Monday, July 23, 2012

Puttin' the Blog in Balrog IX: The Two Towers: III: 6-11

Up till now, whenever speech and eloquence have  been employed, they have been so with high purpose and kindly, if not noble, intent. There has been poetry to celebrate, amuse or mourn, there have been prophecies to warn, and grand orations and friendly pieces of advice.

Now as we approach the halfway mark, we're getting a different view of the power of speech, eloquence in the service of deception and treachery. It's an interesting place for a word-drunk philologist to go, isn't it?

Along with the darkening of the power of words comes our first real look at how Sauron and Saruman's efforts are affecting mere mortals. The people we meet in these chapters are bravely trying to go about their daily lives but are grown mistrustful, even fearful. The first human kingdom we have visited since Esgaroth back in The Hobbit seems like a miserable place even though its setting is beautiful and highly civilized.

And all because of evil words!

Gandalf, Aragorn and Gimolas make mighty good time through the pretty wet meadows of Rohan, and Gandalf warns everybody to watch what they say around Theoden. Gandalf visited this king on his get-well tour and borrowed a horse, but not just any horse: he took Shadowfax, the greatest horse ever, a veritable Fatty Lumpkin of horses. And Theoden wasn't happy.

So Gandalf choosing to revisit the city of Edoras and the hall of Meduseld so soon after that last encounter seems kind of foolish, but, as Galadriel told us last novel, nothing Gandalf does is needless. Saruman is probably going to take out his rage at not getting the Ring on Rohan, and the king needs to get ready.

Alas. The king Gandalf and the fellas find is even more sunken into gloom and despair than he was last time the respawned wizard visited. The hall of Meduseld is dark, everyone is subdued and a little frightened, and, as Theoden will soon observe, dark have been his dreams of late.* Theoden accuses Gandalf of always being the bearer of bad news and a demander rather than a giver of help.

Thus begins a serious and subtle argument over how it's not always bad to bring bad tidings, in which Grima Wormtongue, who seems to have become Theoden's sole counselor, delivers a hell of a tirade. After Theoden exclaims that ill news is an ill guest, Gandalf says that yes, he often brings bad news but it's important bad news, and with the news he has brought help this time, really! Look, here's the heir of Gondor and an Elve and a Dwarve! I mean dude, it's like we've already won! Then Wormtongue has his say: "But there is a third kind [of person who brings bad news]; pickers of bones, meddlers in other men's sorrows, carrion fowl that grow fat on war."

Now, from a certain perspective, is Wormtongue entirely lying? Though his words could perhaps more accurately describe himself than Gandalf, he is very effectively planting a suggestion in which he doesn't make anything up so much as put a slight spin on the truth, as he's clearly been doing for some time now. He has, after all, convinced Theoden to shut himself up in his darkened throne room and ignore the state of kingdom except when something important needs done, like agreeing to impose tighter restrictions on his hall and his subjects. Aren't people like Gandalf just the sort of thing Wormtongue has been warning about?

Gandalf, of course, is having none of it, and busts out his staff that he persuaded Hama the guard to let him keep when Hama confiscated everybody's weapons. There are flashes of light and Gandalf glows tall and white and next thing we know, Wormtongue is sprawled out on the floor and Gandalf is leading the king outside to partake of the healing power of his still-beautiful and well-ordered and healthy kingdom. "Look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!"

Talk is cheap; reality trumps it every time.

But seriously, how awesome is Brad Dourif? 
I <3 him and we have the same birthday.
P.S. Aliens suck!

And then! It turns out that while Aragorn and Gimolas were whooping it up at the edge of Fangorn and then playing catch up with Gandalf, Eomer and his men returned to Edoras, but not to much of a welcome. Indeed, Gandalf has to shame Theoden into letting his nephew out of the dungeon! Soon Eomer joins them and puts his sword at the king's feet, and once Theoden has that in his hands his cure would seem to be complete. Forth, Eorlingas!

For the present, though, "forth, Eorlingas" chiefly means "evacuate Edoras." The women and children and elderly have to go into hiding when the menfolk ride forth to war. As these orders are being given and Theoden is considering who to send to keep order among the evacuees, Hama brings Wormtongue out into the light; Wormtongue had been keeping the king's own sword in hiding, but of course, the king had given it into his keeping, hadn't he?

You've got to admire this in Wormtongue: he's got the balls to keep trying until the very last. He lays it on thick in a last attempt to convince the king that he's too old and sick to be playing warrior and it's just Gandalf's having bewitched him that makes him want to. At the very least, the king should hang back and let younger men do this nasty work. Theoden, of course, bawls him out and tells him to "go clean the rust" from his sword; Wormtongue's coming to fight with the men, by god!

But no, Wormtongue wants to be left in charge, the cheeky bastard. But Gandalf loses his temper, accuses Wormtongue of working for Saruman, and tells Theoden to give the "snake" a horse and let him go wherever he wants. D'oh!

And as everybody gets ready and has dinner, they meet Eowyn, who has already been checking Aragorn out, of course, so when she is formally introduced, she is a bit giddy. Poor Eowyn! Thank goodness Tolkien wrote you and not some jerk who would just let your unrequited love define you, though, you badass!

But then, sadz. Someone from the royal family needs to stick with the evacuees, and guess who gets that job? I mean, it's great that she gets to basically be Theoden's regent while he rides off to take on Saruman, but she's a shieldmaiden of Rohan! She wants to go fight, too! Sigh.
Sister-daughter, you're just more valuable in the original packaging.

At last everyone is off, heading for the Fords of the Isen and, more or less, the border of Saruman's and Theoden's territories. The plan is to join and assist the Rohirrim who are already there, fighting Saruman's forces. It was these whom Theoden's son Theodred led until he was killed, and there aren't many of them left when our heroes arrive. They learn the battle at Isen was lost and the men's commander, Erkenbrand of the Westfold, has tried to draw the host of Orcs and evil Men to the fortress of Helm's Deep, where the Rohirrim might stand a chance. So! Off to Helm's Deep! Well, everybody except Gandalf, who suddenly remembers an errand he has to run. Um.

For once we're spared a journey, though not a description of Helm's Deep, which sounds like one of the most impressive structures we'll see in Middle Earth, at least until we get to Minas Tirith and the Gate of Mordor next novel. It is lavishly described, but what matters is that it's very, very defensible. Erkenbrand has tried to lead the Sarumanians into a trap. But first it's almost a trap for Theoden and co., who have to fight their way through the enemies that are already there harassing the garrison. Meanwhile, an enormous army "bringing fire" is not far behind them. There is going to be BATTUL, the first we've gotten to witness in Tolkien (The Hobbit had the Battle of Five Armies, true, but we only got that as told to Bilbo, who missed it all, invisible and unconscious).

Except, er, none of Erkenbrand's men (formerly Theodred's men, i.e., most of the clean-limbed fighting men of Rohan) seem to have made it, so it's just the guys Theoden brought and the old men and boys already at the fortress. UH OH.

And as they get ready, another tender moment for Gimolas. This time, Gim feels good because he's in some mountains again, and Olas is uncomfortable, but says to Gim "You comfort me, Gimli, and I am glad to have you standing nigh with your stout legs and your hard axe." Get. A. Room.**

They don't have long to wait once they're arrayed, the Helm's Deepers. Saruman's host quickly chases the valley defenders back up to the fort, and in the darkness, Orcish arrows start flying and battle is joined! Eomer and Aragon ride out into a sortie and are driven back, narrowly escaping because Gim followed them out "to shake off sleep" and kills two Orcs, saving them. And thus starts Gimolas' famous body count competition. Olas has a pretty good lead, though. Gim has two notches on his axe, but Olas claims to have shot 20 dead with his bow. Hoom.

But this is a siege, and the Rohirrim and their allies are way outnumbered. There is only so far they can fall back, even in their own fortress. So as dawn approaches, Theoden has one last desperate notion: he's going to ride out himself with whoever will go with him and take it to the enemy. Of course Aragorn will go. As for the rest, Gim and Eomer are unaccounted for and Olas is off hunting for more arrows.

So out ride Theoden and Aragorn and what Eorlingas could be rounded up. And, as if they knew the plan all along, out come the men from the caves to attack the Isengarders from the sides. They break through and, well, how about that, overnight the forest got a LOT closer to the Deeping Coomb, didn't it? And Erkenbrand! Gandalf found him and got him through. But he's not really needed; the relocated forest so freaks out the Orcs and Evil Men that they run away and disappear into the woods, never to be seen again.

The sudden appearance of these woods is not explained, within the narrative, for quite a long time. Of course we readers who benefit from the omniscient third person Tolkien know how the trees -- the Huorns! -- got there, but Gandalf is ever coy and tells everybody that if they want to know about all that, they should come to Isengard with him, but for a parley rather than a fight. They take care of their dead (Hama! Sniffle...), then head out, passing the trees of this new forest, which are Old Forest Creepy: "The ends of their long sweeping boughs hung down like searching fingers, their roots stood up from the ground like the limbs of strange monsters, and dark caverns opened beneath them." I wonder, indeed, if the Old Forest isn't a similar tree army the Ents rustled up for the defense of the Shire, or who- or whatever the Shire was at that time, in the long long ago -- or to pen up another wizard gone bad, with a mind full of metal and wheels? Parallels!

Along the way, Gimolas argues about woods versus caves, and Gim has a suggestion that I'm sure would give many a stump-humper the vapors: the caves around Helm's Deep are marvelous, he has discovered, and many a Dwarve would pay gold to visit them. ARGH! Middle Earth's first tourist trap?

Available in the gift shop. Buy one for a pal!

Next thing you know, Gimolas is planning a honeymoon for after the war, a tour of the caves of Helm's Deep (aka Aglarond) followed by one of Fangorn (aka something hideously polysyllabic it would take a year to say). Awww!

And then the party comes across some Ents, but these do not deign to notice our heroes; they're just calling out to one another and keeping an eye on the trees they herded to Helm's Deep. Thus Theoden learns he has allies, but not ones that care so very much about the fate of his kingdom; they just have a common enemy. Nonetheless, in the dark of night, the Ents take care of a lot of stuff behind the scenes, including the giant pile of Orc corpses that the Eorlingas could not burn without cutting down trees, so left in a heap. And they also free the waters of the Isen from whatever nefarious dam-type-contrivance Saruman has had built to divert the water for his own steampunky purposes. That's right, I said steampunk. Prove me wrong!***

Alas for Saruman! By the time our heroes arrive at his tower of Orthanc, it is pretty well trashed; the water Saruman was abusing has been turned against him, to the ruin of everything. And in the rubble: Hobbits! Merry and Pippin, chillin' after dinner with a pipe full of weed. This reunion is one of the happiest scenes in this whole trilogy, for my money, as is the hobbits' first conversation with Theoden, which threatens to become a discourse on the history of smoking! For there is tons of pipeweed to be had, of the very best quality. So any remarks Saruman might have made about Gandalf's love of the leaf sound a bit hollow now, eh?****

What follows is a sort of mini-Council of Elrond, really. Again. So I guess Rivendell doesn't quite have all the exposition. How unfair of me. Pippin, by the way, is a way more exciting expositor than Elrond, but then again, he's talking about the Ents' attack on Isengard, which WOW, even though we're getting it second-hand, just like when Bilbo missed the Battle of Five Armies.

Soon it's time to confront Saruman, and here we get our second, greater example of speech as a means to work evil. Like a Bene Gesserit adept's, Saruman's very voice can bewitch people, we've been told; only Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel might be able to withstand it (so it's completely wonderful that Christopher Lee, whose own voice is so marvelous I'm glad he doesn't do advertising voice-overs, was cast as Saruman in the films!). Curiously, Gandalf counsels everyone who comes with him not to jest or approach Saruman with a light heart. Talking to him requires willpower.

I admire Tolkien for not just letting these declarative statements and descriptions of Saruman's power do the work here. Saruman's actual speeches are kindly and reasonable in and of themselves, carefully wrought with just the right touch of rhetoric. Lesser writers would, and have, let the "magic" do all the heavy lifting.

And I love that it's Gim, of all people, who shoots this rhetoric full of holes: "In the language of Orthanc, help means ruin and saving means slaying." Theoden busts out with a speech against Saruman, too, and maybe his is the more heroic for having been under the influence for so long, but Gim was first. Go, Gim!

By the time Gandalf gets his verbal licks in, they just seem cruel, really, though they come only after Saruman has managed, very subtly, to convince everyone that what was going to happen next was a private council between these two lofty Istari to which the rest would not be privy. Perhaps the cruelty was needful. Perhaps. At any rate, Gandalf -- now calling himself Gandalf the White -- announces that Saruman is cast out of the Order and proves that his own voice is powerful, too: "Your staff is broken," he says, and CRACK. Saruman crawls away, and -- UH OH -- Wormtongue chucks a Palantir (as always for this old, old stuff, check out Essjay's posts on the Silmarillion for more on that, if you don't want to read the Silmarillion yourself, though Gandalf does tell a bit of their history later on) that almost hits Gandalf in the head! Which Pippin picks up! But Gandalf snatches away! Foreshadowing!

And so Saruman is left with the Ents to keep him prisoner in his impregnable, but now tree- and water-surrounded tower. And so is established The Watchwood. Hoom hoom. Again, I wonder about the Old Forest, and TomBom, perhaps Treebeard's counterpart in the West?

It is not very hard to guess which finger from the White Hand that used to adorn the pillar is really lying athwart the path of our heroes as they depart, is it? I imagine it sticking right up. I mean, Tolkien says "forefinger" but come on.

Camping that night, Pippin sneaks a peek at the Palantir, which has been gnawing at his imagination since he first picked it up, and gives Sauron his first eyeful of Hobbitve. Oops. Fool of a Took... (he even calls himself an "idiotic fool" -- has he internalized Gandalf's impatience? Because of course he's no more a fool than is Merry, whatever PJ and PB may have done to him cinematically). What follows is the only time, I think, that Sauron actually speaks in these books. At first Sauron thinks it's Saruman, but when he realizes it's a hobbit, he says "Tell Saruman that this dainty is not for him."

So now the mystery of how Sauron and Saruman have been communicating is solved! And since it allows its bearer to communicate by sight, sound and thought with others who have Palantirs (pretty much all of them lost except for maybe one that wound up in, TA-DAH, Mordor), it is also probably how Saruman was corrupted. Here is where an object can actually make people evil. I do not buy in the slightest that the Ring has this ability, especially not as an ambient generator of evil the way the films depict it. Since the films, it seems everyone reads the books looking for signs that the Ring is corrupting people. I do not remember playing those games before the films, and neither does EssJay. I find them tiresome and beside the point. The Ring is a weapon that can enable and magnify the ill intentions of its user, and pervert the good intentions, if there are any. Take SmeaGollum; he is a greedy creature to begin with, who covets a pretty bit of gold, and it takes a good while after he kills Deagol before he gets kicked out of proto-Hobbit society. And then its the long, slow work of years (and having to survive on his own, catch-kill-cook-eat) to turn him into the creature that's stalking Frodo. Boromir was consumed with the notion of defending Gondor and correctly saw the Ring as a weapon that might aid in that effort (and perhaps had the common failing of being too sure that he, of all Men, would be strong enough not to be corrupted by the Ring and the power it bestowed). Bilbo kept the Ring for years and the worst thing he ever did was be reluctant to give it up and maybe once, out of what really just seems like withdrawal symptoms, get grabby after it with Frodo in Rivendell.

The Palantir, though? I totally buy as a means of magically turning people evil.

ANYWAY, sorry for the rant, but it's been coming for weeks, Tolkiephiles.

For safer-keeping, Gandalf gives the stone to Aragorn, who declares that it probably once belonged to Elendil and thus is actually part of his inheritance.

If I had an awesome artist like Meggiggles over at The Snobbery, I would totally insert a picture of Aragorn and the Pokemons here, because Aragorn has got to catch them all. Anduril. Check. Elessar. Check. Palantir. Check. Banner. Being made by his awesome Elve babe. Things are looking mighty good for Aragorn. But he doesn't think he's ready for Sauron to know about him yet; far better the Dark Lord be obsessed with Pippin for a while.

And then OMG WINGED NAZGUL. Run away! Run away! Gandalf and Pippin make for Minas Tirith on Shadowfax at Mach 1.

*When Rohirrim are present,Tolkien has a tendency to slip into a weird pattern of word order in sentences that we mostly associate with Yoda, putting the adjective first. He goes into overdrive on this when describing Eomer's sister, Eowyn, for the first time: "Grave and thoughtful was her glance", "very fair was her face", "Slender and tall she was... but strong she seemed..." And then again when describing Orthanc: "A strong place and wonderful was Isengard." Tolkien has, of course, taken care to establish that the Rohirrim have their own language that is no longer mutually intelligible with that of their kindred in the North, so I'm sure this is just his way of conveying that difference, but oh man, has this gimmick led to a lot of bad imitators who have cranked out reams of this kind of crap in their turgid multivolume Tolkienian pastiche. Thud.

**Also, does this sound like the kind of guy who is going to surf down some castle steps on a shield soon? Of course not. It does, though, sound like the only Elve at the Battle of Helm's Deep, which is as it should be.

***In your heart, you know Saruman was striving to turn into this:

As Pippin says of him, "I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean."

****Perhaps also this is foreshadowing/explanation for Saruman's destination after being chased out of Orthanc, hmm? "Those bastards smoked  up all my weed!"


  1. I admit I'm a bit behind on the reading, but for me the corrupting influence of the Ring was always clear in the books, if not immediate, as sj points out in the comments on her post this week. But come one, even the idea of touching the Ring nearly drives Galadriel and Gandalf up the wall; Frodo gets weirdly protective of it in Rivendell when Bilbo wants to touch it just one more time; and even our Sam, who bears it for a short time, is sorely tempted by what he could do with it. And Boromir! Though book-Boromir may not have needed much pushing by the Ring.
    If we're talking about immediate, corrupting effects, perhaps here's the difference: Sauron has the palantir that used to be at Minas Morgul (I think?), so he exerts his influence over anyone else using one of the others, as we see with Saruman and Pippin, as well as [REDACTED], which we learn later, but not [REDACTED] which still took an all-night struggle. So it's not the palantir itself, necessarily, but Sauron acting through them to corrupt others. The Ring, in my understanding of it, was something he put so much of himself into that it corrupts on its own. Maybe, just more slowly?

    1. More slowly? Absolutely. As I said, it took YEARS for Gollum to get where he is. As for the idea of touching it w/r/t/ G&G, it's the idea, the heady idea of all the power they would have but how wrong it would be to have that power that keeps them away. "In place of a Dark Lord you would set up a Queen" and Galadriel's imagination runs away with her.

      Where this really came from, I suppose, was how everyone was suddenly on about the Ring's supposed influence in the Hobbit, which drove me pretty much insane. I don't even go so far as EssJay's concession that it's possessing the Ring that subject's one to "Influence" -- USING it does. As we come to understand , putting it on shifts the user into a sort of side-dimension, which is why he becomes invisible in the regular world. All kinds of nastiness awaits one in that side dimension, like the true appearances of the Nazgul.

      And yes, I probably didn't make that clear: the Palantir itself isn't corrupting or evil, but it pretty much gives Sauron direct access to the looker's mind, which is pretty damned evil right there.

  2. OK, I get that. The case for the Ring's influence in The Hobbit really comes from the way Tolkien coloured that story in LOTR -- the way Gandalf highlights that Bilbo didn't tell the dwarves about it right away, and so forth, and how worried that made Gandalf. Even in the version Tolkien amended, with the riddle-game playing out the way we know it today, the Ring still isn't necessarily corrupting Bilbo throughout that story, even though he uses it A LOT. But the Ring still does jump off his finger at a critical point, maybe to have him killed by orcs! And given the fact Tolkien also cast doubt on whatever parts of The Hobbit he liked by saying that was essentially Bilbo's version of the story from the Red Book of Westmarch -- I think the idea the Ring was a corrupting influence (either soon -- "why did Bilbo lie immediately?" or late "60 years later he starts calling it 'my precious'") was clearly in Tolkien's mind as he developed LOTR.

  3. BTW, and totally off-topic, but I have a mini-rant of an Old Norse/Icelandic nature in the comments at The Booksluts this week :)

  4. I wish I had read these books a bit more, as I feel like I could write better posts about them. I have forgotten so much. But at the same time, what's old is new again. You really sussed the important details out of this section, I knew that pipe-weed would be important, and the palantir, but I can't remember. I can see now that I was far more fixated on the Frodo and Sam portion of this tale, as I remember that very well still.

    1. I think when we're kids we all fixate on Frodo and Sam! I definitely tapped my foot bit through all the running and all the Rohirrim and all the battling in this book (though of course I liked the Ents!) and wondered if F&S had just been forgotten! Silly little Kate...

      It says a lot about these books, doesn't it, that our experience of reading them as adults can be so different from, and yet just as marvelous, as it was when we were kids!


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