06 March 2016

'Wraiths!' he wailed. 'Wraiths on Wings' -- (TT 4.ii.629-30)

Winged Messenger © Nick Marshall

[Gollum] went on again, but his uneasiness grew, and every now and again he stood up to his full height, craning his neck eastward and southward. For some time the hobbits could not hear or feel what was troubling him. Then suddenly all three halted, stiffening and listening. To Frodo and Sam it seemed that they heard, far away, a long wailing cry, high and thin and cruel. They shivered. At the same moment the stirring of the air became perceptible to them; and it grew very cold. As they stood straining their ears, they heard a noise like a wind coming in the distance. The misty lights wavered, dimmed, and went out.  
Gollum would not move. He stood shaking and gibbering to himself, until with a rush the wind came upon them, hissing and snarling over the marshes. The night became less dark, light enough for them to see, or half see, shapeless drifts of fog, curling and twisting as it rolled over them and passed them. Looking up they saw the clouds breaking and shredding; and then high in the south the moon glimmered out, riding in the flying wrack.

For a moment the sight of it gladdened the hearts of the hobbits; but Gollum cowered down, muttering curses on the White Face. Then Frodo and Sam staring at the sky, breathing deeply of the fresher air, saw it come: a small cloud flying from the accursed hills; a black shadow loosed from Mordor; a vast shape winged and ominous. It scudded across the moon, and with a deadly cry went away westward, outrunning the wind in its fell speed. 
They fell forward, grovelling heedlessly on the cold earth. But the shadow of horror wheeled and returned, passing lower now, right above them, sweeping the fen-reek with its ghastly wings. And then it was gone, flying back to Mordor with the speed of the wrath of Sauron; and behind it the wind roared away, leaving the Dead Marshes bare and bleak. The naked waste, as far as the eye could pierce, even to the distant menace of the mountains, was dappled with the fitful moonlight.  
Frodo and Sam got up, rubbing their eyes, like children wakened from an evil dream to find the familiar night still over the world. But Gollum lay on the ground as if he had been stunned. They roused him with difficulty, and for some time he would not lift his face, but knelt forward on his elbows, covering the back of his head with his large flat hands.  
'Wraiths!' he wailed. 'Wraiths on wings! The Precious is their master. They see everything, everything. Nothing can hide from them. Curse the White Face! And they tell Him everything. He sees, He knows. Ach, gollum, gollum, gollum!' It was not until the moon had sunk, westering far beyond Tol Brandir, that he would get up or make a move.  
(TT 4.ii.629-30, emphases original)

This scene, which replays itself twice more by the end of this chapter (TT 4.ii.634-35), is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, it allows us to make an observation that is important for understanding the power of the Ring, not because the Ring itself is directly in play here, but because of Gollum's similar behavior in another scene where its power is central. For outside the Black Gate, when Frodo declares that since there is no other way into Mordor, he must try this one, Gollum makes the mistake of suggesting that Frodo give the Ring back to him (TT 4.iii.637). At first Frodo appears not to have noticed what Gollum has said, or to attach no importance to it, so intent is he on his mission. When Gollum subsequently reveals the existence of another way into Mordor, Frodo's attention seems entirely devoted to considering that option.

But Frodo has not forgotten, not in the least.
'Sméagol,' he said, 'I will trust you once more. lndeed it seems that I must do so, and that it is my fate to receive help from you, where I least looked for it, and your fate to help me whom you long pursued with evil purpose. So far you have deserved well of me and have kept your promise truly. Truly, I say and mean,' he added with a glance at Sam, 'for twice now we have been in your power, and you have done no harm to us. Nor have you tried to take from me what you once sought. May the third time prove the best! But I warn you, Sméagol, you are in danger.' 
'Yes, yes, master!' said Gollum. 'Dreadful danger! Sméagol's bones shake to think of it, but he doesn't run away. He must help nice master.'  
'I did not mean the danger that we all share,' said Frodo. 'I mean a danger to yourself alone. You swore a promise by what you call the Precious. Remember that! It will hold you to it; but it will seek a way to twist it to your own undoing. Already you are being twisted. You revealed yourself to me just now, foolishly. Give it back to Sméagol you said. Do not say that again! Do not let that thought grow in you! You will never get it back. But the desire of it may betray you to a bitter end. You will never get it back. In the last need, Sméagol, I should put on the Precious; and the Precious mastered you long ago. If I, wearing it, were to command you, you would obey, even if it were to leap from a precipice or to cast yourself into the fire. And such would be my command. So have a care, Sméagol!' 
Sam looked at his master with approval, but also with surprise: there was a look in his face and a tone in his voice that he had not known before. It had always been a notion of his that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness. Of course, he also firmly held the incompatible belief that Mr. Frodo was the wisest person in the world (with the possible exception of Old Mr. Bilbo and of Gandalf). Gollum in his own way, and with much more excuse as his acquaintance was much briefer, may have made a similar mistake, confusing kindness and blindness. At any rate this speech abashed and terrified him. He grovelled on the ground and could speak no clear words but nice master
Frodo waited patiently for a while, then he spoke again less sternly. 'Come now, Gollum or Sméagol if you wish, tell me of this other way, and show me, if you can, what hope there is in it, enough to justify me in turning aside from my plain path. I am in haste.' 
But Gollum was in a pitiable state, and Frodo's threat had quite unnerved him. It was not easy to get any clear account out of him, amid his mumblings and squeakings, and the frequent interruptions in which he crawled on the floor and begged them both to be kind to 'poor little Sméagol'. After a while he grew a little calmer, and Frodo gathered bit by bit that, if a traveller followed the road that turned west of Ephel Duath, he would come in time .... 
(TT 4.iii.640-41, emphasis original)
In declaring that he trusts Gollum only because he must and only because of fate. Frodo is in essence declaring that he does not trust him at all. Indeed he has already twice indicated to Sam that this is so, first conceding that they were safe with Gollum 'at present' (TT 4.ii.622-23), and then that even the promise Gollum made on the Precious would hold only 'a while yet' (TT 4.ii.624). Frodo's 'so far' to Gollum here echoes his words to Sam there, and the private glance he steals at him as he says 'truly I say and mean' serves as a reminder to Sam that both patience and vigilance are still in order. And Frodo immediately gives evidence of both, and much more, as he glides smoothly from expressing, or seeming to express, concern for the danger which Gollum is in, to delivering a threat in which he invokes the power of the Ring to terrify him. He thus reduces him to a state of mumbling incoherence, something even the terror of the winged messengers had not done.

Without saying so explicitly, Frodo has here identified himself as the master of the Precious, which not only 'mastered' Gollum long ago, but the Ringwraiths as well. He has also -- if momentarily, yet not for the last time (TT 4.vi.687; cf. RK 6.iii.944) -- adopted the preferred weapon of the Ringwraiths themselves. For, as Strider said back in Bree when asked if the Nazgûl would attack The Prancing Pony, 'that is not their way.... their power is in terror' (FR 1.x.174, italics mine); to which we may add Gandalf's statement that they 'are only shadows of the power and the terror they would possess if the Ruling Ring were on their master's hand again' (FR 2.iv.295). He is also doing what Galadriel said he must do if he wished to use to Ring -- and warned him strongly against -- 'train[ing his] will to the domination of others' (FR 2.vii.366). It is perhaps especially worth noting in this context that, until now, it has been with Sting alone that Frodo has threatened Gollum (TT 4.i.614, ii.635; see also FR 2.ix.384).

That Frodo has come so far in so short a time is chilling. Not even ten days before this moment he had left his comrades because 'the evil of the Ring [was] already at work in the Company' (FR 2.x.401). And a few days after that he found within himself the pity for Gollum that Gandalf had failed to elicit from him back in The Shire (FR 1.ii.59; TT 4.i.615). That pity arose, as I have recently argued, largely because he saw how Boromir had 'fallen into evil' owing to the power of the Ring (FR 2.x.401).  Yet here we see Frodo himself trammeled in the web of the Ring's power, moved both to show pity and wield terror by swift turns. Galadriel's concern that 'all the Company' remain 'true' applies at least as much to Frodo as it does to Boromir (FR 2.vii.357), a point that we can too easily forget given the events on the slopes of Amon Hen. Indeed, Gandalf's 'neither strength nor good purpose will last' could almost be viewed as summing up the two of them (FR 1.ii.47). 

The second reason the scene with the wraiths is noteworthy is that it marks a turning point whose importance should be clearer in view of what we have just seen. Continuing directly from the point at which we stopped in the first quote, we find the following:
From that time on Sam thought that he sensed a change in Gollum again. He was more fawning and would-be friendly; but Sam surprised some strange looks in his eyes at times, especially towards Frodo; and he went back more and more into his old manner of speaking. And Sam had another growing anxiety. Frodo seemed to be weary, weary to the point of exhaustion. He said nothing, indeed he hardly spoke at all; and he did not complain, but he walked like one who carries a load, the weight of which is ever increasing; and he dragged along, slower and slower, so that Sam had often to beg Gollum to wait and not to leave their master behind. 
In fact with every step towards the gates of Mordor Frodo felt the Ring on its chain about his neck grow more burdensome. He was now beginning to feel it as an actual weight dragging him earthwards. But far more he was troubled by the Eye: so he called it to himself. It was that more than the drag of the Ring that made him cower and stoop as he walked. The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable. So thin, so frail and thin, the veils were become that still warded it off. Frodo knew just where the present habitation and heart of that will now was: as certainly as a man can tell the direction of the sun with his eyes shut. He was facing it, and its potency beat upon his brow. 
Gollum probably felt something of the same sort. But what went on in his wretched heart between the pressure of the Eye, and the lust of the Ring that was so near, and his grovelling promise made half in the fear of cold iron, the hobbits did not guess: Frodo gave no thought to it. Sam's mind was occupied mostly with his master, hardly noticing the dark cloud that had fallen on his own heart. He put Frodo in front of him now, and kept a watchful eye on every movement of his, supporting him if he stumbled, and trying to encourage him with clumsy words.
(TT 4.ii.630-31)
The effect of the terror of the Nazgûl here once again brings to mind the verdict of Aragorn at Bree: 'In dark and loneliness they are strongest' (FR 1.x.174). The shriek Frodo and Sam heard on the cliffs of the Emyn Muil a few days earlier demonstrates the truth of this, as the narrator emphasizes how much more powerful that cry was now than in the comfortable woods of The Shire: 'Out here in the waste its terror was far greater: it pierced them with cold blades of horror and despair, stopping heart and breath' (TT 4.i.607).  Now, however, not only does it bring them temporarily to their knees. It changes them.

For as bad as the Emyn Muil were, the Dead Marshes are worse. So far from being merely a desolate, difficult, and lonely landscape, the Dead Marshes are a no man's land haunted by the phantasms of ancient wars whose appearance -- whether they are truly the ghosts of the dead in battle, evil spirits like the Barrow-wights, or altogether an illusion of Sauron -- mocks all victory and sacrifice as vain, and denies the glory of the Great Tales. The marshes and the phantasms seem to cast a spell over Frodo and Sam, much as Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wight did, inducing a dreamlike state of consciousness that nearly tempts them to their ruin.[1] As in the Old Forest, Sam seems more resistant than Frodo. Here, too, Frodo has a 'vision' in his dreams, explicitly called 'fair' here and quite reasonably seen as such there (FR 1.viii.135; TT 4.ii.635). Also as in the Old Forest, they have a guide or escort, who helps see them through the dangers to the other side.

But how different an escort is Gollum -- who flinches as if in pain at the sound of his own true name (TT 4.i.616) and is a slave to the Ring -- from Bombadil whose name has power, and over whom the Ring has none at all. And though the 'fair vision' of Frodo's dream refreshes him, he cannot remember it upon waking, in stark contrast with the six vividly remembered dreams in the chapters centered on Bombadil and his land. In the Dead Marshes, where even the land may be called 'weary', the wailing cry of the Nazgûl casts over them 'a shadow of growing fear in which memory could find nothing to rest upon' (TT 4.ii.631). Unlike in the Old Forest and Barrow Downs, or in Lothlórien, where Bombadil and Galadriel are present to ward off the darker powers, in the Dead Marshes that darkness holds sway; and aims at that domination which distinguishes 'the devices of the Enemy' from 'elf magic.'[2]

As a result Gollum, who had changed for the better after promising 'to serve the master of the Precious' (TT 4.i.618), begins to revert to his former self: only a few days pass before the 'two thoughts' scene, in which Sam hears Gollum's worse self persuading his better self to betray the hobbits and recover the Ring (TT 4.ii.632-34). For Frodo, too, the Ring now begins to be a torment from moment to moment. The moral weight of its evil becomes a physical burden, wearying him and weighing him down; and though before he could perceive the spiritual pressure of Sauron's mind hunting for the Ring only when wearing the Ring or looking in Galadriel's mirror, now he feels it beating on his brow like the heat of the sun. Note the narrator's emphatic and uncharacteristic shift in pronouns from the normal and expected third to the more forceful second person: '...to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable' (italics mine).[3]  Frodo's pity for Gollum, their kinship because of the Ring, and ability to reach each other (TT 4.i.618), now seem of little avail. A moment after the narrator tells us that Gollum's experience must have been similar to Frodo's, he also makes a point (hence the colon) of telling us that 'Frodo gave it no thought.' Feeling threatened as he does, Frodo attends only to the Ring even as he struggles onward with the intention of destroying it.

© Ted Nasmith 


[1] For an extended discussion of these states of consciousness, see here.

[2] That The Dead Marshes exhibit these characteristics suggests that Faërie contains the enchantments that are an expression of the will to power as much as those that generate Art.

[3] I find myself unable to think of a similar instance of this kind of shift by the narrator in The Lord of the Rings.


  1. This one's been percolating in the back of my brain for a while: "how much more powerful that cry was now than in the comfortable woods of The Shire." It's an interesting conjunction with your reminder of why the Black Riders couldn't attack the Prancing Pony. In a nutshell, conviviality is an environment they can't endure. It never before occurred to me how well the word "conviviality" applies to a forest. But now that it has, I have absolutely no trouble believing that Prof. Tolkien intended us to think of forests that way.

    That thought took me two weeks. I'll be challenging old Barliman for his title, before long.

  2. Joe, I wouldn't say that they "couldn't" attack The Prancing Pony. As Strider says, it is "not their way." The journey of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum across the marshes exists in a strange parallel with the journey of Frodo, Sam, and Pippin across the Shire. Hobbits on the road, with songs, menaced by Black Riders. I am going to sit down one of these days and work the whole parallel out, just haven't gotten there yet.

  3. Not sure how well conviviality applies to Mirkwood.

  4. I'm using the word literally, and not thinking only of people. A forest is a web of interrelated living things so dense that we're only beginning to understand it. (Wonderful diagrams at http://www.mollydanielsson.com)