Summary — The Passage of the Marshes

Gollum guides Frodo and Sam through the marshland that surrounds Mordor. The creature was once on the run from Orcs in the area, so he knows it well. Gollum is fearful of the sun, which he calls the “Yellow Face,” so he prefers to travel by night. The hobbits continue to feed on lembas cakes, and they offer some to Gollum, but he finds Elf products painful to eat. He chokes and spits out the cake, constantly yearning for fish and complaining that he will soon starve. As the hobbits get ready to camp for the night, Sam worries that Gollum may trick them while they are sleeping, so he waits until Gollum falls asleep first. Sam whispers the word “fish” in Gollum’s ear, and when he gets no reaction, he is satisfied that the creature poses no danger, at least not on this night. Frodo and Sam both fall asleep, despite Sam’s insistence on keeping one eye open, fixed on Gollum.

The next morning, the hobbits awaken to find Gollum gone. They again discuss their concerns about their food supply. Sam repeats that while he is not fond of lembas cakes, they are at least nourishing and keep him on his feet. But even the lembas are running out; Sam calculates that they have only enough left for three more weeks. Suddenly, Gollum reappears and says he is hungry. He leaves again, but soon returns with his face dirty with mud. The hobbits believe that they can trust him.

Gollum leads Frodo and Sam through the foul-smelling Dead Marshes, which are haunted by the slain warriors of a great past battle. Ghostly, floating lights surround them on the path. Gollum tells the hobbits to ignore the lights, which could lead them into the realm of the dead. They proceed onward for several days, nearly fainting from the stench of the marshes. One night, the dark shape of a Nazgûl flying overhead strikes fear into all three of the travelers. Gollum warns that the Nazgûl see everything, and report back to their master, the Dark Lord. Frodo is deeply disturbed by the idea that a great power is constantly watching him.

On the fifth morning, they wake to see that they are very close to Mordor. The land is desolate and unwelcoming, full of poison pits. Even the stinking marshland dries up, leaving an expanse of completely barren ground. That night, Frodo hears the dozing Gollum in conversation with himself, torn between his need to get his “Precious” and his conflicting vow to obey the hobbits. Gollum recognizes that Frodo is the master of the Ring, and that he must serve the master of his “Precious.” Frodo realizes that Gollum knows the Nazgûl are searching for the Ring just as he is. Gollum says something about never letting the servants of the Dark Lord get the Ring.

The next morning, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum have nearly arrived at the gates of Mordor. The hobbits thank Gollum for fulfilling his promise of guiding them to the gates. A Nazgûl flies overhead for the third time, which Gollum claims is a very bad omen. Gollum refuses to proceed, and Frodo must threaten him with a knife to make him go forward.


In this chapter, Gollum’s character becomes more mysterious and complicated just as the question of his trustworthiness becomes more crucial. When Frodo initially tames Gollum in the previous chapter, the creature is clearly the hobbit’s inferior, and the issue of his reliability does not matter much. But as the group gets closer to Mordor, Gollum assumes more control in relation to the hobbits. No longer merely a passive slave under Frodo’s knife, he is now their guide, whom they must trust—a slave with the power of a master. Gollum’s refusal to travel by the light of the sun reminds us that he is a creature of darkness, a corrupted opposite of Frodo. Tolkien continues to create suspense by playing with our suspicions along with the hobbits’ as Gollum briefly disappears and then reappears. Even after Gollum returns, claiming total loyalty to the master of his “Precious,” our apprehension about his motivations lingers.

The image of Gollum guiding Frodo and Sam through a barren landscape on their way to fulfill their mission echoes similar images from the ancient Greek and Roman epics. Tolkien, who was well studied in the classics, was very familiar with epic tales like the Odyssey and the Aeneid, in which the protagonists must suffer through a distressing journey to the underworld, often guided by somewhat shady or unsavory characters. On these ancient journeys, the heroes often must confront the dead, along with the possibility that they themselves may die as well. In The Two Towers, Gollum leads the hobbits through the Dead Marshes, a realm of the dead, with waters that contain ghostly images of the faces of slain warriors. Much like the realms of the dead in the classical epics, the landscape of the Dead Marshes is deeply unpleasant, devoid of life and growth. Yet passage through this barren landscape is a necessary step for the ultimate completion of the quest. As Gollum emphatically points out, there is simply no other way to reach Mordor, just as in the classical epics there was no way for the heroes to complete their quests without a sojourn in the underworld.

Mordor continues to become an ever stronger and darker reality in the novel. As the hobbits approach the dark land, it becomes a clearly felt presence. The landscape bordering Mordor is noticeably nasty, full of poison pits and barren stone outcrops, with an overwhelming stench saturating the air. The frightening Nazgûl flying overhead are a constant reminder of the proximity and threat of Sauron. Even the normally solid Gollum is deeply spooked when the Nazgûl flies overhead for the third time, taking it as a very bad omen. This growing atmosphere of evil, along with the uncertainty surrounding Gollum’s trustworthiness, increases yet further the suspense that propels Book IV forward.