Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 17

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– Originally published at Part Time Monster as “The Mirkwood Affair, pt. 3.”

Bilbo’s encounter with the giant talking spiders is one of the most important episodes in The Hobbit for a number of reasons. I’ll focus on three of them today, and look at specific passages where Bilbo puts on and removes the Ring as I move through this episode.

  • In his encounter with the first spider, Bilbo saves himself without the help of any other character, including the Ring.
  • He locates and rescues the captured dwarves. He has the help of the Ring, of course, but it is really his wits and bravery that save the day.
  • The battle with the spiders leads to the dwarves discovering that Bilbo has the power to become invisible, and he tells them about the Ring.
Map by Deviant Artis silentrageleon

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

After being separated from the dwarves in the confusion of the elf-feast, Bilbo sits down and dozes. He wakes to find a huge spider binding him with webs. He manages to pull his sword and kill the spider all by himself. I can’t be sure without carefully parsing the goblin chapters again but I think this is Bilbo’s first kill, and it’s the encounter that prompts him to name his sword Sting. It’s clear that this is a significant moment for Bilbo:

Somehow killing the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath. (1)

Bilbo is more confident now than he’s been since he left Hobbiton, and the Ring has nothing to do with it. He’s also in a position to search for the dwarves. He takes a lucky guess about the direction he heard their last screams come from, having first “slipped on his ring.” The role-playing nerd in me is thinking Bilbo just gained a level of experience. (2)

He finds the dwarves trussed up in webs. A swarm of giant spiders is having a conversation about how best to kill and eat them. This whole encounter echoes the incident with the trolls – only this time it’s Bilbo instead of Gandalf who comes to the rescue. (3)

Invisible Bilbo kills two spiders with thrown stones, then leads the spiders away from the dwarves just as they are about to kill Bombour. He taunts the spiders with silly rhymes, leads them into the forest, then circles back, surprises and kills the one spider who stayed behind to guard the dwarves, and frees the dwarves from their webs just as the rest of the spiders return. There’s a battle. Aside from their knives, the weary, poisoned dwarves have only sticks and stones. The spiders begin to encircle the whole group with a fence of webs. (4)

Bilbo, having taken off the Ring to free the dwarves, sees that he’s going to have to put it on again to win the battle, and has no way of doing it without the dwarves seeing him disappear. So he warns them:

I am going to disappear, he said. I shall draw the spiders off, if I can; and you must keep together and make in the opposite direction. To the left there, that is more or less the way towards the place where we last saw the elf-fires.

It was difficult for them to understand . . . but at last Bilbo felt he could delay no longer . . . He suddenly slipped on his ring, and to the great astonishment of the dwarves, he vanished. (5)

This is the first time Bilbo uses the Ring as part of a strategy. Up to this point, in every instance that he’s worn it, it’s either slipped onto his finger (seemingly) of its own free will, or he’s used it to hide from danger. In this instance, the invisibility is a sort of armor. And of course, now there must be a conversation about it with the dwarves when all this is over.

He tries to lead the spiders away again, but some of them pursue the dwarves, who are in no condition to run or fight. Bilbo circles back, flanks the pursuing spiders, and goes total badass on them.

He darted backwards and forwards, slashing at spider-threads, hacking at their legs, and stabbing at their fat bodies if they came too near. The spiders swelled with rage, and spluttered and frothed . . . but they had become mortally afraid of Sting and dared not come very near . . . It was a most terrible business, and seemed to take hours. But at last, just when Bilbo felt that he could not lift his hand for a single stroke more, the spiders suddenly gave it up, and followed them no more, but went back disappointed to their colony. (6)

Bilbo changes so much by the end of this story, it’s increasingly easy to forget he’s the same polite, nervous, comfort-loving creature Gandalf approached in An “Unexpected Party.” I locate the most drastic part of the change in this battle. Bilbo’s been lucky (I’d love to know how many times the word “luck” appears in the text – it seems to be on every page) and clever all along. Now he’s found his physical courage and proven he can keep his wits about him in a crisis. The dwarves are fortunate to have him, because they seem to have trouble with that. (7)

image by lucasmt

image by lucasmt

What I can’t say, really -– because the language of the text doesn’t give me much to go on – is how much the Ring influences Bilbo’s behavior here. Certainly, the invisibility is required to make his plans work. But the Ring seems to be lurking in the background and functioning as a simple magic item. If I did not know the story of The Lord of the Rings, I would probably have forgotten all that slipping on and off Bilbo’s finger from “Riddles in the Dark” by now. (8)

When the spiders flee, the company finds themselves in one of the circles where the elves had been feasting the night before. Bilbo explains the finding of the Ring to them. He’d told them about Gollum just after the escape from the Misty Mountains, but left the Ring out of the story. (I missed this one, and I am sure there are interesting things to say about it.) (9)

The conversation shifts to finding food and figuring out what to do next, and we get this gem.

These questions they asked over and over again, and it was from little Bilbo that they seemed to expect to get answers. From which you see that they had changed their opinion of Mr. Baggins very much, and had begun to have a great respect for him (as Gandalf had said they would). Indeed they really expected him to think of some wonderful plan for helping them, and were not merely grumbling. (10)

The dwarves are suddenly looking to Bilbo for leadership. And this is interesting: if you follow the dwarves through the first half of this novel, they do not change. The trouble with the elves and the spiders is the same sort of trouble they had with the trolls. They are prone to being out-witted and vulnerable to ambush. In the absence of Gandalf, Bilbo is the smartest, most savvy person in the group at this point.

Sadly, Bilbo is too exhausted to think of anything, so they all pass out in the elf-circle. At some point later, Balin pops open an eye and realizes no one has seen Thorin since the confusion with the elves the night before and the narrative shifts to a descriptive passage explaining that he’s been carried off to the dungeon of the Wood-elves. (11)

We’ll leave them for here for now.

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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