gets the strength to stand up and continue on, Tolkien begins a new paragraph with this.
But it was too late.
Oh, now you’re just teasing me, aren’t you? TOLKIEN, WHY DO YOU DO THIS TO ME? What the group is too late for is the opening of the gates, a magnificent and horrible affair that’s loud and terrifying all at once. We get our first glimpse of Mordor, but that moment is brief because AN ARMY POURS OUT OF THE GATE. Even worse, IT IS LEAD BY THE LORD OF THE NINE RIDERS. At first, I thought that Frodo and his friends had been spotted, and that this was the response to that. But when the Wraith-lord pauses at the end of the bridge, I realized that this was a mere coincidence. The Ring had happened to make itself aware, and the Wraith-lord knew. Oh god, HE KNOWS THERE’S SOMETHING ELSE IN THAT VALLEY.
And despite that the army eventually leaves, Frodo and friends undetected, this does absolutely nothing to relieve the tension that I feel. Sure, they survived this chance meeting with the Wraith-lord, but Frodo sums up my feelings fairly succinctly: Faramir is totally fucked. The size of that army is going to crush his men. And, again, THIS IS WHERE GANDALF AND PIPPIN ARE HEADED. Oh my god, why are you doing this to these beloved characters? Have you no mercy?
With the thought of doom and destruction fresh on his mind, Frodo finally gets the strength up to follow Gollum, and they come upon the first set of stairs of Cirith Ungol. Oh god, it’s just so unbearable. I was exhausted just reading of them climbing, step after step, no relief available from the ascent. I like that Tolkien describes this in a way that makes the mountain seem alive, as if it is a living antagonist itself. How creepy is that moment where Frodo peeks into the chasm to see the Morgul Valley and the Nameless Pass? Like, I can barely even materialize such an image in my own mind because it’s unlike anything I can imagine.
Tolkien also reminds us, through Gollum, that the stairs of Cirith Ungol were merely an option to them. There was never any promise that it was an unguarded, secret method to get in to Mordor. So now I wonder what’s in the tower at the top of the pass. What is it in Mordor that burns the sky red? Are they going to be spotted before they even pass over the mountains? Look, I am not expecting this journey to get any easier. There’s still a third “book” I need to read, and I am just guessing that The Two Towers is going to end on a horrific cliffhanger, okay?
I will say that amidst all the hellish imagery and suspense of chapter eight, Frodo and Sam’s (very meta) conversation about being in a tale to be told at a later date is so comforting to me. I mean, first of all, I’m pretty sure Tolkien wrote this part specifically to defend my personal spoiler policy:
‘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 tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’
THIS JUST MAKES ME SO HAPPY.
‘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.’
NO, YOU SHUT UP, TOLKIEN. DON’T DO THIS TO ME. He’s trolling me. HE DID THIS ON PURPOSE. He made me feel all warm and fluffy for a moment, then reminded me that these characters could easily die on the next page because of where they are. GODDAMN IT. At least I’ll have the moment where Frodo insists that they’ll tell tales about Samwise the stouthearted. Their relationship is just so precious to me! It’s weird to think about how reticent and frightened Sam started out way back in Fellowship, and now he’s looking after Frodo on a mountain pass where they are most certainly heading to their doom.
The two also bring Gollum up again, and Frodo still sticks to the same line of reasoning he felt before: he can’t really concern himself with whether Gollum is false or not. If Gollum betrays them, how much worse can things get? Seriously, look where they are. They’re walking right into the home of the Enemy anyway. Instead, he’ll deal with it when the moment comes. For now, he will fall asleep in Sam’s lap and I will melt from cuteness. CUTE OVERLOAD, RIGHT?
Gollum returns while they’re sleeping, and Tolkien breaks my heart again with just one sentence:
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’LL BE FINE. I SWEAR.
I think at this point I’m more inclined to believe Gollum than ever before. Yes, he was gone for hours, but Tolkien’s given me no other reason to distrust Gollum’s claim that he was sneaking about and keeping watch. At the very least, he has a strong interest in keeping the Ring close by, so even if he plans on betraying Frodo at the last minute, he’s certainly not doing it now. I hope I don’t regret typing that. But Frodo gives Gollum a choice: he’s welcome to leave, having brought them to Mordor, or he can stay and help them press further on. Gollum insists that they’re going to need more assistance, and he agrees to stay.
I seriously hope he’s right. I DON’T LIKE HOW I FEEL.