If there’s one legacy that Tolkien has carried from his British heritage, its the idea that everything needs a name. By that, I mean every little part of every little thing. We’ve seen it in the Shire, at Rohan, and at the Hornburg, and at all places in between. I’m pretty sure that in Tolkien’s mind, every rock and twig has a name. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, why not? Is Middle-Earth not alive? Is it not said that there is mystical power in names? As an American reader, I found it off-putting as a kid when I first tried to wrap my head around it, but the more British history I’ve learned over the years, the more comfortable I’ve become to the point where it gives Tolkien’s work a ring of majesty and, where appropriate, foreboding. It’s perhaps one reason why so many have difficulty with The Silmarillion, because he takes that concept to another level. This chapter opens with another one of those moments, where Tolkien opens up to us regarding the dreaded land of Mordor. And we get yet another reference to the possible identity of The Two Towers: the so-called Teeth of Mordor, originally built by Men of Gondor upon the high cliffs surrounding Cirith Gorgor, the Haunted Pass that runs between them. This little tidbit of background knowledge speaks volumes as to the character of Sauron and his minions. Rather than create anything anew, they simply overrun, claim for their own, and corrupt.
It is here that our two hobbits find themselves at the beginning of the chapter, observing the military power on display, weighing their options, and finding none. Frodo is determined to go forth and complete his mission, however, and this throws Gollum into all manner of distress. He is pledged to protect the Ring from Sauron and to serve his new master, or so he claims, and while he led the hobbits here by Frodo’s command, he knows that way lies death. There is another way, he tells them.
Sam, meanwhile, is suspicious of Gollum’s true intent and grateful the little wretch has no clue as to Frodo’s ultimate goal to destroy the Ring.
Gollum tells of a road that winds south around Mordor, but cautions that this is also a road that should not be pursued. When Frodo is insistent upon learning another way, Gollum offers one. There is a third path that winds across the back of Mordor leading to Minas Ithil, the Tower of the Moon originally built by Isildur and his people. Today it is known as Minas Morgul, which translates as the Tower of Black Sorcery. It’s guarded by Orcs and beings known as Silent Watchers. Sam grumbles that it’s just as risky as the first path, but Gollum points out that there is one notable difference: Sauron’s attention isn’t focused upon it. As powerful as the Dark Lord is, he can’t see everywhere at once. Gollum tells of hidden stairs, a path, and a tunnel, the very route he used to escape Sauron’s captivity.
As Frodo struggles to remember the advice he learned from Gandalf and Aragorn regarding Cirith Ungol, we are reminded that the hobbits are unaware of Gandalf’s return. It’s a dark little reminder that whittles away at hope in this evil land. This is followed in short order by another reminder as four Nazgûl fly overhead, a sure sign that the Enemy is on the high alert.
From Gollum, we also learn of another threat, the “other men” arriving at Mordor with dark skin, painted red faces, and wearing plenty of gold, carrying spears and shields. In keeping with the idea of learning about Middle-Earth as we go, a little research into deeper lore reveals these other men to be the Haradrim. Their ancestors date back to the First Age. When the men of that time moved West, the ancestors of the Haradrim remained in the East, eventually settling in Harad “where the Sun is fierce and there are no clouds.” In other words, these would be Tolkien’s analog for / ancestors of the peoples of the Middle-East today. To the Haradrim, Sauron is feared as a God-King, and as such their loyalty is absolute.
In one of those wonderful little character moments that lends levity to a dark situation, Sam asks if they have any oliphaunts. Gollum doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about, and Sam recites a rhyme from the Shire, telling of these great beasts that were used in battle by big folk of the Sunlands. He says that if these other men that Gollum speaks of had oliphaunts with them, he’d risk taking a look. But, he says, perhaps there is no such thing as oliphaunts. It’s one of those statements that just assures the reader that we’ll be seeing these creatures before the story ends. (“Rats of Unusual Size? I don’t think they exist.”)
As the chapter ends, Gollum encourages the hobbits to rest in the shadow of the stones until such a time as the “Yellow Face goes away.” Once no longer under the watchful Eye of Sauron, the trio can make their escape to the hidden stairs.
If you want to hear The Tolkien Ensemble’s rendition of “Oliphaunt,” you can find it right here.