Mordor is surrounded by the Dead Marshes, and Gollum knows the way. He’s hidden there before when being chased by Orcs. Per his agreement, he now guides Frodo and Sam. According to Tolkien’s letters, it appears the Dead Marshes are based on his personal experience at the Battle of the Somme. Blast craters would fill up in the rain with the dead soldiers of both sides floating in them. I can see how an image like that would haunt a person. That memory sets the tone of this chapter.
It’s odd to consider that having met Gollum way back in chapter 5 of The Hobbit, we’re only now coming to really know him after his reintroduction in the previous chapter. Here we learn that the Elven lembas bread is painful to him, that he can’t eat it. We learn that he prefers to travel by night, afraid of the sun and calling it “Yellow Face.” And we learn that we as readers are still distrustful of him because we’ve had all this time to let the idea build that he’s a bit of a monster. We’re in good company, for Sam doesn’t trust him either. He expects Gollum to betray them the moment he and Frodo fall asleep.
When Gollum is gone the next morning, it would seem Sam’s suspicions are correct. But there is another concern on Sam’s mind: food. The lembas isn’t Sam’s favorite, but he admits it’s nourishing. The problem is, it’s also running out. He suspects they have enough food for perhaps three more weeks. And then Gollum pops up again, suggesting that maybe he can be trusted after all. Maybe.
Leading them through the Dead Marshes, Gollum’s passage takes them through dancing candles and lights, which mesmerizes Frodo. When he reaches out to try to touch the faces of the dead at the bottom of the marshes, Gollum stops him, saying the dead cannot be touched. He suggests that he’s actually tried to eat them before.
Days pass, and the Hobbits fight to stay conscious, the stench of the marshes nearly causing them to faint. They manage to avoid the gaze of a Nazgûl flying overhead one night, and Frodo is clearly distrubed at constantly being watched by the Dark Lord.
By the fifth day, they emerge from the marshes to find the land dried up and completely barren. They have arrived at Mordor. Battlefields such as Verdun and the Somme inspired Tolkien. I’ve heard descriptions of it where these battlefields, and thus Mordor itself, would have more in common with the desolate landscape of the moon than anything found here on earth. But it’s not enough to merely desolate. There are poison pits too. Because, why not?
When they camp for the night, Frodo overhears Gollum arguing with himself. This is a revealing scene, for we learn that Gollum is torn between his need to get the “Precious” and his vow to serve the master of the Ring, whom he recognizes as Frodo. More than that, he knows he must keep the Ring from the servants of Sauron, including the Nazgûl. In that regard, he is not conflicted, for it serves both his ends.
The trio arrives at the gates of Mordor the next morning, and when they see the Nazgûl again, Gollum proclaims it a bad omen. He knows they can feel the Ring, and he refuses to go forward until he’s threatened at knife point.
As we are being reintroduced to Gollum in this chapter, it’s only natural that even he has a song, for as we know, that’s where Tolkien does his best world building. Gollum’s song is actually two-fold. The first part of it, he speaks of the harsh lands biting into his hands and feet, his only relief being the cold, refreshing waters. The second part is his riddle, the answer to which “He guessed it long ago, Baggins guessed it.” Of course, the riddle refers to the Ring, which sounds to be its own character right from the opening line: “Alive without breath.”
For those interested, you can hear The Tolkien Ensemble perform “Gollum’s Song / Riddle” right here.