I struggled for some time with the title of this week’s blog post. I hope that what I write will show you why and if you think that you might have a better title then please offer it as a comment. I would love to hear from you. I have chosen the simplest title that I can think of. It is simply a description of what happens. Sam sings and he does so in the Tower of Cirith Ungol.
Immediately that seemingly simple statement should make us stop in wonder. The tower is an orc fortress on the border of Mordor, once a part of a ring of fortifications built by Gondor at the height of its power in order to watch over the land that had been taken from Sauron at the great battle in which the Ring was taken from him. As Gondor’s power waned it was taken from them by the Lord of the Nazgûl. And from that day one can only imagine that the kind of song that would have been sung in that place would have harsh and cruel like the song the goblins of the Misty Mountains sing as they carry their Dwarf captives through its tunnels in The Hobbit.
Sam sings because he is in despair. He is searching for Frodo amidst the carnage of the battle that the orcs have fought over Frodo’s mithril coat and he cannot find him. He hopes that if Frodo is able to hear him sing then he might be able to make some kind of reply.
And so he tries to think of something that Frodo might be able to respond to, perhaps a child’s song from the Shire or something that Bilbo used to sing, but it is no use. And then something wonderful happens. Words and music come to him that evoke the achingly beautiful struggle of life against the power of death.
“In western lands beneath the Sun the flowers may rise in Spring…”
I said earlier that the simple statement that Sam sings in the tower should make us stop in wonder. It is not just that he sings that is wonderful but what he sings. The words that come to him seem to have journeyed, perhaps from the Shire in springtime, perhaps from the Undying Lands themselves. The image of beech trees crowned with Elven-stars is one of such beauty that only a true poet could possibly have created it. By this point of the story we know that Sam is a poet. The verse that he composes in honour of the fallen Gandalf in Lothlórien tells us that he is a poet but this is something of a higher quality even than that.
What do we make of this? I want to suggest this. Great artists speak of a work of art not so much as something that they have created themselves but as something that they discover. So Michelangelo’s Pietà is found within the block of marble from the Carrara quarry. So the opening bars of the slow movement of Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony seem to have come from a country that, at best, we can only glimpse and that we long for. An artist can only do this work of finding if she or he gives long hours, even years, of practice to the perfection of their art. And yet what is created is never merely the sum of that practice. The work is always something found , something given.
C.S Lewis, who shared much of Tolkien’s understanding put it this way in his 1941 sermon, The Weight of Glory.
“We do not want merely to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
I think that those words capture the essence of Sam’s spiritual search. We can only guess at how he nourished it in his heart on the long journey. I am sure that he did nourish it because words like this could not have come otherwise nor the music either. They are an invasion of Mordor that cannot be resisted and they do their work. Frodo is found!
8 thoughts on “Sam Gamgee Sings in the Tower of Cirith Ungol”
It is a great application of a song in dire need. I have just finished writing an essay for my blog to be published later this summer about similar instances of singing in The Silmarillion. Fingon and Beren sing out of desperation in very dark places and might as well be asking for serious trouble by doing so. But their songs work in a different way: instead of drawing the attention of Orcs, they draw the attention of Maedhros and Lúthien respectively, so these songs help them all a lot.
Thank you for this wonderful essay! This moment is one of my most favourite ones in the book.
When I first read LOTR as a teenager I took very little interest in the songs. But how important they are. I look forward to reading your essay very much. To your list of powerful songs I think you could add Aragorn’s song telling part of The Lay of Beren and Lúthien at the camp below Weathertop.
I think it’s what almost everyone does. I read the songs but didn’t really appreciate their importance at that time. Only later did I realise how big a role they play.
That’s a great idea! I’ll see if I can fit this song in. Probably, powerful songs of LOTR deserve their own separate post 🙂
I agree with you entirely. I think it would make a great post. Tolkien understood the power of song. My own conviction is that there is a direct link between Tolkien’s songs and the Music of the Ainur.
I totally agree with you here. In the world that was shaped by Music it cannot be otherwise.
Reblogged this on Wonder and Beauty.
This is such a wonderful post! Sam’s song did not come from within him, but through him. He was merely the conduit for this blessed inspiration, to not give into despair at the apparent futility of his long search, but to defy it and defeat it and win a victory that perhaps could not have come otherwise. He teaches us so much in this moment. What you say about not making up a story but discovering it, receiving it, is exactly how I feel about my writing and how Tolkien felt too. I love Olga’s comments also.
Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂
Thank you for your lovely comment. I agree entirely about Sam being a conduit although, as I tried to say last week, the power that invades Mordor does so because of the offering that the two hobbits make of their lives. Gloriously, they have no idea that this is what they are doing. I guess that is what makes them conduits for the Power.
I agree with you about Olga’s comments too. I am glad to have encountered her work as I am with yours as well. Every blessing 😊