410 – The Choices of Master Samwise

The Choices of Master Samwise

I’d thought I knew the book quite well, but this chapter-by-chapter analysis is showing me many new aspects.  Logical gaps.  And my own errors – I kept remembering this as ‘The Choice of Master Samwise’, even though he makes several.

The first – hardly a choice, given Sam’s character – is to go to help Frodo.  But we learn later that the Orcs fail to rescue an Orc they know who is still alive and hung up in cobwebs.  Even the worst humans are seldom that bad, but these are Orcs.  Also Orcs in a place full of evil influences, if that matters.  We do know that the Orcs of the Moria cared enough to go seeking vengeance for the Orcs the Fellowship had killed.

Sam in attacking Shelob is going against the odds.  But he maybe has Good Powers supporting him as he tries to do the right thing:

“Frodo was lying face upward on the ground and the monster was bending over him, so intent upon her victim that she took no heed of Sam and his cries, until he was close at hand. As he rushed up he saw that Frodo was already bound in cords, wound about him from ankle to shoulder, and the monster with her great forelegs was beginning half to lift, half to drag his body away.

“On the near side of him lay, gleaming on the ground, his elven-blade, where it had fallen useless from his grasp. Sam did not wait to wonder what was to be done, or whether he was brave, or loyal, or filled with rage. He sprang forward with a yell, and seized his master’s sword in his left hand. Then he charged. No onslaught more fierce was ever seen in the savage world of beasts; where some desperate small creature armed with little teeth alone, will spring upon a tower of horn and hide that stands above its fallen mate.”

He had kept his own blade when fighting Gollum, but now has a better sword.  Yet even Sting has its limits:

“But Shelob was not as dragons are, no softer spot had she save only her eyes. Knobbed and pitted with corruption was her age-old hide, but ever thickened from within with layer on layer of evil growth. The blade scored it with a dreadful gash, but those hideous folds could not be pierced by any strength of men, not though Elf or Dwarf should forge the steel or the hand of Beren or of Turin wield it.[A]

But Shelob makes a tactical error:

“Now splaying her legs she drove her huge bulk down on him again. Too soon. For Sam still stood upon his feet, and dropping his own sword, with both hands he held the elven-blade point upwards, fending off that ghastly roof; and so Shelob, with the driving force of her own cruel will, with strength greater than any warrior’s hand, thrust herself upon a bitter spike. Deep, deep it pricked, as Sam was crushed slowly to the ground.

“No such anguish had Shelob ever known, or dreamed of knowing, in all her long world of wickedness. Not the doughtiest soldier of old Gondor, nor the most savage Orc entrapped, had ever thus endured her, or set blade to her beloved flesh. A shudder went through her. Heaving up again, wrenching away from the pain, she bent her writhing limbs beneath her and sprang backwards in a convulsive leap.”

Note the phrase ‘beloved flesh’.  Shelob loves herself, and all other creatures are nothing but food.

Having harmed the monster, Sam somehow manages to keep the sword as Shelob pulls back.  But then she comes at him again:

“Even as Sam himself crouched, looking at her, seeing his death in her eyes, a thought came to him, as if some remote voice had spoken. and he fumbled in his breast with his left hand, and found what he sought: cold and hard and solid it seemed to his touch in a phantom world of horror, the Phial of Galadriel.

“’Galadriel!’ he said faintly, and then he heard voices far off but clear: the crying of the Elves as they walked under the stars in the beloved shadows of the Shire, and the music of the Elves as it came through his sleep in the Hall of Fire in the house of Elrond.

“Gilthoniel A Elbereth!

“And then his tongue was loosed and his voice cried in a language which he did not know:

“A Elbereth Gilthoniel
“o menel palan-diriel,
“le nallon sí di’nguruthos!
“A tiro nin, Fanuilos!”

This is a Good Power – possibly the Supreme Power in Tolkien’s mythology – stepping in when a mortal has done all they can.  And then withdrawing again, requiring them to do their part.

“And with that he staggered to his feet and was Samwise the hobbit, Hamfast’s son, again.

“`Now come, you filth!’ he cried. `You’ve hurt my master, you brute, and you’ll pay for it. We’re going on; but we’ll settle with you first. Come on, and taste it again!’

“As if his indomitable spirit had set its potency in motion, the glass blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand. It flamed like a star that leaping from the firmament sears the dark air with intolerable light. No such terror out of heaven had ever burned in Shelob’s face before. The beams of it entered into her wounded head and scored it with unbearable pain, and the dreadful infection of light spread from eye to eye. She fell back beating the air with her forelegs, her sight blasted by inner lightnings, her mind in agony. Then turning her maimed head away, she rolled aside and began to crawl, claw by claw, towards the opening in the dark cliff behind.

“Sam came on. He was reeling like a drunken man, but he came on. And Shelob cowed at last, shrunken in defeat, jerked and quivered as she tried to hasten from him. She reached the hole, and squeezing down, leaving a trail of green-yellow slime, she slipped in, even as Sam hewed a last stroke at her dragging legs. Then he fell to the ground.

The narrator here becomes an historian writing long after the event:

“Shelob was gone; and whether she lay long in her lair, nursing her malice and her misery, and in slow years of darkness healed herself from within, rebuilding her clustered eyes, until with hunger like death she spun once more her dreadful snares in the glens of the Mountains of Shadow, this tale does not tell.

“Sam was left alone. Wearily, as the evening of the Nameless Land fell upon the place of battle, he crawled back to his master.”

He cuts Frodo free, but cannot bring him back to life:

“`Frodo, Mr. Frodo!’ he called. ‘Don’t leave me here alone! It’s your Sam calling. Don’t go where I can’t follow! Wake up, Mr. Frodo! O wake up, Frodo, me dear, me dear. Wake up!’

Sam recognised this as what he had seen in the mirror of Galadriel, when he had thought Frodo asleep.  But he appear dead.  So what is Sam’s next choice?

“’What shall I do, what shall I do?’ he said. `Did I come all this way with him for nothing?’ And then he remembered his own voice speaking words that at the time he did not understand himself, at the beginning of their journey: I have something to do before the end. I must see it through, sir, if you understand.

“`But what can I do? Not leave Mr. Frodo dead, unburied on the top of the mountains, and go home? Or go on? Go on?’ he repeated, and for a moment doubt and fear shook him. `Go on? Is that what I’ve got to do? And leave him?’

“Then at last he began to weep; and going to Frodo he composed his body, and folded his cold hands upon his breast, and wrapped his cloak about him; and he laid his own sword at one side, and the staff that Faramir had given at the other.

“’If I’m to go on,’ he said, `then I must take your sword, by your leave, Mr. Frodo, but I’ll put this one to lie by you, as it lay by the old king in the barrow; and you’ve got your beautiful mithril coat from old Mr. Bilbo. And your star-glass, Mr. Frodo, you did lend it to me and I’ll need it, for I’ll be always in the dark now. It’s too good for me, and the Lady gave it to you, but maybe she’d understand. Do you understand, Mr. Frodo? I’ve got to go on.’

“But he could not go, not yet. He knelt and held Frodo’s hand and could not release it. And time went by and still he knelt, holding his master’s hand, and in his heart keeping a debate.

“Now he tried to find strength to tear himself away and go on a lonely journey – for vengeance. If once he could go, his anger would bear him down all the roads of the world, pursuing, until he had him at last: Gollum. Then Gollum would die in a corner. But that was not what he had set out to do. It would not be worth while to leave his master for that. It would not bring him back. Nothing would. They had better both be dead together. And that too would be a lonely journey.”

He then remembers the Quest, which for him was always secondary to serving Frodo:

“’What am I to do then?’ he cried again, and now he seemed plainly to know the hard answer: see it through. Another lonely journey, and the worst.

“`What? Me, alone, go to the Crack of Doom and all?’ He quailed still, but the resolve grew. `What? Me take the Ring from him? The Council gave it to him.’

“But the answer came at once: `And the Council gave him companions, so that the errand should not fail. And you are the last of all the Company. The errand must not fail.’”

Here and later on, you find Sam debating with himself, which has not happened before.  He has always followed Frodo: now he is alone, and Frodo will never fully recover.  And perhaps the power of the One Ring is splitting him, as it has much more drastically with Smeagol / Gollum.  Certainly you’d expect the One Ring to want to have a new owner rather than be left with a dead body.   And presumably not clever enough to realise that if Sam left without taking it, Orcs would soon claim it.

That is indeed the weak point in Sam leaving Frodo where he fell, with all his valuable possessions.  I’d have thought that hiding Frodo would have been a natural move.  He knows there are Orcs about.  Even hiding the body in one of Shelob’s caves would be less unwise that leaving him.  But Sam is not clever, and is still shocked from Frodo’s apparent death.  He can sensibly make this error, necessary to the unfolding story.

It is worth adding that in his first drafts, Tolkien has Sam plan to build a cairn over Frodo, but has no time before the Orcs arrive.[B]  More logical, but less gripping as a story.  We see the immense difficulty of what Sam now decides to do.  First – correct for his entirely decent character – he makes a sentimental farewell:

“He stooped. Very gently he undid the clasp at the neck and slipped his hand inside Frodo’s tunic; then with his other hand raising the head, he kissed the cold forehead, and softly drew the chain over it. And then the head lay quietly back again in rest. No change came over the still face, and by that more than by all other tokens Sam was convinced at last that Frodo had died and laid aside the Quest.

“`Good-bye, master, my dear!’ he murmured. ‘Forgive your Sam. He’ll come back to this spot when the job’s done – if he manages it. And then he’ll not leave you again. Rest you quiet till I come; and may no foul creature come anigh you! And if the Lady could hear me and give me one wish, I would wish to come back and find you again. Good-bye!’”

He then takes the One Ring, which has evidently grown in power on the fringe of Mordor and closer to the place it was made:

“And then he bent his own neck and put the chain upon it, and at once his head was bowed to the ground with the weight of the Ring, as if a great stone had been strung on him. But slowly, as if the weight became less, or new strength grew in him, he raised his head, and then with a great effort got to his feet and found that he could walk and bear his burden.”

Shelob LairHe finds it very hard.  But is pushing on and is some way from Frodo when he hears Orc-voices.  Two parties, one ahead and one behind him:

“In a minute they would reach the top and be on him. He had taken too long in making up his mind, and now it was no good. How could he escape, or save himself, or save the Ring? The Ring. He was not aware of any thought or decision. He simply found himself drawing out the chain and taking the Ring in his hand. The head of the orc-company appeared in the Cleft right before him. Then he put it on.

“The world changed, and a single moment of time was filled with an hour of thought. At once he was aware that hearing was sharpened while sight was dimmed, but otherwise than in Shelob’s lair. All things about him now were not dark but vague; while he himself was there in a grey hazy world, alone, like a small black solid rock and the Ring, weighing down his left hand, was like an orb of hot gold. He did not feel invisible at all, but horribly and uniquely visible; and he knew that somewhere an Eye was searching for him.”

He might indeed be visible to a creature of sufficient power.  Note that Gandalf is not physically there on occasions where either Bilbo or Frodo use the ring.   Likewise not Elrond, Galadriel or Glorfindel.  And the Nazgul certainly see Frodo when he uses the One Ring on Weathertop.  But here, it is just Orcs:

Shelob Lair Detail

“He heard the crack of stone, and the murmur of water far off in Morgul Vale; and down away under the rock the bubbling misery of Shelob, groping, lost in some blind passage; and voices in the dungeons of the tower; and the cries of the Orcs as they came out of the tunnel; and deafening, roaring in his ears, the crash of the feet and the rending clamour of the Orcs before him. He shrank against the cliff. But they marched up like a phantom company, grey distorted figures in a mist, only dreams of fear with pale flames in their hands. And they passed him by. He cowered, trying to creep away into some cranny and to hide.

“He listened. The Orcs from the tunnel and the others marching down had sighted one another, and both parties were now hurrying and shouting. He heard them both clearly, and he understood what they said. Perhaps the Ring gave understanding of tongues, or simply understanding, especially of the servants of Sauron its maker, so that if he gave heed, he understood and translated the thought to himself. Certainly the Ring had grown greatly in power as it approached the places of its forging; but one thing it did not confer, and that was courage. At present Sam still thought only of hiding, of lying low till all was quiet again; and he listened anxiously.

The Orcs who captured Merry and Pippin use Common, being from different tribes and apt to change and debase whatever language they speak.  Here, we have two Orcs from different commands, so they too might use Common.  But being Captains, they ought to use Black Speech.  So it makes sense that it is the One Ring that lets Sam understand.

On the other hand, when the thread of Sam’s story resumes two books on, he ventures to the Orc tower carrying the ring but no longer wearing it.  And still understands the Orcs.

Regardless, he hears and understands:

“’Hola! Gorbag! What are you doing up here? Had enough of war already?’

“’Orders, you lubber. And what are you doing, Shagrat? Tired of lurking up there? Thinking of coming down to fight?’

“’Orders to you. I’m in command of this pass. So speak civil. What’s your report?’


Gorbag comes from Minas Morgul, while Shagrat commands the Tower and the Pass.  They are clearly of equal rank and know each other.  And are surprisingly friendly for Orcs.  But it might be no more than a false friendship based on being useful to each other.  The sort of thing you find among the worse sort of human criminals.

Like Shelob, they are evolved from earlier ideas.  A chapter called Kirith Ungol in Volume 8 of Christopher Tolkien’s account of his father’s writings explains that initially Gollum would have been leading a crowd of Orcs to them.  And Frodo would have been taken into Minas Morgul rather than the Tower.  Their names also evolved: initially Shagrat was Gazmog and Gorbag was Zaglun.  And then briefly the Orc from Minas Morgul was Shagrat, before the final form was found.[C]  But from the first, each commands a band of lesser Orcs who search while they chat:

“`Hai! hai! yoi!’ A yell broke into the exchanges of the leaders. The Orcs lower down had suddenly seen something. They began to run. So did the others.

“`Hai! Hola! Here’s something! Lying right in the road. A spy, a spy!’ There was a hoot of snarling horns and a babel of baying voices.

“With a dreadful stroke Sam was wakened from his cowering mood. They had seen his master. What would they do? He had heard tales of the Orcs to make the blood run cold. It could not be borne. He sprang up. He flung the Quest and all his decisions away, and fear and doubt with them. He knew now where his place was and had been: at his master’s side, though what he could do there was not clear. Back he ran down the steps, down the path towards Frodo.

“`How many are there?’ he thought. `Thirty or forty from the tower at least, and a lot more than that from down below, I guess. How many can I kill before they get me? They’ll see the flame of the sword, as soon as I draw it, and they’ll get me sooner or later. I wonder if any song will ever mention it: How Samwise fell in the High Pass and made a wall of bodies round his master. No, no song. Of course not, for the Ring’ll be found, and there’ll be no more songs. I can’t help it. My place is by Mr. Frodo. They must understand that – Elrond and the Council, and the great Lords and Ladies with all their wisdom. Their plans have gone wrong. I can’t be their Ring-bearer. Not without Mr. Frodo.’

“But the Orcs were out of his dim sight now. He had had no time to consider himself, but now he realized that he was weary, weary almost to exhaustion: his legs would not carry him as he wished. He was too slow. The path seemed miles long. Where had they all got to in the mist?

He follows them into the tunnel, and overhears more:

“No need to worry about Shelob for a bit, I reckon [says Shagrat]. She’s sat on a nail, it seems, and we shan’t cry about that. Didn’t you see: a nasty mess all the way back to that cursed crack of hers? If we’ve stopped it once, we’ve stopped it a hundred times. So let ’em laugh. And we’ve struck a bit of luck at last: got something that Lugburz wants.’

“’Lugburz wants it, eh? What is it, d’you think? Elvish it looked to me, but undersized. What’s the danger in a thing like that?’

“’Don’t know till we’ve had a look.’

“’Oho! So they haven’t told you what to expect? They don’t tell us all they know, do they? Not by half. But they can make mistakes, even the Top Ones can.’

“`Sh, Gorbag!’ Shagrat’s voice was lowered, so that even with his strangely sharpened hearing Sam could only just catch what was said. ‘They may, but they’ve got eyes and ears everywhere; some among my lot, as like as not. But there’s no doubt about it, they’re troubled about something. The Nazgul down below are, by your account; and Lugburz is too. Something nearly slipped.’

“`Nearly, you say!’ said Gorbag.

“`All right,’ said Shagrat, `but we’ll talk of that later: Wait till we get to the Under-way. There’s a place there where we can talk a bit, while the lads go on.’”

‘Lugburz’ is the Orc name for the Dark Tower – something that might confuse readers, since in context it might be some senior official.  The Orcs follow a common human habit in using the name of the place to stand for the political machine that is found there.  It is distinguished from Sauron himself, who would need to delegate many tasks to underlings.

And does not trust those underlings, particularly when he known the One Ring is loose and might make its bearer strong enough to defy Sauron.  Or at least think they could, but in his letters Tolkien explains that only the Nazgul had their wills wholly commanded and would just have brought the One Ring to him.  With that sort of power, the ‘Mouth of Sauron’ might have found his own voice, and he would not have been the only one.

In Book Three, we learned that Saruman had given vague orders to his Orcs.  Aragorn correctly deduces that they were not trusted with details of the hobbits or why they were wanted.  Just what orders Grishnakh had been given is unknown: Grishnakh definitely knew more than Sauron or the Nazgul would have wished.  He (or possibly she) probably hoped to take the ring for themself.

These Orcs know less.  They hate and fear their superiors:

“`No, I don’t know,’ said Gorbag’s voice. `The messages go through quicker than anything could fly, as a rule. But I don’t enquire how it’s done. Safest not to. Grr! Those Nazgul give me the creeps. And they skin the body off you as soon as look at you, and leave you all cold in the dark on the other side. But He likes ’em; they’re His favourites nowadays, so it’s no use grumbling. I tell you, it’s no game serving down in the city.’

“`You should try being up here with Shelob for company,’ said Shagrat.

“’I’d like to try somewhere where there’s none of ’em. But the war’s on now, and when that’s over things may be easier.’

“`It’s going well, they say.’

“’They would.’ grunted Gorbag. `We’ll see. But anyway, if it does go well, there should be a lot more room. What d’you say? – if we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.’

“’Ah!’ said Shagrat. `Like old times.’

“`Yes,’ said Gorbag. ‘But don’t count on it. I’m not easy in my mind. As I said, the Big Bosses, ay,’ his voice sank almost to a whisper, `ay, even the Biggest, can make mistakes. Something nearly slipped you say. I say, something has slipped. And we’ve got to look out. Always the poor Uruks to put slips right, and small thanks. But don’t forget: the enemies don’t love us any more than they love Him, and if they get topsides on Him, we’re done too. But see here: when were you ordered out?’

“`About an hour ago, just before you saw us. A message came: Nazgul uneasy. Spies feared on Stairs. Double vigilance. Patrol to head of Stairs. I came at once.’

This is long after the moment when the Witch-King nearly noticed Frodo.  Something else must have upset them.

We also see that Orcs would like to be free to do their own evil, but have been made to obey.  And being bound to obey for now, Shagrat’s Orcs did indeed let Gollum go free, as Gandalf had suspected:

“But Shelob was on the go. My lads saw her and her Sneak.’

“`Her Sneak? What’s that?’

“`You must have seen him: little thin black fellow; like a spider himself, or perhaps more like a starved frog. He’s been here before. Came out of Lugburz the first time, years ago, and we had word from High Up to let him pass. He’s been up the Stairs once or twice since then, but we’ve left him alone: seems to have some understanding with Her Ladyship. I suppose he’s no good to eat: she wouldn’t worry about words from High Up. But a fine guard you keep in the valley: he was up here a day before all this racket. Early last night we saw him. Anyway my lads reported that Her Ladyship was having some fun, and that seemed good enough for me, until the message came. I thought her Sneak had brought her a toy. or that you’d perhaps sent her a present, a prisoner of war or something. I don’t interfere when she’s playing. Nothing gets by Shelob when she’s on the hunt.’

Gorbag, who seems the cleverer of the two, also deduces that someone unknown had defeated Shelob:

“Who cut the cords she’d put round him, Shagrat? Same one as cut the web. Didn’t you see that? And who stuck a pin into Her Ladyship? Same one, I reckon. And where is he? Where is he, Shagrat?’

“Shagrat made no reply.

“`You may well put your thinking cap on, if you’ve got one. It’s no laughing matter. No one, no one has ever stuck a pin in Shelob before, as you should know well enough. There’s no grief in that; but think – there’s someone loose hereabouts as is more dangerous than any other damned rebel that ever walked since the bad old times, since the Great Siege. Something has slipped.’

“`And what is it then?’ growled Shagrat.

“`By all the signs, Captain Shagrat, I’d say there’s a large warrior loose, Elf most likely, with an elf-sword anyway, and an axe as well.”

People have asked whether Orcs grow old and die.  If they are corrupted elves, perhaps not.  And the reference to ‘the Great Siege’ has been taken to mean the fall of the Dark Tower at the end of the Second Age.  But it might just mean Sauron apparently driven out of his Mirkwood stronghold 78 years earlier.  Or Orcs might know the history of wars and battles: in The Hobbit they recognise famous swords from Gondolin in the First Age.

Regardless, we learn more about Sauron’s choices

“’Now, now,’ growled Shagrat. ‘I have my orders. And it’s more than my belly’s worth, or yours, to break ’em. Any trespasser found by the guard is to be held at the tower. Prisoner is to be stripped. Full description of every article, garment, weapon, letter, ring. or trinket is to be sent to Lugburz at once, and to Lugburz only. And the prisoner is to be kept safe and intact, under pain of death for every member of the guard, until He sends or comes Himself. That’s plain enough, and that’s what I’m going to do.’”

Sauron clearly does not trust his Orcs not to take the One Ring if they realised what it could do.  And he also has some notion that someone might be trying to get into Mordor, though probably all routes are watched.  Meantime Gorbag misunderstands

“’Stripped, eh?’ said Gorbag. ‘What, teeth, nails, hair, and all?’

“`No, none of that. He’s for Lugburz, I tell you. He’s wanted safe and whole.’

“’You’ll find that difficult,’ laughed Gorbag. ‘He’s nothing but carrion now. What Lugburz will do with such stuff I can’t guess. He might as well go in the pot.’

“’You fool,’ snarled Shagrat. ‘You’ve been talking very clever, but there’s a lot you don’t know, though most other folk do. You’ll be for the pot or for Shelob, if you don’t take care. Carrion! Is that all you know of Her Ladyship? When she binds with cords, she’s after meat. She doesn’t eat dead meat, nor suck cold blood. This fellow isn’t dead!’

Sam realises his drastic error.  Meantime we learn more of Orc culture:

“D’you remember old Ufthak? We lost him for days. Then we found him in a corner; hanging up he was, but he was wide awake and glaring. How we laughed! She’d forgotten him, maybe, but we didn’t touch him – no good interfering with Her. Nar – this little filth, he’ll wake up, in a few hours; and beyond feeling a bit sick for a bit, he’ll be all right. Or would be, if Lugburz would let him alone

As I said earlier, this contrasts with Sam’s boldness trying to save Frodo.  His willingness to die rather than abandon him even as a dead body.

Sam was brave but not clever.  How now can he correct his error?

“The two orc-figures were still some way ahead. He could see them now, black and squat against a red glare. The passage ran straight at last, up an incline; and at the end, wide open, were great double doors, leading probably to deep chambers far below the high horn of the tower. Already the Orcs with their burden had passed inside. Gorbag and Shagrat were drawing near the gate.

“Sam heard a burst of hoarse singing, blaring of horns and banging of gongs, a hideous clamour. Gorbag and Shagrat were already on the threshold.

“Sam yelled and brandished Sting, but his little voice was drowned in the tumult. No one heeded him.

“The great doors slammed to. Boom. The bars of iron fell into place inside. Clang. The gate was shut. Sam hurled himself against the bolted brazen plates and fell senseless to the ground. He was out in the darkness. Frodo was alive but taken by the Enemy.”

This end Book Four.  And for the original publication as separate volumes in different years, Tolkien added.

“Here ends the second part of the history of the War of the Ring.

“The third part tells of the last defence against the Shadow, and the end of the mission of the Ring-bearer in The Return of the King.”

Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.

[A] Strictly, Túrin.  But I do not use accents or other diacritical marks.  In the past, I have all too often seen computer software turn them into something meaningless.
As to why this flaw exists, see https://gwydionmadawc.com/030-human-dynamics/ascii-an-unhappy-legacy-for-computers/.

[B] Volume 8 is called The War of the Ring.  It is volume three of The History of The Lord of the Rings.  Those four are volumes six to nine of The History of Middle-earth.

[C] Ibid, page 225.