In English there are several good words for the moment in a plot when everything “comes to a head,” the moment to which the entire previous action has been building up. The word “climax” comes from a Greek word meaning “ladder,” and was used in the sense of “point of highest intensity” only through a late 18th century misunderstanding; before that, it was a term in rhetoric referring to a sequence of propositions arranged in order of increasing effectiveness. The word “culmination” comes from a Latin word meaning “top, gable, peak, summit,” and before the 18th century was more commonly used in astronomy for the position of a celestial body when it crosses the meridian. The 18th century French term dénouement literally means “unknotting” or “unraveling,” and seems obviously appropriate to both comic and tragic endings, in which everything “comes apart” at the conclusion, in the senses both of “disintegrating” and “becoming clear.” What is the climax, culmination, or dénouement of The Lord of the Rings?
For over 800 pages we have followed Frodo and Sam in their journey from the Shire to the Crack of Doom, where they are to destroy the Ring. While hundreds of pages have been spent detailing the slow struggle over difficult terrain, the actual destruction of the Ring takes only one page, and the dissolution of Sauron, his armies, and his kingdom takes another page. The account of the scuffle over the Ring is terse, opaque, confused, leaving the reader wondering exactly what happened and how it happened. Tolkien does not extend the fight, linger on the Ring as it falls into the fire, or create any confrontation with Sauron — whereas a lesser writer would have found it irresistible to do all of these. Moreover, a glance at the Contents page tells us that after this there will be six more chapters, so if this scene is indeed the climax of the whole book, what follows must be eighty pages of obligatory wrapping-up.
We have seen in previous essays that at crucial moments Tolkien tends to be laconic, especially where Frodo is concerned. Let’s look carefully at what happens:
Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight. Sam gasped, but he had no chance to cry out, for at that moment many things happened.
Something struck Sam violently in the back, his legs were knocked from under him and he was flung aside, striking his head against the stony floor, as a dark shape sprang over him. He lay still and for a moment all went black.
The three hobbit protagonists of the Mordor part of the story all converge here in one action. Physically, the details are vague: we know that there is a fire chasm, and that there are rock walls to this cave, but we do not know how far Frodo is from Sam or where exactly Sam lands in relation to the chasm. In a film, topography and relative distances have to be clear, but in prose spatial opaqueness can function to various ends — for instance, giving an effect of disorientation, or putting the moral and psychological relationships more in the foreground. When all went black, we also have temporal vagueness, because we don’t know how long after this Sam comes back to consciousness.
At this point the narrative is disrupted by a startling change in point of view: for the first time in the book, we are allowed to enter Sauron’s mind as he becomes aware of what is happening behind his back:
And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.
From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain. At his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgûl the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom.
It is remarkable that Tolkien makes Sam’s moment of blackness coincide with Sauron’s moment of awakening — as if Sam, with his instinct for lyrical transcendence and his invincible earthy faith, has to be removed before the dark, malicious mind of Sauron can manifest in the book. For one instant, Sauron becomes intelligent and sees; the implication is that in this instant both he and Frodo see each other, but the instant is private to the two of them and closed to Sam, who now wakes up.
Sam got up. He was dazed, and blood streaming from his head dripped in his eyes. He groped forward, and then he saw a strange and terrible thing. Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe. To and fro he swayed, now so near the brink that almost he tumbled in, now dragging back, falling to the ground, rising, and falling again. And all the while he hissed but spoke no words.
The fires below awoke in anger, the red light blazed, and all the cavern was filled with a great glare and heat. Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was wrought of living fire.
‘Precious, precious, precious!’ Gollum cried. ‘My Precious! O my Precious!’ And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone. (Ch.3, 223-24)
Frodo temporarily disappears into the Ring, and only Gollum’s savage amputation restores him back to flesh-and-blood visibility. Gollum is twice described as like a mad thing: what is it to fight like a mad thing, and then dance like a mad thing? It is Sam’s perspective that gives us this view of the action; he seems paralyzed, too dazed to act, and is also horrified by Gollum’s inhuman frenzy — like a mad thing. The suddenness of Gollum’s death is true to life: people who witness their friends falling off a ledge describe the shock of a literal “now you see him, now you don’t” experience.
At that moment many things happened — and not only physical things. Gollum, Sam, Frodo, and Sauron all converge, and what happens is as none of them would have expected.
Sam, shortly before this, has felt a resurgence from a mood of mortal doubt to one of the purest heroism, ready for anything, willing to do anything, unshakeable:
But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue. (211)
But he is abruptly eliminated from the action and is for a short while not aware of what has happened.
Frodo has reached a disturbing new state of clarity and acceptance, but he has been stripped of his hobbit capacity for enjoying life :
‘Do you remember that bit of rabbit, Mr. Frodo?’ he said. ‘And our place under the warm bank in Captain Faramir’s country, the day I saw an oliphaunt?’
‘No, I am afraid not, Sam,’ said Frodo. ‘At least, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark. Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.’ (215)
What is “the wheel of fire”? In Greek mythology Ixion is strapped by Zeus to a wheel of fire for lusting after Hera, and in King Lear the phrase is used to convey purgatorial or infernal suffering: “But I am bound upon a wheel of fire…” Frodo’s torture is to have lost his nature, his hobbit love of sensory pleasures as well as his poetic soul: he cannot even remember these things from his previous life. It is as if Frodo-the-hobbit has been nothing but clothing, and now this clothing has been torn away and thrown into the fire, leaving a poor, naked, defenseless being exposed to this wheel of fire. The image is repeated a few pages later, this time seen by Sam with his own waking eyes:
Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice. (221)
The wheel of fire has become the Ring. Its burning is not a kind of general pain without particularized content, but the full pain in which our very identity, including the things in us that are dear to us, are burned away, burned off, melted down, almost to voidness. Frodo himself is aware that this could mean being reduced to Gollum’s state of being scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, but at this point he is able to attain a lofty, sacrificial dignity in the bearing of the Ring.
Gollum is intensely aware of having been diminished, ground down, pulverized:
Let us live, yes, live just a little longer. Lost lost! We’re lost. And when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into the dust.’ He clawed up the ashes of the path with his long fleshless fingers. ‘Dusst!’ he hissed. (221)
This word “dust” carries connotations of “house dust” that we sweep out, inescapable mortality (ashes to ashes dust to dust), and trash (dustbin, dustman, dustpan, dust heaps). In this passage dust and lost are linked by consonance, as are precious and ashes. Gollum knows what the Ring has brought him to but, like an addict, he clings to it as the final barrier between himself and nullity. In what sense does he see himself as “lost”? — lost to meaning, lost to every possibility of happiness, or abandoned and irrecoverable? And when he speaks of dying into the dust, he clearly doesn’t mean dust literally; die into suggests willful self-annihilation, the deliberate turning into worthless nothing that lies under people’s feet.
All three feel grim determination to effect an end, but their individual plots all go awry: Sam doesn’t mean to be knocked out, Frodo hasn’t planned to keep the Ring or to fight with a mad thing for it, and Gollum doesn’t intend to slip into the crack at the height of his jubilation. For each of them the actions at the Crack of Doom are anticlimactic, because messy and accidental. Heroism has become irrelevant and has given way to something less noble but more mysterious. Only Frodo has had the strength of heart and the interest in heroism to bring the Ring as far as the brink; only Sam has had the physical fortitude, selfless devotion, and spontaneous courage to make sure Frodo gets there; and only Gollum has the mad, obsessive desperation to get it by biting off Frodo’s finger and then perish by momentarily forgetting where exactly he is. Through the coming together of this trio, the world is saved — and the one who has been brought down lowest by the Ring turns out to be the one who bring down the one seated in the highest place. Frodo recognizes this:
‘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! (225)
He is referring to what Gandalf had said near the beginning of The Fellowship, 800 pages ago:
…even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least. (Fellowship, ch.3)
Gollum is able to be there at the ending of the Ring because of Bilbo’s mercy many decades ago. There has been something providential about the long chains of causation that have yoked these three beings together in this monumental task: who could have foreseen that Sauron would be destroyed by these particular hobbits? Certainly not Sauron, who is locked into rigid stereotypes of conflict, power, and victory — and therefore cannot understand quirky, paradoxical ways of thinking. Only at the moment of his defeat does he become aware of his own stupidity and lack of imagination. We do not get a substantial account of conflict between Sauron and our heroes precisely because Sauron is a nonentity, a being constructed only out of the same tedious old fantasies of power and animated by no vision of worthy or interesting ends of life. His sole function is to negate such ends, and so, as negation incarnate, no conflict is possible: he either annihilates or, when his enemies succeed, evaporates. His essence is anticlimactic, his purpose to frustrate good culminations.
In The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam had given heart to each other by invoking the tales that will be told of them in future generations, so that now — even if they should perish — they can continue in this adventure knowing that it will be a good story starring Sam and Frodo. Because their mission is really a suicide mission, they are free to be themselves. The same is true of Gollum, who is held by no fears or inhibitions. On the great field of battle, too, Aragorn and his troops have dedicated themselves to their only hope and, happily resigned to their own deaths, are fighting to buy time for the Ringbearer to accomplish his mission. All are indifferent to death, and this indifference releases them to do their utmost, like arrows shot from a bow. It is only because of this inner freedom from fear that what providence there is in this world can flow through their actions and accomplish their end for them in spite of themselves. Only Sauron craves control and the maintenance of security; the anxiety that narrows his actions also dulls his intelligence, and he is no match for antagonists who have nothing more to lose.
The disintegration of Sauron and his empire is only the beginning of the long climax to the Lord of the Rings, which will unfold over the next eighty pages and not release us until the last line. Tolkien is less interested in the plot of the struggle over the Ring than in the deep impact of this struggle. The novel’s dénouement or unknotting takes place in the political realm, as Gondor and Rohan get their souls back, and as the Shire recollects and recovers its ancient goodness; and also in the hearts of our protagonists, as Eowyn, Sam, and Frodo have to find repair and resolution after all the tearings they have witnessed.