The Tower of Cirith Ungol
The last chapter and Book Five ended with Aragorn and Gandalf facing defeat, and Pippin expecting death.
To begin the sixth and final Book, we step back 11 days, to the morning after Frodo’s capture. The day before Minas Tirith will be saved, as it happens.
“Sam roused himself painfully from the ground. For a moment he wondered where he was, and then all the misery and despair returned to him. He was in the deep dark outside the under-gate of the orcs’ stronghold; its brazen doors were shut. He must have fallen stunned when he hurled himself against them; but how long he had lain there he did not know…
“He no longer had any doubt about his duty: he must rescue his master or perish in the attempt.”
But how can he even get into the Tower? He retreats, puts on the One Ring and understandably dreads what he must next do:
“He felt that if once he went beyond the crown of the pass and took one step veritably down into the land of Mordor, that step would be irrevocable. He could never come back. Without any clear purpose he drew out the Ring and put it on again. Immediately he felt the great burden of its weight, and felt afresh, but now more strong and urgent than ever, the malice of the Eye of Mordor, searching, trying to pierce the shadows that it had made for its own defence, but which now hindered it in its unquiet and doubt.”
Things then suddenly look up for him
“There could not be much doubt: there was fighting in the tower, the orcs must be at war among themselves, Shagrat and Gorbag had come to blows.”
He heads for the tower, crossing into Mordor. And having put on the One Ring, he then takes it off again. Which seems pointless, but perhaps he has unknowingly used its power.
And now he can fully see their destination:
“Sam was looking at Orodruin, the Mountain of Fire. Ever and anon the furnaces far below its ashen cone would grow hot and with a great surging and throbbing pour forth rivers of molten rock from chasms in its sides.”
But his aim is the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and now he sees its purpose:
“Sam understood, almost with a shock, that this stronghold had been built not to keep enemies out of Mordor, but to keep them in. It was indeed one of the works of Gondor long ago, an eastern outpost of the defences of Ithilien, made when, after the Last Alliance, Men of Westernesse kept watch on the evil land of Sauron where his creatures still lurked. But as with Narchost and Carchost, the Towers of the Teeth, so here too the vigilance had failed, and treachery had yielded up the Tower to the Lord of the Ringwraiths, and now for long years it had been held by evil things. Since his return to Mordor, Sauron had found it useful; for he had few servants but many slaves of fear, and still its chief purpose as of old was to prevent escape from Mordor. Though if an enemy were so rash as to try to enter that land secretly, then it was also a last unsleeping guard against any that might pass the vigilance of Morgul and of Shelob.”
Orcs have points in common with the Anglo-Saxons taking over Roman remains. Making a fireplace in the middle of the floor of a villa. But here, it is one Empire taking over from another.
Faced with that power, Sam considers using the One Ring again, with odd results:
“No sooner had he come in sight of Mount Doom, burning far away, than he was aware of a change in his burden. As it drew near the great furnaces where, in the deeps of time, it had been shaped and forged, the Ring’s power grew, and it became more fell, untameable save by some mighty will. As Sam stood there, even though the Ring was not on him but hanging by its chain about his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: to forbear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it, and challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.
“In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. 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.”
For Tolkien, all power over others includes temptation to abuse it. Only a few are fit to bear it, and they must always watch themselves to avoid misusing it.
This includes a trust in inherited status that I don’t agree with. But he definitely has a point.
Sam also correctly works out that he cannot defy Sauron in his own land:
“He’d spot me, pretty quick, if I put the Ring on now, in Mordor.”
Power is heavily dependent on location, in Tolkien’s world. Something most stories of magic ignore, though there is an odd dark version of it in Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows. A story that would be wonderful to dramatize and perhaps expand, but I’ve not heard of anyone thinking of it.
In Tolkien’s tale, Sam advances and sees a big fight happening:
“Shagrat’s company had seemed to be about forty, and Gorbag’s more than twice as large; but of course Shagrat’s patrol had only been a part of his garrison. Almost certainly they were quarrelling about Frodo, and the spoil. For a second Sam halted, for suddenly things seemed clear to him, almost as if he had seen them with his eyes. The mithril coat! Of course, Frodo was wearing it, and they would find it. And from what Sam had heard Gorbag would covet it.”
Gorbag served in Minas Morgul. And was maybe one of the least useful Orc-captains, since he had been left behind when the main army advanced on Minas Tirith. Shagrat as commander of a tower intended mostly to prevent escape from Sauron’s realm seems more dedicated. He will in fact do his best to serve Sauron honestly. Not abscond with a gigantic fortune in mithril: one more valuable in cash terms than the Hobbit’s Shire and everything in it.
He and Gorbag had earlier considered if they might strike out on their own. But if he tried it now, he would run straight into the armies of the Witch-King, with nine winged Nazgul active. Going north to Sauron with a significant find might seem less dangerous.
Sam meantime is advancing. The tower gate is now open, since some of the Orcs having tried to flee. But there is another peril:
“But just as he was about to pass under its great arch he felt a shock: as if he had run into some web like Shelob’s, only invisible. He could see no obstacle, but something too strong for his will to overcome barred the way. He looked about, and then within the shadow of the gate he saw the Two Watchers.
“They were like great figures seated upon thrones. Each had three joined bodies, and three heads facing outward, and inward, and 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 vigilance abode in them. They knew an enemy. Visible or invisible none could pass unheeded. They would forbid his entry, or his escape.”
But he has the answer:
“He drew slowly out the phial of Galadriel and held it up. Its white light quickened swiftly, and the shadows under the dark arch fled. The monstrous Watchers sat there cold and still, revealed in all their hideous shape. For a moment Sam caught a glitter in the black stones of their eyes, the very malice of which made him quail; but slowly he felt their will waver and crumble into fear.”
He is able to enter the tower. There, he finds many dead orcs. Also one living fleeing Orc, whom he scares:
“It stopped short aghast. For what it saw was not a small frightened hobbit trying to hold a steady sword: it saw a great silent shape, cloaked in a grey shadow, looming against the wavering light behind; in one hand it held a sword, the very light of which was a bitter pain, the other was clutched at its breast, but held concealed some nameless menace of power and doom.”
It flees, and has distracted him when he was tempted to put on the One Ring yet again. Another case of evil being used for good purpose.
He then sees and hears Shagrat quarrelling with another Orc whom he calls Snaga. The story, which is supposed to be a hobbit account of their adventures, treats this as a personal name. And likewise a scout whom Ugluk told off when they were taking Merry and Pippin to Isengard. But from the Appendices we learn that it means ‘slave’.
And was probably used as an insult rather than being literally true. ‘Snaga’ is not at all servile:
“‘I’ve told you twice that Gorbag’s swine got to the gate first, and none of ours got out…
“Keep your hands off your knife, or I’ll put an arrow in your guts. You won’t be a captain long when They hear about all these goings-on. I’ve fought for the Tower against those stinking Morgul-rats, but a nice mess you two precious captains have made of things, fighting over the swag.’…
“‘Gorbag was right, I tell you. There’s a great fighter about, one of those bloody-handed Elves, or one of the filthy tarks. He’s coming here, I tell you. You heard the bell. He’s got past the Watchers’.”
Shagrat chases the smaller Orc, who however gets away. Then encounters Gorbag, not quite dead, and finishes him. He then encounters Sam:
“Sam had no time to think. He might have slipped out of the other door, but hardly without being seen; and he could not have played hide-and-seek with this hideous orc for long. He did what was probably the best thing he could have done. He sprang out to meet Shagrat with a shout. He was no longer holding the Ring, but it was there, a hidden power, a cowing menace to the slaves of Mordor; and in his hand was Sting, and its light smote the eyes of the orc like the glitter of cruel stars in the terrible elf-countries, the dream of which was a cold fear to all his kind. And Shagrat could not both fight and keep hold of his treasure.”
He gets past Sam and flees from the mess he helped create. His ‘bundle’ will be the items the Mouth of Sauron will later display to Pippin, Aragorn, and Gandalf.
The Orcs help defeat themselves, because they do not like or trust each other.
But Sam must still find Frodo. And has the idea of singing a song they both know. This includes the very relevant lines:
“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.”
This reminder of powers higher than Mordor enrages the Orc known to Sam as Snaga. He has stayed to watch the prisoner, and naturally thinks the prisoner is now singing defiantly. Goes and is striking Frodo with a whip, and not thinking of the ‘great fighter’ he had earlier warned Shagrat about:
“With a cry Sam leapt across the floor, Sting in hand. The orc wheeled round, but before it could make a move Sam slashed its whip-hand from its arm… The orc in its wild haste had tripped on the ladder-head and fallen through the open trap-door. Sam gave no more thought to it.”
Improbably, or helped by Fate, he has found Frodo. Done so more probably than in the film: he separately fights two individual Orcs, one with other business.
Frodo, naturally, has suffered:
“He was naked, lying as if in a swoon on a heap of filthy rags: his arm was flung up, shielding his head, and across his side there ran an ugly whip-weal.”
In the film, he still has his trousers. That was family entertainment. But he is damaged, and also despairing:
“`They’ve taken everything, Sam,’ said Frodo. `Everything I had. Do you understand? Everything!’ He cowered on the floor again with bowed head, as his own words brought home to him the fullness of the disaster, and despair overwhelmed him. ‘The quest has failed Sam. Even if we get out of here, we can’t escape. Only Elves can escape. Away, away out of Middle-earth, far away over the Sea. If even that is wide enough to keep the Shadow out.’”
Sam reveals he has saved the One Ring – and gets an odd reaction:
“`You’ve got it?’ gasped Frodo. `You’ve got it here? Sam, you’re a marvel!’ Then quickly and strangely his tone changed. `Give it to me!’ he cried, standing up, holding out a trembling hand. `Give it me at once! You can’t have it!’”
Sam too shows the influence of the evil artefact:
“You’ll find the Ring very dangerous now, and very hard to bear. If it’s too hard a job, I could share it with you, maybe?’
“`No, no!’ cried Frodo, snatching the Ring and chain from Sam’s hands. `No you won’t, you thief!’ He panted, staring at Sam with eyes wide with fear and enmity. Then suddenly, clasping the Ring in one clenched fist, he stood aghast. A mist seemed to clear from his eyes, and he passed a hand over his aching brow. The hideous vision had seemed so real to him, half bemused as he was still with wound and fear. Sam had changed before his very eyes into an orc again, leering and pawing at his treasure, a foul little creature with greedy eyes and slobbering mouth. But now the vision had passed. There was Sam kneeling before him, his face wrung with pain, as if he had been stabbed in the heart; tears welled from his eyes.
“‘O Sam!’ cried Frodo. `What have I said? What have I done? Forgive me! After all you have done. It is the horrible power of the Ring. I wish it had never, never, been found. But don’t mind me, Sam. I must carry the burden to the end. It can’t be altered. You can’t come between me and this doom.’”
This parallels the much earlier incident in Rivendell, when Bilbo asked to see the One Ring and Frodo saw him too as an Orc. The One Ring has an increasing grip on his mind.
Sam accepts this. He sets about disguising them as Orcs – and finds that ‘Snaga’, whom he foolishly forgot about, had broken his neck when he fell.
They need food and water. Sam wonders if Orcs live on poison, but Frodo reassures him:
“`No, they eat and drink, Sam. The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures. Foul waters and foul meats they’ll take, if they can get no better, but not poison. They’ve fed me, and so I’m better off than you. There must be food and water somewhere in this place.’”
But they decide there is no time to find it. Depart quickly, but once again encounter the Watchers. And this time the Phial alone is not enough.
“‘Gilthoniel, A Elbereth!’ Sam cried. For, why he did not know, his thought sprang back suddenly to the Elves in the Shire, and the song that drove away the Black Rider in the trees.
“‘Aiya elenion ancalima!’ cried Frodo once again behind him.
“The will of the Watchers was broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord, and Frodo and Sam stumbled forward.”
But once again they issue a warning. And this time it is better answered:
“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.”
And on this cliff-hanger the chapter ends.