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Rómenna Meeting Report - February 8, 1987
February 8, 1987
After deciding not to meet in December because of the holidays, and postponing the January meeting due to technical difficulties, Rómenna finally got together again on the second Sunday in February at the home of Per Hollander. Our first meeting of 1987 brought us to the beginning of Book VI and last, with "The Tower of Cirith Ungol."
Our first question was, "How long has Sam been unconscious?" to which the obvious answer was, "Oh, about six chapters." After some study of the chapter we figured that it could actually have been as little as half an hour--maybe less. By the time he reaches the Tower, the orcs have almost completely killed each other off, but on the way he actually hears the fighting going on, and it would take him some time to make his way around, back through the tunnels and out over the pass. The only other deciding factors are how long it took the orcs to start fighting among themselves, and how long it would take the two groups to exterminate each other. We soon realized that once Frodo's mithril coat was discovered, the fighting would have broken out almost at once. It never takes much to get orcs fighting among themselves to begin with--a single insult can do it. The battle itself probably did not take long either. The two groups were probably of a similar size; Sam remembers that Shagrat's patrol was smaller than Gorbag's, but that his patrol would have been only part of his garrison. It was also pointed out that you can't fight for hours and hours with a broadsword--it's too heavy. Per was able to produce an actual very heavy broadsword to prove this.
Still discussing the orcs, we wondered what Gorbag was doing up at the pass anyway. He was presumably under the Lord of the Nazgűl. The question was never answered as we began to speculate on the orcs' chain of command. We guessed that the higher officers in Sauron's army were Men, since orcs make poor commanders. (Drill sergeants, yes--generals, no.) We also noted that orcs fight dirty (as any soldier will at close quarters) and that they are vandals by nature, carelessly destroying what they can't use.
We decided that the orcs' misapprehension about the "big elvish warrior" was not unreasonable. It would normally take a lot of power to get past the Watchers at the gates--and in fact, by employing the Phial, Sam becomes more or less "Galadriel by proxy." We noted that the Watchers are an overt use of magic, rather unusual for Tolkien. Except for Pippin's use of the palantír and a few other minor incidents, most magic occurs offstage. Even those characters capable of using magic (such as Gandalf) usually keep it low-key. Presumably the bad guys have less restraint.
Sam has one main concern in this chapter: Frodo. He is somewhat tempted by the Ring on the borders of Mordor, but is able to put aside his grandiose dreams without much trouble. (We did note that Sam's version of grandiose dreams are more grandiose than Gollum's, though.) Through Sam's eyes we get a description of the Tower of Cirith Ungol as well as of "scenic Mordor" (which was inevitably compared with New Jersey). We noted that Cirith Ungol is the secondary pass, the primary one being at Minas Morgul. Along with Sam we also took note of the fact that the Tower was built by the Gondoreans, not Sauron, in order to keep the nasties inside Mordor. We wondered what the Gondoreans did about Shelob. Sam succeeds in getting past the Watchers (using the Phial "because he can't think of anything else," as someone put it), but in the process rings the doorbell. We noted the description of the inside of the Tower; it is big and massive (we were reminded of Barbara Tuchman's description of a medieval keep) and the stairway Sam climbs has over 200 steps. (As a basis of comparison, the Washington Monument has about 500.) He finally makes it to the roof and finds Shagrat arguing with an "enlisted orc." We commented on Tolkien's substitutes for curse words in the orcs' speech. Per observed that different languages use different kinds of words for cursing; for instance, most Swedish curses have to do with the Devil.
After a fight between the last two orcs, Shagrat gets past Sam and escapes with the loot (which we speculated he carried all the way to the Dark Tower). We noted that Sam is not much of a killer unless Frodo is harmed; then he goes berserk, as he did in Moria and as he does a little later when he attacks the orc who is whipping Frodo. After Shagrat gets away and he can't find Frodo anywhere, he does what any sane, sensible hobbit would do in such a situation-- he sits down and starts to sing. We noted that Sam does not panic easily, but neither is he used to making decisions. However, Sam's development and growth is already apparent in the song he makes here, which is much more sophisticated than the comic rhymes we've seen come out of his head before. In the course of the story Sam moves up the social scale considerably, matures and learns to take charge.
Sam finally finds Frodo when Frodo responds to his singing. We noted the effect of the Ring on Frodo; his shift, when he finds out that Sam has it, from "You're a marvel!" to "You can't have it!" We compared Frodo's seeing Sam as an orc in this scene to the similar incident in Rivendell when he saw Bilbo more or less as Gollum, again under the influence of the Ring. Bilbo's own reluctance to part with the Ring way back at the beginning of Book I was also compared to this scene.
Sam again takes charge and shows his practical nature, lining up what they need to continue their journey (though Frodo does his bit by getting together what food and water is available; it was here that someone mentioned that he'd always imagined lembas as being somewhat like vanilla wafers. It is also during the discussion of food that Frodo states the principle that evil cannot create). We noted that Sam is on the ball when it comes to choosing equipment, realizing that though the Morgul stuff may be better made, taking Gorbag's emblems into Mordor proper would not be a very swift idea at this point. We also observed that the orcs wear ring-mail (i.e., metal rings stitched onto leather--cf. Farmer Giles of Ham) rather than chain, and that ores come in all sizes, from hobbit-size on up.
Once equipped, Frodo and Sam go back out through the Tower and once more get past the Watchers. We noted in passing that Aiya elenion ancalima translates as "Hail, brightest of stars"'--an allusion to Eärendil. There is a sort of magical explosion as the Watchers crack up, and a Nazgűl appears on the scene as Frodo and Sam get out of sight just in time. And on that note we halted, to continue with the trek through Mordor next time.