The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Return of the King VI.3, “Mount Doom”

At long last, we arrive at “Mount Doom,” chapter VI.3 of The Return of the King in The Lord of the Rings saga. Spoilers for the entire book after the jump.

What Happens

Sam and Frodo escape from the Orcs and take a road that leads toward Barad-dûr. After four days, they turn off the road toward Mount Doom. Sam offers to carry the Ring for Frodo and is refused almost violently; instead they throw away nearly all of their belongings. When they reach the mountain, Sam must carry Frodo up. They are very near a road that winds upward when Gollum attacks.

Frodo throws Gollum off, and both Frodo and the Ring (in a vision of Sam’s) tell Gollum to desist. Sam directs Frodo to go ahead. He intends to kill Gollum, but an inarticulate empathy stops him, and Gollum flees. However, Gollum turns back and follows Sam as he pursues Frodo.

Sam finds Frodo inside Mount Doom, at the brink of a chasm. Frodo claims the Ring for his own and puts it on. Gollum pushes Sam aside to get to Frodo, and Sam hits his head on the floor. Sauron becomes aware of Frodo and summons the Nazgûl. When Sam gets up, he see Gollum struggling with an invisible Frodo and then biting off Frodo’s ring-finger—Ring included. Gollum dances in triumph but, looking at the Ring and not where he is, falls into the chasm. Sam carries Frodo outside and sees a glimpse of Barad-dûr crumbling and the Nazgûl catching fire and dying. Frodo comes back to himself and tells Sam that he is glad that Sam is with him, “(h)ere at the end of all things.”

Comments

There are some plot turns where I’m surprised but delighted at both the unexpectedness and the rightness of the development: I didn’t see it coming, but once it’s there, I can instantly see how it fits seamlessly with what has gone before yet expands my understanding of the story so far and the possibilities for what’s left.

This is not one of them. I can’t shake the feeling that it ought to be, that if I were older when I first read it or more able to put away story expectations now, that I ought to love it. But I don’t and I probably never will. Instead I have surprise but not delight; an intellectual appreciation but not an emotional satisfaction.

Of course it makes sense that Frodo cannot destroy the Ring, that he claims it for himself. It would be selling short this instrument of ultimate evil if Frodo, who is after all only mortal, were able to carry it for so long and not be badly affected—in fact, he actually tells Sam toward the start of the chapter, when Sam offers to carry the Ring for him: “I am almost in its power now. I could not give it up, and if you tried to take it I should go mad.” It’s true that handing the Ring to someone else isn’t the same as destroying it, and I can think of emotional situations in which one would seem better or worse: but, all the same: “I could not give it up.”

(There may be a tiny hint that Frodo is still struggling even when he claims the Ring, in that he can’t seem to say what responsibility he’s rejecting: “I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed.” I suppose it might be a reluctance to even think about destroying the Ring, but Gollum is perfectly able to say that Frodo “musstn’t hurt Preciouss.”)

Gollum’s role is also thematically critical, pity and mercy preserving him from start to finish, as flagged all the way back in chapter I.2 of The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Shadow of the Past.” Note that when Frodo defeats Gollum’s initial attack on the slopes of Mount Doom, Sam sees him as a figure “stern, untouchable now by pity.” And Frodo does not protest when Sam says he will “deal with” Gollum while “brandishing his sword.” Instead, it’s Sam’s confused, inarticulate empathy that preserves Gollum:

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.

(There’s an odd little bit early in the chapter when Sam realizes that they’re on a suicide mission and then comes to a new resolve, “as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel,” which I would usually associate with losing the ability to feel empathy. I think the phrase either (1) shows how far Sam comes back to spare Gollum or (2) didn’t have the same connotation for Tolkien as it does for me.)

So this chain of pity and mercy allows Gollum to come to the Crack of Doom and take the Ring from Frodo, the only one who can other than the Nazgûl, who are obviously suboptimal (I’m assuming that Sam could not take it from Frodo, which I think is reasonable, though I’d like to hear contrary opinions). And then evil leads to its own destruction in two different ways. First, Gollum’s greed and overreaching betrays him: “even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far” and fell. Second, the Ring falls victim to its own prophecy: in Sam’s vision, the Ring tells Gollum, “If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.” Which Gollum does and is, but since he’s clutching the Ring at the same time, well.

(I’ve heard it suggested that Gollum’s fall is also an example of weak supernatural good, but I disagree. First, I don’t see anything in the text to suggest it, and generally the text has been flagging that kind of thing, and second, I think it undercuts the effect of evil destroying itself if good is pulling the rug out from under at the same time.)

It all makes sense, it all fits together, it’s logistically sensible and thematically appropriate, and there are very good arguments why it would be just wrong for Frodo to have successfully destroyed the Ring. I still wish, down in my bones, that Frodo had. I can’t help it. Whether it’s my eight-year-old self never recovering, or too much internalization of fantasies of political agency, or aching for the pain Frodo will feel and wanting him to have more of a consolation, or something I can’t even identify because it’s too far down—I do not, and probably never will, love the destruction of the Ring.

* * *

While we’re talking about the way the Ring is destroyed, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention just how clear the chapter makes it that Aragorn and Gandalf’s plan is working, that it’s what lets Frodo get all the way to Mount Doom before being detected (and only then because Frodo claims the Ring). The chapter also uses these comments about how Sauron is distracted to sync the timelines for the reader, which is helpful.

Here I started to write that it’s also a reminder that the timelines need to be synced, but now I’m not sure that it’s true. Obviously the battle at the Black Gate couldn’t happen too soon, because then there would be no distraction, but perhaps the army could have still been on its way and been sufficient distraction? Hard to say, of course, and from an in-story perspective I wouldn’t like to be the one to test it; but I like it as an out-of-story thought, that there was a little wiggle room on the path to victory, because then I avoid the feeling I had about Frodo and Sam’s escape from the Orcs in the Tower of Cirith Ungol.

Reviewing my notes for the chapter, I do see an instance of weak supernatural good that is critical. When Sam first carries Frodo up the Mountain and then collapses, both Sam and Frodo have come to them “a sense of urgency,” which is “almost as if” they have “been called: ‘Now, now, or it will be too late!’” My guess on the caller is a Vala (particularly since Galadriel’s phial doesn’t light because “all other powers were here subdued”), but I’m not sure it really matters.

* * *

Miscellaneous character notes. It was apparently really important that Frodo renounce violence, because he gets to throw away his (borrowed) sword again this chapter. Also to repeat that he is beginning to see the Ring before him even when he’s awake.

When Frodo is walking, he specifically uses his left hand to raise against the Eye and his right to reach for the Ring. The only thing I know about left versus right hands in Western thought is that the left was once thought to be connected to the heart, hence wedding rings; anyone have thoughts on whether there’s anything particular behind the choice here?

Sam hasn’t realized until now that they’re on a suicide mission. This is, incidentally, the very first time he thinks of Rosie Cotton, at least if my memory and the text search on my e-book edition can be trusted, which seems to be leaving it rather late.

Gollum has white fangs, which set me off on a really unlikely train of speculation about whether he’d been brushing them with twigs or something for all this time, before I got hold of myself.

Gollum accuses Frodo of cheating him by trying to destroy the Ring. I think this must be influenced from Bilbo all the way back in The Hobbit, unless there’s some interpretation of Gollum and Frodo’s interactions that I’m missing.

* * *

Miscellaneous worldbuilding notes. We’ve talked about lembas with regard to the passage that appears in this chapter at least twice before in comments, all the way back at chapter II.8 of The Fellowship of the Ring, “Farewell to Lórien”, and then again in chapter IV.2 of The Two Towers, “The Passage of the Marshes”. I can’t match the enthusiasm others brought to the topic, so I will just leave the cross-references for you and the passage in question:

The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.

When Sam is inside Mount Doom, he hears “a rumour and a trouble as of great engines throbbing and labouring.” Prior uses of “engines” have been to siege engines, but I can’t read this as other than a reference to combustion engines, which seems anachronistic (like the “express train” simile for the dragon firework way back at the start).

The destruction of Barad-dûr is really terrific:

A brief vision he (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; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up, until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled and came foaming down upon the land. And then at last over the miles between there came a rumble, rising to a deafening crash and roar; the earth shook, the plain heaved and cracked, and Orodruin reeled. Fire belched from its riven summit. The skies burst into thunder seared with lightning. Down like lashing whips fell a torrent of black rain. And into the heart of the storm, with a cry that pierced all other sounds, tearing the clouds asunder, the Nazgûl came, shooting like flaming bolts, as caught in the fiery ruin of hill and sky they crackled, withered, and went out.

(Note the recurrent wave imagery in the middle.) I particularly like the structure of the second sentence, and the image of the Nazgûl’s destruction.

* * *

The ending of the chapter. We’ll talk more about the pacing of this book later, but right now: it’s only chapter 3 and Sauron has been defeated—and there are six more chapters left in this book! We’re only a third of the way through. This is really weird.

So one of the reasons we end with a sort-of cliffhanger, Sam and Frodo in an erupting volcano “at the end of all things,” is to keep us reading, to remind us that Sauron has lost but survival is still an open question. Yet it’s not a complete cliffhanger, because we see Frodo sane and freed of his burden (well, for the moment). I don’t know if I ever thought that Sam and Frodo wouldn’t survive this situation, but right now, it doesn’t feel as though it would be a brutally unhappy ending if they did: their goal is accomplished, even if not entirely by them, and they’re glad it was and that they’re together. There are worse places to leave them, even if only for a chapter break.


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Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.

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