Throwback Thursday My Endless Tolkien Series, part 16

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Originally published at Part Time Monster as “The Mirkwood Affair, pt. 2”

This is part 16 of an ongoing series. You can find previous installments here, and catch early installments on Thursdays at Sourcerer. I’m reading the One Ring as a character and looking at its interactions with various other characters to see what it tells us about the nature of good and evil in Middle Earth.

I was a little surprised to find, as I scanned The Hobbit for passages where Bilbo interacts with the Ring, just how important the Mirkwood chapters are. Before we dive into “Flies and Spiders,” though, one earlier passage that I’ve missed deserves a little attention.

After Bilbo escapes the Misty Mountains with the aid of the Ring, he discovers Gandalf and the Dwarves talking about having lost him. He sneaks past Balin, who is on sentry duty, and right into the middle of the party before taking off the Ring.

“And here’s the Burglar,” said Bilbo stepping down into the middle of them and slipping off the ring.

Bless me, how they jumped! Then they shouted with surprise and delight. Gandalf was as astonished as any of them . . . It is a fact that Bilbo’s reputation went up a very great deal with the dwarves after this. If they had still doubted that he was a first-class burglar, in spite of Gandalf’s words, they doubted no longer.” (1)

This passage is important for three reasons.

  • This is the first instance I can find where Bilbo is clearly acting on the Ring. All through the previous chapter, Bilbo’s interactions with the Ring are written to suggest that the Ring is deciding when to slip on and off of Bilbo’s finger.
  • That last sentence is the point at which the dwarves begin to take Bilbo seriously as a burglar, and in the Mirkwood chapters we’ll see them asking his advice and even following his lead at times. Bilbo’s come a long way since he left Bag End, and the adventure isn’t even half over yet.
  • It is the first time Bilbo makes a choice about how to use the Ring. When he decides, a page earlier, to slip into their midst before removing it, he says to himself “I will give them all a surprise.” This tells us something about Bilbo’s character – he’s getting up to some mischief here, but it’s not malicious. He’s doing it for the laughs. This is a clue as to why the Ring doesn’t affect Bilbo as quickly, or as drastically, as it does Gollum. Bilbo just doesn’t have any malice for it to work with. (2)

Once the company is reunited, they are nearly done in by pursuing goblins and are rescued by the Great Eagles. The eagles deposit them between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood. The shape-shifting Beorn feeds and shelters them, and allows them to ride his ponies to the edge of the forest. When they reach Mirkwood, Gandalf announces that he has business elsewhere, but will not say anything more about it. He rides away, leaving Thorin and Company to traverse the forest without his aid and with a warning not to stray from the path he’s led them to. (3)

It’s immediately clear that Mirkwood is not a happy forest:

It was not long before they grew to hate the forest as heartily as they had hated the tunnels of the goblins, and it seemed to offer even less hope of any ending. (4)

They travel for so long they begin to run out of food. I haven’t been able to pin down exactly how long this journey though Mirkwood takes, but it is a substantial amount of time. This timeline extrapolated from dates mentioned in the text and references to phases of the moon indicates that they enter the forest in mid-July and arrive at Lake-town on September 22. So we’re possibly looking at a period of eleven weeks, during seven of which the Dwarves are imprisoned and Bilbo wears the ring continuously.

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

During the early part of this episode, they come to an enchanted river, which Beorn has warned them not to touch or drink from. They find a small boat and use it to cross, but Bombour falls in and when the others pull him out, he is comatose. And we get our first hint that Wood-elves are about:

They were standing over him, cursing their ill luck, and Bombour’s clumsiness . . . when they became aware of the dim blowing of horns in the wood and the sound as of dogs baying far off. Then they fell silent, and as they sat is seemed they could hear the noise of a great hunt going by to the north of the path, though they saw no sign of it. (5)

This is the first of several passages that introduce the elves of Mirkwood. The picture of them that emerges is much different than Tolkien’s depictions of elves in the other texts, so I’m quoting them extensively as I work my way toward Bilbo’s encounter with the spiders. We get a bit of foreshadowing a couple of paragraphs later:

Yet if they had known more about it [the forest] and considered the meaning of the hunt and the white deer that had appeared upon their path, they would have known that they were drawing towards the eastern edge . . . (6)

When the white deer referred to in the passage crosses the path,  the company is already so low on food they waste their last arrows shooting at them. Bombour remains asleep for days, during which time the others lug him along. Eventually, the food runs out entirely and Bombour wakes up. He’s had a curious dream

“I dreamed that I was walking in a forest rather like this one, only lit with torches on the trees and lamps swinging from the branches and fires burning on the ground; and there was a great feast going on, going on forever. A woodland king was there with a crown of leaves, and there was a merry singing, and I could not count or describe the things there were to eat and drink.” (7)

The picture of the wood elves that begins to resolve as these passages build on one another is straight out of Faerie. The dwarves spy fires in the distance and forget Gandalf’s warning to stay on the path in hope of finding help. They discover that there are indeed feasting elves about and we get another Faerie-like description.

. . . they peered round the trunks and looked into a clearing where some trees had been felled and the ground levelled. There were many people there, elvish-looking folk, all dressed in green and brown and sitting on sawn rings of the felled trees in a great circle . . . they were eating and drinking and laughing merrily. (8)

So we have a woodland host hunting white deer and a character who’s been under an enchantment having a prescient dream about a king with a crown of leaves. Then the heroes are drawn off the path in search of aid and discovering a circle of feasting elves. It gets even better.

They try three times to enter the circle and speak to the elves. The first two times, the fires go out suddenly, they are plunged into darkness and confusion, and the lights reappear in the distance. On the second attempt, the dwarves shove Bilbo into the light before he has time to slip on the Ring. He falls asleep when the fires go out, and when the dwarves wake him up, they discover he’s had a dream similar to Bombour’s. (9)

The third time, the feast is huge and the elven king is there. Thorin himself steps into the light, and the darkness falls again. This time, the dwarves are blinded by ashes and cinders and Bilbo is separated from them in the confusion. That is the last we see of the Elves until after the encounter with the spiders, but a few pages later, there is this notable passage:

The feasting people were Wood-elves of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them . . . were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West. (10)

image by lucasmt

image by Deviant Artist lucasmt

There’s much more about elves in that passage, but I am quoting it here to note that Tolkien is actually using the word Faerie for Valinor here. The mythology was obviously not fully-formed at the point Tolkien published The Hobbit, and that makes reading The Hobbit as part of a seamless set of historical narratives a challenge. But it also makes the book more interesting.

There is not much to learn about the Ring in the early part of there chapter, but there is all manner of nerdy goodness here. These passages are important background to the encounter with the spiders, which is a huge turning point in Bilbo’s development as a character, and the escape from the dungeon of the Wood-elves. I’ll discuss those in the next two installments, and hopefully we’ll be out of Mirkwood before I pause to do the A to Z Challenge.

Notes (Bibliography)

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Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, Part 13

– Originally posted at Part Time Monster as “Gollum Dies.”

This is the 13th in a long series about J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and the final post on Gollum. You can find previous installments of the series on my Tolkien page at Just Gene’O.

After his confrontation with Samwise outside Shelob’s Lair, Gollum is absent from the story for awhile. The hobbits survive several ordeals without his assistance and arrive at Mount Doom on March 25. By the time they reach the final leg of their journey, Frodo is so exhausted and the Ring is so heavy Sam is forced to carry him. As Sam is struggling up the steep path toward the Crack of Doom with Frodo in his arms, we learn that Gollum has managed to follow the hobbits across Mordor and has found an opportune vantage from which to ambush them. Gollum drops on them from above and attacks. (1)

By the time Sam recovers his feet, Gollum and Frodo are so entangled, Sam can do nothing but watch. Frodo finds the strength to fight, and Gollum has been weakened by the journey:

He [Frodo] fought back with a sudden fury that amazed Sam, and Gollum also. Even so things might have gone far otherwise, if Gollum himself had remained unchanged; but whatever dreadful paths, lonely and hungry and waterless, he had trodden, drive by a devouring desire and a terrible fear, they had left grievous marks on him. He was a lean, starved, haggard thing, all bones and tight-drawn sallow skin. A wild light flamed in his eyes, but his malice was no longer matched by his old griping strength. Frodo flung him off and rose up quivering. (2)

Frodo looms over Gollum, clasping the Ring, and we see its power manifested one last time:

” . . . Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than a shadow of a living thing . . . a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire . . .

‘Begone, and trouble me no more! if you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’ (3)

Considering the way things play out in the next few pages, that last line has the ring of prophecy. I find it interesting that Frodo tells Gollum exactly what’s going to happen. I wonder if Frodo’s warning is an unwitting curse enabled by the power of the Ring.  After this confrontation, Frodo leaves Sam to deal with Gollum and continues toward the Crack of Doom.

Gollum does what he is wont do when he’s forced to deal with sword-brandishing Hobbits: He grovels and begs Sam to spare his life.

‘Don’t kill us,’ he wept . . . ‘ Let us live, yes, live just a little longer. Lost lost! We’re lost. And when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into dust.’ (4)

I wonder if this is true. It’s plausible to me that Gollum might actually be so transformed by the Ring at this point that he could literally crumble to dust were the Ring to be destroyed. We’ll never know, and have no way of judging whether Gollum actually believes it or not, but it’s an interesting idea. It makes the recovery of the Ring a matter of survival for him. Sam’s empathy overcomes his anger and his survival instinct here, and he allows Gollum to live. After Sam turns to go after Frodo, Gollum predictably follows.

Samwise catches up with his master at the Crack of Doom just as Frodo is overcome by the Ring, claims it as his own, and puts it on his finger. Before Sam can so much as utter a word, Gollum hits him from behind and he blacks out after the fall. I love that Sam goes unconscious here because this final confrontation between Frodo and Gollum is seen from Sam’s point of view and we have no idea how long he is unconscious. It could be a minute or 15, and we have no idea what’s done or said while Sam is out. It can’t be an extremely long time, though, because we learn in the next couple of paragraphs that Sauron is aware of the location of the Ring and the Nazgul are racing toward Mount Doom. (5)

Sam comes to his senses after a space break and sees Gollum struggling with the invisible Frodo right at the edge of the precipice above the fires of doom. Finally, Gollum bites off Frodo’s Ring finger and is so gleeful at recovering the Ring, he forgets where he’s standing.

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Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 12

Originally published at Part Time Monster as “Shelob’s Lair.”

This is the 12th in a series on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You can find links to previous installments here.

The action of Book Four, the section of The Two Towers that covers the Hobbits’ journey toward Mordor, culminates in an encounter with the ancient spider-creature Shelob high in the Mountains of Shadow on the approach to the pass of Cirith Ungol. Shelob is not a creature of Sauron. She is more ancient than the realm of Mordor. She has supernatural abilities and is driven entirely by insatiable hunger. Shelob is oblivious to the Ring and the war. It is Gollum who precipitates this encounter, and the plot builds toward it practically from the moment Frodo and Sam capture him. (1)

After Gollum swears his oath to Frodo, he leads the hobbits through the Dead Marshes. This episode makes it clear that Gollum is still quite intelligent despite his corrupted state, and that he’s been this way before. He warns the hobbits not to look at the corpse-lights below the surface of the water, lest they be drawn in and become corpses themselves. (2)

On the fourth day of their travels together, just after the crossing of the marshes, Samwise awakes to find Gollum arguing with himself. This episode is an important turning point in the story. It shows us clearly for the first time that Smeagol and Gollum have diverged into two entirely separate personalities. Smeagol wishes to keep his promise and help Frodo. Gollum twists the words of Smeagol’s promise and urges him to find a way to take the Ring for himself, but both respect the fact that they are outnumbered by armed hobbits. This passage also contains the first reference to Shelob:

‘We wants it But’ — and here there was a long pause, as if a new thought had wakened. ‘Not yet, eh? She might help. She might, yes.’

‘No, no! Not that way,’ wailed Smeagol.

‘Yes! We wants it! We wants it!’

Each time that the second thought spoke, Gollum’s long hand cret out slowly, pawing towards Frodo, and then was drawn back with a jerk as Smeagol spoke again. (3)

Though we  don’t realize yet who “she” refers to, it’s clear that Gollum is hatching a plot. Smeagol is going to be hard-pressed to keep his promise. And if you look closely at this passage you will see that when Gollum is speaking, GollumFinalGollum has control of the body. Smeagol is barely containing Gollum.

The second hint we get comes in “The Forbidden Pool.” After the hobbits find the Black Gate too well-guarded to attempt, they turn south into Ithilien, a wild, unpopulated region of Gondor which has not yet fallen under the shadow of Mordor. There they encounter Faramir, brother of Boromir, leading a party of soliders from Gondor to ambush a regiment of Harad who are marching up from the south to join Sauron. Gollum eludes these men, but they make Frodo and Sam their “guests” for the night so Faramir can interrogate them and decide what to do with them. (4)

During the night, Gollum trespasses too closely to the men’s secret hideout. Frodo helps Faramir capture him to prevent the men from killing him outright. Gollum naturally reads this as betrayal on Frodo’s part, which only strains their already tenuous relationship. (5)

Faramir turns out to be a very discerning man. He eventually allows the three to continue their journey, but  warns Frodo to be wary of Gollum and counsels him against attempting the pass of Cirith Ungol:

But I do not think you are beholden to go to Cirith Ungol, of which he tells you less than he knows. That much I perceived clearly in his mind. Do not go to Cirith Ungol! . . . But there is some dark terror that dwells in the passes above Minas Morgul. If Cirith Ungol is named, old men and masters of lore will blanch and fall silent. (6)

This gives us more details and heightens the suspense. It raises the possibility that the “she” Gollum refers to in his argument with Smeagol is this unnamed horror even the wise will not speak of.

Despite Faramir’s warning, Frodo presses on because he sees no other way to enter the dark land without being captured. The pass of Cirith Ungol is the least-guarded way into Mordor, but it’s still quite treacherous. Reaching it requires four dangerous trials.

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Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, Part 11

Originally posted at Part Time Monster on July 17, 2014 as “The Taming of Smeagol.”

This is the eleventh post in a series about J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You can find the first ten installments here. We’ve arrived at the point where Gollum emerges as a full-fledged character. Up to this point, we’ve only heard his footfalls in the distance and caught glimpses of him. In this chapter we get an up-close-and-personal look at him and he swears an oath. This is a pivotal episode, and it provides lots of evidence to support my argument that Gollum makes the story work.

On the day Boromir is killed and the Fellowship is broken, Frodo and Samwise strike off across the Emyn Muil, the rocky badlands above the Rauros Falls, and wander for three days. After a harrowing descent from those highlands on January 29, the Hobbits spy Gollum sneaking after them:

Down the face of a precipice . . . a small black shape was moving with its thin limbs splayed out. Maybe its soft clinging hands and toes were finding crevices and holds that no hobbit could have ever seen or used, but it looked as if it was just creeping down on sticky pads, like some large prowling thing of insect-kind. And it was coming down head first, as if smelling its way. (1)

This is one of the most memorable pieces of characterization I’ve ever read. The ease of Gollum’s descent stands in stark contrast to the difficulties Frodo and Sam experienced descending the same cliff. Gollum is coming down head-first, using his limbs the way an insect (or, say, a giant spider) uses its limbs. That adds a whole new layer of creepiness and dread to this whole episode. There’s no question at this point that an encounter is eminent, especially since the chapter title gives us a big clue about that.

Tolkien reinforces the bug metaphor a page later, when Gollum can’t find a handhold and falls the last dozen feet:

 . . . suddenly with a shrill whistling shriek he fell. As he did so, he curled his legs and arms up round him, like a spider whose descending thread snapped. (2)

Considering how the story plays out in the next few chapters, this could very well be foreshadowing. I am inclined to think not, though. I read it more as a convenient turn of phrase for an author who obviously understands how monsters work in stories.

Having seen Gollum in ample time to position themselves at the foot of the cliff, Frodo and Sam are waiting. Samwise springs at once, but Gollum gets the better of him, and the physical part of the contest ends with Frodo catching Gollum by the hair, putting the blade of Sting to his throat, and threatening to do him in. (I’ll look at this in more detail when we get to Frodo).

Gollum grovels and pleads. Here’s a single line of his which is very telling:

Don’t let them hurt us! Don’t let them hurt us, precious! (3)

I think it’s clear from his use of “us” that Smeagol and Gollum are already disassociated to the point that there are two characters here. It doesn’t really come to the fore for another chapter, but it’s pretty obvious. And the second sentence seems to be addressed to the Ring. Gollum uses “precious” for himself and for the Ring at times, but this line is clearly delivered by Smeagol, and I believe he is pleading his case to the Ring. I’m reading this as more evidence to support my argument that the Ring is a full-blown character.

I can’t possibly cover every part of this chapter in detail. Here’s a summary of the next few pages.

  1. Frodo and Sam discuss killing Gollum right in front of him, but don’t do the deed, because Gollum is subdued and grovelling. Frodo decides Gollum must travel with them, and help if he can (Frodo knows Gollum’s been to Mordor).
  2. Frodo and Sam pretend to go to sleep, Gollum tries to escape, and they catch him.
  3. They tie him up with an Elven rope. This rope carries a very useful enchantment, and Gollum’s reaction confirms for us that it is not your average rope. He reacts as though it’s burning him, but describes the sensation as cold and biting. (4)

Finally, Frodo and Smeagol strike a bargain, and Smeagol agrees to swear an oath. Smeagol (or perhaps Gollum) wants to swear on the Ring. Frodo insists that Smeagol swear by the Ring, because he knows better than to allow this monstrous creature, pitiable or not, to see or touch the Ring. Frodo even warns Smeagol to mind his words, because the Ring will use the words to bind him, and possibly twist them. Here is the oath:

We promises, yes I promise! said Gollum. I will serve the master of the Precious. Good master, good Smeagol, gollum, gollum! (5)

Oaths are serious business in Tolkien. Sometimes, in Middle Earth, oathbreakers fare worse than murderers. Sometimes oaths simply cannot be broken. Every word of the vow matters. And it’s clear that Frodo is not the master of the Ring — he is only the ringbearer of the moment. The Ring has one master, and we all know who the master is. I hope to show you that Gollum is true to this oath, at the end, but not by his own choice. There are still a few twists and turns to navigate before we get there, though. We still have the Dead Marshes, Minas Morgul, and Cirith Ungol to talk about.

I’ll try and cover those in the next post, then finish up this arc at Mount Doom.

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