Mark Reads ‘The Return of the King’: Book 2, Chapter 1

In the first chapter of the second book of The Return of the King, Sam sets out to find and rescue Frodo. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.


Despite that Tolkien is a LIFE RUINER and I refuse to forgive him for ending the final chapter of the first half of The Return of the King in the way that he did, I can’t lie. When I did decide to put aside the pure frustration and anger I had for Pippin’s predicament, I was so happy to be back with Sam and Frodo. Even stranger, this chapter feels a bit more hopeful than I anticipated, especially since I thought it would be a few chapters before Sam and Frodo were even united. I think that I personally feel better about the task before these two hobbits now that I know they’re together again. Two is better than one, right?

But before this happens, Tolkien takes us through a frustrating and unnerving journey into Cirith Ungol, giving us a better look at how how Orcs interact and showing us the inside of this unbelievable tower. This is all filtered through Samwise, who is overwhelmed but still beautifully dedicated to saving his friend and following through with the mission that they’ve been assigned. It’s nice that Tolkien provides us with a context for what is happening out in the rest of Middle-earth at the same time that Sam goes off to look for Frodo. I know that everyone is converging on Minas Tirith, which means that there is probably a key moment coming up soon where Frodo and Sam might be able to avoid detection in order to get to Mount Doom. But they don’t know this, and that sense of separation and loneliness is more intense than what Pippin or Merry every experienced. Sam really is alone up here. He has no contact with anyone he knows, and he’s left to fend for himself.

That also means he’s got to make his own decisions, too. He faces a particularly difficult one in chapter one: WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU DO? It’s not like one can just walk into Mordor and toss the Ring in the fire. So he chooses to go higher, to get into the tower that overlooks him, and find Frodo, wherever he is being kept. Then h chooses to put on the Ring and I just wanted to shake him and scream NO WHY WHAT ARE YOU DOING STOP IT. To be fair to Sam, at this point in the book I probably would have been permanently wearing the Ring and building my own small nation, but you will allow me this moment of anger. YOU WILL ALLOW IT. I must admit that wearing the Ring does allow Sam to hear the orcs torturing Frodo, and it’s what helps him find his friend. Plus, Sam is smart to take the Ring off when he actually passes into Mordor.

Which I think we need to talk about? Really badly? Like, I don’t think I am okay at all? I had an idea in my head that the lands of Mordor were similar to the barren, decimated wastes in the area that surrounded the mountains. In hindsight, that is an incredibly awful idea. I don’t think it makes any sense. There had to be a source for the red glow that everyone saw so often, and there had to be more than just vacant land. Truthfully, not a single thing could have prepared me for what Mordor actually looked like. I mean, it’s not like I could have known that Orodruin was even a thing, and Tolkien gave virtually no clues to the existence of MOLTEN LAVA RIVERS CRISSCROSSING THE LANDSCAPE. Isengard was clearly an imitation, because the Tower of Cirith Ungol is so large, massive, and overwhelming that I can’t begin to picture it. YES, THIS IS A REQUEST FOR FANART. PLEASE, AND THANK YOU.

As he gazed at it suddenly Sam understood, almost with a shock, that this stronghold had been built not to keep enemies out of Mordor, but to keep them in.


WELL, NOW MORDOR IS EVEN CREEPIER THAN IT WAS BEFORE. The Dark Lord has to have dominion over the beings who have already sworn their life to him. At what point does someone realize that they’ve sworn allegiance to someone who is a total bigot? All these orcs and creatures and creations basically live in a geological prison of sorts. And they’re okay with this? I do like, though, that this idea is addressed through the orcs. It’s more clear to me now than ever before that the orcs possess a highly selfish and highly destructive culture, that theirs is one that values things, objects, and weapons, but not for any appreciative purposes. They just want, and there’s little reason to it beyond the desire. Working with Sauron is a greedy means to an end, and it’s one that they’re willing to fight with one another over in order to achieve it.

With the burden of carrying the Ring constantly in his thoughts, Sam finds that this orc culture is what enables him to locate and then rescue his good friend. An orc would never weigh the pros and cons of using the Ring to gain power, and an orc most certainly would not choose to defer such judgment to his master.

The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

WHAT AN AMAZING LINE. I feel like most of my favorite bits in this book are all in Return of the King. This in particular, though, is such a wonderful contrast to what we will soon hear from the orcs.

I mean, Sam resolves to be the best friend he can be to Frodo, and the orcs murder one another over mithril. I think that’s a very clear distinction between their behavior and those of the hobbits. THIS IS VERY FASCINATING TO ME.

Oh, right, the Two Watchers.

They were like great figures seated upon thrones. Each had three joined bodies, and three heads facing outward, and inward, across the gateway. The heads had vulture-faces, and on their great knees were laid clawlike hands. They seemed to be carved out of huge blocks of stone, immovable, and yet they were aware: some dreadful spirit of evil vengeance abode in them. They knew an enemy. Visible or invisible none could pass unheeded. They would forbid his entry, or his escape.


I mean, that is basically how I feel, and I don’t have any other way to describe my reaction to this scene. How is there still stuff that Tolkien can introduce this late into the story? NOW I AM FRIGHTENED BECAUSE I JUST REALIZED I HAVE NOT REALLY SEEN SAURON OR THE EYE AND IT’S GOING TO TRULY FUCK ME UP, ISN’T IT? OH MY GOD.

I don’t think I understand the phial that Galadriel gifted to Sam; I don’t get why it’s so magical, nor why Sam and Frodo can use it and speak in Elvish. (I think? Oh god, if I get this wrong, please do not correct me 40,000 times in a row. I cannot count how many people sent me emails saying UM EXCUSE ME DENETHOR IS A STEWARD, NOT A KING, AND I JUST NEEDED YOU TO KNOW THAT, AND CLEARLY NO ONE ELSE SENT THIS TO YOU OR CORRECTED YOU A BILLION TIMES IN A ROW ON YOUR SITE THANK YOU VERY MUCH.) Do I really care that I don’t understand the logistics of this? Not in the slightest. I guess I don’t need to know any of that information, though I generally do enjoy obsessing about nerdy shit like that. I like the idea that Galadriel is still a part of this story, though, though I wish we’d see her again. I don’t think there’s really anyway she can appear at this point because there’s so much story left to tell and not that many pages. Of course, now I’m feeling weird that I’m coming closer to the end of another project. I honestly feel like I’ve been doing The Lord of the Rings for a lifetime, I swear.

Anyway, MAGIC. Magic gets Sam inside, but it’s not what helps him fend off an orc. That is simply a bit of good luck and timing. I loved the idea that the orc knows there is some VICIOUS FIGHTER in the tunnels and passageways, but has no idea it’s just little ol’ Sam. He sees him shrouded in a shadow at the bottom of the stairway and actually runs away. BLESS. It buys him enough time to avoid the remaining living orcs and head up the stairway to the highest tier of the Tower. It’s almost comical to me that Sam expected this bloody, awful fight, only to discover that the orcs all killed one another for him, leaving the path to Frodo wide open. Even then, Shagrat, the Captain of the Tower, ends up hunting down Snaga, the orc that ran from Sam. Sam uses this and the obsession with the mithril coat to essentially distract Shagrat enough so he can attack the orc. SAM IS TAKING THE OFFENSIVE. Oh god, this is so genuinely exciting to me! This is the same hobbit who was once of afraid of elves speaking to him. Now look at him! EVERYTHING IS SO BEAUTIFUL.

Well, for like five seconds, I mean. There can’t be joy for that long in this book. The momentum that Sam has sort of peters out when he comes to a dead end. It’s here that my absolute favorite song in the entire book is sung by Sam in a moment of defeat and failure. It’s an utterly depressing scene at first. Sam tried so hard to find Frodo, and now he’s stuck in the darkness in the Tower of Cirith Ungol with no lead on where his best friend is. The song he makes up on the spot (SERIOUSLY PEOPLE IN MIDDLE-EARTH ARE SO TALENTED) is just gorgeous. I especially loved the declaration of hope at the end:

Though here at journey’s end I lie

in darkness buried deep,

beyond all towers strong and high, 

beyond all mountains steep,

above all shadows rides the Sun

and Stars for ever dwell:

I will not say the Day is done, 

nor bid the Stars farewell.

No, I’m not sad at all. No sadness here. But that sadness I felt towards the impossibly difficult situation that Sam was in quickly passed once SOMEONE STARTED SINGING BACK TO HIM. WHAT??!?!!?!??! And it’s because of Sam’s singing that Snaga reveals where Frodo has been hiding: THERE’S A TRAP-DOOR IN THE ROOF LEADING TO THE FINAL CHAMBER. Oh my god, a song in this book actually mattered.

Okay, I JEST. I mean, I don’t usually care for most of the songs in The Lord of the Rings, but they rarely feel like they have the same emotional importance as this does. For me, that is. I DON’T KNOW. You could have all been moved to tears during every song that Legolas sang. IT’S POSSIBLE. It’s just fascinating to me that Sam used to feel so worthless, and now he’s found his friend! Oh, and then he attacks Snaga and kills them. Though I suppose that’s more of an accident in the end than anything else, but I REFUSE TO NOT GIVE SAM CREDIT. Oh god, Sam and Frodo are back together. THIS IS EVERYTHING I WANT FROM LIFE. Well, perhaps not a naked Frodo. Oh god, is there fic about this scene? I hate to ask that, but someone totally wrote fic about Sam finding Frodo naked, didn’t they? If not, I AM DISAPPOINTED, FANDOM. Are you exercising restraint? How dare you.

Seriously, though, I think I might like this even more than Merry’s reunion with Pippin. You can see just how much Sam loves Frodo on every goddamn page. As I said before, it’s also great to compare this to the Sam we met in the beginning of the book to see just how much Tolkien developed this character. I honestly didn’t expect that sort of thing in the book, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve had such a good time reading it and writing about it. I LOVE CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT SO MUCH. Without what Tolkien has written for these characters, I don’t think this scene would mean as much to me. It’s fascinating to see the role reversal in place; Sam’s now the one to take care of Frodo instead of the other way around. (This includes holding on to the Ring while Frodo was captured.)

It’s also why it’s so disturbing to see Frodo snap at Sam when Sam reveals that he managed to grab the Ring before anyone else got ahold of it. We know that the Ring has a very specific power over a person, and that that power generally manifests in a way to make a person do whatever possible to possess it again. But Frodo’s behavior is unsettling because of who he is speaking to. This is his best friend, and the dude just rescued him. IS THIS THE THANKS THAT SAM GETS?

Also, I believe that Frodo is still naked during all of this, yes? Sam soon says he’ll get “Mordor-fashion” for his friend, so I assume that means he still doesn’t have anything on. There seriously has to be fic about this, right? Also, please tell me someone designed a Mordor-fashion line. If not, fandom, you’ve been wasting your time.

Most of the end of chapter one is talk of logistics between the two, but I admit to being entertained by this because it’s so great to read them talking to one another. Plus, I’m always a big fan of stories that acknowledge the physical difficulties of traveling, especially as Tolkien does in this chapter. They discuss disguises, food, water, and what their next move is. I’m eager to see where on earth this story is going to go next. I have a feeling they’ll have to find a way to sneak up to Mount Doom, but I don’t anticipate that this will be easy at all. Well, especially since this happens:

Only by a hair did they escape. A bell clanged; and from the Watchers there went up a high and dreadful wail. Far up above in the darkness it was answered. Out of the black sky there came dropping like a bolt a winged shape, rending the clouds with a ghastly shriek.

Goddamn it. WHAT THE FUCK.

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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2 Responses to Mark Reads ‘The Return of the King’: Book 2, Chapter 1

  1. Tauriel says:

    Actually, Mark, the tower of Cirith Ungol was built by the Gondorians at the height of their power. Hence its purpose of “keeping the enemy in”. Sauron only took over it when Gondor’s power waned and he returned to Mordor.

    • Sydney says:

      And, therefore, isn’t the tower of Mordor.

      The name of the big one is elsewhere in the book (it appears as early as Fellowship), but I’ll leave it at “this isn’t what Saruman was imitating”.

      Have fun thinking about that one.

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