Until I began to think about writing this post I had never wondered how it was that Snaga managed to be one of only two orcs left alive in the Tower of Cirith Ungol (the other being Shagrat) after the fight over Frodo’s mithril coat. To be honest I had never really thought much about Snaga at all. But as I thought about this part of the story I began to see that Snaga is one of life’s survivors until, that is, he thinks himself safe enough to strike out at Frodo with a whip. Until that point I think that Snaga managed to stay out of the trouble. As he tells Shagrat he sees it “through a window”. There is more than one way to be an orc. One is to be a warrior thug like Gorbag bullying your way to the top until you meet your match as he does in Shagrat. Another is to be a mean sneak with a keen nose for danger and how to stay out of it, a bigger version of Gollum you might say. You take whatever you need to survive, prepared to murder, if necessary, but you let the Gorbags and the Shagrats get their way. It is safer that way.
And that is where Snaga helps us to understand something that has been happening ever since Frodo raised the Star Glass of Galadriel in the darkness of Shelob’s Lair. A Power has entered Mordor, Snaga can sense it, and he is afraid.
If we recall some of the events since that moment it will help us to see what is happening. In raising the Star Glass Frodo brings the light of a Silmaril into Shelob’s endless night. In defeating Shelob in battle Sam finds a strength to do something that no one has done before. When Sam raises the phial of Galadriel before the hideous malice of the Watchers he feels “their will waver and crumble into fear”. And when Snaga confronts Sam on the tower steps it is not a small frightened hobbit that he meets but “a great silent shape, cloaked in a grey shadow, looming against the wavering light behind; in one hand it held a sword, the very light of which was a bitter pain, the other was clutched at his breast, but held concealed some nameless menace of power and doom”.
The menace, of course, is the Ring, but this is not the Power that has entered Mordor. We saw that the Power is not the Ring last week when Sam was tempted to claim it and to challenge Sauron. The Ring is trying to return to its master and will betray Sam. Sam realises this. “He’d spot me pretty quick, if I put the Ring on now, in Mordor.” The Power can use the menace of the Ring as it does to terrify Snaga but its purpose is not the same as the purpose of the Ring. If it was then it would have succeeded in betraying Sam and returning to Sauron.
No, the Power that has entered Mordor is something that Snaga can sense and is afraid of but it is not something that he can understand and nor even can his master, the Dark Lord. Snaga has spiritual insight of a kind but only the kind that knows about power over others. Such a spiritual insight knows about exercising power over those who are weaker or submitting to those whose power is greater. It knows it well because it has practiced that spirituality for a long time. But it knows nothing about Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Mercy or Pity because it has rejected all of these for the sake of gaining power over others. The gospels call it gaining the world but losing your soul.
It is Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Mercy and Pity that have entered Mordor keeping company with two small hobbits who have done the simple act of laying down their lives for their friends. No one has greater love than this. No one who has rejected Love can ever grasp it. And only those who have chosen the way of humility in the way that Frodo and Sam have done can keep company with this kind of Power.
13 thoughts on “Snaga knows that he is up against a Power much greater than he is.”
Nice characterization! When Snaga faces Sam, at first he sees before him some elvish threat, and he’s paralyzed. Then he gets the hint about the Ring, realizes there are two contending powers here, and seizes the opportunity to execute his preferred method of handling a crisis. (Like the locksmith caught in the speakeasy raid.)
You will have to tell me about the locksmith in the speakeasy raid! We never had prohibition here. What would the Inklings have done if we had? Beer plays such a role in their imagination.
I think that “Elvish” is an adjective given to anything that poses a threat to the orcs. Snaga operates without too much reflection beyond fight or flight. If Gorbag and Shagrat do fight he tends to do flight. It is interesting that such is his perception of the threat on the stairs that he is prepared to risk Shagrat’s wrath. And clearly he does not regard Frodo as any kind of threat. A big mistake of course.
When you talk of the contending powers do you mean the Ring (or whatever Snaga perceives) and what I call the Power that enters Mordor with the hobbits? I think he perceives one big though doubly faceted threat. What they are he does not know but it is Elvish and too much for him.
Locksmith: Not guilty, your Honor.
Judge: Then what were you doing in a speakeasy when the police raided it?
Locksmith: May it please your Honor, I was making a bolt for the door.
Very good! I must remember that defence if the occasion ever arises!
So, we have a more or less sensible Orc here, don’t we? 🙂
I love how Sam is portrayed in this episode as an Elvish warrior. When we read it, we know who is really hiding behind that shadow of a warrior. But the Orc is surprised. I like how Tolkien raises Sam up to this heroic role here. It seems to be reflecting the growth of his importance, courage and inner strength. He started out as a rather shy Hobbit, but became a hero and a warrior – not as a shadow on the wall, but as someone doing really heroic deeds. Snaga’s view of Sam reflects his newly acquired position as a brave leader. I do believe Sam perfectly fits the image Snaga has of him.
That is an interesting definition of “sensible”! I think he is sensible in the way that Gollum is sensible. He has learnt how to survive in a brutal world. And as I said in the post only until he thinks himself safe.
I agree that Sam is heroic. His fight with Shelob and his entry into an orc fortress in search of Frodo are deeds that deserve the highest praise. Sam does not see it that way at all and the only time he is tempted to see himself as a hero is when he briefly considers taking the Ring. Then, as I wrote last week, his “plain hobbit sense” comes to his aid. And even Sam at his most heroic could not storm an orc fortress unless he was aided. Gandalf alludes to this when he speaks of Bilbo finding the Ring, of being “meant to find it”. There are other providential forces at work other than the Ring or the will of its master. But they can do nothing unless they have someone who gives them the chance to work. Sam certainly does that.
What is interesting is that no one ever really talks about the orcs even though they’re the one truly evil race we see over and over and over again. Men and dwarves might have some evil to them that each one individually has to overcome, but orcs are all evil with no variation, and they come up all the time to get in the heros’ ways. Tolkien created them very distinctly and carefully and lots of people seem to forget that. So I like what you did here.
Thank you for a very thoughtful comment. The Orcs are a creature different from any that we ever experience in life. As you say, Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and Men all have the mix of good and bad that we know in ourselves but not Orcs. This makes the Haradrim, the Corsairs of Umbar and the Easterlings different from the Orcs. Did Tolkien believe that it is possible to become so set in our behaviour that we cannot turn back? Can that happen to a whole race? Do you have any thoughts on this?
I think that perhaps with races which have been corrupted by evil, there could be a chance to come back to good. This can maybe be seen in Sam’s thoughts about the dead Easterling soldier – good recognizing potential good, even though that potential is now dead, perhaps? But something that was created by evil can’t turn back. Orcs were created in mockery of elves. Elves and men and all can be influenced by evil, but evil cannot be influenced by good – it knows only to *fear* good. So now, I don’t think the orcs could ever turn “Back” because they were never good to begin with. That’s just how I see it, though.
How wonderful that you remembered Sam’s sympathy for the young fallen warrior. I think you are right. He recognises that at the deepest level they are kin and his heart goes out to him. The orcs are different, aren’t they? I think you are right. They are a twisted mockery of the creative power of Illuvatar. But are they beyond his love? I
I wish that I could ask Tolkien about this.
(You probably noticed that I hit the Sent button too soon. It is a problem when I work with this tablet.)
It’s hard to say if the orcs are beyond love; certainly they seem to be but maybe there’s no way to know. They love battle and killing, obviously, but does that really count as love or just bloodlust?? I’ve hit the sent button to early sometimes, too.
Ha ha! There is no love in the orcs. Not even a love of battle. There is only hate and a desire to hurt.