The Return of the King
Book VI, Chapter 1
Summary — The Tower of Cirith Ungol
[H]e knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden. . . .
As Book VI begins, the narrative returns to focus on Sam and Frodo, who are still in the Tower of Cirith Ungol in Mordor. Sam wakes to find himself in the dark, outside the Orc stronghold. He knows he needs to rescue Frodo, but a massive door blocks his path. He turns and makes his way through the tunnel behind him.
Without reason or purpose, Sam puts on the Ring. Immediately, he feels the great physical weight of the Ring’s power. His hearing improves, but his sight becomes hazy. He hears the sound of savage fighting in the tower. He turns and runs back toward the door, hoping that the two Orc-captains have come to blows. Spurred by an intense love for Frodo, Sam takes off the Ring and approaches the main gate of Cirith Ungol. As he does, he sees Orodruin, or Mount Doom, in the distance to the east. He again feels the wild, heavy pull of the Ring and begins to fantasize about becoming “Samwise the Strong,” a great hero. Remembering his love for Frodo, Sam shakes off such thoughts. He is convinced that he is too much of a plain hobbit and a humble gardener to control the Ring.
Pressing on with a shrug, Sam halts helplessly before the gate, as if held by a web. He is under the influence of the Two Watchers who forbid all entrance into Cirith Ungol. Sam unconsciously draws the phial of Galadriel from his breast and extends it forward. Its great light pierces the gloom, and Sam is able to pass quickly through the gate. The Watchers let out a shrill cry.
Inside, Sam notices the bodies of dead orcs as he reaches a narrow staircase. The dark figure of an orc moves down the stairs. The orc sees Sam and halts, perceiving Sam as a great, grey shadow brandishing an Elf blade that shines bitterly in the darkness. The terrified orc turns and runs up into the tower. Sam follows stealthily, jovially terming himself the “Elf-warrior.” Upstairs, Sam can hear the orc, Snaga, speak to another, Shagrat; they are the only two orcs left in the tower. Shagrat orders Snaga to descend, but Snaga will not go back downstairs. Snaga runs into an unknown chamber of the tower, leaving the furious Shagrat alone. Sam reveals himself to Shagrat and moves to attack, but the orc, overwhelmed by the power of the Ring, runs in panic around Sam and out the door.
Sam looks desperately around for Frodo, but cannot find him. He begins to sing to himself. His song draws a snarl from Snaga, who mistakes Sam’s voice for Frodo’s. Sam follows the sound of the snarl and finds the orc climbing a ladder through a hidden door in the ceiling. Sam climbs after Snaga and attacks him in the secret chamber. In a panic, the surprised orc charges Sam, trips over him, and falls through the hidden door to the hard floor below.
Frodo lies naked on a heap of rags in the middle of the room. He is surprised to see Sam and utterly elated to find that Sam has saved the Ring. Suddenly, Frodo demands that Sam hand over the Ring, calling Sam a thief. Grabbing the Ring, Frodo apologizes to Sam. Frodo and Sam outfit themselves in Orc gear and climb down the ladder. With the phial of Galadriel, the two hobbits move past the Watchers and out into Mordor. Suddenly, the terrifying cry of a Black Rider rends the sky above them.
The second half of The Return of the King opens with a different picture of evil from the one that closes the first half. In the final chapter of Book V, Gandalf offers a verbal challenge to Sauron’s Lieutenant that suggests that evil is largely an internal force—the result of choice, corruption, and misdeed. When Sam awakens at Cirith Ungol, however, we immediately see a picture of evil as an external force, an outward manifestation of Sauron’s inner evil that lies like a heavy blanket over Mordor. The sky is dark, the air thick and bitter, and the terrain a desert wasteland.
The physical presence of the Ring dominates the opening of Book VI. Once a symbol of the mixed blessings of power, the Ring is now a bane on Frodo’s existence. His body and the Ring are one, and his body expires as the Ring grows heavier with each step toward Mount Doom. We are introduced to the Eye of Sauron, glaring as a potent symbol of Sauron’s evil will as it extends across the land. From the Eye emanates a real physical stream of evil power and influence. Sauron’s Eye imposes his inner evil qualities and corrupt condition onto the natural world of his realm.
Furthermore, the Ring begins to inflict trouble the only relationship that has remained pure and complete throughout the novel thus far—the devoted friendship between Frodo and Sam. We have never detected discord in the camaraderie of these two hobbits on their long journey through Middle-earth. But with Sam’s sudden and unexpected possession of the Ring, the relationship falls victim to jealousy and wrongful accusations. When Frodo sees Sam with the Ring and demands it back immediately, calling his loving friend a thief, we witness the power of the Ring to distort reality and impart individuals with an illusory sense of power. Sam toys with mild delusions of grandeur when he wears the Ring, but these are more comic and endearing than evil, and they lead us to feel all the more strongly the unfairness of Frodo’s accusations. The injury is even greater because it comes at a moment of reunion after extreme bravery on Sam’s part. Although Frodo apologizes soon afterward and Sam accepts the apology, the memory of Frodo’s unkind words lingers in our minds as further proof of the Ring’s destructive power.
Sam’s confrontation with the Ring’s power reminds us why he emerges at the end of The Lord of the Rings as the unexpected hero of the novel. Sam wears the Ring and, to some degree, experiences the same delusions of grandeur and fame that all its wearers feel. He fantasizes about fame as “Samwise the Strong,” thereby demonstrating his susceptibility to the insidious and powerful vanity that the Ring inspires. But Sam has the strength to remove the Ring when he thinks of Frodo. Love for others is precisely what the Ring destroys, setting all its wearers on courses of greedy individualism in which bonds of loyalty and love no longer matter. Sam’s intense devotion to his friend is unmatched even by the good Frodo, who earlier took off the Ring through the strength of his own will, but not with the same heartwarming fondness for another. Frodo removed the Ring out of a sense of right—an honorable action, but not as selfless as that of Sam, who removes it out of love. The irony of Sam’s thoughts—that, as an ordinary gardener hobbit, he is too common to wear the Ring—is that he is actually one of the Ring’s safest keepers, relatively unaffected by the selfishness it provokes.