In life, it is almost impossible to predict what a rescue or victory will look like before it happens: often, an apparent victory is Pyrrhic, and an apparent rescue may be “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” In fiction, victories and rescues can take obvious, stereotypical forms, such as the valiant destruction of the enemy in battle, or the seizing of the doomed hero from the maw of death; without doubt, we find these more predictable climaxes in The Lord of the Rings. But what distinguishes Tolkien’s power as a writer is his insight into the small and seemingly insignificant moments that most people do not notice — which is one reason he chooses to centre his epic on hobbits, beings whom no one could have expected to play the pivotal role in a cosmic conflict. He knows that the greatest turns in a story may come through a look, a gesture, a word — for such “little” things can change minds and hearts, and since all actions issue from minds and hearts, it is the “little” events in the soul that create the story. They are only considered “little” because they are not obvious to us, and they are not obvious to us not because they are little but because we are not good at noticing such things.
In the second half of The Two Towers, nestled in dark crannies far away from the great battles, we witness a great transformation in Frodo’s spirit, effected by nothing less than the words of Sam. In chapter 3 of Part 4, Frodo finds himself paralyzed by a sense of hopeless inadequacy:
He sat upon the ground for a long while, silent, his head bowed, striving to recall all that Gandalf had said to him. But for this choice he could recall no counsel. Indeed Gandalf’s guidance had been taken from them too soon, too soon, while the Dark Land was still very far away. How they should enter it at the last Gandalf had not said. Perhaps he could not say. Into the stronghold of the Enemy in the North, into Dol Guldur, he had once ventured. But into Mordor, to the Mountain of Fire and to Barad-dûr, since the Dark Lord rose in power again, had he ever journeyed there? Frodo did not think so. And here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go. It was an evil fate. But he had taken it on himself in his own sitting-room in the far-off spring of another year, so remote now that it was like a chapter in a story of the world’s youth, when the Trees of Silver and Gold were still in bloom. This was an evil choice. Which way should he choose? And if both led to terror and death, what good lay in choice? (Ch.3, p252)
This is the despair of one who has just realized that he has undertaken a task impossible for him, and that the only outcome of the undertaking is “terror and death.” It is the sense that some of us wake up to in mid-life that we are unrescuably embarked on a course from which no success or happiness can be reasonably expected, and in which there is no guidance from anyone: we are on our own, without even the light of old hope. And Frodo is also exhausted.
What starts to lift him out of his despondency is Sam’s unexpected reaction to Gollum’s report of a sighting of men:
`Were there any oliphaunts?’ asked Sam, forgetting his fear in his eagerness for news of strange places.
`No, no oliphaunts. What are oliphaunts? ‘ said Gollum.
Sam stood up, putting his hands behind his back (as he always did when ‘speaking poetry’), and began:
Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house.
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old, and tall.
If ever you’d met me
You wouldn’t forget me.
If you never do,
You won’t think I’m true;
But old Oliphaunt am I,
And I never lie.
‘That,’ said Sam, when he had finished reciting, `that’s a rhyme we have in the Shire. Nonsense maybe, and maybe not. But we have our tales too, and news out of the South, you know. In the old days hobbits used to go on their travels now and again. Not that many ever came back, and not that all they said was believed: news from Bree, and not sure as Shiretalk, as the sayings go. But I’ve heard tales of the big folk down away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call ’em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts, ’tis said, when they fight. They put houses and towers on the oliphauntses backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another. So when you said “Men out of the South, all in red and gold,” I said “were there any oliphaunts? ” For if there was, I was going to take a look, risk or no. But now I don’t suppose I’ll ever see an oliphaunt. Maybe there ain’t no such a beast.’ He sighed. (255)
Nowhere previously in the narrative has there been any mention of “oliphaunts,” a word from Old French that evokes wild imaginings of the great animal in medieval courtly romances. The possibility of an oliphaunt appearing pops suddenly out of Sam’s mouth, and it is one of those indications that Sam has an inner life that we are not privy too: his mind bursts with legend and lore, and throughout the journey, in his long stretches of silence, he must be thinking about things like oliphaunts. Moreover, even though they are in one of the darkest episodes of the journey, his excited curiosity temporarily banishes fear. This is a lesson for us: curiosity can kill fear, not just the cat.
When he “sighs” at the thought that he might never see an oliphaunt, his sad resignation is both insane and exhilarating: Now, at this terrible moment when you are staring failure and death in the face, you are worried that you might never see one of those mythical beasts from the poems of your childhood?! What exhilarates is the evidence that Sam doesn’t fully live here, in his immediate physical surroundings. This is why for him curiosity can conquer fear: his inner world, mostly hidden from us but occasionally manifest in his encounters with Elves, is much larger and more beautiful than his physical world, and it may be more real and vivid. What moves him most deeply, as we saw in Lothlorien, is the discovery that his inner world of image and story can spill over into the material universe in which he has to eat, act, and die. Unlike Frodo, who is driven by a heroic quest, Sam is on this journey because he wants to find out if the legends that have shaped his life are true or not — that is, whether in his own experience it may be possible for a legend and an actual life to tread the same ground. His concern for oliphaunts is far from trivial.
Gollum of course isn’t interested, and we don’t yet know that he has already hatched his plan to kill them both. What is interesting is that he maligns his old self: Smeagol, obsessed with finding the secrets of the world, would have been very interested in oliphaunts, but Gollum seeks to emphasize that he only thing that interests him now is safety. Frodo, however, is something of a mean between Gollum, who has long since given up the dream of happiness for himself, and Sam, who is invincible because most of his being is alive in a dream of happiness. This is why be can understand both: Gollum and Sam are two poles of Frodo.
`No, no oliphaunts,’ said Gollum again. ‘Sméagol has not heard of them. He does not want to see them. He does not want them to be. Sméagol wants to go away from here and hide somewhere safer. Sméagol wants master to go. Nice master, won’t he come with Sméagol?’
Frodo stood up. He had laughed in the midst of all his cares when Sam trotted out the old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt, and the laugh had released him from hesitation. `I wish we had a thousand oliphaunts with Gandalf on a white one at their head,’ he said. `Then we’d break a way into this evil land, perhaps. But we’ve not; just our own tired legs, that’s all. Well, Sméagol, the third turn may turn the best. I will come with you.’ (255)
He had laughed: Only now are we told that the background accompaniment to Sam’s recitation was Frodo’s laughter. I can imagine that the laughter began when Sam adopts his recitation posture of standing straight with arms behind his back, a posture in which the poetry can shine proudly forth through face and chest. It is also the posture of a confident 10-year-old boy declaiming on stage — Sam’s unbreakable inner child, ready to stand and recite in even the darkest times. This magnificent vision is the first that loosens Frodo from his despair.
Later, when they catch sight of the troop of men,
To his astonishment and terror, and lasting delight, Sam saw a vast shape crash out of the trees and come careering down the slope. (269)
Again, “lasting delight” balances out “astonishment and terror” — and it is “lasting” because it can be savored in words and memories forever. The apparition of a real oliphaunt brings about a contact with immortality that completes a life and thereby renders death harmless:
Sam drew a deep breath. ‘An Oliphaunt it was!’ he said. `So there are Oliphaunts, and I have seen one. What a life! But no one at home will ever believe me. Well, if that’s over, I’ll have a bit of sleep.’ (270)
What a life! The greatest satisfaction would be to find ourselves living the life that we only dreamed about in our childhoods; only then could we go to sleep happy and fulfilled, even in the midst of battle.
Frodo’s reinvigoration continues when, a few chapters later, the same conversation is resumed — once again, when he expresses grim hopelessness:
‘I don’t like anything here at all.’ said Frodo, `step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.’
‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. `And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into? ‘
`I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.‘ (320-21)
And you don’t want them to: in other words, to be a participant in a story, you cannot be omniscient, because what it means to be someone in a story is that you don’t know how things are going to go or what the next moment will be, and you cannot really choose how things will turn out. Without the ignorance and terrifying uncertainty, there would be no stories and no heroes, only a chain of actions and events no more significant than any other.
As before, Sam is always fascinated by where tales end and “life” begins: do the two worlds councide or leak into each other, is the world of legend infinite like time and the universe? In these passages we witness Sam thinking aloud; perhaps these are good examples of what goes on in his head during the long trudge to Mordor. He may be the only character in the Lord of the Rings permitted to unveil his interior monologue, the swirl of his private preoccupations apart from the demands of the immediate action. Because Sam lives in two worlds, he is always wondering about his place in them and about how they might go together.
What happens next in the conversation is surprising and powerful, because it holds the key to how Frodo finds the strength to go on:
‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. `But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.’
‘And then we can have some rest and some sleep,’ said Sam. He laughed grimly. ‘And I mean just that, Mr. Frodo. I mean plain ordinary rest, and sleep, and waking up to a morning’s work in the garden. I’m afraid that’s all I’m hoping for all the time. All the big important plans are not for my sort. Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, or course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring! ” And they’ll say: “Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave. wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”‘
`It’s saying a lot too much,’ said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again. ‘Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad? ” ‘ (331-22)
In the course of the conversation there arises in Frodo a new way to view his struggle: he learns, through Sam, to see himself as a character in a great story. No longer is he merely Frodo the hobbit, but now he is Frodo and the Ring, accompanied by Samwise the Stouthearted. From now on they will be the inspiration of books and movies, and of radiant faces enthralled by their story. The sudden realization is what makes Frodo laugh his long clear laugh. All the other characters are some how locked into dull, rigid programs: the warriors have to be warriors and they know at every step the grim duty they must follow, and the villains pursue their own narrow ends without humor. Warriors and elves have genealogies and histories, and it is for these that they live — to fix their names, and ensure their legacies. But genealogies and histories are not tales: tales exist for the sake of “lasting delight,” and they contain such beings as hobbits and oliphaunts — improbable creatures. Tolkien’s warriors are never astonished by their own improbability. It takes the comic sensibility of a hobbit to be amazed by self-recognition, and to laugh in it. The comic mind can step outside itself and see itself from new angles, precisely because it does not have a deadly investment in taking itself seriously. It’s okay, even wonderful, to be a character in a tale.
In this tale, Sam will act Sam to the hilt, Frodo will be Frodo, and Gollum will be Gollum: each will play their roles perfectly, and thereby fulfill their tale. This is a tremendous lesson for those of us who feel ourselves mired, even doomed, in hopeless situations: we really don’t know how it will turn out, and at the present moment it may free us to imagine ourselves as characters in a great tale — not the noblest characters, far from perfect, and often unintelligent. What more can we do than play ourselves wholeheartedly and leave the world another story to enjoy? — for even when we fail miserably and die, we can still make an extraordinary and satisfying tale.
This is why, when Gollum returns from his dubious excursion, he finds Sam and Frodo happily asleep: Peace was in both their faces. (323)