The Land of Shadow
At the end of the last chapter, Frodo and Sam were free, but fleeing the arrival of a Nazgul at the Tower of Cirith Ungol.
Fleeing north, since Mount Doom lies that way. And on a regular road. But Frodo realises the danger, with an alert sounded:
“If we were real orcs, we ought to be dashing back to the Tower, not running away. The first enemy we meet will know us. We must get off this road somehow.”
They soon hear these: Orcs and horsemen. These last are probably human, since Orcs are never mentioned as riding horses: only wolves, But that’s open to question: the big Uruk-hai could manage it. A few horses had been trained to work for the much more evil Nazgul.[A] Also the Mouth of Sauron, though the creature may not really have been a horse.
Regardless, they are in danger. They jump over the side of bridge, not knowing if they can survive. But it is no more than a dozen feet. They also land in a tangle of thorny bushes. Sam comments:
“Bless me, Mr. Frodo, but I didn’t know as anything grew in Mordor! But if I had a’known, this is just what I’d have looked for.”
It is dawn, but for now Sauron’s sun-blocking cloud still holds.
They must go on, but Frodo is weary. Sam got him Orc-mail, but now he discards it. Unknowingly saving the entire Quest, we later learn, since Gollum takes it and it apparently saves him from an Orc arrow.
Note that both his mithril shirt and elven cloak were taken by the Orcs, and will later be shown to the rest of the fellowship outside the Black Gate. Shown along with the sword that Sam got when freed from the barrow-wight. Sam has Sting and the phial of Galadriel. Frodo has lost everything significant except the One Ring.
In the darkness of Mordor, he has also lost his vision of the uncorrupted parts of the world.
“As I lay in prison, Sam. I tried to remember the Brandywine, and Woody End, and The Water running through the mill at Hobbiton. But I can’t see them now.”
Though Tolkien does not specifically say this, I’d assume this is a permanent condition for the Orcs, or nearly so. They either cannot see the finer things in life, or are offended and want to destroy them.
This is generally not true of evil people in the real world, who are mostly greedy for beautiful things to show off, or privately gloat over. But these are Tolkien’s visions of supernatural evils.
They then wait. Frodo is able to sense a Nazgul, which he still calls a Black Rider. To know when it is gone.
They also see the change of weather that is having such a drastic effect on the Siege of Gondor
“Light was growing behind them. Slowly it crept towards the North. There was battle far above in the high spaces of the air. The billowing clouds of Mordor were being driven back, their edges tattering as a wind out of the living world came up and swept the fumes and smokes towards the dark land of their home. Under the lifting skirts of the dreary canopy dim light leaked into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison.
“‘Look at it, Mr. Frodo!’ said Sam. ‘Look at it! The wind’s changed. Something’s happening. He’s not having it all his own way. His darkness is breaking up out in the world there. I wish I could see what is going on!’
“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. Theoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields.”
It is a really bad day for Sauron. He loses the Witch-King, his best servant. And the Nazgul would presumably soon tell him that some enemy got past the defences of Tower of Cirith Ungol. But details would be unclear, and the best-informed survivor, Shagrat, would be off on his own journey north, arriving much later at the Dark Tower. And perhaps not being properly listened to, or perhaps killed instantly as a traitor. We do know that the Mouth of Sauron exposed his ignorance by not knowing that there were two intruders, which Shagrat could have told him.
It is also understandable that Shagrat chose to take a chance going north, rather than look for something like justice from a Nazgul. All weaknesses of the Mordor system. Shagrat had in fact done the best he could and shown loyalty, rather than fleeing with a fortune in mithril as he might have.
Frodo meantime must figure out his best path. As I read the map, Mount Doom lies a little north of North-East ‘as the crow flies’. But hobbits must walk, and Frodo decides to risk the road:
“It was perilous for the hobbits to use such a path, but they needed speed, and Frodo felt that he could not face the toil of scrambling among the boulders or in the trackless glens of the Morgai. And he judged that northward was, maybe, the way that their hunters would least expect them to take. The road east to the plain, or the pass back westward, those they would first search most thoroughly. Only when he was well north of the Tower did he mean to turn and seek for some way to take him east, east on the last desperate stage of his journey.”
They can travel by daylight, which it seems the Orcs prefer to avoid even though they can stand it. And perhaps the horse-riders really were Orcs, since they are not seen again.
They also find water: rare but not unknown in Mordor.
“Water came dripping down: the last remains, maybe, of some sweet rain gathered from sunlit seas, but ill-fated to fall at last upon the walls of the Black Land and wander fruitless down into the dust.”
That’s a religious view: the rains are sent to be used, but in Mordor their purpose has been perverted and lost.
Going on, they find signs of another Orc stronghold. And more water – of course even Orcs must drink. And more vegetation, but ruined by the evil of the land:
“Mordor was a dying land, but it was not yet dead. And here things still grew, harsh, twisted, bitter, struggling for life. In the glens of the Morgai on the other side of the valley low scrubby trees lurked and clung, coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled. Some had long stabbing thorns, some hooked barbs that rent like knives. The sullen shrivelled leaves of a past year hung on them, grating and rattling in the sad airs, but their maggot-ridden buds were only just opening. Flies, dun or grey, or black, marked like ores with a red eye-shaped blotch, buzzed and stung; and above the briar-thickets clouds of hungry midges danced and reeled.”
That night, skies are clear and Sam sees reason to hope
“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 masters, ceased to trouble him.”
Meanwhile Sauron is distracted. He’d know by now of his massive defeat outside Minas Tirith. He fears he faces a mighty foe in possession of the One Ring:
“The Dark Power was deep in thought, and the Eye turned inward, pondering tidings of doubt and danger: a bright sword, and a stern and kingly face it saw, and for a while it gave little thought to other things.”
Indeed, had Aragorn taken the One Ring, he’d have had an excellent chance of overthrowing Sauron. Just as Galadriel reckoned she herself could do. That they themselves would in time become just as evil as Sauron was not something Sauron would find any comfort in.
But as Sauron sees it, this rival is being over-bold. Coming with an army to challenge him, when he has a much bigger army. One he is now mustering, and will unintentionally clear a path for his most dangerous foes. For as Frodo and Sam first see it, they are blocked:
“Here the Dark Power, moving its armies like pieces on the board, was gathering them together. Its first moves, the first feelers of its strength, had been checked upon its western line, southward and northward. For the moment it withdrew them, and brought up new forces, massing them about Cirith Gorgor for an avenging stroke. And if it had also been its purpose to defend the Mountain against all approach, it could scarcely have done more.”
We are reminded of what Denethor had known and Gandalf also concedes: that Sauron’s forces were so vast that they must win in the end.
Tolkien, having served as a soldier, also gives thought to how these armies might be fed. Sam had wondered about this:
“Where there’s such a lot of folk there must be wells or water, not to mention food. And these are Men not Orcs, or my eyes are all wrong.’
“Neither he nor Frodo knew anything of the great slave-worked fields away south in this wide realm, beyond the fumes of the Mountain by the dark sad waters of Lake Nurnen; nor of the great roads that ran away east and south to tributary lands, from which the soldiers of the Tower brought long waggon-trains of goods and booty and fresh slaves. Here in the northward regions were the mines and forges.”
But now they learn they have indeed been followed:
“Presently two orcs came into view. One was clad in ragged brown and was armed with a bow of horn; it was of a small breed, black-skinned, with wide and snuffling nostrils: evidently a tracker of some kind. The other was a big fighting-orc, like those of Shagrat’s company, bearing the token of the Eye.
The tracker uses scent, but has lost the trail. Both know that things have gone wrong
“First they say it’s a great Elf in bright armour, then it’s a sort of small dwarf-man, then it must be a pack of rebel Uruk-hai; or maybe it’s all the lot together…
“Tower raided and all, and hundreds of your lads done in, and prisoner got away. If that’s the way you fighters go on, small wonder there’s bad news from the battles.’”
And they learn that Gollum is still on their trail, but has accidentally helped them:
“But what’s the black sneak got to do with it all? That gobbler with the flapping hands?’
“‘I don’t know. Nothing, maybe. But he’s up to no good, nosing around, I’ll wager. Curse him! No sooner had he slipped us and run off than word came he’s wanted alive, wanted quick.’
“‘Well, I hope they get him and put him through it,’ growled the tracker. ‘He messed up the scent back there, pinching that cast-off mail-shirt that he found, and paddling all round the place before I could get there.’
“‘It saved his life anyhow,’ said the soldier. ‘Why, before I knew he was wanted I shot him, as neat as neat, at fifty paces right in the back; but he ran on.’
“‘Garn! You missed him,’ said the tracker. ‘First you shoot wild, then you run too slow, and then you send for the poor trackers. I’ve had enough of you.’ He loped off.
“‘You come back,’ shouted the soldier, ‘or I’ll report you!’
“‘Who to? Not to your precious Shagrat. He won’t be captain any more.’
“‘I’ll give your name and number to the Nazgul,’ said the soldier lowering his voice to a hiss. ‘One of them’s in charge at the Tower now.’
“The other halted, and his voice was full of fear and rage. ‘You cursed peaching sneakthief!’ he yelled. ‘You can’t do your job, and you can’t even stick by your own folk. Go to your filthy Shriekers, and may they freeze the flesh off you! If the enemy doesn’t get them first. They’ve done in Number One, I’ve heard, and I hope it’s true!’
“The big orc, spear in hand, leapt after him. But the tracker, springing behind a stone, put an arrow in his eye as he ran up, and he fell with a crash. The other ran off across the valley and disappeared.
The word ‘peaching’ has several meanings, including criminals informing against their own. Tolkien would have seen it as suitable for Orcs to use. And presumably reporting to Shagrat as an Orc chief would be another matter.
Regardless, Sam naturally is pleased by this display of disloyalty:
“If this nice friendliness would spread about in Mordor, half our trouble would be over.”
But Frodo, as usual, sees deeper:
“But that is the spirit of Mordor, Sam; and it has spread to every corner of it. Orcs have always behaved like that, or so all tales say, when they are on their own. But you can’t get much hope out of it. They hate us far more, altogether and all the time. If those two had seen us, they would have dropped all their quarrel until we were dead.”
But then they find they are on the wrong road: it leads to a castle called Durthang. A castle built by Gondor, abandoned and then taken over by Orcs. And then going back on the right road, they encounter more Orcs. This time a huge party from Durthang, but clearly not told about wanted fugitives:
“They were a gang of the smaller breeds being driven unwilling to their Dark Lord’s wars; all they cared for was to get the march over and escape the whip. Beside them, running up and down the line, went two of the large fierce uruks, cracking lashes and shouting.”
They are spotted, but taken for mere shirking Orcs:
“‘Deserting, eh?’ he snarled. ‘Or thinking of it? All your folk should have been inside Udun before yesterday evening. You know that. Up you get and fall in, or I’ll have your numbers and report you.’”
All Mordor Orcs have numbers, it seems. Possibly tattooed into their flesh, since they could be expected to lie. I think that numbering was not done before modern times, but it fits the spirit of Mordor. And in the same spirit, it seems that Orcs try to avoid their Higher Authorities whenever possible.
There is a mix of bullying and laziness:
“‘Where there’s a whip there’s a will, my slugs. Hold up! I’d give you a nice freshener now, only you’ll get as much lash as your skins will carry when you come in late to your camp. Do you good. Don’t you know we’re at war?”
Uruks, at least, have a kind of Mordor patriotism. But typically for the land, there is a pointless quarrel that gives a chance of escape.
“Along all the roads troops were moving; for the Captains of the West were advancing and the Dark Lord was speeding his forces north. So it chanced that several companies came together at the road-meeting, in the dark beyond the light of the watch-fires on the wall. At once there was great jostling and cursing as each troop tried to get first to the gate and the ending of their march. Though the drivers yelled and plied their whips, scuffles broke out and some blades were drawn. A troop of heavy-armed uruks from Barad-dur charged into the Durthang line and threw them into confusion.”
They are free, but still far from Mount Doom.
[A] Properly Nazgûl. But I do not use accents or other diacritical marks. In the past, I have all too often seen computer software turn them into something meaningless.
As to why this flaw exists, see https://gwydionmadawc.com/030-human-dynamics/ascii-an-unhappy-legacy-for-computers/