Frodo and Sam begin their journey to Mordor from the Emyn Muil with a guide without whom they could make little progress but a guide who wishes them ill. Frodo makes Gollum swear by the Ring not to betray them but he is aware that Gollum will break his promise if he can and that the Ring is stronger and more treacherous than Gollum’s oath.
“Would you commit your promise to [the Ring], Sméagol? It will hold you. But it is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware!”
When Dante takes his journey through Hell that he describes in the first book of The Divine Comedy he was guided by the noble Roman poet, Virgil. Time and again he finds himself dependent upon the wisdom and authority of his guide. Although Dante is in Hell he is not beyond the authority of God and Virgil has been tasked as a kind of herald of God, pagan though he is, to bring his charge safely through his dark journey. When Virgil demands that the devils of hell permit them to pass he does so with divine authority and although the devils hate God they have no choice but to allow Dante to continue on his way. Hell in Dante’s vision is not a contested region. It may be hopeless but it has been harrowed.
The journey that Frodo and Sam make to Mordor is also a journey into Hell but as in the whole of Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth it remains very much a contested region. Sauron not only hates the light but would deny it any place within his dominions. When Frodo seeks to gain entry there is no word that he can speak that has the authority to force those who guard the dominion of the Dark Lord to grant him entry except, it would seem, the word of treachery that Gollum will speak in the Pass of Cirith Ungol.
In his the first of his series of nine poems On Reading the Commedia the poet, Malcolm Guite speaks of his own dark journey (with typical generosity he posts the poem on his blog https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2015/03/08/dante-and-the-companioned-journey-1 where you can also find links to ways to buy his book from which series comes,”The Singing Bowl”). Guite speaks of the call of his “shadow-beasts…the leopard, lion, wolf, My kith and kin, the emblems of my kind” who come to draw him “back across the gulf, Back from the path I wanted to have chosen.” Is Gollum a guide of this kind? Is he, like Guite’s “shadow-beasts”, Frodo’s “kith and kin” the emblems of his kind? I think he is. When Gollum swears “by the Precious” and he grovels at Frodo’s feet Sam recognises the kinship that Gollum and Frodo share. “They could reach one another’s minds.” Frodo knows too that Gollum is what he himself will become unless he can cast the Ring into the fire, that Gollum’s call to him is the call to despair as Guite expresses it
“Fall back, they call, you can’t run from yourself,
Fall to the place where every hope is frozen…
The place in Dante’s Inferno where every hope is frozen is the ninth and deepest circle of Hell to which Gollum himself journeys by means of his own treachery. But must Frodo travel there in the same way as his shadow guide? Will he fall into the same despair and become himself a traitor to those who have trusted him? Guite offers to us a different path:
“This time I choose to choose
The other path, path of the dead and risen,
To try the hidden heart of things, to let go, lose,
To lose myself and find again the voice
That called and drew me here, my freeing muse.
Begin again she calls, you have the choice,
Little by little, you can travel far,
Learn to lament before you can rejoice.”
And so we travel on with Frodo through the Dead Marshes on the way to Mordor as he struggles to make the same choice.