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Rómenna Meeting Report - May 18, 1986
May 18, 1986
True to form, we started out our discussion of the final two chapters of The Two Towers with a geographical comparison, in which Randy compared Shelob's lair to the 34th Street subway station in Manhattan. We observed that when the three travelers are conversing, Gollum's language deteriorates any time Sam chips in. We also noted Sam's delicate way of suggesting that the tunnel is the orcs' privy.
The darkness in Shelob's lair, which Tolkien describes as almost a palpable substance and not merely the absence of light, was compared to the similar darkness created by Ungoliant in The Silmarillion, at the poisoning of the Two Trees. Shelob, is, of course, a descendant of Ungoliant. The observation was also made that the smell in Shelob's lair must also be unnatural; normally a smell will no longer register on the nose after a relatively short time. Patsy commented that if she were going through a tunnel like that, she wouldn't separate the way Frodo and Sam do to feel along opposite walls. (Later on in the passage they do come back together and clasp hands.) We noted that the English have a large interpersonal distance. Gollum is in the lead, but the hobbits soon lose track of him; presumably he has gone on ahead to tip off Shelob that they are there.
Shelob eventually appears, in this instance only seen as a pair of glowing eyes. (Yes, another nasty creature with glowing eyes.) We noted that Tolkien uses lots of eye imagery throughout The Lord of the Rings for both good and evil characters. The old belief about the eyes being the "windows of the soul" was mentioned, and it was also pointed out that one of the most horrible things you can do to someone is to attack their eyes.
Sam has a vision of Galadriel giving the star-glass to Frodo, which gives the hobbits the courage they need to stand up to Shelob. We noted that Frodo's Elvish invocation (which he is inspired to make in a language he probably does not understand--though Frodo does have a smattering of Quenya) is Tolkien's nod to the Anglo-Saxon line from Cynewulf's "Crist" which was one of the inspirations for the Eärendil legend. The Quenya Aiya Eärendil elenion ancalima ("Hail Eärendil brightest of stars") is equivalent to the Anglo-Saxon Eala Earendel engla beorhtast ("Hail Earendel brightest of angels"); Tolkien himself mentions this connection in one of his letters.
We noted that Frodo is certainly being very Anglo-Saxon when he goes marching down to face Shelob. The Northern ethic was to go down fighting even when the fight was hopeless--in fact, precisely when the fight was hopeless. His action confuses Shelob so much that she backs off. We guessed that perhaps she thought that anything that small that would stand up to her might know something about its own power that she didn't.
Shelob's web across the mouth of the tunnel is another obstacle, but Sting cuts it open easily, though Sam's Barrow blade, which is also magical, has little effect. (We hazarded the guess that the warranty had run out.) It was pointed out that Sting was made for such work, having been forged in the First Age when there were monster spiders in Nan Dungortheb. We also recalled that Bilbo used it to kill the giant spiders in Mirkwood.
Shelob herself was discussed. Tolkien states that she was descended from Ungoliant, and implies that she may have been a direct offspring. She is a primal evil, a devouring-mother figure who kills her mates. We wondered how intelligent she was. It was noted that she has enough forethought to try an alternate route when she has been foiled once. She is also sentient enough to know when she is being worshiped (by Gollum) and to accept worship as a substitute for physical devouring (you might say it "feeds her ego" to be worshiped). The implication is also that she is an "eater of souls." And she is intelligent enough to be angry, to feel wounded pride at her defeat, something that would not happen with a mere animal. She is monomaniacal in her desire to eat everything and absorb it into herself. This image was compared to the similar image of Hell in C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, where the Devil is pictured as wishing to eat/absorb all other souls.
Tolkien compares Sauron's attitude toward Shelob to that of a man toward "his" cat. It was observed once more that Tolkien doesn't seem to like cats too much. We also noted that Tolkien's phrase "she owns him not" means "she does not acknowledge him [as her master]." We compared Sauron's relationship to Shelob to that between Morgoth and Ungoliant in The Silmarillion. We wondered why Sauron needed "reports" from his orcs about the "play" she made with the prisoners he sent her. Why couldn't he just watch through his palantír? One reason might be that it was too dark in Shelob's lair for the palantír to "see": the article on the palantíri in the Unfinished Tales stated that things scryed through the palantír had to be illumined by some sort of light source in order to be visible. The suggestion was also made that Sauron had his servants describe the results just to make sure they carried out their orders. (There was a digression on The Mikado at this point, in which Ko-Ko and his friends are called on to describe a nonexistent execution.)
Frodo and Sam finally get out of the tunnel and Frodo makes a wild dash. for the pass. Sam is more cautious and more observant; he is able to deduce from the light in the tower (seen from a different angle now, so that it can't possibly be just the red glare of Orodruin coming through a hole somewhere) and the glowing of Sting that there must be orcs about.
At this point She lob makes her second attack, and is seen and described fully for the first time. We noted several differences between Shelob and a real spider. Spiders do not have soft bodies, since they are arthropods and thus have an exoskeleton. They also do not have a neck (the only division on a spider's body is between the cephalothorax--head/chest area--and the abdomen), lack Shelob's horns and beak (though they do have fangs/chelicerata), and do not have faceted or clustered eyes. However, Shelob's speed is true to the real-life model; the little buggers (especially the hunting types such as wolf spiders) are fast.
Just as Sam is about to rush to Frodo's rescue, he is grabbed from behind by Gollum, who promptly heaps on him all the insults that Sam used on Gollum. According to Gollum's twisted logic he is keeping the letter of his promise--he "won't hurt master at all," Shelob will--but that doesn't prevent him from revenging himself on Sam. Sam, however, fights back and eventually defeats Gollum; the excellence of the quarterstaff as a weapon against an unarmored opponent was pointed out by Fred. Gollum flees, Sam finally loses his temper completely and berserks. By the time he comes to his senses at the mouth of Shelob's tunnel, Shelob has already downed Frodo.
In Sam's subsequent attack on Shelob we noted the allusion to Turin, who slew a monster by attacking it from below. The strategy doesn't work as well on Shelob, who is as well-armored below as above. However, the wound does hurt her and gets her mad, sends her into a killing frenzy. We noted that Sam, like Frodo, is inspired to make an Elvish invocation; however, his is in Sindarin whereas Frodo's was in Quenya. Class distinction? The meaning of the invocation is roughly equivalent to "0 Lady of Heaven watch over me!" Presumably Varda answers his prayer. The Phial responds to his spirit as he renews the attack, and its light is enough to give Shelob a migraine and drive her away.
We then passed on to the "choices of Master Samwise" alluded to in the final chapter title. Sam attempts to awaken Frodo and does not succeed. We noted that here, for the first time, Sam calls Frodo simply by his name (not "Mr. Frodo"). It was also pointed out that one reason Sam may not be able to hear Frodo's heartbeat is that Frodo is wearing a mail shirt. In any case, Sam finally concludes that Frodo is dead and for a time succumbs to grief and despair.
When he finally pulls himself out of this, he must then decide what he will do. Vengeance on Gollum and suicide are both discarded as possibilities. We noted that Sam is not used to making decisions for himself; all his life he has been a follower rather than a leader. His gut reaction is "Why me?" He does not feel himself competent to choose rightly and is hesitant about "putting himself forward." However, after a long and painful process he finally puts it all together. He makes the decision to take the Ring and attempt to fulfill the Quest himself.
The decision lasts until the Orcs arrive and spot Frodo's body. Sam puts on the Ring to avoid being seen himself and caught, but at the thought of orcs mutilating his master, his resolve goes down the pipes and he reverts to type. Not being quick enough to prevent Frodo being carried away, he follows the orcs and is able to overhear the conversation of their two captains, Gorbag and Shagrat.
Their conversation (admirably rendered by Fred in suitably low-class and gravelly English accents) gives the reader an insight into the orkish point of view. Earlier on in the reading some sympathy had been expressed for the orcs (Tolkien refers to them in the text as "miserable" and we had noted that Sauron considers them expendable--doesn't care if Shelob eats them); now we get to hear their side of the story, the outlook of a couple of conscripted non-com officers. They live in what is essentially a police state, where it is taken as a matter of course that they are constantly being spied upon. We noted that they have a healthy disrespect for propaganda ("[The war] is going well, they say." "They would."). Ores are neither stupid nor incompetent. Gorbag is able to put the two and two of available evidence together and come up with a reasonably accurate four (although the picture of Sam as a "large elf warrior" is grimly amusing even to Sam). They have been aware that there were "spies" on the Stairs all along, but Sauron has been ignoring their reports (later we will find that this is because Aragorn and the other leaders of the West have been diverting his attention) and they have also been unwilling to interfere with Shelob.
We wondered whether the "great Siege" alluded to by Gorbag was a reference to the Siege of Barad-dûr in the Second Age, or possibly to the Siege of Angband in the First. Either way, there are hints that Gorbag and Shagrat may have been alive back then (unless they are simply alluding to stories they have heard). They do make fond mention of "old times" when there were "no big bosses"--presumably when Sauron was dormant at the beginning of the Third Age. If orcs are of elvish stock originally (as hinted in The Silmarillion), they may in fact be similarly longeval, and these two might actually have been around in the First or Second Ages. We noted that the orcs consider the Free Peoples as "rebels," presumably against the rule of Sauron.
Suggestions for possible sources of this conversation were British public schools (sparked by the reference to a "thinking cap") and the kind of dialogue heard in the trenches in World War I.
All of this is not to say that orcs aren't mean and evil. They are. They're also sadistic; Gorbag takes great glee in imagining all the nasty things he'd like to do to the prisoner, even if Shagrat's orders will have to make him settle for "telling him some stories." And they're cannibals, too. In fact, it is Gorbag's comment that the prisoner "may as well go in the pot" that prompts the stunning revelation from Shagrat that "This fellow isn't dead!" And it is just about at this point that the book ends, with a frantic, self-castigating Sam catching up with the orcs too late to be shut outside of the tower. We imagined the agonies of readers at the time of The Lord of the Rings' original publication, forced to wait over a year after the publication of The Two Towers for the cliffhanger to be resolved. (And even then, Tolkien begins The Return of the King by bouncing over to the other set of characters.) We noted in closing that despite his failure in his own esteem, Sam didn't do too badly; he kept the Ring out of the ores', and therefore Sauron's, clutches--the all-important consideration.
The second volume having been closed at last, we settled on the time and place for the next meeting, and then adjourned to the local Chinese restaurant.