17 August 2019

First Steps into Ithilien (TT 4.iv.648-52)

Another excerpt from To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity, and the Ring of Power, a much longer work I am writing at present.

If much of what we have seen in the first three chapters of Book Four traces a descent for Frodo, the next three chapters will show his path turn upward again. For the pity he showed Gollum is Frodo at his best, and confirms the good opinion Gandalf and Bilbo have of him. Soon, though, and in the name of his quest he uses the Ring to dominate a Gollum whom he would not kill and could not set loose. With use, the burden of the Ring increases until in doubt and despair he terrorizes Gollum with the threat of what he, as master of the Precious, would compel him to do ‘in the last need’. This is Frodo at his worst. His vaunting of his power over Gollum here is little different than Boromir’s boast as he tried to seize the Ring: ‘For I am too strong for you, halfling’. That neither Boromir nor Frodo can make good on his threat reveals once more the deception that lies at the heart of any experience of the Ring.
The green memory of the Shire, stirred by Sam’s recitation of Oliphaunt in the choking wasteland before the Black Gate, marks a turning point. It allows Frodo to reclaim some of his humanity, and with it some small hope. For his wish that the ‘third time may turn the best’ desires more than the transactional trust that has subsisted between him and Gollum thus far, an outcome possible only if they also ‘find Sméagol’ and Gollum reclaims his humanity.
Parallel to Frodo’s ascent in these chapters is his departure from ‘the desolation that lay before Mordor’ and entry into ‘Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate’ which ‘kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness’ (TT 4.iv.650). No one who has read The Lord of the Rings with the least attention needs to be reminded of this shift, so aptly described in the two phrases just quoted: from a ‘desolation’, where ‘nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness’ (TT 4.ii.631) to a ‘garden … now desolate’, that is to say, a garden where no one lived.[1] Tolkien’s remarkable selection of the word ‘dryad’ here evokes the immanent loveliness of the land by conjuring the reader’s understanding of the minor deities who lived in the woodlands of Greek Mythology. When we recall that the Old English for ‘dryad’ was ‘ælfen’[2] and that the narrative has been hinting at fairy tales for some time, we can see that the relief and recovery Frodo first experienced upon hearing Sam recite the ‘old fireside rhyme’, Oliphaunt, will continue in Ithilien.[3] But there are no Elves in Ithilien. To Frodo and Sam its woodlands smell of ‘the uplands of the Northfarthing far away’, that is, they smell of home, unlike the woods through which Bilbo passed on his approach to Rivendell eighty year earlier (H 90-91). For the first time in quite a while the hearts of the hobbits are lightened.
Sam and Frodo also feel themselves ‘reprieved’ by being there (TT 4.iv.648-49). Again we encounter a remarkable choice of words. Tolkien uses ‘reprieve’ only here, at the beginning of a section which ends with another, more formal, reprieve, as Faramir and Frodo revisit the question of Gollum’s deserts; and in fact Faramir spares Frodo and Sam the full weight of the law of the land (TT 4.vi.689-93). For even to walk in Ithilien is a capital crime for those not in the service of Gondor. Given Frodo’s words to Gildor about walking ‘in our own Shire’  (FR 1.iii.83), it is likely a measure of the horrors from which they have just emerged that two hobbits of the benignly anarchic Shire do not see this situation as the world-turned-upside-down.
Yet it is just such a world, in which Sam prepares a bit of home-cooking for Frodo as he sleeps just uphill from ‘a pile of charred and broken bones and skulls’, a ‘place of dreadful feast and slaughter’ (TT 4.iv.651). Here, too, Sam and Gollum banter like old comrades about coneys and taters despite their dislike of each other. Both look upon the sleeping Frodo, Sam seeing the same light welling from within him more clearly than he had seen it – we now learn – back in Rivendell (TT 4.iv.652) and which then gave Gandalf the hope that Frodo would become ‘like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can’ (FR 2.i.223). What Gollum sees as he looks at Frodo over Sam’s shoulder we never learn – much as we never learn what Bilbo saw in Frodo’s face in Rivendell which led him to say ‘I understand now…. I am sorry’ (FR 2.i.232) – but if he sees the same light Sam does, he has also ‘shut his eyes and crawled away without a sound’ (TT 4.iv.652). Strikingly juxtaposed with Sam’s expression of love and the light of Frodo, it is a poignant reminder both of the isolation imposed by the Ring and the longing for ‘the sun on daisies’ that may lie long hidden even in the darkest heart.

[1] See OED ‘desolate’, adj. and noun, 5 and 6a,which ‘are often combined in actual use’.
[2] For discussion of ‘ælfen’, its use to translate Latin ‘dryas’, and its close kin ‘ælf’, see Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England (2007). Page numbers to follow once I get home to my bookcase. 
[3] Besides Gollum’s ‘once upon a time’ (TT 4.iii.638), he speaks of ‘wonderful tales’ which ‘we used to tell in the evening, sitting by the banks of the Great River, in the willow-lands, when the River was younger too’ (TT 4.iii.641). These Sam answers with memories of tales the hobbits in the Shire knew, in particular the Oliphaunt (TT 4.iii.646-47). This leads Frodo to imagine a fairy-tale ending: Gandalf, whom he thinks dead, breaks down the Black Gate at the head of a thousand oliphaunts, which he believes mythical (TT 4.iii.647).


  1. Wonderful close reading, Tom. Thank you for your work.

  2. Beautiful. I particularly liked the parallel between Frodo's ascension and the move from Mordor to Ithilien.