The Stairs of Cirith Ungol
The whole journey from the Black Gate to Shelob’s Lair could have been told much more quickly. Even adding Faramir, it could have been shorter. But short need not be good. Tolkien very nicely establishes a mood: something that stays with you after the details have faded.
Their danger is from Gollum: but he is also their best hope. They saw the gigantic nature of Sauron’s work in the last chapter, with Sam thinking it might be just a storm. Here, the work of Sauron and other forces of evil will be much more visible.
Also tangible. Having mostly seen with Sam’s eyes and understanding, we get a brief return to Frodo’s viewpoint:
“Frodo and Sam were plodding along with heavy hearts, no longer able to care greatly about their peril. Frodo’s head was bowed; his burden was dragging him down again. As soon as the great Cross-roads had been passed, the weight of it, almost forgotten in Ithilien, had begun to grow once more. Now, feeling the way become steep before his feet, he looked wearily up; and then he saw it, even as Gollum had said that he would: the city of the Ringwraiths. He cowered against the stony bank.”
A place of beauty had been captured and corrupted by the Witch-King even before Sauron’s return:
“A long-tilted valley, a deep gulf of shadow, ran back far into the mountains. Upon the further side, some way within the valley’s arms high on a rocky seat upon the black knees of the Ephel Duath,[A] stood the walls and tower of Minas Morgul. All was dark about it, earth and sky, but it was lit with light. Not the imprisoned moonlight welling through the marble walls of Minas Ithil long ago, Tower of the Moon, fair and radiant in the hollow of the hills. Paler indeed than the moon ailing in some slow eclipse was the light of it now, wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing. In the walls and tower windows showed, like countless black holes looking inward into emptiness; but the topmost course of the tower revolved slowly, first one way and then another, a huge ghostly head leering into the night. For a moment the three companions stood there, shrinking, staring up with unwilling eyes.”
Is it corrupted moonlight? Whatever, worse is to come:
“Every step was reluctant, and time seemed to slow its pace. so that between the raising of a foot and the setting of it down minutes of loathing passed.
“So they came slowly to the white bridge. Here the road, gleaming faintly, passed over the stream in the midst of the valley, and went on, winding deviously up towards the city’s gate: a black mouth opening in the outer circle of the northward walls. Wide flats lay on either bank, shadowy meads filled with pale white flowers. Luminous these were too, beautiful and yet horrible of shape, like the demented forms in an uneasy dream; and they gave forth a faint sickening charnel-smell; an odour of rottenness filled the air. From mead to mead the bridge sprang. Figures stood there at its head, carven with cunning in forms human and bestial, but all corrupt and loathsome. The water flowing beneath was silent, and it steamed, but the vapour that rose from it, curling and twisting about the bridge, was deadly cold. Frodo felt his senses reeling and his mind darkening. Then suddenly, as if some force were at work other than his own will, he began to hurry, tottering forward, his groping hands held out, his head lolling from side to side. Both Sam and Gollum ran after him. Sam caught his master in his arms, as he stumbled and almost fell, right on the threshold of the bridge.
“`Not that way! No, not that way! ‘ whispered Gollum, but the breath between his teeth seemed to tear the heavy stillness like a whistle, and he cowered to the ground in terror.
“`Hold up, Mr. Frodo! ‘ muttered Sam in Frodo’s ear. ‘Come back! Not that way. Gollum says not, and for once I agree with him.’”
Gollum’s apparent helpfulness is not what it seems. He does not want to deliver the One Ring to the Ringwraiths. He wants it for himself, and so leads them towards Shelob, whom he supposes to be indifferent to such things.
Whether she would truly have thrown out the One Ring as dross is never tested. All we know is that she leaves it with Frodo after stinging him. And at that time Sam has Galadriel’s phial: another point I was wrong on when I first gave this talk.
I was also impressed by the description of Minas Morgul, particularly the flowers that were “beautiful and yet horrible of shape, like the demented forms in an uneasy dream”. The powers of evil are able to twist everything before descending to the utter sterility that Tolkien presents as their end point.
The hobbits have to endure it and push on. For the moment, Sauron is indifferent to them and busy with larger matters. Secure in his Dark Tower, he never the less communicates with his most powerful servants:
“At that moment the rock quivered and trembled beneath them. The great rumbling noise, louder than ever before, rolled in the ground and echoed in the mountains. Then with searing suddenness there came a great red flash. Far beyond the eastern mountains it leapt into the sky and splashed the lowering clouds with crimson. In that valley of shadow and cold deathly light it seemed unbearably violent and fierce. Peaks of stone and ridges like notched knives sprang out in staring black against the uprushing flame in Gorgoroth. Then came a great crack of thunder.
“And Minas Morgul answered. There was a flare of livid lightnings: forks of blue flame springing up from the tower and from the encircling hills into the sullen clouds. The earth groaned; and out of the city there came a cry. Mingled with harsh high voices as of birds of prey, and the shrill neighing of horses wild with rage and fear, there came a rending screech, shivering, rising swiftly to a piercing pitch beyond the range of hearing. The hobbits wheeled round towards it, and cast themselves down, holding their hands upon their ears.
“As the terrible cry ended, falling back through a long sickening wail to silence, Frodo slowly raised his head. Across the narrow valley, now almost on a level with his eyes, the walls of the evil city stood, and its cavernous gate, shaped like an open mouth with gleaming teeth, was gaping wide. And out of the gate an army came.
“All that host was clad in sable, dark as the night. Against the wan walls and the luminous pavement of the road Frodo could see them, small black figures in rank upon rank, marching swiftly and silently, passing outwards in an endless stream.”
This is the army that nearly captures Gondor. But there are more immediate dangers:
“Before them went a great cavalry of horsemen moving like ordered shadows, and at their head was one greater than all the rest: a Rider, all black, save that on his hooded head he had a helm like a crown that flickered with a perilous light. Now he was drawing near the bridge below, and Frodo’s staring eyes followed him, unable to wink or to withdraw. Surely there was the Lord of the Nine Riders returned to earth to lead his ghastly host to battle? Here, yes here indeed was the haggard king whose cold hand had smitten down the Ring-bearer with his deadly knife. The old wound throbbed with pain and a great chill spread towards Frodo’s heart.
“Even as these thoughts pierced him with dread and held him bound as with a spell, the Rider halted suddenly, right before the entrance of the bridge, and behind him all the host stood still. There was a pause, a dead silence. Maybe it was the Ring that called to the Wraith-lord, and for a moment he was troubled, sensing some other power within his valley. This way and that turned the dark head helmed and crowned with fear, sweeping the shadows with its unseen eyes. Frodo waited, like a bird at the approach of a snake, unable to move. And as he waited, he felt, more urgent than ever before, the command that he should put on the Ring. But great as the pressure was, he felt no inclination now to yield to it. He knew that the Ring would only betray him, and that he had not, even if he put it on, the power to face the Morgul-king – not yet. There was no longer any answer to that command in his own will, dismayed by terror though it was, and he felt only the beating upon him of a great power from outside. It took his hand, and as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing it but in suspense (as if he looked on some old story far away), it moved the hand inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck. Then his own will stirred; slowly it forced the hand back. and set it to find another thing, a thing lying hidden near his breast. Cold and hard it seemed as his grip closed on it: the phial of Galadriel, so long treasured, and almost forgotten till that hour. As he touched it, for a while all thought of the Ring was banished from his mind. He sighed and bent his head.
“At that moment the Wraith-king turned and spurred his horse and rode across the bridge, and all his dark host followed him. Maybe the elven-hoods defied his unseen eyes, and the mind of his small enemy; being strengthened, had turned aside his thought. But he was in haste. Already the hour had struck, and at his great Master’s bidding he must march with war into the West.
“Soon he had passed, like a shadow into shadow, down the winding road, and behind him still the black ranks crossed the bridge. So great an army had never issued from that vale since the days of Isildur’s might; no host so fell and strong in arms had yet assailed the fords of Anduin; and yet it was but one and not the greatest of the hosts that Mordor now sent forth.”
The Witch-King shows linear thinking. He has plenty of spare orcs to send to check out if there is anything in the direction he sensed something. But he returns rigidly to the task at hand.
Saying Frodo is ‘not yet’ able to face the Morgul-king sounds odd. But in one of the letters, Tolkien says that had Frodo kept control of the One Ring at Mount Doom, the Nazgul would have had to pretend to serve him until Sauron himself arrived to take it.[B] Of course that would have been after Eowyn and Merry had dispatched the Witch-King.
Whatever about that, Frodo links this emerging army to Faramir’s forebodings, and wonders if his mission is still valid even if he somehow succeeds:
“Frodo stirred. And suddenly his heart went out to Faramir. ‘The storm has burst at last,’ he thought. `This great array of spears and swords is going to Osgiliath. Will Faramir get across in time? He guessed it, but did he know the hour? And who can now hold the fords when the King of the Nine Riders comes? And other armies will come. I am too late. All is lost. I tarried on the way. All is lost. Even if my errand is performed, no one will ever know. There will be no one I can tell. It will be in vain.’”
Sam restores him to his original determination:
“Frodo raised his head, and then stood up. Despair had not left him, but the weakness had passed. He even smiled grimly, feeling now as clearly as a moment before he had felt the opposite, that what he had to do, he had to do, if he could, and that whether Faramir or Aragorn or Elrond or Galadriel or Gandalf or anyone else ever knew about it was beside the purpose. He took his staff in one hand and the phial in his other. When he saw that the clear light was already welling through his fingers, he thrust it into his bosom and held it against his heart. Then turning from the city of Morgul, now no more than a grey glimmer across a dark gulf, he prepared to take the upward road.”
This is excellent – Frodo determined to do his duty, regardless.
Note also that he touches the phial but does not let its light escape. We learn in the next chapter that he was worried about orc lookouts spotting the phial. And I was wrong on this in my original talk, noticing only when I came to chapter 10 and it said that Frodo had indeed been concerned.
But the Witch-King might also not have worried about anyone hostile coming to Minas Morgul. Gondor has long been on the defensive. The tower they later encounter is set mostly to stop any slaves or rebels in Mordor from escaping.
As for Minas Morgul reduced to “a grey glimmer” – that might be either the light going out as the Witch-King departs, or else Frodo seeing them differently when he sees a virtuous light.
It is also good story-telling to remind everyone of Galadriel’s gift and its power, before it becomes vital to the story in the next chapter.
But that is later. They have a long and weary way up the stairs – first Straight and then Winding. Logically there should be some lower better link between Minas Morgul and Mordor itself, made by Sauron even if Gondor never made one. But it might be too dangerous to use. Regardless, Gollum is not being honest with them. He only pretends to be showing them a way into Mordor.
Still expecting a long journey ahead, Sam worries about water. Would it be safe?
“`I wonder when we’ll find water again?’ said Sam. ‘But I suppose even over there they drink? Orcs drink, don’t they? ‘
“’Yes, they drink,’ said Frodo. ‘But do not let us speak of that. Such drink is not for us.’
“`Then all the more need to fill our bottles,’ said Sam. `But there isn’t any water up here: not a sound or a trickle have I heard. And anyway Faramir said we were not to drink any water in Morgul.’
“’No water flowing out of Imlad Morgul, were his words,’ said Frodo. `We are not in that valley now, and if we came on a spring it would be flowing into it and not out of it.’
“’I wouldn’t trust it,’ said Sam, ‘not till I was dying of thirst. There’s a wicked feeling about this place.’ He sniffed. ‘And a smell, I fancy. Do you notice it? A queer kind of a smell, stuffy. I don’t like it.’”
They do later find a spring in Mordor. By then they are glad to drink from it. Poor water by Shire standards, but precious there.
Much of this is changed in the film, including the generally despised incident in which Frodo supposedly believes Gollum before Sam. Peter Jackson has a warmer heart than most of the greedy global elite that I have taken to calling Coolhearts. But still a Coolheart, by my reckoning. I am someone who has looked seriously at both Marx and Tolkien, with interesting results.
I also liked the Jackson films, despite their faults. They hopefully open a path for an eventual much longer and more faithful retelling, perhaps as a high-quality television series. Perhaps including Tolkien’s Sam being inspired by the lack of water to reflect on heroism
“’I don’t like anything here at all.’ said Frodo, `step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.’
“’Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. `And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’
“`I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’”
Sam imagines how it might be told:
“Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, or course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring! ” And they’ll say: “Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave. wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”‘
He forgets about himself, and Frodo reminds him:
“’Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?’”
Next, Sam has a generous thought:
“Why, even Gollum might be good in a tale, better than he is to have by you, anyway. And he used to like tales himself once, by his own account. I wonder if he thinks he’s the hero or the villain?”
He should have noticed that Gollum sees himself as a victim, no matter how badly he has behaved. That’s often the problem with bad people – they refuse to see themselves as bad,
Frodo is also close to suspecting what the danger is. Sam’s own suspicions are on the wrong lines:
“Do you think he’s gone to fetch them, Orcs or whatever they are?’
“`No, I don’t think so,’ answered Frodo. ‘Even if he’s up to some wickedness, and I suppose that’s not unlikely, I don’t think it’s that: not to fetch Orcs, or any servants of the Enemy. Why wait till now, and go through all the labour of the climb, and come so near the land he fears? He could probably have betrayed us to Orcs many times since we met him. No, if it’s anything, it will be some little private trick of his own that he thinks is quite secret.’”
But he had also never quite lost hope of curing Gollum. And is not mistaken. They sleep, and Gollum returns and is suddenly moved:
“And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.
“Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.”
Had Gollum repented, could he have got them into Mordor? He had managed it himself, but probably with Sauron allowing it. Definitely after being caught and spared by Shelob. But no doubt Tolkien could have found a way, had he chose to tell it that way.
We learn from the letters that Tolkien would then have had Frodo still fail and Gollum still take the One Ring from him – but intentionally sacrificing himself to save them all and to spite Sauron.
In discussion at my Tolkien group, someone sensibly asked ‘who sees Gollum?’ Mostly there is a viewpoint character – even a fox surprised by sleeping hobbits, early on.
Think about it, I decided that one could imagine Galadriel seeing things in her mirror, which shows past as well as future. And the Palantir can see past events as well as present – no indication of foretelling. Aragorn aided by Arwen or even Galadriel might plausibly have used the palantir to go back and see details of the journey of Frodo and Sam, including details they were never aware of.
Sam had earlier said “even Gollum might be good in a tale”, and for moment he is. But sadly, Sam is seldom generous and polite to Gollum in the way Frodo mostly is. He spoils the moment:
“But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum – `pawing at master,’ as he thought.
“`Hey you!’ he said roughly. `What are you up to?’
“’Nothing, nothing,’ said Gollum softly. `Nice Master!’
“`I daresay,’ said Sam. ‘But where have you been to – sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain? ‘
“Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spider-like he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes. The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall. `Sneaking, sneaking!’ he hissed. ‘Hobbits always so polite, yes. O nice hobbits! Sméagol brings them up secret ways that nobody else could find. Tired he is, thirsty he is, yes thirsty; and he guides them and he searches for paths, and they say sneak, sneak. Very nice friends, O yes my precious, very nice.’
“Sam felt a bit remorseful, though not more trustful. ‘Sorry.’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, but you startled me out of my sleep. And I shouldn’t have been sleeping, and that made me a bit sharp. But Mr. Frodo. he’s that tired, I asked him to have a wink; and well, that’s how it is. Sorry. But where have you been to? ‘
“`Sneaking,’ said Gollum, and the green glint did not leave his eyes.
Sam is growing less hostile, but Gollum is not modest enough to meet him halfway. In response to generosity by Frodo, he carries on trying to get his companions killed:
“’Come, let it pass then,’ said Frodo. ‘But now we seem to have come to the point, you and I, Smeagol. Tell me. Can we find the rest of the way by ourselves? We’re in sight of the pass, of a way in, and if we can find it now, then I suppose our agreement can be said to be over. You have done what you promised, and you’re free: free to go back to food and rest, wherever you wish to go, except to servants of the Enemy. And one day I may reward you, I or those that remember me.’
“`No, no, not yet,’ Gollum whined. `O no! They can’t find the way themselves, can they? O no indeed. There’s the tunnel coming. Smeagol must go on. No rest. No food. Not yet.’”
Why Jackson and his co-scriptwriters preferred their own version to at least a shortened version of these remarkable interchanges, I do not understand. Coolhearts, as I said.
Sauron’s Grand Strategy
After I presented the original version of this talk, there was a discussion about what Sauron’s grand strategy was. He is sending out an army of orcs against Minas Tirith. Other orcs and his human forces have been gathered behind the Black Gate. The Haradrim would have marched through Ithilien and past the valley containing Minas Morgul. Where is the logic to this?
If we look ahead to the Siege of Gondor, both Easterners and Haradrim are present. Presumably sent south from the Black Gate, and the Haradrim would be retracing part of their original path.
But it is reasonable to suppose that men who served Sauron and even worshipped him would be scared and offended by Minas Morgul. Faramir calls it “Imlad Morgul, the Valley of Living Death”. Men serving Sauron would probably be hoping to live forever – and the Mouth of Sauron seems to have extended life.
That there would be mutual hatred between the orcs and men. For that matter, orcs hate other orcs and may easily fight with them: we see this when Merry and Pippin are captured and then later when Frodo is a prisoner. And again after Sam and Frodo have been taken for run-away orcs and put in with one party of orcs from the former Gondor stronghold of Durthang. They escape when these fight another company of orcs from the Dark Tower.[C]
Sauron seems not to have sent all of the forces behind the Black Gate to support the attack on Minas Tirith.
We see them again, along with any survivors who made their way back to Mordor from Minas Tirith. They form a huge army that Aragorn faces when he leads his army north to distract Sauron and give the Ring-Bearer a chance. These presumably would have been sent north to join the battle against the Free Peoples, had the forces sent against Minas Tirith been victorious. Or perhaps west against Rohan had Saruman’s forces not been enough.
As Gandalf explains, Sauron remembers having been defeated after moving too fast at the end of the Second Age. Here he is accumulating massive forces in several places. The Appendices tell of the war in the north, and of orc forces sent into Rohan that the ents deal with.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.
[A] Properly Ephel Dúath. 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/
[B] The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: Letter 246 From a letter to Mrs Eileen Elgar (drafts) September 1963.
[C] This is at the very end of Book VI, Chapter 2: The Land of Shadow.