In the second chapter of the second book of The Return of the King, Sam and Frodo sort of walk right into Mordor. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.
CHAPTER TWO: THE LAND OF SHADOW
I don’t know how Sam and Frodo are going to pull this off.
I know it’s a common joke that I’m quite unprepared all of the time. It’s true, for the record. But that joke is a commentary on how well-written many of the stories I’ve read are, and it’s why I enjoy doing this so much. I remember how I couldn’t figure out how Tolkien was going to fill up three whole “books” with a story. That’s how little I knew about this novel! I didn’t even know how it was all framed, so a good part of the fun of this has been discovering the format of The Lord of the Rings. As frustrating as it is sometimes, I really do like how the focus of Tolkien’s writing switches between the two sets of characters. I’m still unwilling to forgive him forever for ending book five with that Pippin cliffhanger, but it’s such a great use of tension and momentum to give us an entire “book” worth of one side of the story before jumping over to Frodo and Sam. I’m curious to see how we’ll bring back everyone from book five, too, because I think it would be kind of unsatisfying if we never saw those characters again.
For now, though, I have a more immediate concern: WHAT THE FUCK ARE SAM AND FRODO GOING TO DO? This chapter is infuriating because I can’t even imagine how this is going to unfold. I feel so terrible for these characters and the journey they’re on. Every time I think this book is hopeless, Tolkien introduces another complex plot twist and I discover that it is indeed possible for this story to become more bleak. For real, Sam and Frodo get chased by a winged creature, get lost, are constantly thirsty and hungry, get lost again, go super far out of the way, reach dead ends, and then HOLY SHIT WHAT. First, though, they have to deal with their imminent capture as the bells from Cirith Ungol ring out and they hear orcs swarming in the distance. All I could think was SWEET BABY GANDALF CAN THEY NOT GET CAUGHT BECAUSE THEY JUST ESCAPED HOLY SHIT. In desperation, the two drop off the side of a bridge into pure darkness because this is only a good idea when you’re about to die. Meaning I would die given this choice because I have a slight fear of heights, and dropping off a bridge in the dark is most definitely a way to trigger that fear.
So it’s real cool that they land in a group of thorny bushes instead of pillows or something. Do orcs use pillows? What about the Dark Lord? I suppose Sauron could use his dark powers to prevent himself from feeling tired. It makes sense! He’ll sleep when he’s dead. He’s got so much evil to do! Actually, I can’t imagine that the orcs have pillows because whomever had the best one would have to constantly fight the others in order to keep it, meaning he could never fall asleep and enjoy the pillow. Are their women orcs at all, by the way?
All right, so now that I’ve got all of you thinking about the place of pillows in orc society, let’s get real for a second. I found it creepy enough in the beginning of The Return of the King that Sauron found a way to spread that weird darkness about, but it’s somehow even creepier that Sam and Frodo can now see daylight beyond the eastern ridges, but it’s still dark in Mordor itself. UGH SAURON YOU ARE SO WEIRD. How can you hate the sun? Though I do support his elimination of wind. I fucking despise wind, so I might turn to the dark side if the Dark Lord tried to tempt me with this. I don’t care if this makes me shallow. Wind is a terrible thing about 95% of the time. Who gives a shit if it’s important for “nature” or something? My opinion is also pure science.
Though it’s not really a good thing for Frodo. As he gets closer and closer to Mount Doom, the journey becomes more unbearable for him. It’s like the Ring knows it’s about to be destroyed. Honestly, I’m fascinated by this idea that the Ring itself has so much power that it’s like a sentient being, as if it has its own will. Of course, we’ve seen over the course of the whole book how the Ring affects every single person who comes into contact with it. That’s why it intrigues me that Sam used the Ring longer than any other character in the story and seems to have come away from the experience entirely unscathed. There’s this vibrant energy to Sam that Frodo doesn’t seem to possess, at least not in the same way. As I’ve noted in the past, it’s been really satisfying to watch Frodo and Sam switch roles, and this is just an extension of that.
Remember when I said that I was also satisfied that Tolkien would interject Sam and Frodo’s scenes with the context of what their friends were doing at the same time? I take that back.
It was the morning of the fifteenth of March, and over the Vale of Anduin the Sun was rising above the eastern shadow, and the south-west wind was blowing. Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields.
Yeah, I don’t like this anymore. I mean, to be fair, the Lord of the Ringwraiths also dies just after this, but Tolkien just can’t resist reminding me that this amazing character is gone forever. Thank you.
I wouldn’t say that I was bored by the vast majority of the rest of the chapter, but I couldn’t help but notice that this might have been the fiftieth time that characters spent the bulk of the plot walking. My god, there’s just so much of it in this book. I don’t think I ever stopped to truly acknowledge that; interestingly enough, a lot of people that I’ve met who’ve read The Lord of the Rings complain that they thought that Tolkien made his characters walk far too much. I don’t know that I could ever come up with a sufficient argument against that. Yes, it’s important that the walking happen because it’s not like the characters can just take an express bus to Mordor. (COULD YOU IMAGINE HOW THIS BOOK WOULD GO IF THEY COULD. Oh god, if I ever seriously got into writing fanfiction, this is what I would do. I would expand on orcs using pillows and taking the 7X to Mordor from the Shire. KEEP ALL KEYBOARDS AWAY FROM ME, I SWEAR.)
Still, I don’t know that I have much of substance to say about a lot of what happens here aside from absurd tangents that my brain takes me on. The walk is hard. They find water with the help of Galadriel’s phial. Mordor is ugly. They’re hungry. This whole journey is a foolish mistake. Seriously, couldn’t someone have given them a rough map or drawing of one so that they wouldn’t get to Mordor and have no idea what the hell they are supposed to do next.
I did love this a whole lot:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.
I’m not. I swear. I’m not emotional at all.
They woke together, hand in hand.
STOP IT, I FUCKING SWEAR. You’re just teasing me at this point, aren’t you?
The teasing does stop when Tolkien gives us a further glimpse into Mordor. My god, the place is just so immense, full of soldiers and slaves bustling about, gathered in nests of tents. It’s more clear than ever that this is the headquarters of the Dark Lord, that this is where all the planning and slaving has taken place, and that despite the difficult and horrible situation the rest of the characters are in, Sam and Frodo are about to face the absolute worst of Sauron. I bet he’s been hiding something evil and terrible here in Mordor, and these characters are certainly going to find out what that is.
When two orcs push them off their path, Sam and Frodo also discover that Gollum is not only still alive, but sneaking around in Mordor as well. (I’m still sticking to my own personal canon that orc society is just a more brutal version of Mean Girls.) It seems that the mere appearance of Sam and Frodo has sent the Enemy into chaos. There are competing stories as to what actually happened in Cirith Ungol, which I think will ultimately weigh in Sam and Frodo’s behavior. Confusion is a powerful thing. But what is Gollum hanging around for? Shelob is dying (or dead already), and I don’t see that he has any real purpose. Does he seriously think Sam or Frodo will allow him to get close again?
On top of this, after spending hours traveling north, the two reach what basically amounts to a dead end: they can climb up a road leading to an orc-tower and risk getting caught or spotted, or they can go back to where they came from and do… nothing? Who knows? THERE IS NO CLEAR PLAN AT THIS POINT. All they know they need to do is cast the Ring into Mount Doom, but they have virtually no means or knowledge to attain it.
At this point, Frodo decides that they should just follow the road and deal with the consequences of it. This is a good plan, of course. Sam offers to go ahead to scope things out while Frodo gets some rest, and the two actually separate. My first thought was WHY ARE YOU LEAVING FRODO ALONE WHILE HE IS IN THE MOST VULNERABLE STATE IMAGINABLE? I genuinely believed that Tolkien would find a way to rip these two apart after giving them only two chapters together. Look, it’s not outside the realm of reason to think this, right? So I was then surprised that this did not happen, that Sam found water while off scouting, and that all that happened was that he saw Gollum. Oh. Well, that’s not too bad, right? Sam even gets to take a nap! Seriously, Frodo and Sam take a nap inside Mordor. This is just amazing to me. WHAT BADASSES. Who else could ever say they infiltrated Mordor, when on a hike, and then took a nap inside the place? This is so wonderful! There is hope!
They rested for some minutes and then went on; but they had not taken many steps when suddenly in the stillness of the night they heard the sound that all along they had secretly dreaded: the noise of marching feet. It was still some way behind them, but looking back they could see the twinkle of torches coming round the bend less than a mile away, and they were moving too fast: too fast for Frodo to escape by flight along the road ahead.
See, I was nervous about this, but I figured they’d just hide. But that’s when Frodo discovers the cliff they are next to has been cut sheer, and the other side of the road hosts a “dark pit of gloom.” There is literally nowhere for them to go. No, this isn’t an exaggeration. They just STAND IN THE SHADOW OF THE CLIFF. For a second, I imagined in my head that Sam was thinking that if he closed his eyes, no one could see him either, but then the orcs arrive, and there is no time for my shenanigans because there’s no way this won’t end in disaster.
‘Deserting, eh?’ he snarled. ‘Or thinking of it? All your folk should have been inside Udûn before yesterday evening.’
HE THINKS THEY ARE TINY ORCS. OH MY GOD I LOVE THIS SO MUCH. YOU CANNOT TAKE THIS AWAY FROM ME. Actually, Tolkien does take this away from me, and almost immediately. While it’s undoubtedly good luck that this particular orc thinks that Frodo and Sam belong to a specific tribe of orcs, it doesn’t necessarily pan out as a good thing. The orc who found them is actually a slave-driver, and the two hobbits must pretend to be a part of the troop, whips and all. In my mind, this is worse than their previous fare. At least before they could stop and rest, but they’re hungry, tired, and thirsty, and they have to just keep marching under the sounds of the slave-driver’s whip. FUCKED UP.
And then we’re back to Mean Girls 2: Slay the Orcs. I’m sorry. I cannot help but laugh at the orcs. It’s all I live for. The march of orcs that Frodo and Sam are in converges with other companies heading out to meet to Captains of the West, so they begin fighting each other SO THEY CAN BE THE FIRST GROUP OUT. I can’t feel anything but pure joy at how absurd this is. I no longer understand why I find this so funny, so now I just accept it. It’s like the orcs just can’t resist fighting one another upon sight of another orc, as if it’s some uncontrollable force. For Sam and Frodo, though, it’s a chance to leave this horrific procession and hide. Frodo passes out from the sheer exhaustion of all of this, and then the chapter just ends, and then I am very upset because christ i need to know what is going on.