17

When Frodo and Sam are safely down on the ground after having climbed down using the Elf-rope, Sam pulls it and, to the surprise of both Hobbits, it comes back down.

Frodo assumes that Sam had been sloppy tying it, whereas Sam thinks that the rope is magical and knowingly aided them by untying itself for their benefit.

Is not a plausible -- likely, even -- alternative explanation that it was simply Gollum who had caught up with them, a bit too late for his liking, and tried to wound the Hobbits by untying the rope for at least one of them to fall down and get hurt, so that he could more easily snatch back the illegally stolen Preciousssss from the nasty, cruel Hobbitses?

As far as I can remember, this is never explained, but to me, it seems quite possible. While this is "fantasy", and literal magic exists in their world, it seems a bit far-fetched to me that a rope would be able to think and "untie itself" in that manner, even if it was made by Galadriel herself. Sentient ropes that think and act on their own seems to go a bit far even considering the context, while acknowledging that the Ring is indeed another "dead object" that appears to have a will on its own...

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    You are thinking of "untying" as some sort of physical movement the rope. Knots work via friction, though, so if the rope's coefficient of friction were reduced enough, any knot could be untied simply by pulling hard enough. One could argue that the rope "responded" to Sam's (possibly subconsicious) wish to retrieve the rope by lowering its own coefficient of friction. Still magic, but subtle enough to fit with the Elvish conception of magic.
    – chepner
    Jun 9 at 15:56
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    As a simpler example, consider trying to pull a shoe lace out of a shoe. When the lace passes through only one eyelet, it's a simple matter put pull out the lace. As you pass the lace through more and more eyelets, it gets progressively harder, until the combined friction supplied by each eyelet would require more force than the lace itself can withstand, so the lace either stays put or you pull the lace in half.
    – chepner
    Jun 9 at 15:59
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    The fact that Elven anything burns him would make him think twice before touching it. Jun 9 at 19:22
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    One may or may not need magic for this feat. Some real-world knots are known to hold well when under tension, but come lose when shaked. Also, some rope types can promote this behavior. It is pretty much possible that Sam used a knot working well for ropes he is used to, but prone to untangling with the rope in question.
    – fraxinus
    Jun 9 at 22:36
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    I always assumed that the was the point of it being an "Elven Rope" - the Elves like to make things which assist their owners, so a rope would always want to stay with its owner so it can be of more use to them. So, it stays fast when needed, but comes loose when that is also needed - nothing better than only having to carry one length of rope as it never gets left behind.
    – Moo
    Jun 10 at 0:32

2 Answers 2

47

In the novel the rope is noted to have been secured tightly

He took up the rope and made it fast over the stump nearest to the brink.

LOTR: The Two Towers

and it does indeed fall down when tugged, just as occurs in the film.

"Noodles! My beautiful rope! There it is tied to a stump, and we're at the bottom. Just as nice a little stair for that slinking Gollum as we could leave. Better put up a signpost to say which way we've gone! I thought it seemed a bit too easy." "If you can think of any way we could have both used the rope and yet brought it down with us, then you can pass on to me ninnyhammer, or any other name your Gaffer gave you," said Frodo. "Climb up and untie it and let yourself down, if you want to!" Sam scratched his head. "No, I can't think how, begging your pardon," he said. "But I don't like leaving it, and that's a fact." He stroked the rope's end and shook it gently. "It goes hard parting with anything I brought out of the Elf-country. Made by Galadriel herself, too, maybe. Galadriel," he murmured nodding his head mournfully. He looked up and gave one last pull to the rope as if in farewell. To the complete surprise of both the hobbits it came loose. Sam fell over, and the long grey coils slithered silently down on top of him. Frodo laughed. "Who tied the rope? " he said. "A good thing it held as long as it did! To think that I trusted all my weight to your knot!" Sam did not laugh. "I may not be much good at climbing, Mr. Frodo," he said in injured tones, "but I do know something about rope and about knots. It's in the family, as you might say. Why, my grand-dad, and my uncle Andy after him, him that was the Gaffer's eldest brother he had a rope-walk over by Tighfield many a year. And I put as fast a hitch over the stump as any one could have done, in the Shire or out of it." "Then the rope must have broken - frayed on the rock-edge, I expect," said Frodo. "I bet it didn't! " said Sam in an even more injured voice. He stooped and examined the ends. "Nor it hasn't neither. Not a strand!" "Then I'm afraid it must have been the knot," said Frodo. Sam shook his head and did not answer. He was passing the rope through his fingers thoughtfully. "Have it your own way, Mr. Frodo," he said at last, "but I think the rope came off itself - when I called." He coiled it up and stowed it lovingly in his pack. "It certainly came," said Frodo, "and that's the chief thing".

Noting that the rope burns Gollum's skin when he touches it and Sam's proclivity with knots, it seems most likely that the rope is imbued with Elven magic (it glows, for example) rather than that Gollum untied it or that Sam tied a duff knot.


In the film script, the order of events is even clearer. The rope "unties itself".

SAM tugs on the rope - hard.

ANGLE ON: The ELVISH ROPE unties itself and plummets.

ANGLE ON: The ROPE lands at SAM’S FEET...SAM stands speechless for a moment, and then he looks at FRODO who shrugs.

FRODO: Real Elvish rope.

28

Elves—or at least, those of Lothlórien—have some funny ideas about what is and isn’t magic.

‘Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder.

‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘…we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make. Yet they are garments, not armour, and they will not turn shaft or blade. But they should serve you well: they are light to wear, and warm enough or cool enough at need. And you will find them a great aid in keeping out of the sight of unfriendly eyes, whether you walk among the stones or the trees.’

— Book Two, Chapter VIII, ‘Farewell to Lórien’

(Paraphrase: ‘They’re not magic, they’re just your ordinary, everyday, temperature-controlled colour-changing camouflage cloaks imbued with their makers’ thoughts. Everybody has those, right?’)

To my mind, the bolded part means more than just ‘we think of nice things while making stuff’. Some part of the maker’s thought is literally in the things Elves make. They think of light and shade and trees and earth while making cloaks, and the cloaks then adapt to the wearer’s environment and need. The cloaks don’t have to be sentient, deciding how best to blend into a particular environment; they just do it. The thought is the maker’s, not the item’s.

Likewise, the rope doesn’t need to be sentient to have the helpful trait of coming untied when desired. While spinning the rope, the maker thinks of all the useful things a rope can do, and the result is a rope that does useful things for its owner.

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    This is a great perspective on the Elves' craft - be it mighty rings or simpler traveling gear. Jun 10 at 13:38
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    "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Arthur C. Clarke. The Elves are simply the most advanced crafters in Middle Earth. The things they make are so good, they appear magical to less sophisticated people.
    – Seth R
    Jun 10 at 15:22
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    @SethR You know, just after writing this, I read the bit in the previous chapter where Frodo and company enter Caras Galadhon through gates that open and close without any visible gatekeepers… and thought, ‘So, automatic doors then?’ Jun 10 at 16:40
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    What's funny about it? Is an old woman giving you a herbal tea for your headache a witch? What if it holds willow bark? Magic is unexplained causality, and 90% of your life would be deemed magic by anyone three centuries ago.
    – Mary
    Jun 11 at 0:59
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    This is part of how Tolkien attended to a great deal of internal consistency in the legendarium. The ability of the Eldar to put a bit of themselves into the things they made--and it's possible they could not help it--is intimately linked to the different relationship they had with Arda than Men had. The Eldar truly dwell in Arda, and will until Eru unmakes it at the end of all things. Their spirit mingles with the things they touch, and if they linger long enough, they will be so thoroughly mingled with the earth that they will fade to our senses.
    – EvilSnack
    Jun 11 at 2:20

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