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Rómenna Meeting Report - February 9, 1986
February 9, 1986
Our discussion this month began with the ironic comment from Lissanne, "'Cirith Ungol'--are there any monsters?" referring to the fact that the name of the pass Gollum suggests as a way into Mordor should have been a dead giveaway to anyone who knew Sindarin (the translation is "Pass of the Spider") that it wasn't exactly unguarded. It was pointed out, however, that Frodo hasn't heard the name (which Gollum probably doesn't know) when he agrees to try that way.
Getting back to the beginning of our chapters, we find Frodo, Sam and Gollum crouched in their hiding place just outside the Black Gate of Mordor, feeling discouraged. Sam starts to take out his frustrations on Gollum, who points out (reasonably enough) that he was only doing what he was told. He then tries to convince Frodo to give over the quest and (possibly) give the Ring to him. Gollum's motivations here are multiple. On the good side, he really does not want Sauron to get the Ring. He says that he "promised to save the Precious," though it is interesting to note that this phrase was not part of the original promise he made to Frodo. Gollum has been in Sauron's clutches before and has some inkling of what would happen should the "Black Hand" get the Ring back. (We noted in passing that "The Black Hand" was the original name of the Mafia, which conjured up images of "Don Vito Sauron" [or possibly Morgoth] wearing a Silmaril for a stickpin. . .).
However, Gollum's desire to get the Ring for himself is also present, and Frodo sees this quite clearly. As Sam realizes, the fact that Frodo has been forbearing with Gollum up to now does not mean that he hasn't observed his baser impulses. Frodo has, after all, been experiencing the effects of the Ring for himself, and there is some evidence of this in his speech to Gollum in which he threatens him. (The speech is also, as someone pointed out, a clear case of foreshadowing.) Frodo does, however, agree to listen to Gollum's suggestion of an alternate way into Mordor.
Gollum's subsequent speech reveals a good bit about his character. He waxes almost poetic when describing the southward road. His grasp of tactics is sound; the Black Gate is the only way large armies can get in or out of Mordor. (We digressed for a bit on the previous attacks on Mordor, such as the Battle of Dagorlad, and it was pointed out that the "fortress state" is a modern, not a medieval concept or possibility.) Gollum has talked to many different peoples and gotten a lot of information. He is also a survivor-- remarkably so, seeing that he was in Sauron's clutches once and got out of it alive. It is true that Sauron probably let him go, but Gollum, at least, believes that he escaped from Mordor by his own cunning, and not as a complete slave of Sauron, either, since he has no intention of letting Sauron get the Ring if he can help it.
The interesting notion was also brought up that Gollum at this point in the story is attempting to integrate the two halves of his split personality; he is probably more nearly sane here than at any other time in the book. Sam sees it as the "Slinker and Stinker" halves forming "a truce and a temporary alliance."
We found the way Gollum expresses what would happen if Sauron got the Ring ("He'll eat all of us, eat all the world") and his observation that "one day all the peoples will be inside [Mordor]" reminiscent of C. S. Lewis and his conception of devils in The Screwtape Letters (and other places)--evil as devouring. It's also the way Gollum thinks, which came up again later.
Frodo must now decide whether or not to take Gollum up on his suggestion. He wonders what Gandalf would have done at this juncture, and we wondered too. We couldn't decide any more than Frodo could, and concluded that possibly Tolkien didn't know either. The way he set the story up, it's something he never has to deal with. He does, however, use the mention of Gandalf as an opportunity to correlate timelines with the other set of characters.
After a digression on the subject of pterodactyls (prompted by the appearance of the Nazgûl), we passed on to Sam's "Oliphaunt" poem. We noted that it was evidently a poem Tolkien had written earlier and inserted here. We wondered, "Big as whose house?" (a hobbit's? a Man's?), and compared the poem to some of the Middle English verse riddles (such as the ones in the Exeter Book). We decided that the similarity was deliberate on Tolkien's part, knowing his familiarity with medieval texts. (Many of the poems in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which reprints this one, have medieval models.) Frodo daydreams about playing Hannibal and riding into Mordor with a herd of oliphaunts, but eventually decides to follow Gollum's suggestion instead.
The hobbits now pass into the land of Ithilien. The description of the terrain and vegetation suggested to the more traveled members of our party the French Mediterranean, probably Provence, in the foothills of the Alps. The hobbits find this greener land refreshing, although there are ample indications of its occupation by Sauron. The Orcs, like the worst sort of tourist, have carved graffiti on the trees and generally made messes wherever they went. (This sort of thing is probably not unknown on the French Riviera either.)
We decided that the scene between Sam and Gollum in which Sam persuades Gollum to get some better food for Frodo was the high point of their relationship. Despite their disagreement about how the food should be prepared, they are communicating on a primal hobbit level. Sam even tries to mollify Gollum by offering to cook fish for him one day, but Gollum isn't having any part of it (he likes sushi) and goes off to get something for himself (probably fish, we guessed). It was pointed out that cooking one's food is a sign of the transition from a state of nature to a state of culture, and we speculated that it might have been a step up for Gollum if he could have persuaded himself to eat cooked food (just as Frodo had suggested earlier that lembas might have done him good if he could have brought himself to try some).
Sam's cookfire eventually brings Faramir and his men on the scene. We noted that the Rangers of Ithilien wear camouflage (green and brown). The comment was made that though dressing to blend with the terrain was an old concept that had been around for centuries (cf. the traditional "Lincoln green"), actual camouflage cloth was not in official use for army wear until World War II. Before that, armies didn't tend to fight from hiding; even the Americans during the Revolution wore standard uniforms when they could get them and used the traditional battle tactics when they could. (So much for that myth!)
Faramir's group discovers the hobbits and immediately, just like Treebeard, start running down the list trying to figure out what they are. ("Let's see, they're not Men; they're not Orcs; they're not Elves. . .") In response to their questions, Frodo gives as full an account of himself as he feels he can. In the process he mentions Boromir, which practically insures that Faramir is not going to let the hobbits out of his sight if he can help it. (We speculated that Faramir volunteered to lead the Rangers of Ithilien in order to get away from his awful family--domineering father and "bossy" brother, as Tolkien describes Boromir in the Letters.) We decided that Frodo's reply of "That is hidden" to Faramir's question about "Isildur's Bane" shows a distinct Gandalfian influence.
Faramir leaves Frodo and Sam under guard for the time being while he goes off to ambush the Haradrim. We wondered what Harad's relationship to Mordor was, whether they were a subject people or (supposedly) allies. Some tribes of Men worshiped Sauron. There was some speculation that the so-called "Blue Wizards" may have had something to do with this, but a check of the relevant passage in Unfinished Tales revealed that though these wizards may have been responsible for "secret cults and 'magic' religions," Sauron was not mentioned. In any case, the Haradrim seem to be based on the traditional "Saracens" of medieval literature; they are swarthy, have straight hair, and are armed with scimitars and so forth. They' also use "oliphaunts" as war-beasts-- which they (and the Gondor men) call "Mûmakil"--so Sam finally gets to see his Oliphaunt. Somebody supplied the information that "mumak" is Gypsy for "fool, dope." Tolkien hints that the Mûmak was larger than the modern elephant--more of "mammoth" size, though it is not hairy and is a southern beast.
The scene in which Sam witnesses the ambush was compared to the standard literary scene of the green kid seeing a real battle for the first time. It may also have drawn on Tolkien's own war experiences. The scene provides a rare hint of ambiguity, a drawing away from the straight black-and-white conflicts of most of the book, and also represents a part of Sam's growing up. Typically for a hobbit, we find him wondering what the man's name is. The Gondor men make a good impression on the hobbits in several ways. For one thing, they speak a form of Sindarin (we noted that no one in Middle-earth at this time uses Quenya as a daily speech). Also they "look like" decent people, i.e., Númenórean types: fair skin, dark hair, light eyes. We noted that this is a common British type. We also observed that there don't seem to be any redheads in Middle-earth, at least, none that are mentioned. We ended with the observation that Adolf Hitler had that same coloration and might have been a Black Númenórean.
The discussion came to a close with the realization by the linguists among us that the word "Mumakil" was plural and thus gave us a Haradric morpheme! Two, in fact! When the one other Haradric name given in the corpus (Gandalf's name of Incanus, which is glossed at one point as Haradric inka-nush or "Northern Spy") was unearthed and it was pointed out that it sounded like an apple to us, we decided it was time to quit.