The Two Towers

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

Book IV, Chapters 7–8

After what seems like miles uphill on the stairs of Cirith Ungol, as the twisting mountain is called, Gollum leads Frodo and Sam into a dark crevice to rest. They discuss the question of whether there is water at these heights and whether it is drinkable. The two hobbits fall into a discussion of the old songs and prophecies, wondering whether they themselves will become characters in future songs, sung by their own children perhaps.

Frodo and Sam also talk about how trustworthy Gollum is. Frodo asserts that no matter how selfish Gollum may be, he is no friend of the Orcs, and therefore may be considered a reliable guide. One night, Sam awakens to find Gollum caressing the sleeping Frodo. Sam accuses Gollum of sneaking around in the dark. Gollum is offended, saying he was not sneaking. Frodo wakes and settles the argument, telling Gollum he is free to go off by himself if he wishes. Gollum affirms that he must guide the hobbits to the end.

Analysis — Chapters 7–8

The headless, graffiti-covered statue the hobbits discover on the way to Mordor is an example of the poetic moments that are sprinkled throughout The Lord of the Rings. The statue has no importance whatsoever to the plot, and Frodo and Sam learn nothing they need to know from it. They simply see the statue and continue on their journey. Yet the statue nevertheless has an aura of deep meaning, not only for the hobbits, who pay it such rapt attention that Gollum must drag them away, but for us as well. The broken statue of an ancient king of Gondor may be Tolkien’s reference to the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the most prominent figures in the Romantic movement in English poetry in the early nineteenth century. Tolkien, a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford, was certainly familiar with the poem, which tells of a wanderer in the desert who comes upon the beheaded statue of a once-great Egyptian king now forgotten. Shelley’s poem is a meditation on how worldly power vanishes with time, and how the mighty are fallen. In this regard, the headless statue is a fitting symbol of the kingdom of Gondor, where wicked usurpers have replaced the once-powerful noble lords.

The Cross-roads to which Gollum leads the hobbits may be another sly literary reference on Tolkien’s part. As the word cross-roads suggests, Gollum is leading the hobbits to a place where one thing will meet another, where an encounter will take place. Indeed, Frodo does have an encounter of sorts, with the Lord of the Nazgûl—the embodiment of all against which Frodo and the Fellowship have been fighting against. In literature, the concept of the crossroads has another meaning as well, relating not to other people, but to oneself. It is on a crossroads that Oedipus, perhaps the most famous Greek tragic hero, kills a stranger who turns out to be his father. Later, as king of Thebes, Oedipus strives to identify the killer, and is horrified to learn that it is none other than himself—a revelation that leads him to misery and exile. Oedipus’s experience at the crossroads teaches him the power of fate, the fact that no one can escape responsibility for his or her actions. Frodo has a similar revelation at the Cross-roads in the novel, when, in his fear of the Lord of the Nazgûl, he finds himself reaching for the Ring. Frodo has not felt the Ring’s pull or been tempted to put it on for quite some time in the journey. For the first time in a long while, he confronts his own power, which could prove dangerous as he gets ever closer to Mordor.

The importance of songs and singing resurfaces again in Chapter 8 in an interesting new way, as Sam and Frodo explicitly speculate that their own quest might someday be the subject of songs. Songs have been sung in the novel frequently, never as mere entertainment but as a record of historical or prophetic knowledge. Tolkien knew from his study of ancient cultures that before the invention of writing, cultures maintained their traditions and myths through the oral performance of their sacred stories. Such deeply important cultural communication was passed on through songs and poems rather than through manuscripts. Gandalf reminds us of this role of oral storytelling when he gives Legolas and Aragorn important messages about their fates by reciting bits of poetry to them in Chapter 5. Here, Sam and Frodo discuss the cultural importance of songs, but they do so with the awareness that they themselves might be characters in songs sung by their own offspring. This speculation on the hobbits’ part is a key moment that makes us realize that The Lord of the Rings is itself a chronicle, just like the songs of Middle-earth, and that the characters realize that they might themselves end up in a narrative very much like the one we are reading.

We see an intriguing aspect of Gollum when Sam awakens to find the creature caressing Frodo with the appearance of love and affection. It is no surprise that Sam views Gollum’s action with suspicion, and accuses Gollum of “sneaking” around his master. What is surprising instead is that Gollum really does appear innocent. We have been so used to viewing the creature with uncertainty, doubting his loyalty to the hobbits he is serving, that it is a shock to encounter the possibility that he may genuinely care for Frodo. Of course, we find out later that Gollum plans to kill the hobbits, but in the world of the Ring, it is no surprise that murder and affection can go hand in hand. For the moment, at least, Gollum seems truly fond of the master whom he leads to death.