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.