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Rómenna Meeting Report - March 29, 1987
March 29, 1987
Before we embarked on our discussion of Frodo and Sam's final journey to Mount Doom, we took time out to note a couple of amazing coincidences. The fact that we were discussing the actual destruction of the Ring in March, as near to the 25th as we could make it, is perhaps not so amazing as the fact that Rómenna began its discussion of The Lord of the Rings on a September 22, which was the birthday of an attending member who was turning 33 that day. However, both incidents were unplanned (we would have been having this discussion a month earlier if circumstances had not intervened) so, perhaps, amazing enough. Synchronicity can happen anytime.
Speaking of time, we noted that throughout the two chapters under discussion, "The Land of Shadow" and "Mount Doom," Tolkien continually gives the reader time checks, taking note of what the other characters are doing at the same time Frodo and Sam are doing such-and-such. Thus the reader can get a larger overall view of what is happening.
We turned to the topography of Mordor as described by Tolkien. The comment was made that "This time we can talk about the nasty topography and not mention New Jersey--New Jersey isn't this steep." The description of Mordor reminded Per of the landscape around the Dead Sea, barren and dry (water is a continuing problem for the hobbits), where the plants have thorns that can pierce a combat boot. (Here the thorns can get through orc mail and a leather jerkin, though of course they could slip through the rings of the mail.) We noted that orcs wear hobnail boots; unfortunately hobbits don't. Here Sam went to all that trouble to get orc clothing for himself and Frodo, and now it's being ripped to shreds. On the other hand, perhaps this makes it look more orc-like.
We noted again Tolkien's feel for geography. Mordor may be a symbolic "Land of the Dead," but it is an extremely real and solid land of the dead. Specific points we noted included that the hobbits do not experience any great temperature changes when passing from higher to lower elevations. Reasons for this may be Mordor's perennial cloud cover, which might produce a permanent temperature inversion; the time of year (early spring, which is chilly anyway), and the fact that all of this part of Mordor has a fairly high elevation. The mountain ranges, such as the Ephel Dśath, are particularly high and craggy, with little evidence of erosion. It was pointed out that these ranges are young by geological standards, having been built or raised by Sauron within the last few thousand years. "Ephel" in fact means "outer fence"; the "fences of Mordor" are somewhat more than metaphorical. Per compared the mountainous landscapes with some of the mountain valleys in Switzerland, where the valleys have a high elevation already (4-6000 feet) and the mountains above them reach heights of 10-15,000 feet. We guessed that the stone of the mountains might be basalt, black, volcanic rock.
Frodo must eventually dispense with his orc mail; the weight is too much for him. The effects of the journey and the Ring on him can also be felt mentally; he is no longer able to call up memories of Shire scenes as he did while he was imprisoned by the orcs. He is able to sense the presence of a Nazgūl flying above them. A little later he and Sam both witness the passing of the Lord of the Nazgūl. This passage serves as one of those time checks we mentioned earlier, and also led us off on a slight digression concerning the effects the Witch-king's death had on Sauron's army. We noted that Angmar had been serving as Sauron's tactical leader, his lieutenant, in a similar position to that of Sauron himself in the First Age when he served Morgoth. (The "Mouth of Sauron" was considered as an alternative, but finally dismissed as a "press secretary".) Sauron must now control the troops himself; without his attention they are directionless. A historical parallel was drawn to the battle of Hastings, where once Harald fell the Saxon defense broke down.
We noted that the Ring has started doing interesting things. Frodo sees it in his mind as a "wheel of fire," and later he has "dreams of fire." This prompted some speculation on the nature of the One Ring. Shouldn't it be a Ring of Earth, to balance out the three elf rings (Vilya - Air; Nenya - Water; Narya - Fire)? Perhaps the dwarf rings fill that niche. (And what about the Nine?) The One is the quintessential Ring. It was created in fire; it represents pure, corrupting power. Its power is quasi-divine, since it is Sauron's power, and Sauron was originally a Maia. This is why the Ring can pose a danger even to Gandalf (also a Maia).
Returning to the hobbits' trek through Mordor, we noted anew Tolkien's accurate and evocative description of the landscape. The color scheme is bleak: black, grey, dun, with only a few touches of red. There is no green; even the grass is grey.
It was noted in passing that the star Sam sees over Mordor, which reminds him that "the Shadow was only a small and passing thing" is elsewhere (though not here) stated to be Eärendil.
As Frodo and Sam reach a point where they can survey the plateau of Gorgoroth, we get another time check with an allusion to what Aragorn is doing. We noted the description of one of Sauron's army camps, which the hobbits can see from their vantage point: straight streets, drab buildings, very dull and unoriginal--just like the modern army today. As Sam wonders about how Sauron's armies are fed, Tolkien takes the opportunity to give the reader some economic information about Mordor. There are great slave-worked farms in the area of Lake Nśrnen (agribusiness?). We noted that "though the lake itself is very likely salt (it is also called the Sea of Nūrn), the rivers leading into it would not be, and could be used for irrigation. That area of Mordor is labeled "ash plain" in the Atlas of Middle-earth; volcanic ash, it was pointed out, makes very fertile land.
The hobbits now encounter a couple of orcs who are tracking them and overhear their conversation. We decided that the orcs are victims of classic "mushroom management": keep them in the dark, cover them with manure, and if they stick their heads up, cut them off at the knees. They don't really know what's going on (on the other hand, even Sauron isn't aware of what's really going on). The events at Cirith Ungol are still something of a mystery to Mordor; we speculated that Shagrat probably didn't give a straight story, and even if he did it's probably being covered up. (Doesn't that sound familiar?) We noted that Sauron is running World War I, using modern army techniques, while his foes use a more Roman or medieval style. Sauron is the one who gives his soldiers numbers. Ralph Bakshi, when filming The Lord of the Rings, used World War II images.
Gollum is mentioned, and described in terms that point out his increasingly "undead" character. The "Sméagol" part of him seems to be gone. He is displaying the symptoms of addiction, in which all other appetites wither and the addict can't remember anything else. (Frodo has some of the same symptoms in that he can't call up memories of the Shire anymore.) He does retain his skill at eluding capture. The orcs shouldn't feel bad; even Faramir was only able to get his hands on Gollum with Frodo's help. One thing that surprised us a little was that Gollum seems to know that Frodo intends to destroy the Ring. Was he told this (we didn't think so) or did he deduce it?
Getting back to the orcs, we noticed that the news of the High Nazgūl's fall has traveled fast (it only happened the day before). While there is constant intertribal war between orcs, Tolkien is not so naive as to let the bad guys kill each other off. Frodo rightly points out to Sam that the orcs hate them more than they hate each other, and would have put aside their quarrel to kill the hobbits if they had seen them. Still, Sauron uses Men rather than orcs as the backbone of his army. Nazgūl, we noted, have their limitations. There are only nine of them, and their aura of fear affects even their own troops. Historical parallels were drawn: the officers of the British army were allowed to use any weapon they wanted on their own men, and at the time of the Napoleonic wars the armies were the scum of the earth, disciplined with the cat-o'-nine-tails and the gantlet.
Sam, eyeballing the distance to Mount Doom from his and Frodo's vantage point, doesn't do too badly with his estimate; presumably his experience in his travels has taught him something. Sam is indeed growing up very fast. "Sam the gardener" is behind him; he is taking charge, making plans and decisions, as he will back in the Shire. We noted that Sam is the only non-aristocrat in the Fellowship, but by this time he is not a servant anymore. From Cirith Ungol on he has been taking over the decision-making from Frodo, who becomes increasingly incapacitated. At the same time, however, it is in this chapter that Sam realizes that there is no hope of getting back; that even if he and Frodo can make it to Mount Doom, that will be the end.
The hobbits again fall afoul of orcs when they're caught on the road by a troop heading for Udūn, are mistaken for "deserters" and forced to join the troop. The orcs are on a typical forced march; we noted again that they are more scared of their officers than the enemy. The modern-warfare touches appear here too: "I'll report you." "Don't you know we're at war?" The tangle at the gates during which Frodo and Sam are able to escape was likened to a traffic jam--gridlock in the dark, yet! The hobbits are able to creep away in the confusion, getting tripped over by cursing orcs, and take shelter in a "shell crater." We noted that the description of the plain of Gorgoroth makes it sound like a moon landscape, or a volcanic landscape (which it is).
As the hobbits make their way across Gorgoroth, the increasing effects of the Ring on Frodo are described. The beneficial effects of lembas are noted, especially when it is not mingled with other foods. Nowhere else in the book has this become necessary. Water is a continuing problem, its only sources being infrequent wells used by the orc armies. We noted that the water was probably "muddied" simply by the act of drawing it out; even orcs don't piss in their own wells. Per noted that in desert conditions such as this, human beings normally require a gallon of water every 24 hours, though hobbits may need less.
As they prepare for the last lap, making straight for Mount Doom, Sam offers to carry the Ring for Frodo, even though he knows it's hopeless. Frodo's reaction points up the effect the Ring is having on him, its hold over him, which Frodo himself realizes. This burden cannot be shared with anyone else. However, the hobbits do cast off other luggage, both physical and mental (memories). Sam has not abandoned all hope, we noticed; he retains the gifts of Galadriel, the phial and his own little box of earth. He can also still call up memories of water from the Shire, which Frodo no longer can. Later on we see Sam having a debate with himself. Doesn't that sound familiar? We imagined someone doing a study on "Latent Schizophrenic Tendencies in Hobbits," using Sam and Gollum both as examples. Sam is trying to sort out his thoughts (as well as figure out what a "Crack of Doom" is). He is also being subjected to temptation by one of the most insidious of mortal sins, Despair. He wins over it in the end, and we noted the subterranean disturbances that follow: Hell is uneasy.
Mount Doom itself is reached at last. We noted its height as 4500 feet total, a 3000-foot base and a 1500-foot cone. The ash cone topped by a volcanic "chimney" is similar to the Jura in France, which is an extinct volcano. We speculated that the "chimney" here is a fabricated pipe constructed by Sauron.
Frodo finally collapses and Sam is obliged to carry him up the mountain. He is aided by two fortunate circumstances. One is that the weight of the Ring seems not to be physical; at any rate, Sam does not share it. There is also a path up to the Sammath Naur, constructed for Sauron's use. Once again we find the works of evil aiding the good guys. On the way up we catch a glimpse of Barad-dūr, and find that the Eye affects Frodo even when it is not looking at him in particular.
At this point Gollum attacks for the first time, trying desperately to wrest the Ring from Frodo. We wondered how Gollum knew that the Ring was on its way to destruction by the only possible method. Did he in fact know this, or did he simply sense that the Ring was in danger? Gollum too is worn and wasted from his journey, a shadow of his former self, but we noted that he still retains enough individuality to call himself "Sméagol"; even in this extremity he is one step above the Mouth of Sauron. Again Sam sees the vision of Frodo and Gollum as the commanding figure and the abject one, but this time Frodo shows no pity, and the voice from the fire is the Ring speaking, not Frodo. Frodo has been, in effect, possessed by the Ring. We also noted that Faramir's prophecy about Gollum's fate if he did not serve Frodo faithfully is on its way to being fulfilled.
Frodo proceeds alone to the Cracks of Doom while Sam is again tempted, this time by Wrath (his hatred of Gollum and the urge to kill him). Once again he resists the temptation and tells Gollum to "be off" while he follows Frodo. The dramatic climax of the story is full of marvelous effects. We pictured the angry red underlighting as Frodo stands at the Cracks of Doom and makes his announcement in the powerful voice that is only half his own. As everything hits the fan, the Nazgūl break the sound barrier streaking for the mountain and everything else is freeze-framed. Gollum is seen fighting an unseen foe; as he gains the Ring at last and holds it up, it has once more become "living fire." (One or two of our members noted that on the first reading of this passage they completely skipped over the fact that Gollum had bitten Frodo's finger off and only realized it later when Sam commented on it.) The fall of Barad-dūr is described in terms that recall Tolkien's persistent "Atlantis dream" (also his source for the fall of Nśmenor), only with smoke instead of water engulfing the falling towers. The Nazgūl flicker out like moths in a candle-flame, or meteors. Frodo and Sam are left alone in the midst of what seems like the "end of all things."
At this point we realized there was no way we could bear to stop the discussion here, and decided to advance into the next chapter for a few more pages. Skipping back to Aragorn's army at the Morannon, we noted that there is a hint of the "turn," before it actually comes, with the arrival of the Eagles. Eagles, we noted, are symbols of Manwė, King of the Valar. (It was also pointed out that Sauron's "shadow" is dissipated by wind, also the province of Manwė.) We speculated a bit on what an aerial battle between the Eagles and the Nazgūl would have been like if the Nazgūl had not been called away on more urgent business. The Nazgūl have only had about three months' pilot training. However, we guessed they were probably weightless and would not hamper their mounts too much in the air.
The fall of Sauron does terrible things to his troops' morale. (The gamers among us indulged in a gleeful cry of "Morale check!") We guessed that Tolkien's simile of a destroyed anthill may have been suggested by the African anthills he would have seen as a child. While the orcs are completely directionless without Sauron to guide them, Men have a little more free will and have a variety of reactions. Some of them continue to fight, especially the Men of Rhūn and Harad who have an ongoing rivalry with Gondor independent of Sauron (more or less). In the midst of the battle the rescue party of eagles takes off toward Mount Doom.
Sam and Frodo have in the meantime managed to make their way to the foot of the mountain, a fairly impressive feat when you take into account their exhaustion, the fact that they have a 3000-foot cone to traverse, and a volcanic eruption is going on all around them. There is some overlap of lines from the previous chapter to tie everything in, and Sam's observations on tales. At the last moment the hobbits pass out and are rescued in the nick of time. Finally we were content to break off the discussion and leave the rest of the chapter, along with the following one, for next time.