Now we come to the high point of the story. One that might easily have been an anti-climax, if you think about it. If they reach the fires after a little more suffering and Frodo then finally completes his Quest, where is the drama in that?
As Tolkien tells it, they are still in peril after escaping the Orcs who mistook them for shirking lesser breeds. But are once again lucky:
“He heard the scuffling and cries die down as the troops passed on through the Isenmouthe. It seemed that in the confusion and the mingling of many companies of various kinds they had not been missed, not yet at any rate.”
But Sam now realises that they must expect to die, regardless:
“Never for long had hope died in his staunch heart, and always until now he had taken some thought for their return. But the bitter truth came home to him at last: at best their provision would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless in the midst of a terrible desert. There could be no return.”
Gandalf will rescue them, as it happens. But unlike the rest of the Fellowship, they have no idea that Gandalf has returned from death. But Sam does see that he would not have just ‘expended’ them:
“I would dearly like to see Bywater again, and Rosie Cotton and her brothers, and the Gaffer and Marigold and all. I can’t think somehow that Gandalf would have sent Mr. Frodo on this errand if there hadn’t a’ been any hope of his ever coming back at all. Things all went wrong when he went down in Moria. I wish he hadn’t. He would have done something.’
Rosie Cotton, Sam’s future wife, has not previously been mentioned: a point that Ursula Le Guin was maybe the first to notice. Women are usually more careful to keep track of social relationships.
In the film, Rosie Cotton appears early, with Frodo encouraging Sam to ask her to dance.
Note also that the viewpoint has been increasingly shifting from Frodo to Sam. I think that after the encounter with Shelob, we only see through Sam’s eyes and hear only what Frodo chooses to tell him
But together, they have go get to Mount Doom. And they are now in less danger of being caught by Orcs
“The Dark Lord had almost completed the movement of his forces, and even in the fastness of his own realm he sought the secrecy of night, fearing the winds of the world that had turned against him, tearing aside his veils, and troubled with tidings of bold spies that had passed through his fences.”
It seems that Sauron knows that there were at least two intruders. But he then fails to pass it on to the Mouth of Sauron, who makes a fool of himself by not knowing. Or this could be an oversight by Tolkien.
Things remain grim
“For the hobbits each day, each mile. was more bitter than the one before, as their strength lessened and the land became more evil. They met no enemies by day. At times by night, as they cowered or drowsed uneasily in some hiding beside the road, they heard cries and the noise of many feet or the swift passing of some cruelly ridden steed.”
Yet they get a little more water:
“For at long intervals on that highway cisterns had been built for the use of troops sent in haste through the waterless regions. In one Sam had found some water left, stale, muddied by the orcs, but still sufficient for their desperate case.”
And the evil of the One Ring still works on them.
“‘I can’t manage it, Sam,’ [Frodo] said. ‘It is such a weight to carry, such a weight.’
“Sam knew before he spoke, that it was vain, and that such words might do more harm than good, but in his pity he could not keep silent. ‘Then let me carry it a bit for you, Master,’ he said. ‘You know I would, and gladly, as long as I have any strength.’
“A wild light came into Frodo’s eyes. ‘Stand away! Don’t touch me!’ he cried. ‘It is mine, I say. Be off!’ His hand strayed to his sword-hilt. But then quickly his voice changed. ‘No, no, Sam,’ he said sadly. ‘But you must understand. It is my burden, and no one else can bear it. It is too late now, Sam dear. You can’t help me in that way again. I am almost in its power now. I could not give it up, and if you tried to take it I should go mad.’”
Then they sensibly lighten their load, while being aware that Gollum almost certainly follows them. Gollum, it seems, is always drawn to the One Ring, and knows where it is even if Sauron does not.
Sam has not shown much common sense before, in knowing what to discard:
“Hardest of all it was to part with his cooking-gear. Tears welled in his eyes at the thought of casting it away.”
He remembers the last time he used it, and got them caught by Faramir. To him it is a good memory. But for Frodo it is gone:
“I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark. Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.”
This anticipates his failure to give up the One Ring, when this finally becomes possible. For him, it is becoming the only real thing in the world.
Sam meantime, while sensibly making sure he does not leave behind the Orc sword that Frodo no longer wants, remains sentimental about his cooking gear. He throws into a deep fissure.
“His hands are bad enough when empty. And he isn’t going to mess with my pans!”
Gollum always eats raw food, and it’s hard to see why the pans would have interested him. But Sam never can see far outside his own view of things.
But he remains heroic, as they push on unseen:
“Now at last they turned their faces to the Mountain and set out, thinking no more of concealment, bending their weariness and failing wills only to the one task of going on. In the dimness of its dreary day few things even in that land of vigilance could have espied them, save from close at hand. Of all the slaves of the Dark Lord, only the Nazgul could have warned him of the peril that crept, small but indomitable, into the very heart of his guarded realm. But the Nazgul and their black wings were abroad on another errand: they were gathered far away, shadowing the march of the Captains of the West, and thither the thought of the Dark Tower was turned.
This is Gandalf’s strategy paying off. Had they stayed in Minas Tirith, which might have seemed sensible, Frodo and Sam would certainly have been caught. The One Ring taken, boosting Sauron’s already overwhelming power.
Ignored by Sauron, Sam still has to face the same bleak hopelessness that overcame Denethor:
“One more day will do it.’ And then he paused.
“‘Don’t be a fool, Sam Gamgee,’ came an answer in his own voice. ‘He won’t go another day like that, if he moves at all. And you can’t go on much longer giving him all the water and most of the food.’..
“It’s all quite useless. He said so himself. You are the fool, going on hoping and toiling. You could have lain down and gone to sleep together days ago, if you hadn’t been so dogged. But you’ll die just the same, or worse. You might just as well lie down now and give it up. You’ll never get to the top anyway.”
I am reminded of Gollum talking as if he were two people – and cleverly shown as such in the film. Sam is also splitting, but manages to overcome his worse side.
Tolkien always takes a realistic view of the struggle to be virtuous. How some lose, and others hold firm:
“With a gasp Frodo cast himself on the ground. Sam sat by him. To his surprise he felt tired but lighter, and his head seemed clear again. No more debates disturbed his mind. He knew all the arguments of despair and would not listen to them. His will was set, and only death would break it. He felt no longer either desire or need of sleep, but rather of watchfulness. He knew that all the hazards and perils were now drawing together to a point: the next day would be a day of doom, the day of final effort or disaster, the last gasp.”
He even has extra physical strength
“‘Come, Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.’
“As Frodo clung upon his back, arms loosely about his neck, legs clasped firmly under his arms, Sam staggered to his feet; and then to his amazement he felt the burden light. He had feared that he would have barely strength to lift his master alone, and beyond that he had expected to share in the dreadful dragging weight of the accursed Ring. But it was not so. Whether because Frodo was so worn by his long pains, wound of knife, and venomous sting, and sorrow, fear, and homeless wandering, or because some gift of final strength was given to him, Sam lifted Frodo with no more difficulty than if he were carrying a hobbit-child.”
And finds at last an easy path:
“The path was not put there for the purposes of Sam. He did not know it, but he was looking at Sauron’s Road from Barad-dur to the Sammath Naur, the Chambers of Fire… Often blocked or destroyed by the tumults of the Mountain’s furnaces, always that road was repaired and cleaned again by the labours of countless orcs.” [A]
But now Gollum catches up with them:
“A sudden weight smote him and he crashed forward, tearing the backs of his hands that still clasped his master’s. Then he knew what had happened, for above him as he lay he heard a hated voice.
“‘Wicked masster!’ it hissed. ‘Wicked masster cheats us; cheats Smeagol, gollum. He musstn’t go that way. He musstn’t hurt Preciouss. Give it to Smeagol, yess, give it to us! Give it to uss!’
One might ask, how does Gollum know what their intention now is? Would anyone have told him that this is the only place the One Ring can be destroyed? He had wondered earlier, when guiding them through Ithilien. But back then, he was expecting to deliver them to Shelob and get the ring himself.
Regardless, he does now know and is dangerous.
“With a violent heave Sam rose up. At once he drew his sword; but he could do nothing. Gollum and Frodo were locked together. Gollum was tearing at his master, trying to get at the chain and the Ring. This was probably the only thing that could have roused the dying embers of Frodo’s heart and will: an attack, an attempt to wrest his treasure from him by force. He fought back with a sudden fury that amazed Sam, and Gollum also. Even so things might have gone far otherwise, if Gollum himself had remained unchanged; but whatever dreadful paths, lonely and hungry and waterless, he had trodden, driven by a devouring desire and a terrible fear, they had left grievous marks on him. He was a lean, starved, haggard thing, all bones and tight-drawn sallow skin. A wild light flamed in his eyes, but his malice was no longer matched by his old griping strength.”
Now comes a scene that’s been given more than one interpretation:
“Frodo flung him off and rose up quivering.
“‘Down, down!’ he gasped, clutching his hand to his breast, so that beneath the cover of his leather shirt he clasped the Ring. ‘Down you creeping thing, and out of my path! Your time is at an end. You cannot betray me or slay me now.’
“Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice.
“‘Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’
“The crouching shape backed away, terror in its blinking eyes, and yet at the same time insatiable desire.
“Then the vision passed and Sam saw Frodo standing, hand on breast, his breath coming in great gasps, and Gollum at his feet, resting on his knees with his wide-splayed hands upon the ground.”
I’ve seen this understood as the Valar speaking through Frodo.
I see the reverse. Saying that Frodo is “untouchable now by pity” is a sign he has gone badly wrong. And is indeed just about to waste all of the effort and sacrifice that has brought him this far.
Meantime Sam, who has previously not been ready to share Frodo’s earlier pity for Gollum, has now changed:
“‘Look out!’ cried Sam. ‘He’ll spring!’ He stepped forward, brandishing his sword. ‘Quick, Master!’ he gasped. ‘Go on! Go on! No time to lose. I’ll deal with him. Go on!’
“Frodo looked at him as if at one now far away. ‘Yes, I must go on,’ he said. ‘Farewell, Sam! This is the end at last. On Mount Doom doom shall fall. Farewell!’ He turned and went on, walking slowly but erect up the climbing path.
“‘Now!’ said Sam. ‘At last I can deal with you!’ He leaped forward with drawn blade ready for battle. But Gollum did not spring. He fell flat upon the ground and whimpered.
“‘Don’t kill us,’ he wept. ‘Don’t hurt us with nassty cruel steel! Let us live, yes, live just a little longer. Lost lost! We’re lost. And when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into the dust.’ He clawed up the ashes of the path with his long fleshless fingers. ‘Dusst!’ he hissed.
“Sam’s hand wavered. His mind was hot with wrath and the memory of evil. It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again. But Sam had no words to express what he felt.
“‘Oh, curse you, you stinking thing!’ he said. ‘Go away! Be off! I don’t trust you, not as far as I could kick you; but be off. Or I shall hurt you, yes, with nasty cruel steel.’
“Gollum got up on all fours, and backed away for several paces, and then he turned, and as Sam aimed a kick at him he fled away down the path. Sam gave no more heed to him. He suddenly remembered his master.”
He follows Frodo into the darkness. And seeks a source of light:
“In his great need he drew out once more the phial of Galadriel, but it was pale and cold in his trembling hand and threw no light into that stifling dark. He was come to the heart of the realm of Sauron and the forges of his ancient might, greatest in Middle-earth; all other powers were here subdued.”
“Sam saw that he was in a long cave or tunnel that bored into the Mountain’s smoking cone. But only a short way ahead its floor and the walls on either side were cloven by a great fissure, out of which the red glare came…
“Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
“‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight.”
Earlier, Frodo had several times tried to give away the One Ring. It was not then the struggle it was for Bilbo, who had possessed it for far longer and had used it.
Of course you could understand it as the One Ring, maybe as clever as a dog, being happy to be handed over to someone more powerful. Frodo is notably bothered when Tom Bombadil makes it vanish. And Tom is the one person it cannot corrupt.
Frodo wanted to be rid of the ring, but to destroy it is another matter. The One Ring does have a will of its own. You could even suppose that Gollum earlier had been acting as its agent.
But now Frodo has lost his will to act, and instead claims it. And indeed he briefly does have power.
“And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.
“From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain. At his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgul, the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom.”
But someone else also wants the ring. Gollum knocks down Sam and is able to find Frodo, perhaps visible to him if not to Sam:
“Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe…
“Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was wrought of living fire.
“‘Precious, precious, precious!’ Gollum cried. ‘My Precious! O my Precious!’ And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone.”
Meeting the terms of Frodo’s earlier threat: ‘If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom’.
The One Ring goes into the fire after all, despite Frodo’s failure and Gollum’s selfish lust. And Sauron’s realm is ruined:
“A brief vision [Sam] had of swirling cloud, and in the midst of it towers and battlements, tall as hills, founded upon a mighty mountain-throne above immeasurable pits; great courts and dungeons, eyeless prisons sheer as cliffs, and gaping gates of steel and adamant: and then all passed. Towers fell and mountains slid; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down… And into the heart of the storm, with a cry that pierced all other sounds, tearing the clouds asunder, the Nazgul came, shooting like flaming bolts, as caught in the fiery ruin of hill and sky they crackled, withered, and went out.”
And Frodo is suddenly himself again:
“‘Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee,’ said a voice by his side. And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire.”
He still assumes they are doomed, which Sam himself had come to accept earlier. But is at peace and sees a shape to events:
“‘But do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.’”
And with that the chapter ends.
The first-time reader would probably be surprised by how much of the book remains. You could wrap it up in a few paragraphs about everyone’s later fate. But that was not Tolkien’s style.
[A] Strictly speaking, the Dark Tower is Barad-dûr. But I do not use accents or other diacritical marks. In the past, I have all too often seen computer software turn them into something meaningless.
As to why this flaw exists, see https://gwydionmadawc.com/030-human-dynamics/ascii-an-unhappy-legacy-for-computers/