J.R.R. Tolkien, as he would like you to keep in mind, was not a fan of allegory. He states in his letters, on twelve or thirteen different occasions, that he does not like allegory and that he is not allegorically-minded. In the introduction to The Lord of the Rings he bluntly states, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations… I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability.” There’s a rote-ness to his objections, and they are asserted every time the subject of allegory is even obliquely mentioned. It’s an argument that Tolkien seems used to countering.
“The Siege of Gondor” is one of the better examples of why Tolkien’s work can feel so allegorical, and why it ultimately is not. The siege, as it unfolds, is filled with tension and violence. Fiery projectiles smash into people and walls, a magicked wolf-demon battering-ram smashes through the front gate, severed heads get launched into the city. A siege is never pretty. But in “The Siege of Gondor,” the battle often feels existential more than physical. The tension between light and darkness, hope and despair is ubiquitous: it culminates with face-off between the Witch-King, a dark despair-monster, and Gandalf, decked out in white and radiating hopeful light. The momentum of the siege is largely measured in how much despair the Nazgul are able to inject into the men of Gondor lining the battlements. It’s an obvious, rather tropey vision of a fantasy battle, echoes of which can be seen trailing down the decades of subsequent fantasy epics.
But this sort of battle, and this sort of conflict, is not necessarily the focus of “The Siege of Gondor.” There is a battle happening, of course, that is drenched in morally-coded language. One that could easily be extrapolated into allegory. But before it’s simply written off as such, it’s helpful to take a look at what Tolkien actually thought it meant, and how it fit into storytelling. And the best place to do this is probably Tolkien’s letter to Stanley Unwin, after Unwin’s son Rayner read Tolkien’s manuscript and passed on his impressions.
Do not let Rayner suspect “allegory.” There is a moral, I suppose, in any tale worth telling. But that is not the same thing. Even the struggle between darkness and light (as he calls it, not me) is for me just a particular phase of history, one example of its pattern, perhaps, but not The Pattern; and the actors are individuals–they each, of course, contain universals, or they would not live at all, but they never represent them as such.
And that brings us around to the real focus of “The Siege of Gondor”: Denethor.
Hope, Despair, and Denethor
I was pretty taken by the second half of that letter excerpt. Tolkien’s story is fixed in time, even an imagined time. It is the result of specific events rather than universal principles (though an echo of the latter can always be dug up). And Tolkien’s characters are people. Their actions resonate with universals (there’s that Neoplatonism again!) but are not embodiments of them. It’s a story of people and their context. Universal principles are present, but incidental.
Denethor is the best instance of this. Of course, he’s a case study in despair. The chapter’s climax features him marching off to his mausoleum, scaring all his guards, and flamboyantly declaring:
Better to burn sooner than later, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed.
It would be easy to cast Denethor as the anti-Aragorn or anti-Faramir, falling into a despairing madness as the other two face grim fates with quiet and stoic resolve. He would function as a type or a counter, a foil for the protagonists who matter more in the long run.
But Denethor never manages to be—in Tolkien’s terms—quite representative of that sort of universal. He is too much a person of his moment, driven by a complex web of insecurities both political and personal. Throughout the chapter he flickers between cruelty, despair, pettiness, and arrogance. His fall, here and over the next few chapters, is not an abstract symbol. Denethor is a messy entirety of a person, his despair a statement of itself rather than a reference to something more abstract.
Denethor as Steward
Denethor’s despair is intrinsically rooted in his position as steward. He comes from an impossibly old house, handed down from son to son, ancient and illustrious even when Gondor’s origins and history had started to become brittle. He sees Gondor both as the only beacon of light in the world and as teetering on the edge of utter failure. He sees himself as a bulwark against evil and as the dimming conclusion to a fading house. And he sees himself as tied to the fate of Gondor intrinsically, a position that fills him with fear and pride that often burst out in fits of cruelty, arrogance, and astonishing levels of pettiness.
This myopic view of the world was apparent from Denethor’s first appearance, when Gandalf chided him for being a steward only to those immediately around him (a criticism he levels again here in “The Siege of Gondor”). The arrogance and fear this engenders is apparent throughout the chapter. When mentioning to Pippin that all great lords use other men as their weapons—drawing a direct, concerning parallel between himself and Sauron—Denethor feels the need to insist that this is not due to necessity but choice:
He stood up now and cast open his long black cloak, and behold! He was clad in mail beneath, and girt with a long sword, great hilted in a sheath of black and silver. “Thus have I walked, and thus now for many years have I slept,” he said, “lest with age the body should grow soft and timid.”
There is a flamboyant, performative element to Denethor’s leadership. He is utterly disengaged from his people (once again, it’s difficult not to hold Théoden in contrast). He asserts an abstract sort of leadership, decked out in secret clothes of austerity that affect only his own perception of himself. And he spends too much time inside his own head, to the extent that, in his position as steward, he increasingly sees the fate of himself and his whole society as intertwined. When Faramir returns, injured and on the edge of death, Denethor seems to imply that the end of his own line and the end of Gondor are linked.
Nay, nay, whatever may now betide in war, my line too is ending, even the House of Stewards has failed. Mean folk shall rule the last remnant of the Kings of Men, lurking in the hills until all are hounded out.
As his line extinguishes, so does Gondor. And later in the chapter, as he prepares to burn himself and Faramir, the reverse seems to be true as well. “We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West,” he states. “The West has failed.
Denethor as Father
Beyond his role as steward, Denthor’s despair is also rooted in his role as a father – particularly as a bereaved one. He is abjectly terrible to Faramir in this chapter. He’s routinely petty and dismissive, snapping back abuse at innocuous questions.
“I hope I have not done ill?” He looked at his father.
“Ill?” cried Denethor, and his eyes flashed suddenly. “Why do you ask? The men were under your command. Or do you ask for my judgement on all your deeds? Your bearing is lowly in my presence, yet it is long now since you turned from your own way at my counsel. See, you have spoken skillfully, as ever; but I, have I not seen your eye fixed on Mithrandir, seeking whether you said well or too much? He has long had your heart in his keeping.”
It seems like a baffling response to a deferential question, until the end. Denethor spends “The Siege of Gondor” both jealous and in mourning, grieving for Boromir and resenting Faramir for his relationship with Gandalf. He even—continuing on from “Minas Tirith”— seems to despise Faramir because of the similarities that they share.
“If what I have done displeases you, father,” said Faramir quietly, “I wish had known your counsel before the burden of so weighty a judgement was thrust on me.”
“Would that have availed you to change your judgement?” said Denethor. “You would still have done just so, I deem. I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death.”
“So be it,” said Faramir.
“So be it!” cried Denethor. “But not with your death only, Lord Faramir: with the death also of your father, and of all your people, whom it is your part to protect now that Boromir is gone.”
There is the sense that Denethor is not only grieving the death of one son and the perceived estrangement of the other, but also grieving that Faramir embodies the sort of leadership that his own time and position seemed to deny him. It is a luxury, Denethor seems to think, to be generous and gentle. To see his son practice it while he believes he cannot only seems to accelerate his resentment. And this, of course, leads to Denethor’s twofold denunciation of Faramir: telling him that he wished he had died in Boromir’s place, and then sending him out, “unthanked and unblessed,” to die in Osgiliath.
So many of Denethor’s problems are problems of his own making. He feels perpetually trapped inside his own head, old habits and conceptions grinding deeper into furrows from which he’s trying to climb out. This only grows with the revelations coming up in “The Pyre of Denethor.” Yet despite this, I always find there to be something very pitiable about Denethor, despite his coldness and his cruelty. He feels trapped in a cycle of poor decisions, powered by his place in the world and his fears and insecurities. He contains universals, as Tolkien would say. But he doesn’t stand in place of them.
- While I spend most of my time here on Denethor, the siege elements worked very well for me. The first fires springing up on the distance and a low rumbling, the utter rout of Faramir’s host at Osgiliath, the unrestrained unpleasantness of the siege itself. It is dark, relentless, and distressing, and Tolkien does well in conveying the weight of the army swelling in like a wave and the chaos of Minas Tirith’s desperate and apparently insufficient response.
- I also quite liked this line, when the walls of the Pelennor first came down. Now ever and anon there was a red flash, and slowly through the heavy air dull rumbles could be heard. “They have taken the wall!” men cried. “They are blasting breaches in it! They are coming!” It’s a nice echo of the final lines in the Book of Mazerbul in Moria.
- The fact that Gandalf, often more austere and implacable after his Balrog fight and makeover, trembles during Faramir’s story is a nice and subtle indicator of how intense Frodo’s mission is, even though he’s been off-screen a while. His distress over hearing that they are passing through the Morgul Vale does the same, especially since we’re about halfway through Book V.
- I enjoyed that, near the chapter’s start, Denethor is once again compared to a spider. I am unsure if there is a higher comparative purpose to it or if Tolkien just likes/hates spiders.
- Pippin’s description of Faramir is nice as well: “the face of one who has been assailed by a great fear or anguish, but has mastered it and is now quiet… here was one with an air of high nobility such as Aragorn at times revealed, less high perhaps, yet also less incalculable and remote: one of the Kings of the Men born into a later time, but touched with the wisdom and sadness of the Elder Race.” There’s a hopefulness in that description that’s touching, the depiction of Faramir as something old and new at the same time.
- Prose Prize: At that moment he caught a flash of white and silver coming from the North, like a small star down on the dusky fields. It moved with the speed of an arrow and grew as it came, converging swiftly with the flight of the four men towards the Gate. It seemed to Pippin that a pale light was spread about it and the heavy shadows gave way before it. It’s a chapter of conversation more than pretty prose, but I did enjoy the “small star down on the dusky fields.” I am also probably slightly biased because I remember being very fond of Peter Jackson’s depiction of this moment; it’s one of my favorite shots of the trilogy.
- Contemporary to this chapter: While reading this, I hadn’t realized that quite so many days were passing! We’re covering March 10th to the very early hours of March 15th. This is largely concurrent with “The Ride of the Rohirrim,” coming up next. Rohan musters and rides out of Dunharrow, meets the Wild Men in Druadan Forest, and arrives at Pelennor Fields at dawn on the 15th. Frodo and Sam go from the Crossroads all the way through their encounter with Shelob. And as Minas Tirith is being besieged, Sam is making his way to rescue Frodo in Cirith Ungol. A busy couple of days in Middle-earth!
Film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King(2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. Other images, in order of appearance, are courtesy of Lorenzo Daniele and Ted Nasmith.
Grilled Cheese and Goblins is Supernatural Noir with a Delicious Twist
Like supernatural noir and wish it were more LGBTQ+ friendly? Do you enjoy an afternoon of sexy goblins, animated Christmas cookies, and smart-mouthed leprechauns angry about pixies stealing their jobs? Do you ship the grumpy one with the happy one? If any of this applies to you, or you’re just looking for a fun set of short stories to read with gay protagonists and supernatural beings, I highly recommend Grilled Cheese and Goblins: Adventures of a Supernatural Food Inspector (hereafter, Grilled Cheese).
Grumpy and rumpled former chef and restaurateur turned supernatural food inspector Keith Curry won me over from the first slice of cheese. And no, I don’t mean metaphorical cheese—though there is sometimes a bit of camp involved in these supernatural short stories—I mean actual grilled cheese. It’s Curry’s favorite food of course (lol, food puns). This isn’t my first foray into Blind Eye Books’ repertoire, and I was not disappointed.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
Vampire Hunter. Leprechaun Fighter. Food Inspector.
Keith Curry has his work cut out for him.
NATO’s Irregulars Affairs Division is a secret organization operating in thousands of cities around the globe. Its agents police relations between the earthly realm and those beyond this world, protecting citizens from both mundane and otherworldly dangers.
Former chef turned NIAD food inspector, Special Agent Keith Curry found out about magic the hard way and is now determined to keep dinner safe for everybody. Includes the novellas “Cherries Worth Getting,” “Magically Delicious” and the never-before-published “Bring Out Your Best” plus bonus shorts and more!
The Good Stuff
Supernatural noir is my brain candy genre; not that it can’t be edgy and dark, only I prefer the kind with a bit of humor about itself. There’s something charming about the culture clash inherent in modern noir detective stories set in a supernatural world with fae, goblins, pixies, and magic. There’s so much potential for banal absurdity too, like in Grilled Cheese’s “The Most Important Meal of the Day,” which sees our protagonist cooking breakfast for a mage to undo the Lovecraftian apocalypse currently destroying the city. Something about making blintzes while a many-eyed monster with blood-red tentacles decapitates people makes me cackle with glee.
Which is to say that the worldbuilding for this series of short stories all centered around Keith Curry is fantastic. The first few paragraphs of the first story utterly immersed and engrossed me. The world felt lived in, vast, yet not overwhelming. As if this world just is and we’re seeing only a tiny corner of it. Author Nicole Kimberling knows how to create a sense of comfort in this world that’s both familiar and different from our own. She’s clearly done her work creating this vision of supernatural reality, yet it doesn’t feel either stale or overly complicated. We know enough details to get us through understanding each of the stories without getting lost. However, I never felt bogged down by exposition or encumbered by explanations. She finds that perfect balance between detailed and info-dumpy.
The tone and ambiance come across right away as well, the noir-adjacent hard-boiled detective vibe yet, once again, without feeling like I’ve seen too much of this before. The stories balance humor with gruesome elements well, and I appreciate that it doesn’t take itself or the genre too seriously. Some of the plot elements can be a bit absurd, but who cares? He’s a supernatural food inspector chasing down contraband pixie dust and extra-human steroids contaminating the supernatural blood supply. There’s bound to be a bit of absurdity to it, and I like that. Like I said, I like some camp with my supernatural crime dramas. Helps balance out the thought of fruit ripening out of human body parts.
Speaking of supernatural noir, it’s nice to see an example of the genre with queer characters that isn’t bait-y. (I don’t kneed to mention the television show I’m thinking of here, you know which one I mean.) And I’m all about characters for whom being queer is just part of their story; they’re not Gay™. They just a food inspector and his hot, strike team goblin boyfriend who work for a government agency focused on “irregular affairs.” I also love that the protagonist is a former chef and his role is tracking down food contamination, which is a unique spin on a supernatural investigator that leads in some surprising directions.
Speaking of characters, they’re excellent. Kimberling writes Keith with a deft touch. Too much cranky, and a protagonist can veer into obnoxious real fast. Keith has just the right amount of cynicism and pessimism to be enjoyable (I always love the ‘grumpy lobster’ characters with hearts of gold, like Toby from The West Wing). Plus, we get to see him change and mellow out a bit over the course of the stories, especially in his relationship with and thoughts about his boyfriend, Gunther Heartman a ‘trans-goblin’ whose physical features had been permanently altered in utero to make him appear fully human (see below).
Gunther, with his optimistic, gentle, thoughtful personality balances out Keith nicely. For characters that on paper seem like tropes (the cheerful one and the grumpy one, e.g.), Keith and Gunther don’t feel like tropes at all. They’re three dimensional, interesting, and fun characters who truly let us see multiple sides of what living in this world is like. There are some truly delightful secondary characters I wish we got more of as well. Johanna, Damien, and Susan from “Bring Out Your Best” were some of my favorites, plus I did wind up enjoying the mage from “The Most Important Meal of the Day” more than I expected I would when I first started the story.
The sex scenes are tastefully done and emotion/romance focused, which is how I like my romance. I read fewer queer male stories than I do queer female stories, and I tend to be less invested in male/male pairings, but this couple utterly charmed me. They’re well-written, engaging, and have great chemistry together. It helps that the stories they exist in are so entertaining, too.
Kimberling’s use of ‘trans-goblin’ for characters of goblin heritage who had been transmogrified in utero to be fully human looking stood out to me as potentially loaded. As a cisgendered woman, I cannot comment on the impact or implications that such terminology would have on the transgendered community. However, I did want to point it out, as it is a major facet of Gunther’s identity and informs the way Keith interacts with and thinks about him.
More than that specific wording, there’s something uncomfortable about seeing a marginalized identity and community correlated with a being whose heritage isn’t just accusations of violence and murder but actual predation on humans. Trans-goblins aren’t the only fae beings given LGBTQ+ coding in the stories, and marginalization of the fae and other supernatural beings frequently functions as an analogy for LGBTQ+ marginalization. I’ve seen such coding before (X-Men, for example), and on the one hand, I understand why so many writers find the analogy appealing. It’s a way to discuss current and historical socio-political and religious marginalization without sounding too preachy.
However, my concerns with it here are the same as when it’s used elsewhere. There’s a double-edged sword in using magical and dangerous beings as stand-ins for marginalized community: it both accurately conveys the fear non-marginalized folks have of LGBTQ+ people and inaccurately, and likely inadvertently, affirms the perceived danger. Humans would have a right to be afraid of beings that drink their blood or feast on their flesh, or have done so historically. Being afraid of mutants who can kill you with a touch, mages who can throw fireballs at you, or superhumans that can crush your skull with two fingers makes sense when you’re a squishy human without powers. That same fear when applied to queer folks or other marginalized communities is unfounded and based in bigotry rather than actual fact.
Because of this disparity, I’m always uncomfortable with stories that situate actually dangerous or historically violent/predatory entities as stand-ins for marginalized communities. Your mileage may vary, and Kimberling’s use of this trope didn’t ruin my enjoyment. Like I said above, I enjoyed this world, these characters, and the stories themselves. This is just something to be aware of going in.
Final Score : 9/10
Note: Since I am not qualified to speak on the issue of the handling of trans-ness or its association with Gunther’s goblin identity, I can only discuss the other elements of the story.
Overall, this series of short stories is an entertaining read. The really short snippets are delightful, though only work in a volume like this one where they have context. I enjoyed each of the mysteries, which were engaging and quick reads. Perfect for an afternoon or to read on commute. As mentioned, my discomfort with associating marginalized identities with dangerous magical beings wasn’t enough to quell my enjoyment. So, in the end, the well-developed characters, a fascinating and well-fleshed out world, and a good balance in tone and ambiance make this series of shorts a winner for me.
About the Author
Nicole Kimberling is a novelist, editor and podcast creator. Her first novel Turnskin, won the Lambda Literary Award. Other speculative fiction works include Happy Snak, The Sea of Stars and a variety of short stories and novellas. Contemporary works include The Bellingham Mystery Series, set in the Washington town where she resides with her wife of thirty years. She is the creator and writer of the podcast “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” an audio drama exploring the day-to-day case files of Special Agent Keith Curry as told by his twelve-year-old cat sitter. Prior to becoming a novelist she cooked in restaurants for twenty years and synthesizes her philosophical thoughts about food and cooking in a recurring column for Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. You can contact her @nkimberling69 or www.nicolekimberling.com.
Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.
Images Courtesy of Blind Eye Books
Mordor, Defiance, and Hope
I was intrigued going into Book VI at how this last leg of The Lord of the Rings was going to stack up in reality versus memory. While I’d always held Book VI to be my favorite, I’ve gotten the impression that that’s not a terribly common opinion. Kate Nepveu over at Tor, for example, associates it largely with an endless slog of long, grim walking. And that is… not wrong! “The Land of Shadow” covers twenty pages in my edition. Most of it consists of a long Despair Walk over Evil Lands. The land is sharp and ugly. There’s not enough food or water. Frodo’s hope meter has dried up entirely, and he powers himself forward solely on a blunt, practical reserve of duty. He assumes he’s going to die. It’s just a matter of giving it a go until then.
It says a lot about the tone of the chapter that within the first page Frodo and Sam dangle off the parapet of the Morgai road and then drop blindly into blackness, not knowing how far they are going to fall. They do this quickly and undramatically. What else could they do? It’s a brutal mirror image of the slow, pained descent through Emyl Muil, so many chapters ago. There, the hobbits nervously creeped over edges, armed with rope and light and rest. Things seemed bad then, ominous and pocked with danger. Here, they simply fall off a bridge into darkness. They make it: they have the luck (“luck”) to fall only twelve feet into a thorn bush. But there’s every chance in the world that they wouldn’t.
And that desperation characterizes the rest of the chapter. Frodo, when he speaks, does so in distracted, short sentences. “Look here, Sam dear lad,” he says at one point. “I am tired, weary, I haven’t a hope left. But I have to go on trying to get to the Mountain, as long as I can move.” And Tolkien remains pitiless towards his characters. For every instance that he gives them a trickle of bitter oil-water or allows for a “dreary canopy dim light [to leak] into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison,” he also floods the path of Mount Doom with tightly-packed camps. Or he makes Frodo and Sam, after a twelve-mile walk (on hobbit legs!), endure a brutal forced run.
It’s no wonder, throughout this chapter, that Frodo so consistently abnegates himself. He rarely seems to think or feel, simply focusing his energy on the mechanical completion of his task. His personality seems largely blunted out. He cares about their obstacles only abstractly, repeating how unsurprised he is that things are going poorly. And in a particularly frightening moment, he reveals that not only his sense of self but his own past seems to be being stripped away. “This blind dark seems to be getting into my heart. As I lay in prison, Sam, I tried to remember the Brandywine, and Woody End, and The Water running through the mill at Hobbiton. But I can’t see them now.”
Light and High Beauty in Mordor
It’s disheartening how this sense of loss pervades even the chapter’s moments of relative hope. Sam’s wish for light is granted with an impressive speediness.
Away to their left, southward, against a sky that was turning grey, the peaks and high ridges of the great range began to appear dark and black, visible shapes. Light was growing behind them. Slowly it crept towards the North. There was battle far above in the high spaces of the air. The billowing clouds of Mordor were being driven back, their edges tattering as a wind out of the living world came up and swept the fumes and smokes towards the dark land of their home. Under the lifting skirts of the dreary canopy dim light leaked into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison… It was the morning of the fifteenth of March, and over the vale of Anduin the Sun was rising above the eastern shadow and the southwest wind was blowing. Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields.
It’d have been easy to make this an obviously triumphant moment. Something akin to the shaft of light illuminating the king’s head at the Crossroads. A new wind blows across the Pelennor, Éomer gets his eucatastrophe, and Aragorn turns the tide of battle. It seems things will metaphorically play out above Frodo and Sam, in that “battle far above in the high spaces of the air.” But there is so much distance. The light that comes is weak and grimy. Even when Tolkien steps in to tell us it’s the fifteenth of March, he chooses the grimmest depiction of what’s happening: Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields. It’s an objective moment of hope, but in the moment it feels… largely useless. Mordor filters the light and the story into its grimmest iteration, like a depressed brain stuck in thought patterns that silence the good and augment the distressing.
It’s even, as per usual in Tolkien, reflected in the landscape. Mordor, Tolkien notes, “was a dying land, but it was not yet dead.” There seems to be some hope in this, especially since it comes on the tail of Frodo and Sam finding a trickle of unpleasant-but-potable water. It could be a moment of resistance, of the land itself fighting back against what Sauron has done to it (in a light parallel to Saruman). But instead, as we get deeper into the landscape, we find that all that has survived is violence.
Coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled. Some had long stabbing thorns, some hooked barbs that rent like knives.
Beyond that, the orcs and midges in the land have all be marked, branded by a Red Eye. And by the time Frodo and Sam reach the Morannon it is utterly desolate, bereft of any life at all. Over the course of the chapter, what started as apparent resistance is revealed to only be an allowance at best, and an articulation of Mordor itself at worst.
In both cases, moments of potential hope get kneecapped before they can really take hold. There is one moment, though, that seems like it manages to transcend this: when Sam sees a star.
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for the moment, his own fate, and even his master’s ceased to trouble him.
This passage was deeply meaningful for Little Katie. I remember re-reading it solemnly the way some people probably re-read the Bible. I was very attracted to the idea that beauty or hope could be a piercing, physical sensation. It always made me feel both hopeful and sad. That’s still there, but I am intrigued by the last two lines, which I hadn’t particularly remembered. The distinction provided here between defiance and hope is a fascinating one to me: the position of the self. Where Frodo’s despair seems to be manifesting in the loss of his own self, Sam seems to find hope in the same thing: in their very transience of their roles in the grand scheme of the story in which they partake. It’s a nice, complex moment, especially given how central individual choice is to Tolkien’s moral cosmos.
- We get our seeding for the return of Gollum next chapter. I hadn’t recalled that Frodo inadvertently saved Gollum’s life here. His mail shirt, discarded on the first day of their walk, was picked up by Gollum and saved him from being killed by an orcish arrow in the back. I think I’m going to wait for our big conclusion next chapter to comment on that. But one of Frodo’s few moments of active choice in this chapter—to discard his mail shirt and sword, under the assumption that he’s done striking blows—saves the being that will ultimately save the mission.
- In a chapter that is decidedly Not Funny, I got a big laugh out of Sam saying “Let me drink first, Mr. Frodo” upon finding a trickle of water. Frodo, vaguely put off about it: “Alright, but there’s room enough for two.”
- It seems a reasonable reading to say that the star Sam sees is Earendil, though Tolkien doesn’t explicitly state it. (Kate Nepveu in the article linked above says Tolkien reveals it in the Appendices, but I haven’t checked). It works either way, both readings adding different kinds of complexity to the story.
- I have been delighted to find out how gossipy Mordor is and how ineffective its propaganda machine is. The orcs on Sam and Frodo’s trail note they don’t even know what they’re hunting for. “First they saw it’s a great Elf in bright armor, then it’s a sort of small dwarf-man, then it must be a pack of rebel Urukhai; or maybe it’s all the lot together.” The defeat of the Witch King of Angmar has also leaked, despite the party line that the War is Going Well. I like this both for the insight that some factions in Mordor are treasonously delighted at the demise of the “Shriekers,” and also because it makes me wonder if Tolkien cribbed some of this from the notorious role of propaganda in World War I.
- Prose Prize: “Away to their left, southward, against a sky that was turning grey, the peaks and high ridges of the great range began to appear dark and black, visible shapes. Light was growing behind them. Slowly it crept towards the North. There was battle far above in the high spaces of the air. The billowing clouds of Mordor were being driven back, their edges tattering as a wind out of the living world came up and swept the fumes and smokes towards the dark land of their home. Under the lifting skirts of the dreary canopy dim light leaked into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison… It was the morning of the fifteenth of March, and over the vale of Anduin the Sun was rising above the eastern shadow and the southwest wind was blowing. Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields.”
- Contemporary to this Chapter: As you can see right above, it’s Battle of Pelennor Field Day! As far as I can tell this chapter covers March 15-19, reaching the early parts of our other heroes’ march to Morannon. Also interesting, though, is the fact that Sam thinks on Lórien and Galadriel as they were being hit by the second assault of Mordor forces. “If only the Lady could see us or hear us, I’d say to her: ‘Your Ladyship, all we want is light and water: just clean water and plain daylight, better than any jewels, begging your pardon.’ But it’s a long way to Lórien.” Sam sighed and waved his hand towards the heights of the Ephel Dúath, now only to be guessed as a deeper blackness against the black sky.”
- In two weeks: the end of all things! Meet you at Mount Doom.
Art Credits: Art, in order of appearance, is courtesy of WiseSnailArt, suwi, and Ted Nasmith.
The Tower of Cirith Ungol
“The Tower of Cirith Ungol” shares an unenviable position with “The Taming of Smeagol” and “Minas Tirith” as book openers. They are all responsible for taking a narrative speeding along at full steam, halting it in its tracks, rewinding, and starting something else. It’s a necessity for how Tolkien chose to structure his story but a tricky business, particularly after the strength of Book V. “The Taming of Smeagol” and “Minas Tirith” managed to overcome the disadvantages their positions by introducing a new, immediate dynamism. Smeagol and Gondor reorient both stories, creating near-immediate newness and momentum that propel their books forward. “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” doesn’t do this—we’re at the point for tying up loose ends, not creating them.
That’s for the best, but it does mean that “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” drags a bit as an opener. It’s not bad, by any means—we’ll get to the good stuff in a bit—but it does have a tendency to rehash older thematic and emotional beats that were conveyed more emphatically in “Shelob’s Lair” and “The Choices of Master Samwise.” Sam’s horror at what’s happening is affective, but not new. Evil sowing the seeds of its own destruction is a solid Tolkien theme. But its articulation here—as Shagrat and Gorbag tear each other apart, leaving a clear path for Sam—is more convenient and less potent than in an established, nuanced character like Saruman. And the reminder that Mordor keeps people in rather than out is an ominous one, but again, nothing new.
That said, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” does have some moments that work really well, and it serves as a nice, tender reminder of how kind Tolkien’s sense of heroism is at its heart.
Visions of Power
“The Tower of Cirith Ungol” is one of the loneliest chapters of The Lord of the Rings. Sam spends the first two-thirds of it, as Tolkien tells us, “utterly alone.” Merry and Pippin have flirted with loneliness earlier in The Return of the King but neither were ever really in a position of comparable isolation. Sam starts off Book VI by walking into Mordor by himself. His panic-induced adrenaline has worn off, and he first catches a glimpse of Mount Doom while standing small, cold, and afraid.
Tolkien repeatedly referred to Sam as the central “hero” of The Lord of the Rings throughout his letters and “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” is right in the middle of the chapters where he most explicitly acts out this role. He just maybe-murdered a giant spider of numinous darkness. He’s storming a presumably orc-ridden tower. He’s about to carry Frodo and the Ring up a mountain. And amid all of this, there’s an interesting examination of what Sam’s heroism is and isn’t. First, there is simply the question of power, as Sam faces his main temptation from the Ring around his neck.
As Sam stood there… he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: for forbear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it; and to challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit.
As in other cases, Sam’s rejection of the Ring requires a voluntary abdication of power, even power with the intention to do good. Gandalf, as Tolkien mentioned, would have been far worse as a master of the Ring than Sauron precisely because of his good intentions. Sam—thanks to that solid hobbit common sense—is able to realize that benevolent garden tyranny is still a tyranny of its own.
The interesting thing about this chapter, though, is that Sam is also repeatedly saved by the power that he abdicates. He knows that “the one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm.” But at the same time, he is also saved in the Tower by the Ring’s transformation of his appearance into “a great silent shape, cloaked in a grey shadow, looming against the wavering light behind; in one hand it held a sword, the very light of which was a bitter pain, the other was clutched at its breast, but held concealed some nameless menace of power and doom.”
There is a sense of tension present throughout The Lord of the Rings around this question. The peace and simplicity of the Shire, its utter disregard for power and conquest, form the core of hobbit courage. But the question of how—and whether—such things can be maintained without force nearly always bubbles below the surface.
Tenderness and Heroism
Yet despite altered appearances and some surprising handiness in spider fights, Sam’s heroism is of course rooted almost entirely in love. When I read Tolkien as a teenager, I was always aware of a strong contingent of shippers who were deeply invested in the idea of Frodo and Sam being a couple. I doubt this was intentional on Tolkien’s part, if for no other reason than because The Lord of the Rings as a whole is a remarkably asexual work. But I also am not surprised by it in the slightest, because the relationship between Frodo and Sam is intimate and tender in a way that feels unique in the depiction of male fantasy heroes. There is hand-holding, spooning, and so many tears!
He lay back in Sam’s gentle arms, closing his eyes, like a child at rest when the night-fears are driven away by some loved voice or hand. Sam felt that he could sit like that in endless happiness; but it was not allowed.
It’s such a non-toxic version of masculinity that—from my perspective—feels very refreshing. Touch and affection are embraced as healing and strengthening. Tears are a mark of empathy and not of weakness. Sam couldn’t quite pop up on Steven Universe, but it’s also not that much of a stretch.
But now the vision had passed. There was Sam kneeling before him, his face wrung with pain, as if he had been stabbed in the heart; tears welled from his eyes.
After his more traditional heroic role in “The Choices of Master Samwise,” Sam here is heroic in the inverse. He sings, he cries, he hugs, he doesn’t fight anyone. I do wonder, to a certain extent, if Tolkien manages to be so old in his views here that he feels new. In any case, it does feel like another indication of the wobbly foundation for claiming Tolkien as the grandfather of modern fantasy. It’s hard for me to think of subsequent fantasy author who treats emotion in anything approaching a comparable way.
- The first paragraph I wrote for this review described the chapter as “rocky.” It occurred to me that this could be read as a pun in relationship to the landscape, and that seemed so terrible—lampshaded or not—that I just deleted the entire paragraph and started over.
- I’ve always been really into the Watchers and I’d forgotten how small a role they actually play. I apparently just had a thing for frightening boundaries as a child, between this and the Sphinx Gate from The Neverending Story.
- As a kid I also made up a melody for Sam’s song in Cirith Ungol and would sing it to myself when I was by myself because I was a neeeeerrrrrrrddddd.
- I like that Ring-ravaged Frodo is often indistinguishable from a nihilistically-depressed millennial on tumblr: “Here, take this elven-cake, and drink that last drop in your bottle! The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it’s not good worrying about tomorrow. It probably won’t come.”
- Was momentarily but deeply baffled to discover Tolkien talking about the orcs “fighting over the swag” in Cirith Ungol. Swag, though, has a long and fun etymological history you can start reading about here. The use here probably comes from 17th century English thieves’ cant.
- Poor Frodo. He tells Sam that “two great brutes came and questioned me, questioned me until I thought I should go mad, standing over me, gloating, fingering their knives. I’ll never forget their claws and eyes.” Sam, who believes in the power of tears but not psychotherapy, tells his best friend to lock that shit up in his mind vault and never think or talk about it again. No wonder Frodo has to sail off the face of the earth away from his problems.
- Prose Prize: Not a highlight for prose, to be honest. Everything’s perfectly fine but there aren’t a lot of standouts. I do quite like the ending of the chapter though. The drama of what’s occurring pairs nicely with a simplicity of prose. The will of the Watchers was broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord, and Frodo and Sam stumbled forward. Then they ran. Through the gate and past the great seated figures with their glittering eyes. There was a crack. The keystone of the arch crashed almost on their heels, and the wall above crumbled, and fell in ruin. Only by a hair did they escape. A bell clanged; and from the Watchers there went up a high and dreadful wail. Far up above in the darkness it was answered. Out of the black sky there came dropping like a bolt a winged shape, rending the clouds with a ghastly shriek.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Tolkien does it for me this time! He mentions that it is March 14th, just a bit before the Rohirrim arrive at the Pelannor. By the time they leave Cirith Ungol, the Battle of Pelennor Fields is well under way. As with the beginnings of the other books, Tolkien does make some (at least token) efforts to reorient the reader to the new narrative stream.
Art Credits: Film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. The painting of Sam approaching Cirith Ungol is courtesy of aegeri.
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