At the very beginning, Gandalf said he couldn’t “make” Frodo hand over the ring—it would break his mind. The choice would destroy him, even before it had begun its long work of insidious influence. What we begin to see here contrasting to Gollum’s outward struggle is Frodo’s inward struggle. Both are going to lose—but in losing his final battle, Gollum is going to free poor Frodo by taking choice away from him. Unfortunately, not soon enough for Frodo to return to his former ring-free life.
The only ring-bearer who manages to get off with relatively little damage is Bilbo, but he never had much ambition, nor did he set out to destroy the ring and so come closer to its center of power.
Another important point: Elrond once said that the company was meant to fall in together, and Gandalf said in that initial conversation that Bilbo was meant to find the ring. But not by its maker. This is about as near as I can find to JRRT revealing his own moral (and religious) compass—these small hints are scattered all throughout the story.
On to the last chapters of this book—in both senses: the last of book four, and the last of The Two Towers.
“D’you mean you’ve been through this hole?” said Sam. “Phew! But perhaps you don’t mind bad smells.”
Gollum’s eyes glinted. “He doesn’t know what we minds, does he, precious? No, he doesn’t. But Smeagol can bear things. Yes. He’s been through, O yes, right through. It’s the only way.”
“And what makes the smell, I wonder,” said Sam. “It’s like—well, I wouldn’t like to say. Some beastly hole of the orcs, I’ll warrant, with a hundred years of their filth in it.”
Gollum has made his decision, and it bodes no good for Sam or Frodo—he’s talking to the precious again.
Soon Gollum slips away, leaving them to Shelob, who is hunting them. They can feel it, then they hear it. Who hasn’t been skin-crawled by that bubbling hiss?
Sam remembers Galadriel’s phial, which Frodo brandishes, and light sparkles with white fire, vanquishing the thick darkness—and a voice speaks through Frodo, “Aiya Earendil Elenion Ancalima!”
And She that walked in the darkness had heard the elves cry that cry far back in the deeps of time, and she had not heeded it, and it did not daunt her now.
Shelob comes on, Frodo aware of her malice. But when he cries “Galadriel,” a hint of doubt halts her for a moment. Then Frodo, who has never been a warrior, pulls Sting and advances on Shelob’s millions of eyes, which shutter into darkness as she retreats.
The hobbits run into cobwebs, cut free, and take off—and then the narrative voice fills us in on Shelob’s history. This is one of those places that make the world so very much larger than it seems, and older.
Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her.
Sauron knows she’s there, and likes that she guards that way into his citadel, “hungry, but unabated in malice,” and calls her his cat.
Shelob stalks Frodo with her “soft squelching body” and Sam tries to warn him, but gets jumped by Gollum. But Gollum, gloating ahead of winning, spoils his attack from behind and Sam beats him off, breaking his staff.
But Frodo is taken.
Then it’s Sam’s turn for heroism beyond measure: he leaps between her legs and stabs Shelob from below with Sting. And when she tries to crush him with her huge body, Sam holds Sting upright so she drives herself onto the blade.
When she retreats for a last spring, it’s Sam’s turn to wield the phial and to cry out in Elvish, words he did not know. Is it Galadriel, guiding them on the mental plane, or is it that briefly referenced power beyond the world that helped Frodo and Sam in this dire moment?
Shelob scuttles off to her lair, and whether she lay long in her lair, nursing ner maline and her misery, and in slow years of darkness healed herself from within, rebuilding her clustered eyes, until with hunger like death she spun once more her dreadful snares in the glends of the Mountains of Shadow, this tale does not tell.
I read that so many times as a young reader, but it never struck me until recently the glimmer of grim humor in this long recitation . . . with a “well we don’t really know” at the end of it.
So Sam finds Frodo cold and apparently dead. He is left with two horrible choices, and after agonizing, decides he has to carry the quest through to its end. So he takes the ring, and goes on.
But he hears orcs, who find and carry off Frodo. Sam changes his mind—his place is with Frodo, though he knows this is the bitter end. He chases the orcs, who have a rallying cry, “Ya hoi! Ya harri hoi!” It’s rhythmic, making me wonder if the orcs, among themselves have song.
And here we get a long conversation between Gorbag and Shagrat, in which Sam—and the reader—learn a lot. The orcs have their own slang, and their own attitude toward their commanders, which reminds me of the skepticism of foot soldiers in more frank memoirs.
”Yes,” said Gorbag. “But don’t count on it. I’m not easy in my mind. As I said, the Big Bosses, ay,” his voice sank almost to a whisper, “ay, even the Biggest, can make mistakes. Something nearly slipped, you say. I say, something has slipped.
So orcs can think for themselves. Then comes their view of their enemies as he goes on: “Always the poor Uruks to put slips right, and small thanks. But don’t forget: the enemies don’t love us any more than they love Him, and if they get topsides on Him, we’re done too.”
Sam learns something about Shelob—and that Gollum is known, and called her Sneak—then the orcs decides that Sam is a huge warrior who abandoned the “little fellow” in a regular elvish trick.
That stopped me. Have the orcs been told that? How do they know it? They don’t abandon their own? But he said regular elvish trick, and I so want to know what lies beneath that accusation.
Sam reels when he discovers that Frodo is only poisoned, but alive—but the orcs have him. And he is shut outside the gate.