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The Return of the King

J. R. R. Tolkien

Book VI, Chapter 2

Book VI, Chapter 1

Book VI, Chapter 3

Summary — The Land of Shadow

Sam and Frodo run away from Cirith Ungol as horns peal in the tower. They run onto a long bridge, but as they approach the other side, they hear a company of orcs quickly approaching. The orcs cannot see the two hobbits, but are heading straight for them. Frodo and Sam jump over the edge of the bridge, landing safely on the side of a cliff. With great difficulty, they clamber down to the valley below. Mount Doom lies to the east, but the hobbits travel northward, hoping to evade any Orc search parties.

Frodo and Sam have only some of Faramir’s provisions, a few lembas, and no water. After a night of weary travel, they find a small stream and joyously refill their water bottles. The Ring grows heavier around Frodo’s neck with every step. Mount Doom is still nearly forty miles to the east, across a great valley. Behind the mountain sits Barad-dûr, Sauron’s home, from which the Dark Lord directs his will over Mordor. Scattered all over the valley, as far as the two hobbits can see, the armies of Mordor await the final battle. There is no hope of moving undetected through so many enemies, but Frodo and Sam again have no choice but to go on. They continue moving northward, looking for a good place to leave the mountains and move east. They overhear two orcs quarrelling, speaking of a rumor about a great Elf in bright armor who is on the loose.

On the third day, Frodo and Sam turn into a narrow eastward road and travel over it for several miles in the darkness. After some time, they hear a great company of orcs approaching from behind. The hobbits are unable to move aside, and the company overtakes them, but in the darkness its leader assumes the hobbits are orcs and forces them into line with the others. For what seems like hours, they travel with the Orc company at an excruciating pace. Frodo is in agony from the Ring’s increasing weight. After a time, they reach a busy crossroads. Armies from the south are moving in anticipation of Aragorn’s army. In the confusion of the converging companies, Frodo and Sam jump aside and crawl behind a nearby boulder.

Analysis

Sam emerges in these chapters as perhaps the most important hero of the entire novel. He represents the quintessential Hobbit hero, the virtues of which Merry displays briefly in Book V. Daring yet self-deprecating, Sam succeeds because he approaches the heroic challenge with a certain lightheartedness, as though he is playing at being a hero. He jokes that he is an “Elf-hero” and shrugs his shoulders as he launches through the gate of Cirith Ungol. Sam remains centered and focused because, as he realizes, he cannot escape his “plain Hobbit-sense.” That he is a gardener by trade has metaphorical significance, as Sam is used to dirtying his hands in the earth and does not think lofty thoughts of power or of reaching great heights. These correctives to Sam’s pride help him focus on the proper goals of his quest—serving Frodo and guarding the Ring. At the same time, Sam’s playfulness leads him to trust his impulses, such as using the phial of Galadriel and unwittingly singing a song to lead him to Frodo.

Tolkien implies that love is an important aspect of heroism, as we see in the way Sam is inspired by his love for Frodo. It is not that Sam’s attention to Frodo supersedes his commitment to the Ring-quest; rather, Sam implicitly understands that love and loyalty are essential to the success of the quest itself. Freedom, love, friendship, and the preservation of life are the goals of the Fellowship. Sam must save Frodo before he can carry out the destruction of the Ring, Gandalf must save Faramir from the burning pyre in order to prevent evil from gripping Minas Tirith, and Aragorn must set the captives free when he takes the ships by force from the allies of Mordor. Throughout The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien stresses the primacy of friendship and immediate social responsibility over more nebulous ideas of heroism or valor.

The closeness of Sam and Frodo to the Orc forces reminds us how the hobbits’ nondescript appearance—and their modest ordinariness in general—is often an asset to them on their journey. A more noble and knightly presence, like that of Aragorn or Théoden, would have stood out from the Orc contingent, and would have been immediately destroyed. But Frodo and Sam, who are not much to look at, pass unnoticed even when they are swept along in the midst of the marching Orc army. Moreover, their proximity to the Orcs allows them to overhear the Orc discussion of the rumor that a great Elf in bright armor is on the loose. The hobbits are thus allowed to see what the knights like Aragorn cannot—the nervous and anxious side of the enemy they are preparing to meet. Elrond’s words from the earliest parts of the novel, in Book II, ring true: the nature of the Ring-quest is such that the weak and the small are just as likely to succeed as the strong.

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