Sam is still the man in charge. Acting almost like a parent to a toddler with Frodo, who seems content to go in and out of these phases where he makes no effort to do anything at all. The two hobbits hunker down for a while, contemplating, as the reader must, the final march on the volcano.
Sam finally begins to think about things a little bit more and it is a depressing realisation: their current path is likely to be only one way, terminating permanently at the destination, not only because their supplies are nearly done, but because the mountain is probably going to kill them if the Ring is ever cast into it. Sam takes this knowledge well enough, but does leave himself with some room for remorse. His thoughts are less on himself, or Frodo, and more on all of the things he has left behind.
Sam’s motivation for most of the quest has been a desire to go home, but he acknowledged way back in Lorien that this was only possible by going forward. “Home is behind the world ahead”. Well, he has gone nearly as far as he can go now, and it seems he won’t be able to go home after all. It is no surprise then that the character thinks, in this desperate moment, of the Shire, of better days, of Rosie Cotton, the girl Sam is clearly in love with. Such thoughts might drive someone else to despair – Frodo probably – but not Sam, who takes new strength from such thinking. He’s a dead man walking, so why worry? His task is to get Frodo to Mt Doom, so that’s what he’s going to do, and that’s what he’ll cling onto as a motivation from here on in.
That last task is given some set-up next, as Sam surrveys the land between them and Mt Doom, an ugly pocketed desert, leading up to the slag-filled slopes of the volcano itself. No joy in that direction, and it is up to Sam again to push Frodo into accepting the obvious, yet painful to contemplate truth: they have to risk the roads again, or else they won’t make it.
They travel on, and Frodo reaches his lowest ebb, almost a ghost now, wraith like as he was way back in “Flight To The Ford”, barely speaking, acting as if obstacles are in his way that aren’t there, reaching out for the Ring. Frodo is in no fit state to be carrying this thing full stop, let alone destroying it. The Ring’s junkie effect is at its peak for Frodo. Gollum-like he is becoming.
It is a good thing that Mordor is emptied then, the armies of Sauron well behind them. The evil of Mordor is magnified in its emptiness, a dark land with no voices. Only the noises of horses passing in the night remain as evidence of Mordor’s power, as Frodo and Sam trudge closer to the centre of Sauron’s realm. The last drops of water they will get in this country has been had, so now they are totally on their own, without friends or any kind of aid.
And Gollum remains the ever-present threat, the two lamp-like eyes in the darkness, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Certainly a far more effective villain then the faceless forces of Mordor that the two hobbits are trying to avoid.
Sam see’s Frodo’s deterioration of course, but there is little he can do at this point, and it is a frustrating situation for the subordinate, who has been through hell just to keep Frodo on this course. His repeated offer to carry the Ring for a little while is as misguided as it was the first time, but it rouses Frodo, the only thing left that can do so. The alarm bells should be ringing here for Sam, who sees Frodo contemplate violence when Sam just asks to hold it for a while: how will he be able to destroy it when the time comes? Frodo still doesn’t talk in terms of casting the Ring into the fire, just getting to Mt Doom.
In that respect, the duo cast aside their Orc disguises, their shields, the last of their gear. Sam has some well characterised nostalgia as he casts his cooking gear away, remembering earlier times when it was useful, a nostalgia that Frodo, typically, doesn’t share. The casting away of all of their stuff is a message that the hobbits have burnt their bridges and are resolved to go forward and meet their fate just trying to complete their task without thoughts of what might come after, but more than that, it is them returning to their normal selves. No more will they cower around Mordor disguised as the servants of Sauron. From now until the end of it, Frodo and Sam will go along as they are, two country hobbits a long way from home. Such an act gives Frodo a morale boost, as he keeps a hold only of his sword and declares, essentially, that Mordor can come and have a go if they think they are hard enough. For him, there are no memories, no dreams, no aspirations, just the task of getting to the mountain alive.
Frodo is the decisive one for a little while, with Sam taking on the role of depression. As they get ever closer to the fiery cone, Sam suddenly realises that, as it’s a typical of this quest, they have no plan for when they actually get there. Will there be a clearly marked route to “the Cracks of Doom”? What if there isn’t? How far will they have to climb to get to their goal? Such reasonable questions were cast aside earlier, problems for another day. Well, it is rapidly approaching the time for those bridges to be crossed, and Sam has no answers. Luckily for him, this problem will be taken out of hands, as the author bales the duo out yet again. I wonder why he keeps bringing up the lack of preparation if the hobbits are never really going to have to deal with it directly?
The mountain itself starts to rumble as we go on, as the tension begins to build ever so slowly. The reader knows that we are approaching the pivotal moment of the entire text, and even the mountain seems to tremble with anticipation.
The last gasp of travel is as tormented and horrible as we can imagine, the hobbits now without food or water, crawling to the feet of the volcano at last. The passage through the last of the distance, an area filled with slag and smog is as vividly described as you could want, Sam’s despair plain in his desperation to have an end to it all, Frodo’s brainlessness plain in the way he simply struggles, mute, to his destination at last, the Ring’s weight bending him over. It gets too much for Frodo yet again, and he falls, unable to rise.
Sam knows what he has to do, and in the image that defines their relationship throughout the book, the loyal batman picks Frodo up and carries him up the mountain. Lots of other kinds of symbolism here as well of course. If Frodo is an aspect of Jesus, carrying the weight of the worlds sins, then Sam is Simon of Cyrene, helping him carry that burden to the final end. It might be a tad unrealistic to suppose Sam would have the strength to pull this off, but it a beautiful, powerful moment, one of the best in the saga.
The last crawl up the mountain takes place, our two little Jesuses nearly at Golgotha, just a little bit further. It’s an agonizing read for us now, as we feel the strain of the two hobbits just trying to go a bit more.
Barad-dur and the big man in Mordor are beginning to get a whiff of what’s going on now, the Ring’s tracking beacon briefly sending out a little signal apparently, but not enough to distract Sauron from his enemies at the Black Gate. All plotlines are resolving in this one moment of high drama. Aragorn and Gandalf’s ploy has worked, Sauron sucked into the Host of the West and their challenge at the Morannon.
Sam knows this is the last gasp, but before he can contemplate the final end – Frodo actually casting the Ring away – Gollum makes his move. Gollum is ever the treacherous villain, who attacks from behind yet again at a moment when the hobbits are distracted. Gollum has certainly seen better days from his description, the imagery of a famine victim used for him. Reminds me of Frodo over the last few chapters, probably a deliberate choice by Tolkien to use the same wording.
Gollum might be tired, hungry, wretched, and at his last ebb, but he is still smart, still a predator, knowing when to strike, knowing to take out Sam first, knowing that Frodo must be the weaker one. Slinker is out of the picture entirely it would seem, and Stinker has taken over. If one thing would destroy innocent and malleable Slinker forever, it is the real threat of the Ring being destroyed. Stinker, the very personification of the Ring itself, is now Gollum completely and the Ring doesn’t want to be destroyed.
Frodo isn’t having it though and the hero rises one last time. Gollum has braced himself for a final fight with the motivation of the Ring’s possible destruction, the only thing that can get him to move. But he forgets that Frodo is following his path, and is just as motivated, the attempt to seize the Ring by force enough to make his muscles rally and push off Gollum.
It is a mark of how surprising this move is from Frodo that Gollum, a master hunter who has been observing the two hobbits for days, is dumbfounded by this, and quickly cowed, Slinker coming out again (I don’t believe it is really that side of the personality for a second, just an imitation). In Sam’s eyes, Frodo takes on the guise of a figure imbued with light, a swirling ring of fire around his neck, an utterly defeated and pitiable creature lying before him. Sam appears to think that this vision is enough to risk it: he tells Frodo to go on alone, trusting that his friend will have the will to complete the task.
The reader must have a brief burst of excitement as Sam turns to face Gollum. Round two it would seem, a confrontation that we have been waiting for since the uncertain outcome of their brief brawl in “Shelob’s Lair”.
Gollum throws himself on Sam’s mercy though, denying us this last clash. Stinker knows this is his one chance of survival, to play upon Sam’s innate hobbit nature. Sam is no vicious and decisive soldier. He simply can’t stick his blade into Gollum the way he is. You can almost sense the anger within Sam. I half expected him to demand Gollum stand up and fight when I first read this passage. But he just can’t do it. It’s not in him.
Gollum’s ploy, a pathetic whine to be allowed to live just a little bit longer – believing himself to be doomed the moment the Ring is destroyed, eerily true in the end – works like a charm. Sam lets him go. His mercy seems stupid at this moment, but he really has saved the day. Gandalf, the first character to call for mercy towards Gollum way back in “The Shadow of the Past” would be proud. He’s about to be proved right.
Sam turns and races after Frodo. Gollum slinks after him. The climactic moment is here at last, as the Host of the West faces destruction at the gates of Mordor, as the triumvirate of Frodo, Sam and Gollum reach their final confrontation with each other. The time of highest tension has come. This is it.
Sam sees his master at the brink of the abyss, his long journey over at last. But here, as we simply knew that he must, Frodo fails.
We cannot blame him. To have come so far into the heart of the enemies land, further then Gollum ever came, to bear the wounds of knife and sting, and to carry that awful, dreadful addictive weight for so long – how can Frodo do it? The Ring has taken him but we cannot say that it has happened at the last minute. This happened a while ago, and Frodo claiming the Ring is only the open manifestation of something that has been the case for some time. He is a simple country hobbit in the end, in a position that should never have been his. In Frodo’s eyes, he is much abused and tormented, and this is his reward: standing up to the dark power in his own deluded way. As he vanishes, we can see that sinister trace of Stinker’s arrogance in him: the Ring has found someone new to possess.
Sauron perceives his imminent doom. You can only imagine the split-second realisation that occurs in the Dark Lords head here (the movie has the giant eye do what appears to almost be a double-take for this moment, which appears comical but actually kinda nails it): the Host of the West is bullcrap, this Aragorn chump has tricked him well and truly, the good guys had a plan all along and he is this close to being done forever. He must see Frodo put on the Ring and know that this country hobbit has come into his realm from a thousand miles away. Burning rage, humiliation, desperate fear all rolled into one. The final race begins as the Nazgul hurtle towards Mt Doom.
Sam is left horror struck in the tunnel, and for an all too brief second, the reader may contemplate the horrible: will Sam have to try and fight Frodo? But Gollum is there to end this possibility, striking Sam from behind yet again. The final fight begins, a horrific image, as the two Ring-bearer’s clash, one visible, one not, a grim comedy in the heart of Sauron’s realm.
Gollum is a desperate, dirty fighter, and rips the Ring from Frodo’s hand in the most brutal manner possible. And there he is, his long-held desire restored, the Ring in his grasp, all his dreams fulfilled, all of the hopes of the free peoples and the dark lands in his hands, quite literally. Gollum though, is his own agent, caring nothing for any of that. He has achieved the greatest joy possible.
So much so, he trips and falls into the fire, taking the Ring with him.
This resolution has received flak for the comical nature of it – the world being saved by Gollum’s clumsiness – but that’s not why I would criticise it. Gollum falling is an extension of the Sam/Gollum face-off a few moments before. Tolkien couldn’t bring himself to have one of his two hero hobbits murder Gollum, even if it is to push the git into the Crack of Doom with the Ring around his finger. This is unfortunate, as it meant he had to rely on a more unbelievable ending.
As the “History Of The Lord of the Rings”, a massive collection of Tolkien’s notes and manuscripts, will show you, Tolkien had several ideas for this scene, and nearly all of them are, in my eyes, better than the one he went with. They include Sam hurling Gollum into the fire, both Sam and Gollum going over in a last brawl and Gollum suicidaly jumping into the abyss with the Ring voluntarily. One version is particularly notable, where a Nazgul traps Frodo in the tunnel after the Ring is destroyed claiming “We all will die here together” only for Sam, action hero like, to pop up behind him, stab him in the back and utter the somewhat out of place line “You first”. Pretty hardcore.
That is not to say that Tolkien’s solution is terrible. It is not the best choice, but it still ties back into the common theme of the story, which is that Gollum has a part to play, and mercy towards him will “rule the fate of many”. And, it is a somewhat suitable end for Gollum, for Stinker, so obsessed with regaining his treasure that he loses sight of everything else, including his footing.
Mt Doom trembles and erupts, and Mordor falls, Sam, catches a sight of towers crumbling into dust, of Sauron’s servants fleeing mindlessly, of the very triumph of good over evil. All of his strength, his armies, his stone towers, has availed Sauron nothing in the end. The Nazgul are caught in the burning flames and destroyed in a sentence, an anti-climactic end for the greatest servants of Mordor.
Frodo is restored to the person he was. With the Ring gone and its hold over him broken, he is his old self again, whom we cannot say to have really seen since way back in “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”. Gone is the hopelessness, the depression, the zombie-like state. He is simply Frodo Baggins again, his task completed, his burden gone. He is a man who has done the impossible and now he prepares for his final rest, gleefully happy about the prospect. He remarks upon Gandalf’s prophecy regarding Gollum and forgives the wretched creature, as only a restored Frodo could do. The last line is a re-affirmation of the friendship between himself and Sam which has carried them so far and destroyed the foundations of Sauron’s empire, even while their doom closes in around them: “I am glad you are here with me Samwise Gamgee. Here at the end of all things.”
The movie, as stated, alters a few things around. The actual Crack of Doom location is vastly different, going from a tunnel through the mountain, to a gigantic hollowed-out space within the core of the volcano. Sam’s carrying of Frodo is done beautifully, as is Gollum’s final bitter attack – “Clever Hobbits, to climb so far!” he spits at them with a menace that should have got Serkis the Oscar nomination he deserved. The filmmakers go for a somewhat clichéd “Frodo hangs onto the edge” ending, with a theme of Frodo contemplating suicide, with Sam talking him out of it.
Next up, the beginning of the end.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.