(Updated on 23/2/16)
Tolkien switches gears in a major way as this chapter opens. The last battle rages around the slag hills, a moment of grimness. The opening sentences are as poetic as they come: “All about the hills the hosts of Mordor raged. The Captains of the West were foundering in a gathering sea.” Of course, we all know how this is going to turn out, even if Gandalf and Aragorn are making with the pensive faces and the sad eyes. One might well wonder what Aragorn is actually doing in this fight, holding his flag and gazing off into the distance. You would think that this once and future King would be in the thick of the fighting, or at least commanding. I really do like this moment though, the good guys beleaguered, because you get a real sense of dread, that they think they are all for the chop any second. They’re selling it, any rate.
The eagles arrive from out of nowhere, and turn the battle by their very presence, the return of hope, much like Aragorn’s banner being unfurled at the Pelennor Fields. They get stuck into the Nazgul, as the forces below drive back into their foes with some renewed vigour (though, we must remember that poor little Pippin is lying crushed under a bad guy somewhere). The enemy is suddenly witless, his will fading.
Gandalf is the one who perceives, of course. Aragorn and the others have made much of this being his life defining moment and here he is, taking centre stage. He proclaims that “the hour of doom” is here, as Mordor trembles, shakes, verges on the edge and then topples and falls, its towers broken, its armies scattered to the winds. It is a wondrous reversal, and the Host of the West, much like the reader, can only look on in awe of this change in fortunes, which is almost like something out of Revelation: “The earth groaned and quaked. The Towers of the Teeth swayed, tottered, and fell down; the mighty rampart crumbled; the Black Gate was hurled in ruin; and from far away, now dim, now growing, now mounting to the clouds, there came a drumming rumble, a roar, a long echoing roll of ruinous noise.”
Gandalf knows that the Ring-bearer has been successful of course, that the great gambit has worked. And as Mordor crashes to the ground, we are treated to the immense sight of the great enemy himself:
“And as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.”
Sauron gazes down with his malevolence, stretching out with the hand that held the Ring once, but is then blown away upon the winds of change, the same kind of winds that have spelled defeat for him already in this story. Sauron falls with a whimper, like a dandelion being poofed out. The apocalyptic imagery abounds in this chapter, which reads very much like an Armageddon description followed by a judgement and then a paradise. If that is so, here is Satan being cast out.
Tolkien is not so in love with his deus ex machina ending as to make it all so easy, and we are left informed that the battle will rage on. The feeble minded Orcs might have fled, but the men of the east, who made the fully conscious choice to follow Sauron, decide to stay and fight it out, knowing that they have nothing else to do. I really liked this bit of info, showing that the forces of darkness, some of them anyway, have a bit of spine for the fight. It is left for Aragorn to guard over the rest of the battle, and we don’t get any further details of this last clash, unfortunately.
Instead, Gandalf hops a ride on an eagle and away they go towards Mount Doom. This little plot point has proven perhaps the biggest source of “wait a minute” thinking that The Lord Of The Rings has been targeted with. The question is simple: Why didn’t the free peoples just fly an eagle to Mount Doom from the start and throw the Ring in then?
The answer is similarly simple. From a narrative standpoint it would make no sense, but even within the universe, the eagles aren’t pets to be called for willy nilly, and much of Tolkien’s writings on them emphasise their very independent nature. They don’t take orders from anyone and show up when they damn well please. They have no great love for mankind at all, and are only really here probably on the word of Galadriel and Gandalf. And, reluctant as they are to leave their distant eyries, maybe they just don’t want to risk a dangerous flight into Mordor, carrying the Ring of Power, with the Nazgul and their Fell Beasts lurking around. They only fly into Mordor when that threat is gone, which is very telling.
On the volcano, Frodo and Sam give into what they see as the inevitable, choosing to no longer run from the flows of lava surrounding them. I suppose this is the culmination of the cynical, depressing viewpoints of previous chapters, where both of them decided to not even bother thinking about what happened after the mission. It just doesn’t seem to matter now. “Soon they would be engulfed”.
Sam is busy thinking about his legacy in what appear to be his final moments, a not uncharacteristic thing to do. It’s very much something that you might think about when facing death after all, how people will remember you, in what form, calling back to that conversation in “The Stairs Of Cirth Ungol”. He, being previously obsessed with songs and lays, wonders if they’ll get the same treatment.
They can’t take much more and collapse shortly after, only to be found and saved by the white light that is Gandalf and the eagles. The “unexpected allies” trope has fired one more time – the last time really – and the eagles have gotten the plot round all of that depressing “realism” when it came to dealing with the aftermath of the Ring’s destruction. Of course, this is pretty much one of the only ways that Frodo and Sam were going to be saved, so what can you do?
Here begins the long conclusion of the book, three and a half chapters that are little more than celebrations and the trip home to the Shire before things really start to get interesting again. These chapters have come in for some criticism, for their length and overly sentimental tone, and I’ll offer some thoughts on that at the end of them.
But they are super sentimental, as the next passage details, where Sam wakes up among friends, including one that he thought was dead. Sam is unable to express exactly how he feels, indescribable happiness, and it is a very happy moment, a payoff for the misery of all that has gone before: “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” The bad guys are done and dusted (it appears) and its time for the slaps on the back to begin in earnest. Even the dead have come back to life, though there does not appear to be so many questions about that after the initial one.
Off they go to meet “the King” who of course is Aragorn. Sam, very neatly, still calls him “Strider”, the country hobbit set in his ways. Aragorn is very much the King now, decked out in the finest robes, holding court, taking the lead in celebrations. He kneels before Sam and Frodo, a nice gesture, that I’m sure works well for propaganda purposes back home. That’s humble Aragorn though, realising that all that he has done to win the crown of Gondor pales in comparison to what these two hobbits have done, on their “darkest road”.
And in perhaps the most sentimental moment of the ending, Sam gets his lay tale about his own adventures, an indulgence towards him that I am willing to forgive Tolkien for, despite the smalshiness of it all.
What actually is important to note in all this is the open public knowledge that Frodo is nine-fingered. The question is, are the events of “Mount Doom” known to people in-depth? That is, is everyone aware that Frodo was unable to destroy the Ring himself, and then put it on his finger, which was subsequently bitten off? You would think that, if this were the case, such things might result in a more negative view of Frodo from the assembled mass than actually seems to be the case.
Though, things aren’t all happy and light-filled. A somewhat dark and unsettling passage follows these celebrations, where Frodo initially refuses to carry a sword, then tries to give his away. It’s Frodo trying to reject violence and his past, and Gandalf isn’t in a mood to let him do either, and neither is Sam. There’s an impression here that Frodo is not thinking quite clearly and Gandalf has to talk to him in a very parent-like way in order to get him to relent, in a matter so small as just wearing a sword in a ceremonial fashion. We might remember that Frodo also gave Sting away a few chapters ago. It’s the start of a recurring thread, looking at Frodo’s mindset following his adventure.
We finally get a look at Merry and Pippin now, conspicuous by their absence (Frodo and Sam weren’t asking about them either, strange) but here they are now, all well and good. Merry is back to fitness and Pippin is not crushed under a troll. Happy days. Merry and Pippin take the time to smirk about their new appointments, a nice touch.
So Frodo and Sam get the catch-up they need, and everyone synchronises their accounts. “Orcs, and talking trees, and leagues of grass, and galloping riders, and glittering caves, and white towers and golden halls, and battles, and tall ships sailing, all these passed before Sam’s mind until he felt bewildered.” In many ways this is a nothing chapter really, that could be summed up in a couple of sentences, but it’s just there to set up the rest of the ending. Tolkien has to get the reunions out of the way and tie up some of the plot holes.
Pippin is one of them as it is revealed that Gimli found him lying nearly dead after the last battle. Gimli, a character who has actually faded from view a fair bit in the last while, gets some last use for Tolkien here as Pippin’s rescuer, which echoes the aftermath of the Battle of Five Armies in The Hobbit.
Since Gimli and Legolas are practically inseparable now, the Elf has to get a bit of time as well. He’s been just as fading a character as Gimli and his last few moments of real spotlight are far more depressing, as he talks about his kindled desire to travel over the sea, forsaking Middle-Earth. He’s unable to properly get in the mood I guess.
It is left to Sam to close out the chapter, remarking on the nature of everyone else’s adventures, that he “missed a lot, seemingly” about as down to earth and grounded a response as you would expect from a hobbit like Sam. Its countryside casual, is what it is.
This chapter is just a mixture of self-indulgence on the part of the author, wanting to really draw out the happy part of his happy ending as long as he can, and a bit of transition. We’re into that section of the story that is more about housekeeping in a narrative sense and showcasing the payoffs of a few plots, before the really fascinating stuff pops up back in the Shire. The result is a chapter that is easy to dislike, with it’s copious amounts of cheese, skipped over reunions and sense that the narrative has come to a grinding halt. But there are still some things worth enjoying in there: the opening scene of the battle, Gandalf actually being happy, and a few well-needed glimpses of characters like Legolas and Gimli. As the first in a series of chapters of a similar bent, it’s not too hard to be forgiving of “The Field Of Cormallen”. It’s the chapters that follow where the problems lie.
Next up, the real return of the King.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.