“You cannot enter here. . . . Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!”
Gandalf offers this dramatic challenge to the Lord of the Nazgûl at the close of Book V, Chapter 4. The old wizard confronts the Black Captain alone, recalling Gandalf’s earlier confrontation with the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring. Initially, Gandalf’s efforts fail in both instances: earlier, the Balrog pulls the wizard into the chasm of Khazad-dûm; here, the Black Captain sneers, turning away from Minas Tirith only because he hears the Riders’ battle cry to the north. Nonetheless, the image of Gandalf standing firm before the Lord of the Nazgûl, unshaken and alone, lingers powerfully throughout The Return of the King.
While neither of these evil beasts directly cowers before Gandalf’s commands, they both ultimately meet their demises. In this regard, the hand of providence or fate seems to direct events after Gandalf makes a sacrificial gesture. Gandalf scorns the opportunity to fight force with force, and he refrains from using his physical or mystical powers against the Nazgûl. Instead, the wizard uses human speech to invoke the powers of good over the powers of evil. Gandalf speaks with authority, as though performing a priestly duty, intervening with the unseen god or gods of Middle-earth on behalf of Minas Tirith. Interestingly, only Pippin, who observes the standoff, knows of the sins that Denethor, the Steward of Minas Tirith, is preparing to commit in the Citadel as Gandalf attempts to thwart the physical emblem of evil from entering the city.
In instructing the Lord of the Nazgûl to leave, Gandalf presents the Black Captain with a moral choice. The wizard offers brief redemption to the Black Captain, granting the creature the opportunity to make a moral choice in favor of good rather than completing the evil errand he has been sent to perform. However, the likelihood that the violent Ringwraith, given wholly over to evil, might change his mind because of a verbal rebuke is remote at best. Gandalf’s words imply the assumption that the Lord of the Nazgûl has free will when it comes to choosing between good and evil. As servants of Sauron, however, the evil of the armies of Mordor resides in their corruption at the hands of the Dark Lord, their enslavement to his will, and their conviction they do not have such a choice to turn to the side of good.
“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life . . . and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.”
Denethor speaks this plea in the moments before he places himself on the burning pyre in Book V, Chapter 7. In this quotation, Denethor’s tragic error appears obvious—he is overly fixated with power. On the whole, however, Denethor’s descent into madness is subtle, and his personal struggle with evil transcends the simpler distinctions—black against white, East against West, evil against good—that abound in The Return of the King. All told, Denethor wants honor and prosperity for Minas Tirith and for Gondor. He wrongly assumes that he himself must have complete power to accomplish such goals. Denethor could rightly sit in the throne of Gondor, fulfilling his interim duties as Steward in place of the absent king. Instead, Denethor leaves the throne empty, and his self-pity leads to the neglect of Minas Tirith that is evident in the city’s decaying walls and vacant homes.
As Gandalf later surmises, Denethor, under the growing pressure of Mordor, has turned to the seeing-stone, or palantír, for power. The palantír itself does not symbolize evil; indeed, Aragorn claims he has wrested control of the palantír and has used it to mislead and discourage Sauron. Rather, the palantír symbolizes knowledge—particularly the ability to construe knowledge for the use of power or manipulation. The distinction between knowledge and wisdom is important: Tolkien implies that knowledge for knowledge’s sake can lead to evil, whereas knowledge tempered with wisdom—awareness of consequences—is more responsible and virtuous. The palantír provides Denethor with access to knowledge, but he does not have the wisdom with which to temper this knowledge and recognize Sauron’s lies. Through the stone, Denethor does not become a servant of evil, but he succumbs to evil lies. The effect of Sauron’s evil on Denethor surfaces in the Steward’s stated belief that “doom denies” him a flourishing lineage. Denethor accepts Sauron’s misleading lie that the coming King of Gondor will necessarily reduce Denethor’s own political authority and restrict the Steward’s personal welfare. Indeed, as we see later in the novel, King Aragorn grants Faramir, the new Steward, continued rule of Minas Tirith. Denethor’s tragic error lies in his belief that such unsolicited acts of goodness can no longer happen in the world of Middle-earth.
In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him.
This insight into Sam’s thoughts about the Ring at Cirith Ungol in Book VI, Chapter 1, explains the key virtue of the hobbits as Ring-bearers and members of the Fellowship. Frodo’s and Sam’s small statures—both in terms of physical size and force of authority and personality—grant them a perspective that does not suit the Ring’s overwhelming power. The small size of the Hobbit race also functions as a metaphor for their measured attitudes, their humility, and their unadorned goodness—attributes that appear to make them less vulnerable to the lure of the Ring. The Hobbits and the Shire are little known in Middle-earth; throughout The Lord of the Rings, the races of Men and Elves are surprised to learn that Hobbits actually exist. Frodo, by accepting the Ring, enters a history of war and conflict between Men and the forces of evil in which the Hobbits have had little part. As the symbol of that conflict, the Ring always seems like an awkward fit on a Hobbit hand.
Despite the seeming incompatibility of the Hobbit race as a whole with the lure of the Ring, we still get the sense that Frodo and Sam are exceptional Hobbits, with a strength of character that makes them less vulnerable to the Ring’s power. After all, we know that Gollum, though once a Hobbit-like creature, was still corrupted by the Ring, and we have seen that the Ring is able to elicit erratic behavior and sudden fierceness in Bilbo. Frodo and Sam, on the other hand, are evidence that Hobbit virtues are only virtues insofar as one exhibits them. At Cirith Ungol, Sam proves that he has developed from a slightly dim-witted youth to a mature hobbit with a deep capacity for discernment and reflection. Deeply influenced by Frodo’s experiences with the burden of the quest, Sam analyzes the Ring and immediately realizes and respects its subtle, destructive potential. Perhaps most important, Sam’s desire to use the Ring himself springs only from his love for Frodo and his attempts to save his master. In this sense, Sam’s affection for Frodo acts as a corrective to the Ring’s power. Sam muses that, even if the tantalizing benefits of the Ring were an actual possibility rather than a false promise, they would not really be benefits if they involved losing his hobbit sense and his affection for Frodo. In this regard, Sam’s resilient love for his friend precludes his fascination with the Ring’s power.
“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.”
Frodo shares this calm reflection with Sam at the end of Book VI, Chapter 3, as Mount Doom explodes and crumbles around them. Their somewhat leisurely conversation belies the fact that they have suffered from exhaustion and physical danger for so long, as well as the fact that Mordor is rupturing into a virtual apocalypse around them. The moment highlights one of Tolkien’s strongest narrative devices—the juxtaposition of intimate personal moments against the backdrop of cosmic or earthly crises. This tension between the great and the small drives the entire plot of The Lord of the Rings—which revolves around the idea of two lowly hobbits not simply embarking on a quest but, as the critic Roger Sale puts it, descending into hell. Tolkien uses the device to emphasize the deep friendship between Frodo and Sam. Not only does the physical destruction of Mount Doom signal the climax of Tolkien’s tale, but it also suggests that the moment represents the pinnacle of the two hobbits’ friendship.
Frodo himself points out another irony: it is not he who finishes the quest they have traveled so far to achieve, but Gollum, the Ring’s greatest hoarder, who has completed the task. Frodo cites Gandalf’s prediction from the early chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring—that Gollum would invariably play a part in the fate of the Ring. Frodo has shown great patience and mercy toward Gollum throughout the second half of the quest. It remains unclear to what degree Gandalf’s foreshadowing has remained in the back of Frodo’s mind, inspiring his clemency for the miserable Gollum. Either way, a sense of divine providence and fate looms over the events that transpire at the Cracks of Doom, evoking a perfect blend of chance and retribution in Gollum’s fall. In this regard, Frodo and Sam’s calm discussion of Gollum’s actions in light of the destruction around them hints that a greater, unknown power of good is protecting them.
“But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”
Frodo speaks these words in his final farewell to Sam in Book VI, Chapter 9—the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings. Frodo is about to depart for the Grey Havens, where he will sail to the uncharted West with the other Ring-bearers, in search of paradise. As Frodo mentions, the quest has wounded him in an irreparable way. He assumes that the safe deposit of the Ring in the Cracks of Doom will save the Shire. The Shire does live on, but more so because of the bravery of Merry, Pippin, and Sam in overthrowing Saruman’s destruction of the Hobbit lands. Though no one but Sam has witnessed Frodo’s deed, it has saved Middle-earth and has allowed the Fourth Age to dawn and the kingdom of Men to take root in Gondor. Such accomplishments, however, have little bearing on Frodo or on the Shire. On the whole, his quest has been a negative one, a burden from the start. It has centered around giving things up: not only the Ring, but also Frodo’s innocence and mental energy. Frodo has offered an absolute sacrifice, giving up a large part of himself with minimal thanks from the hobbits for whom he cares the most.
In a sense, Frodo himself becomes a mythic character. As a hobbit, he is an everyman of sorts throughout the novel, experiencing the events of his quest in wide-eyed, somewhat disbelieving fashion, as if they are a fantasy story or a fairy tale. Frodo remains detached from the Elves and the Dwarves, as they are beings whom Frodo has encountered only in tales as a child. Now, Frodo’s own greatest deeds in life live on only in story and legend, symbolized by the bound volume of tales he presents to Sam. It is fitting that Frodo sails away into obscurity with the other Ring-bearers, whose fantastic lives in the coming age of Men will also attain a mythic, unreal status.