Utter Darkness

Those of you who also follow me on Medieval Otaku know that I’ve placed that blog on hiatus.  Of course, that need not mean that I shall quit blogging here–though, the thought did cross my mind.  That blog was placed on hold so that I might read more, and how better to may one understand what one reads more than by writing about it–especially if people comment on my ideas?

Big Spider

The following passage of The Two Towers occurs after Samwise’s fight with Shelob and the apparent death of Frodo.  Some people accuse Tolkien of not having very interesting prose or prose which obscures his personality–as Neil Gaiman writes.  While it is certain that Tolkien’s work shines more in conversion and when he wishes to give a place a mythic feel, he can create very powerful prose descriptions which have a direct link to his experience.  Read the following perfectly constructed sentence:

And then black despair came down on him, and Sam bowed to the ground, and drew his grey hood over his head, and night came into his heart, and he knew no more.

How many better images of utter despair are there in literature?  How many of these are as succinct?  In a single sentence, images of crushing darkness are added upon one another until the light of the intellect is extinguished.  Black despair presses down on Sam from without, the drawing of the grey hood over his head shows that despair has taken a hold on his mind, and lastly the night coming into his heart saliently conveys the image of darkness as all-encompassing and pervasive.  How much more so when one recalls that this takes place in a lightless tunnel?

Anyone else like how Tolkien names the two traditional seats of thought in this sentence?  The heart and the head are also the two traditional seats of the soul.  The heart and the head, in that they point to the soul or the form of man, show the immersion of his mind in black despair.


Tolkien admitted that Samwise was supposed to represent the average doughboy of WWI.  Tolkien lost all save one of his friends in that awful conflict, and one can’t help but think that this image of despair relates to his tragic experiences in this war.  Perhaps, Tolkien even imagined–like Sam–that his last close friend had died at one point.  Then, all the sense and meaning was taken out of life: “and he knew no more.”

Well, I found this passage really cool, but what do my dear readers think?  Any other ways such grim despair might have been present in Tolkien’s life?

5 thoughts on “Utter Darkness

  1. earthoak says:

    A very interesting post – thank you. I think despair and melancholy are so eloquently conveyed in the Lord of the Rings, that arguably Tolkien must have experienced it himself to some extent, in order to be able to create such empathetic characters. I discuss a passage from the Two Towers here: https://earthandoak.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/discussing-3-memorable-quotations-from-j-r-r-tolkiens-the-lord-of-the-rings/ (I’d be very interested in your thoughts!). this passage is in relation to Frodo, who epitomises for me an example of a person who combines both courage and depression. You highlight a very good, rare example of Sam despairing in the LOTR – usually he is the one to bring hope to others, especially Frodo, and thinks more about the practical and ‘the present’ rather than deep ideas and the future.

    I really liked this line in your post: “In a single sentence, images of crushing darkness are added upon one another until the light of the intellect is extinguished. ” – powerful and articulate.

    • I’m glad that you liked my post. The fight with Shelob is one of my favorite parts of LOTR and that quote has always stood out to me. Of the three quotes you mentioned in your post, Gimli’s stood out the most for the sheer vividness of his description. It is also nice to hear the dwarf language. I wonder what Tolkien based it on?

      And yes, it is very rare to see Sam despairing in LOTR. He seems to base his good spirits on serving Frodo, but the basis for his happiness is ripped out from under him in that scene. Afterwards, when he realizes that Frodo is alive after all, he gets a new burst of energy and purpose in trying to rescue his master.

      That’s my favorite sentence in my post also. I was struck by a rare flash of inspiration. 🙂

      • earthoak says:

        Yes the chapter Shelob’s Lair is one of my favourite in the whole book too – it is so dark, dramatic and moving as well. Really good point about Sam, and his general happiness when he is able to serve Frodo – it seems to be the thing that shields him from the trauma of being in Mordor; it keeps the reader’s spirits up too! The end of that chapter when we (and Sam) discover Frodo is alive is incredible.
        Thanks for your feedback on my post – yes I think the Gimli one is very powerful as it is so striking!

      • You’re welcome! The first time I read about Frodo’s apparent death, I was quite shaken and then thrilled to find that Samwise had been mistaken. All in all, The Two Towers is my favorite book in the series for the appearance of the Ents, the Battle of Helms Deep, and the fight with Shelob–all very exciting events.

      • earthoak says:

        Yes, the TT also just about edges it as my favourite of the 3 volumes! it has some of the most dramatic chapters in the whole book: both Pippin’s encounter with the Palantir, and of course Frodo and Shelob. I really did think Frodo had died when I first read it – the build up in the morgul vale and on the stairs of Cirith Ungol was quite intense, so it made his death even more convincing. I actually sat there for a good long while trying to take in what had happened before I could finish the chapter… And then, to discover ‘Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy’ – well, what a brilliant cliffhanger.

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