“I wonder if they think of us at all?”
This little comment by Sam at the beginning of the chapter is one of the loneliest in the entire book for me, and while it couldn’t be further from the truth, it reflects Sam’s current state perfectly. Tolkien touches base the readers, telling us where the rest of the Fellowship are at this point in relation to the events of the previous book. Their thoughts are with the Hobbits and their quest, but they are all beyond ability to offer aid at this point. Sam finds himself in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, outside the Orc stronghold, but still in need of rescuing Frodo.
With no clear purpose, Sam puts on the Ring. The weight of its power is immediate. His sight becomes “thin and vague,” but his hearing sharpens. Even in this, the Ring deceives him so that he thinks he hears one thing, but then quickly discovers he hears something else. While he hears the Orcs fighting, he removes the Ring in his desire to see more clearly.
A pause here so I can babble on about something thematic. As I discussed way back on the Prologue for this book, the Ring is Sauron’s will made manifest. This is why Sauron is incomplete, appearing here only as a Great Eye. He sees all… he hears nothing. The irony here is that the whole of Middle-Earth was created in song according to The Silmarillion. It is in language that Tolkien built and evolved his creation. It’s in verse and rhyme that Middle-Earth is made real for us. That he who would be the undisputed ruler of all he surveys should be deaf is just amazing to me. His corruption has denied him the source of beauty that created the world. Conversely, to maintain his hold on all he sees, Sauron denies sight to those who serve him. Look no further than the Nazgûl for confirmation of this. They cannot be seen, nor do they see, using their senses of smell and hearing to operate in the lands. And so it makes perfect sense that Sauron’s sense of hearing is bound up in the Ring, which is what Sam is bestowed when he puts it on, at the cost of his sight. His desire to see more clearly — to remove the proverbial veil of darkness from his eyes — comes from the Light of his heart, motivated by his love for Frodo.
Back to the chapter. With his sight restored, Sam is able to see the land of Mordor for what it is, black and barren, scraped clean of anything meaningful, a visual representation of the line Bilbo used to describe his own weariness as inflicted by the Ring: “butter scraped over too much bread.” In the distance, Sam sees Orodruin — Mount Doom — and again feels the pull of the Ring.
It is telling that Sam’s clear-eyed look at the red fire-bathed realm of Mordor allows him to see that the entirety of what he surveys was designed not to keep the enemies out, but rather to keep them in. Sauron has “few servants, but many slaves of fear, and still its chief purposes of old were to prevent escape from Mordor.” That sound like an apt description of Hell to you? Hell on Earth. After all that back there, Tolkien gives us the full power of his battlefield memories as archetypal evil: the brutal legacy of what war leaves behind.
He imagines himself a great hero, “Samwise the Strong.” And again, it is his love for Frodo that allows him to shake off the Ring’s hold and regain his humility through the reminder that he is “merely” a gardener. Given that a gardener’s very function is to nurture life, what greater hero could there be in the whole of Tolkien’s realm?
Another quick aside, just to get this out of the way. When modern readers interpret this love Sam has for Frodo, especially with Peter Jackson’s films in mind, this is often misinterpreted as something it’s not. The love of Sam for Frodo is the same as you’d read in any Medieval tale of Arthur and Lancelot. It heralds an era and an idea where love of your friend need be nothing more than the strongest bond of friendship possible — and nothing less. In terms of how the Greeks defined it back in the day, it’s Agape, not Eros. There’s nothing romantic here whatsoever, contrary to modern pop culture’s insistence to the contrary. It annoys me to no end that this sort of thing even needs to be pointed out.
Determined to press forward, Sam draws Sting, but he’s held at the gate as if by an unseen web. The Two Watchers at the entrance to Cirith Ungol hold him with invisible dark power, preventing entrance or escape of any who approach. So naturally, what dispels darkness? Light. Sam unconsciously draws forth the Phial of Galadriel and, holding it aloft, he is able to pass quickly through as its light pierces through. The Watchers cry out. Tolkien doesn’t say if this is in pain or not (I always wonder about this), but it’s certainly the Mordor equivalent of an alarm klaxon.
Inside the Orc stronghold, there are dead Orcs as he reaches the narrow staircase. Another Orc sees Sam and halts, his own lack of sight perceiving a grey shadow with an Elven blade shining in the dark. Sam follows the Orc’s fearful retreat, thinking himself the “Elf-warrior.” Upstairs, only two Orcs remain: Snaga and Shagrat. Shagrat orders Snaga downstairs, but Snaga will not go. He runs off, leaving Shagrat alone and furious. Sam confronts Shagrat, but the Orc is overwhelmed by the power of the Ring and runs in panic.
When Sam cannot find Frodo after a long search, he begins to sing to himself for reasons unknown. Of course, where there is song in this book to be had, The Tolkien Ensemble has provided their own quality rendition. If you’d like to hear “Sam’s Song in the Orc-Tower,” you can find that here. If ever there was a song about not giving up in the midst of surrounding darkness, this is it.
It’s pretty easy to look at both the song and the unconscious act of singing it as more of Tolkien’s signs to both reader and character that the powers of Light are conspiring just as much, if not more, than the powers of Darkness. Even here in the heart of Mordor, such forces still hold sway. The song draws out Snaga. The Orc mistakes Sam’s voice for Frodo’s. Following Snaga’s snarling sound, Sam finds the Orc climbing a ladder through a hidden door in the ceiling to a secret chamber. Sam climbs up after him and attacks. In panic, Snaga charges Sam, trips over him, and falls to the floor below. Oops.
Frodo lies naked and prone upon a heap of rags in the center of the room. He is surprised to see Sam, but it seems even he heard that song. After allowing Frodo to rest for a minute, Sam suggests they should continue, but Frodo despairs that the quest has failed. He believes the Ring to now be in the hands of the Enemy. Sam reveals that he has kept it and acknowledges its terrible burden. He even offers to help Frodo carry it should its weight prove too great so close to its Master. At first, Frodo is relieved, but then he suddenly demands Sam should hand it over, calling Sam a thief. Grabbing the Ring, Frodo apologizes, both of them more than aware of the toll the Ring has taken thus far. They temporarily separate so that Sam can search around for supplies. I love that their super secret password to one another is “Elbereth,” a name the Orcs will not use, and which we’ve already seen has a power to bless. Upon Sam’s return, the Hobbits gear themselves in Orc clothes and armor then climb down. The Phial of Galadriel, combined with the powerful name of Elbereth Gilthoniel, allows them to move once more past the Watchers, out into Mordor.
As if on cue, the terrifying cry of a Nazgûl fills the sky above them.