Chapter III: Mount Doom
This installment is early. Why, you ask? Well, it’s March 25th. For Tolkien fans, that means it’s Tolkien Reading Day! And why is Tolkien Reading Day on March 25th, and not on September 22nd (Frodo and Bilbo’s birthdays) or on January 3rd (Tolkien’s birthday)? Tolkien Reading Day occurs on March 25th because that is the day of Sauron’s downfall.
It’s not a spoiler. This is a fantasy novel. The dark lord always falls at the end of a fantasy novel, because the hero is always triumphant.
We’ll get back to that.
Where did we leave off? Ah, yes. Sam and Frodo had just escaped from the orc company they’d been forced into and Frodo collapsed, utterly exhausted. Sam covers him with his cloak to keep him warm and hidden, and they wait for the orcs to leave the area. When everything seems quiet enough, they sleep. When morning comes, Sam takes a look around. It looks like Mount Doom is about fifty miles away. It will take at least a week to get there, and after that? Sam realizes their provisions will get them to the mountain, but nothing more than that. There’s no coming back from it. “…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.”
Way back in the forests of the Shire, after meeting Gildor and the other Elves, Sam realized that he had a job to do, that he was meant to do something important before the end, whatever that was. And now he realizes was that job is: to get Frodo to the mountain no matter what it takes. If it breaks his heart and his back both, then so be it. He has no hope of ever returning home, but he’s a hobbit, and deep down they have a core of strength few expect to find in such a small people. “But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.”
So Sam is resolved to see this through to the bitter end. Now the hard part is getting Frodo there. Frodo’s strength is draining away, day by day, and their lack of food and water isn’t helping. The closer they get to Mount Doom, the stronger the Ring gets. It weighs Frodo down both mentally and physically, “Sam guessed that among all their pains he bore the worst, the growing weight of the Ring, a burden on the body and a torment to the mind. Anxiously Sam had noted how his master’s left hand would often be raised as if to ward off a blow, or to screen his shrinking eyes from a dreadful Eye that sought to look in them. And sometimes his right hand would creep to his breast, clutching, and then slowly, as the will recovered mastery, it would be withdrawn.” Frodo is hardly noticing anything around himself anymore. His struggle is not against the broken land and deprivation, but against the power of the Ring itself as it strips his mind away, piece by piece.
When they stop, Frodo simply drops in place and doesn’t speak, too weary even to acknowledge Sam or do anything more than eat a little of the Elvish waybread and drink the last of the water.
One morning, Sam wakes Frodo, and when Frodo says he can’t go it, that the Ring is too great a burden for him to carry, Sam can’t help but offer to carry it for him. This rouses Frodo who shouts at him to go away and then recovers himself. “‘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.'”
Sam understands this and makes no further offer to carry the Ring. But he decides that its time to get rid of anything else they are sure to not need- their orcish gear and helmets, Sam’s cooking gear (which is hard for him to part with), the orc sword Frodo carried (he declares he will never carry a weapon again). When Sam prepares to cast his cooking gear away, he asks Frodo if he remembers the bit of rabbit they ate back on that beautiful day in Ithilien.
Frodo responds, “‘No, I am afraid not, Sam… At least, 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.” Sam tries to comfort him and declares that the sooner they get rid of it, the sooner Frodo can rest. He drops their things into a crevasse where no one will get it and they turn their faces to the Mountain.
They don’t have to worry about being spotted. Aragorn’s gambit has worked. Sauron emptied the interior of Mordor, so there are no orcs or any enemies around. The only living being they have to worry about is Gollum, who is somewhere out there, relentlessly hunting them.
Though it’s dark with cloud and volcanic fog, the days are slightly lighter and the hobbits seem to have more strength. They move more quickly than they had been and make a lot of progress toward the mountain. But when darkness falls, Frodo’s strength fails and he staggers to a halt. He drinks a bit of water and then falls asleep. He has nothing left.
In the morning, the last stage of the journey is before them. Sam misjudged the distance to the mountain because it stands alone on the plain. Mount Doom looms overhead. But it will be the worst part of the journey. They are both weakened from lack of food and water, and there are poisonous fumes in their air that make them dizzy. But their wills are not broken, and the keep moving forward. Soon, they are on the slopes of the mountain itself. Sam sees that it’s neither as high nor as steep as it had seemed from afar, but it’s still too much for Frodo. He’s trying to crawl up the slope. Sam won’t stand for this. He has some strength left, and he’ll carry Frodo the rest of the way if he has to. “‘Come, Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well.'” He gets Frodo onto his back, and though he thought he would feel the psychological weight of the Ring that’s been weighing Frodo down, he finds that Frodo is hardly heavier than a hobbit child.
He starts carrying Frodo up the side and then happens to see a road. It’s the road Sauron had built, long ago, that goes between Sammath Naur, the Cracks of Doom where the Ring was forged, and his great tower of Barad-dûr. It wasn’t meant to, but it provides Sam an easier path to carry Frodo up the mountain. Eventually, though, he has to stop and rest. The road is a better path, but it’s still broken up thanks to its being on the side of an active volcano. Frodo struggles upward again, driven forward by his own will, but when he catches sight of the high tower of Barad-dûr and the eerie glow of the Eye of Sauron, it paralyzes him for a moment, and he starts to draw out the Ring. Sam stops him and picks him up again, and they struggle forward again.
Frodo doesn’t it know it, but Sauron is not looking for them. He still has no idea that anyone would destroy the Ring, and so is focused on the North– on Aragorn and his army.
But Sauron isn’t the only enemy the hobbits have to worry about. Gollum has been following them this whole time, and he’s finally caught up with them. He tackles Sam, knocking both him and Frodo to the ground, and Sam struggles with him. Gollum is a whithered, hateful creature now. There’s no hope of redemption for him now. His only goal is to get the Ring back.
When Gollum claws at Frodo for the Ring, it rouses Frodo. He flings Gollum off and stands up straight. “‘Down, down!’ he gasped, clutching his hand to his breast, so that beneath the cover of his leather shirt he clasped the Ring. ‘Down, ou creeping thing, and out of my path! Your time is at an end. You cannot betray me or slay me now.'” To Sam’s vision, it seems that Frodo has grown in a threatening presence, while Gollum shrinks to a shriveled, sniveling thing. Frodo threatens him one more time. “Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.”
Gollum shrinks back for a moment, and Sam urges Frodo to go on. He will deal with Gollum. But when he turns back, Gollum is not the hissing threat Sam thought he would be. He’s whimpering on the ground, begging for Sam to not hurt him. He wants to live a little more, because when the Precious goes he will die, too.
Sam’s resolution wavers. All this time, he’s hated Gollum and wanted him dead, but now that the opportunity presents itself and its the safest course of action, he can’t do it. Though he carried the RIng for only a matter of hours, he now has some idea of what the Ring does to people. He has some understanding of the agony Gollum went through all those years, and he can’t bring himself to kill him. He tells Gollum to go away, then turns and follows Frodo into the Sammath Naur, the Cracks of Doom.
He doesn’t notice the shadow following him inside.
There, in the heart of Sauron’s realm, even the light of Galadriel’s phial cannot brighten the darkness. Only the light of the mountain’s fire allows Sam to see and when he can finally focus he sees Frodo standing near the edge. He is straight and still, and when he speaks again, his voice is clear and powerful- stronger than Sam has ever heard him be before. But he is not proclaiming the end of the task. The Ring has mastered him. At the bitter end, Frodo fails: “‘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.”
Tolkien’s wording is slippery here. Is Frodo doing the choosing? Is the Ring doing it for him? Or has the Ring’s power overcome him so much that, regardless of the cost of the journey here, Frodo can’t bear to let it go? Whose will is at work here, Frodo’s, or the Ring’s? Either way, this is a complete break from fantasy stories that have come before. The Hero always manages to complete the quest, because, at heart, the hero is a Good Guy With a Pure Heart who cannot be corrupted. But here we are, at the very edge of Doom, the one place where the evil of the Ring can be destroyed, and we discover that our hero is indeed fallible. He can fail, and indeed he has. What does that mean for the rest of us, who aren’t as wonderfully ordinary, but pure of heart as Frodo? It’s one of the great questions of The Lord of the Rings. What does power do to a person, and how can one, ordinary person defeat it?
We don’t have an overarching answer. Tolkien was wiser than that, and rather than provide a simple platitude, he gives us characters who look into the blackness of despair, and then keep fighting, because, in the end, that’s all we can do against evil. We keep fighting it, day after day, generation after generation.
But Tolkien does have another thread running through this story: “oft evil will shall evil mar”. That is, the forces of evil are as likely to fight each other for their own purposes, and thus ruin themselves.
Remember the little shadow following Sam into the Cracks of Doom? That was Gollum. He had not repented, he was just pretending to be submissive, and when Frodo claims the Ring, he strikes. He knocks Sam down with a rock to the head and leaps toward Frodo. By the time Sam sam can see straight, Gollum is struggling with the invisible Frodo. He pulls something up to his mouth and bites down. Frodo cries out, becomes visible again and collapses. Gollum, mad with joy, lifts the Ring high with Frodo’s severed finger still within it.
Gollum doesn’t run away, though. After being separated from the Ring for so long he is too wretched and too joyful to notice his peril. “‘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.”
Frodo’s assertions to Gollum upon their first meeting, and then again on the very border of Mordor, that the Ring would hold Gollum to his promise to serve Frodo and not harm him, and that the Ring would destroy him if he did so have all come true. None of them had any way of knowing that it would come to pass in the depths of Mount Doom and that it would lead to the destruction of the Ring.
Meanwhile, Sauron is rushing to act. When Frodo claimed the Ring, he suddenly realized he was in danger and knew what his enemies’ plans were. But he was too late. When Gollum and the Ring fall into the fires, his power is utterly broken. He is destroyed, his fortress of Barad-dûr falls, and the power that keeps the Nazgûl and his armies together is unraveled. The Nazgûl die with him. On March 25th, Sauron is defeated forever.
But what of the two little hobbits in the midst of a fiery mountain?
With the Ring gone, much of Frodo’s self is restored to him. His mind is not broken, because he wanted to destroy the Ring. He wanted to be rid of it, but it took an outside force to intervene. Now that it’s gone, he is at peace. “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.” For himself, Sam feels nothing but joy at Frodo’s restoration. Neither of them is afraid of what must come next- their own deaths. The Quest has been achieved. Middle-earth is safe.
Here, we see Tolkien’s view on the nature of fairy tales, that they are not universally happy but can show us deeper things than a mere ‘and they lived happily ever after’. He once wrote, “Fairy tale does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance. It denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat…giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy; Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
Next time: What happens after you’ve saved the world? Chapters IV and V, ‘The Field of Cormallen’ and ‘The Steward and the King’.