The Two Towers

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

Book IV, Chapters 9–10

Analysis — Chapters 9–10

Frodo and Sam’s encounter with the revolting monster Shelob is the culminating danger of their journey. The spider represents a danger different from their previous trials in several ways. For one thing, the hobbits’ encounter with Shelob marks the first time that any character in the novel has tricked them into danger. Before this point, the dangers they face have always been obvious and undisguised: the Nazgûl flying overhead to spy on them, the Uruk-hai kidnapping them, and the guards of Gondor mistaking them for fugitive murderers. Those tests of endurance have been difficult, but overt. With Gollum’s treachery comes a new case of a trial, one that stems from deception and wrongful trust. Gollum does not attack the hobbits or threaten them, as their previous enemies have done, but tricks them by winning their confidence over an extended period. As an enemy, the pathetic Gollum now appears more dangerous than all the others, as he has played upon the natural goodness of the hobbits and exploited it to his own advantage. In a sense, Frodo recalls the tradition of the tragic heroes of ancient Greek drama, as he suffers because of his tragic flaw of excessive trust.

As Frodo’s nemesis, Shelob is different from previous villains in the novel in a variety of other ways. Unlike Saruman or Wormtongue, the giant spider-monster is incapable of speech, and even perhaps of rational thought. She is a creature of instinct, following only her hungry stomach. She does not care for world domination like Sauron; in fact, we learn that she is much older than Sauron, and dwelt in her cave long before the Dark Lord ever came to rule over Mordor. Shelob is a surprising figure of evil as she is an animal, and it is somewhat hard for us to imagine animals being so thoroughly and inherently evil. Moreover, the great danger Shelob represents is the first and only appearance of an evil female force in The Lord of the Rings. The narrator hammers home the point that Shelob is female, repeatedly calling the spider “She.” Furthermore, the narrator explicitly tells us how Shelob devours her babies, making her a perverse mother figure. Readers of Tolkien often remark on how few women appear in his works, so it is noteworthy that Frodo’s closest and most fearsome brush with death comes at the hand of a female.

As the title of Chapter 10 indicates, the novel ends with a surprising focus not on Frodo, who has been the protagonist and Ring-bearer for all of the novel thus far, but rather on Sam. It is Sam who cuts through Shelob’s web with his knife Sting, and it is Sam who assumes possession of the Ring—and takes on all the responsibility that goes along with it. The servant steps into the limelight and accepts the burden, no longer a follower but a hero. Indeed, the decisions Sam makes in this chapter arguably demonstrate more quick thinking and courage than anything we have seen from Frodo. For all his sense of inferiority and servility, Sam may be made of stronger stuff than the hobbit he considers his master. The larger moral lesson of this revelation is clear: anyone may have the inner potential for heroism, no matter how insignificant his or her social rank may seem. In a moment of hardship and challenge, even the lowliest person may emerge as the figurative Ring-bearer and the savior of the world.

The last pages of The Two Towers leave us in great suspense, making us rush to start reading the third volume in Tolkien’s novel. In part, the suspense is simply plot-related, as we want to find out whether Sam is capable of handling the Ring-bearer role and whether he has what it takes to fulfill the hobbits’ mission. The personal and emotional aspect of the novel’s conclusion, however, is equally suspenseful. Sam and Frodo have been such a close team throughout Book IV that it is hard to imagine what might happen now that they are separated. When the Orc guards slam the gates in Sam’s face, denying him access to Frodo, we wonder whether Sam’s extraordinary devotion to Frodo will be an impediment in the grand role he has assumed for himself. Now that Sam has the Ring, he could go his own way. Yet his attachment to Frodo may keep him from doing so. The choice between commitment to one’s friends and the need to follow one’s own destiny will no doubt be a difficult one for Sam.