The Two Towers
J. R. R. Tolkien
Contributed by Marinda Dreiling
Chapter 12

Gollum and the hobbits continue their journey. Gollum complains of hunger: he cannot eat the elven lembasbread as the hobbits do, any more than, in the previous chapter, he could endure the contact of elven rope with his skin. Still, he leads the hobbits on. Frodo is the most weary of the three travelers, weighed down as he is by the burden of the Ring. He seems to increasingly feel that he and Sam may not return from their Quest; indeed, that they may not achieve it at all. Several days into their journey with Gollum, the hobbits travel over the Dead Marshes: a field where a great battle against Sauron was once fought. Now, "wisp[s] of pale sheen" fill the land, "like misty flames flickering slowly above unseen candles." Gollum calls these lights the "candles of corpses" and warns the hobbits not to look at them. Sam, however, trips, and beneath the water he sees the faces of the dead warriors: "All dead," Gollum comments, "all rotten. Elves and Men and Orcs." They finally pass the Marshes; as they do, they see and hear the Nazgl overhead. Pressing on, they at last arrive at the desert that lies before Mordor itself: That night, Sam overhears Gollum debating with himself about whether to kill the hobbits or not. Gollum is torn between his desire for the Ring and the mercy that Frodo has shown him. He apparently resolves his inner struggle-for the moment-when he realizes that "She might help." Neither Sam nor readers yet know the identity of this mysterious "she." Sam does know, however, the true nature of the threat Gollum is: not that he will eat the hobbits, but that he is "feeling the terrible call of the Ring."


Gollum’s aversion to the lembas (which Tolkien, as a devout Catholic, probably invested with religious and Eucharistic overtones-note, e.g., that Sam says, "[Y]ou have to eat some of it every day" for sustenance; it is, literally, "daily bread") is telling. Frodo says to Gollum, "I think this food would do you good, if you would try. But perhaps you can’t even try, not yet anyway." The lembas here functions a symbol of goodness and new life. Frodo holds out the hope that Gollum may eventually redeem himself (for this, presumably, is how Frodo interprets the words of Gandalf which he remembered in the previous chapter).

Tolkien’s memorable description of the Dead Marshes is generally regarded as reflecting his experience of combat in World War I, and the scene may indeed have been sparked by his recollection of corpses littering the battlefield after a great struggle. Tom Shippey, however, points out a more fundamental significance: "The ominous thing about [these faces] is that they are all, now, the same. They seem to represent the casualties of both sides, the servants of Sauron. [and] the Elves and Men who opposed and defeated him. But it has all come to the same thing in the end" (Author of the Century, 217). Thus, Tolkien sounds another reminder to readers about the mortality (in Middle-earth vocabulary, perhaps better stated as the "passing") of all things. The struggle for virtue and good must be joined (the lesson Tolkien gleaned from his study of old Norse mythology), but even victory does not result in immortality. Readers are left to decide whether this view of the world is bleak or realistic.

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