Part of the GRRM Reading Project.
In 1974, amidst heartbreaks and personal disappointments, George R. R. Martin (GRRM) wrote This Tower of Ashes. The short story would be published two years later on Analog Annual, an anthology designed to attract new readers to the famous science fiction magazine.
After re-reading this story a couple of times, I still don’t know what to make of it. Sometimes you know where a narrative is trying to go even if doesn’t quite take you there, but in this case I’m not even sure of the intended direction. It does, however, make sense with the themes that Martin was and is still exploring in his stories, making it an interesting addition to understanding his bibliography.
So let’s try to unpack this acid spider dream.
Cut-rate dreams and secondhand rainbows
The narrator and protagonist John Bowen lives isolated in the titular tower of ashes, a gloomy ruin in the mainland of Jamison’s World. Among the fantastic fauna of the mainland are the dream spiders, creatures whose poison can induce vivid hallucinations in their victims. Dream spider venom is also a popular drug, so John exchanges poison sacs with dealers for supplies. He has been living this way for a few years, but he recounts a story that happened shortly after he arrived in the tower.
John used to live in the city of Port Jamison with his partner Crystal, until she fell in love with Gerry. Unable to handle his feelings for the new couple, John self-exiled in the tower with his cat Squirrel. Crystal and Gerry find him a month later and try to convince him to return. The trio spends the night together, with John going back and forth between trying to win Crystal back and realizing it’s just a fantasy. He’s constantly clashing with Gerry, and this leads him to offer the couple a tour in the beautiful forests near his tower.
Things go especially wrong when he takes them to the spider-chasm to see dream spiders in their natural environment: Gerry accidentally slips and gets caught in the spider web, with dream spiders approaching both him and John. John flirts with the idea of not saving Gerry, but in the end choses to do so, at the expense of being bitten by a spider. Crystal and Gerry nurse him back to health, but leave shortly afterwards. Crystal had a different and possibly more accurate recollection of the events of that night, and it’s implied that John is slowly losing his grip on reality.
Down and sinking
In several aspects, This Tower of Ashes reminds me of The Second Kind of Loneliness. They’re similar stories in terms of tone, structure, themes, and characters.
Both stories have a male protagonist who lives in a self-imposed isolation in a surreal place. This isolation was largely motivated by a romantic rejection and the female figure is heavily idealized. We also know very little about the protagonist’s inner life besides this rejection, but their feelings on the matter are extensively explored.
Just as in Loneliness, the narrator of This Tower of Ashes has conflicted feelings about this rejection. He’s aware that he isn’t entitled to the love of his ex and that pursuing a relationship with her is fruitless, yet at the same time he still desires this relationship. Both stories are stronger because this conflict happens entirely in the protagonist’s head, without any external forces weighing in on the issue. Martin is a fan of writing the human heart in conflict with itself, after all.
The romantic rejections are also at the center of the protagonists’ loss of touch with reality. It’s never implied that Crystal or Karen were at fault, but the fact that they didn’t correspond some dude’s feelings was directly connected to this dude going insane. I’m not sure how I feel about that choice, especially now that it’s repeated across two different stories.
On the other hand, this is an opportunity to criticize toxic masculinity, something Martin would come to do very well in A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF). I’ve complained a lot about lack of diversity in his early writing, but those two stories wouldn’t work the same way without a male narrator. They deal with a very specific kind of entitlement, and while we’re invited to empathize with the protagonists, their feelings are far from endorsed. Or maybe I’m just giving Martin too much credit on this one.
Last but not least, the protagonists of both stories mistake reality and illusion, something that becomes apparent for the reader only at the end. The final twists make us reconsider everything these narrators told us so far, what we thought we knew about them, and how much we can trust their account of events. Yet This Tower of Ashes takes those questions further, exploring the fine line between lies and truth.
Bright and many-colored are the webs the dream-spiders weave
It’s no secret Martin loves unreliable narrators and likes to play with our perception of them. By the end of This Tower of Ashes, John he suggests he’s been drinking dream spider poison for a while. How much has that affected his memory of the events he just told us? What prevents him from having dreamt the whole story with Crystal and Gerry? Did Crystal and Gerry really visited him at some point? Are we even sure those two people exist, by the way?
In fact, tumblr user joannalannister takes these questions to the next level and has an intriguing theory about John not even being human. I have to confess this never occurred to me while reading the story, and I’m not entirely sure I believe Martin intended this interpretation. Yet it would explain a couple of elements that otherwise don’t make sense, like Squirrel, and there are definitely hints supporting this view. Actually, just the fact that this theory is plausible should hint at the mess Martin creates in our heads.
The relationship between fantasy and reality, truth and lies, is by far the most interesting aspect of This Tower of Ashes. It’s also a recurring conflict in Martin’s bibliography and it’s fascinating to see how his works, when considered together, complement each other in exploring these themes.
In The Second Kind of Loneliness, Martin warns us about the dangers of not engaging with real life for fear of its risks. As I argued a little while ago, With Morning Comes Mistfall reads as a love letter to fantasy. It’s Martin telling us that stories matter, even if they’re not real. Even A Song for Lya deals with these themes, placing Robb’s choice as a flawed, but human reality. There’s also ASOIAF, obviously. The conflict between truth and lies, songs and reality is present in several characters, although Sansa has to be the most obvious example.
Martin brings this conflict front and center in This Tower of Ashes. Almost opposing his thesis in With Morning Comes Mistfall, here he seems to criticize being lost in fantasies. As John drunkenly muses that the people in Port Jamison are stories, Korbec disagrees:
‘Don’t fool yourself,’ he said to me then, his face flush with wine and darkness, ‘you’re not missing nothin’. Lives are rotten stories, y’know. Real stories, now, they usually got a plot to ’em. They start and they go on a bit and when they end they’re over, unless the guy’s got a series goin’. People’s lives don’t do that nohow, they just kinda wander around and ramble and go on and on. Nothin’ ever finishes.’ ‘People die,’ I said. ‘That’s enough of a finish, I’d think.’ Korbec made a loud noise. ‘Sure, but have you ever known anybody to die at the right time? No, don’t happen that way. Some guys fall over before their lives have properly gotten started, some right in the middle of the best part. Others kinda linger on after everything is really over.’
John clearly endorses and values those words:
The weary realism that he offered me then is the only antidote there is for the dreams that spiders weave. But I am not Korbec, nor can I be, and while I recognize his truth, I cannot live it.
Given the status of truth placed in Korbec’s words, what I feel the story is telling us is this: lives are not stories, so living stories is not the same as living actual lives. This Tower of Ashes, as The Second Kind of Loneliness before it, sounds almost like a cautionary tale. Be careful with stories, it says. Yes, we all love dreams, even the spider’s victims would die without a fight because that’s how sweet fantasies are. But we pay a high price when we’re unable to let go of our fantasies and we have to be aware of that.
This is one of the moments I feel happy about reading Martin’s stories together, because because each of them brings a different piece to the puzzle. It’s a fascinating exploration of fantasy and reality that started decades ago and culminates with the multi-layered reconstruction of fantasy that is ASOIAF.
Next time: we’ll still be in the Thousand Worlds for “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man,” which has to be one of the best titles of anything ever.
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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