The Lord of the Rings – Book 4, Chapter 8: “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”

Before I get going on this post, I’m just going to offer up front a bit of warning that this chapter warranted some extra research and expansion, so the write-up is going to be of a length to reflect that.  I think this will add some awareness and resonance for the chapters ahead, so while it may seem a bit much, in my mind it makes sense to lay out some of it here.

Time is short, and Gollum prods Frodo and Sam along, past the statue, along the Southward Road, to the valley of Minas Morgul.  The Tower of the Moon holds them momentarily in the power of its corpse-light.  I truly love that description: “a light that illuminated nothing.”  Gollum again moves them along.  It’s hard going, and the stench is unbelievable.  Frodo begs for rest, but he’s out-voted.  Minas Morgul explodes in thunder, and lines of black-clad troops pour forth.  The cavalry is led by a horseman whom Frodo immediately recognizes as the Lord of the Nazgûl, he who stabbed Frodo at Weathertop.

Because the entire point of this project is to do some deep digging, I’m going to take a bit of time to discuss the Lord of the Nazgûl, aka The Witch-king of Angmar.  He’s got a bigger role to play ahead, and as the leader of the Nine his history is long and sordid.  And of course Tolkien has recorded it for us in various locations, from The Appendices of this book, The Silmarillion, the Unfinished Tales, and beyond.  There’s more detail available than what I’ll list here, but this should lend a little background for our purposes right now.

According to Tolkien, Sauron made a grab for the Rings of Power during the Sack of Eregion in 1697 of the Second Age.  Sometime after this, he gave nine of them to leaders of men.  It’s often presumed all nine were kings, but some of them were sorcerers and warriors.  Three of them are said to corrupted lords of the isle of Númenor, and one of them was a king of the Easterlings.  The Witch-king is likely one of the three Númenorean lords.  That he was the most powerful and feared of the Nine is not in dispute.  The Nazgûl disappeared into shadow after the fall of Mordor in S. A. 3441, not to be heard from again for more than a thousand years.  Around 1050 of the Third Age, Sauron began to rebuild his power in Dol Guldur.  The Nazgûl reemerged around 1300, and that’s when the Witch-king established his power base in the northern realm of Angmar.  His capital was Carn Dûm, on the northernmost peak of the Misty  Mountains, which gives us an idea without looking at a map.  In 1409, he led Sauron’s forces against the kingdom of Arnor.  He sent the barrow-wights to inhabit the barrows in Tyrn Gorthad in 1974.  He was defeated in battle a year later against the forces of Gondor, whereupon he returned to Mordor to prepare for the return of Sauron.  Minas Ithil was was besieged for two years under his assault, falling in 2002 and becoming the Nazgûl stronghold Minas Morgul.  The palantír known as the Ithil-stone was found and transferred to Barad-Dûr for Sauron’s use.

Challenging Gondor directly, it was only the steward of Gondor who held back the newly-crowned Eärnur from hunting down the Witch-king.  Seven years later, the Witch-king repeated his challenge, and the forces of Gondor marched with their king into Minas Morgul.  None returned, and here ended the kingship of Gondor.  The Witch-king bided his time and built his forces in the centuries to come.  In 2475, he sent his new Uruk-hai to Osgiliath, which they captured.  They were driven out by Boromir, the 11th ruling Steward of Gondor for whom our fallen hero of the Fellowship was named.  He took the quest to retake Ithilien, but he was killed by a Morgul-wound.

Sauron announced himself in 2951.  This is when Gollum was captured and interrogated, thus revealing the One Ring.  Even under torture, Gollum misdirected the search, saying that the land of the Hobbits lie on the banks of the Gladden River, which is where Gollum had found the it in the first place, near the Gladden Fields where Sauron fell in the last alliance of Elves and Men.

That was a little longer than I planned, but it should put some proper perspective into place, which brings us back to the events of this chapter.  Frodo recognizes the Lord of the Nazgûl, and when the Ringwraith stops his horse, Frodo fears they’re spotted.  His hand goes towards the Ring at his neck, which ironically would give him the strength to face off against the Witch-king, but it would also reveal them to Sauron’s forces outright.  His hand also touches the Phial of Galadriel, the gift of light he’d forgotten.

When the Nazgûl continues on (a result of the Phial?), Frodo is anything but relieved.  He is afraid they’ve taken too long in their quest already.  But Gollum urges the Hobbits to begin the climb on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol.  As they climb, they find they’re above Minas Morgul, twisting up the mountain.  They rest in a dark crevice, discussing if there is drinkable water.  From there, the discussion turns to old songs, and Sam and Frodo wonder if they will become characters in future songs.  On a personal note, their discussion here is one I’ve always loved, as it highlights how the options of stories and legends are either heroic success or forgotten oblivion.  If not for the heroism of those in the old stories, we’d never know about them in the first place.  It’s an idea that resonates with me.

In the midst of this conversation, Sam makes mention of Beren and his quest to retrieve the Silmaril from the Iron Crown of Thangorodrim (discussed way back in Book 1, Chapter 11: “A Knife in the Dark” and briefly mentioned for The Hobbit: Chapter 3 “A Short Rest”), saying that was “a worse place and a blacker danger than ours.”  He points out that some of this very Silmaril’s light is contained within the Phial of Galadriel, which makes the Hobbits now part of the same story.  This, too, is a point that resonates with me, drawing the entire story of Middle-Earth into one great tapestry… and once again, hence the point of this project.

Talk turns to Gollum’s trustworthiness, because he is “sneaky.”  (I love the exchange between Gollum and Sam about that.)  Ultimately, Frodo points out that Gollum is no friend of the Orcs, so no matter how selfish he may be, he’s reliable enough to want to keep the Ring out of the Enemy’s possession.  Frodo eventually tells Gollum that at this point he is free to go off by himself to anywhere he likes, save for the hands of the Enemy, but Gollum declares his intent to guide the Hobbits to the end.

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