As we’ve seen, the perils of Middle-Earth are not for the faint of heart. There are many secrets to behold in the dark, deep places, and many enemies. Orcs, trolls, Uruk-hai, balrogs, fell beasts, dragons, the Nazgûl, the treacherous Saruman, and ultimately the Dark Lord himself… these things and more we’ve seen since we opened the first pages of The Hobbit to begin this quest. But in Middle-Earth, the least likely can be the most dangerous.
After following the remnants of the Fellowship for the entirety of Book Three, we open Book Four a mere three days after the breaking of the Fellowship to at last check in on Frodo and Sam. Being the least likely saviors of the world is tough going, especially when you’re half the size of everyone else and the threats in front of you are the mountains themselves and the encroaching darkness. They can see all the way into Mordor from their vantage point. It’s the one place they don’t want to go, but because they have to in order to return home again, it’s the one place they’re in a hurry to arrive and depart. Nature seems their sworn enemy at every step as the duo attempts to scale down the steep cliff. But even that isn’t enough, so of course Tolkien throws in a storm brewing directly over their heads. Ever the optimist, Sam has lugged around his cooking equipment since day one, even though they survive on old lembas bread for lack of anything to cook.
Nature isn’t the only thing stalking them here. Another least likely threat has been tracking them all along. Even while our hobbits have made their way with a little help from the Elven rope given to Sam by the Lady Galadriel, Gollum climbs headfirst after them like a spider.
This imagery is important in Tolkien’s world. Tolkien was attacked by a large spider at a young age, and the primal fear he carried with him translated into Middle-Earth. We first saw this in The Hobbit when Bilbo and his companions faced off against such things in the forest of Mirkwood. We’ll see it again writ large in these pages in the form of Shelob. But for now, the characteristics are given to Gollum, who still wants the Ring, and who still carries a grudge against the name Baggins.
The Elven rope seems worthy of discussion as well. We are given no specifics about it, save for the idea that it’s grey, slender, lightweight, and soft to the touch. We are led to believe that it carries with it the same kind of magic the Elves imbued into their cloaks and other items. It seems to be always the exact length needed, it remains tied strong until its user wishes to retrieve it (say, at the bottom of a cliff face), and it appears to glow in the dark with a silvery light. That such magic can be dismissed out of hand by Frodo — he says the knot must have come loose — is perhaps only the natural and sane response, but it seems too easy after all else they’ve seen.
The ropes magic becomes directly apparently when it burns Gollum’s flesh with the same cold bite as ice. When Sam uses it to ensnare the creature, Gollum freaks out accordingly, wailing as though he is dying. It’s likely that he is suffering a greater torture than a slow death when bound by this rope. But the words of the past come back to Frodo, reminding him that pity stayed Bilbo’s hand, and as Gandalf stated, Gollum may yet have some part to play in the greater quest. So when Sam threatens to tie Gollum and leave him to die, Frodo protests and enlists him as a guide. Gollum is made to promise in a manner that Frodo would believe his word, and Gollum swears on “the Precious.”
The connection Frodo and Gollum make here is palpable. Tolkien says that it’s as though they can read each other’s minds, and perhaps they can to some extent. Between the weight of the Ring and the bite of the Morgul blade he received on Weathertop, Frodo’s journey into darkness has only thus far been staved off by Elrond’s healing remedies and hobbit positivity, most of that incarnate in Sam. To look at long last into the face of Gollum and see the direct and lasting effects of Sauron’s evil through the Ring must be frightening beyond all reckoning. When Gollum swears to follow “the Master of the Precious,” Frodo believes him, and the trio set out towards Mordor.
The question looms unasked: who is the Master of the Precious in the eyes of Gollum? Is it Frodo? Is it Gollum himself? Or is it Sauron, the Lord of the Rings?