The Mercy of Sam Will Rule the Fate of Many

Throughout the journey through Mordor Frodo and Sam have been aware that Gollum is not far away but although Sam, in particular, has remained wary, the sheer immensity of their task has meant that they have not been overly concerned about him. Sam’s attention has been primarily centred upon getting Frodo to, and then up, the mountain. Frodo’s attention has been given to the Ring. He has little choice. He is almost in its power. So it is, as Sam carries Frodo up towards the Cracks of Doom upon his back, that they are taken by surprise by Gollum’s attack.

“A sudden weight smote him and he crashed forward, tearing the backs of his hands that still clasped his master’s. Then he knew what had happened, for above him as he lay he heard a hated voice. ”

Gollum’s attack rouses Frodo in a way that nothing else could do and he resists fiercely. Gollum too has the same desire for the Ring but whereas Frodo has been sustained on his journey by lembas, which, while not satisfying hunger, has the capacity to give “a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods”, Gollum has had no such sustenance. He is starved and greatly weakened.

Frodo drives him away and makes his way, “walking slowly but erect, up the climbing path”.

And now,  at long last, Sam has the opportunity to do what he has long wished to do, and that is to kill his enemy, the one who betrayed Frodo to Shelob, the one that he has hated ever since they first caught him in the Emyn Muil. But when he has Gollum at his mercy and his sword is held, ready to strike the fatal blow, he finds that he cannot do it.

“He could not strike this thing, lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again.”

Sam is not able to put what is happening to him into words but the same thing is happening to him as happened to Bilbo at the entrance to the tunnels of the Misty Mountains, the same thing as happened to Frodo when they caught Gollum in the Emyn Muil and he cried out to an absent figure, “Now that I see him I do pity him”.

The absent figure was, of course, Gandalf, and at the moment when Frodo had the opportunity to kill Gollum he was remembering the words that Gandalf had to spoken to him in Bag End when Frodo first learned the story of the Ring.

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need… My heart tells me that [Gollum] has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that time comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least.”

And now the end has come and Bilbo’s Pity and Mercy, and Frodo’s too, have brought them all, with the Ring, to this place. And what Sam finds is that Pity and Mercy are not abstract concepts arrived at in leisurely reflection but they are a Connection that binds us to each other. We find that we are not separate from each other but that we belong to each other. When we discover this reality about someone that we love it is the cause of profound joy but when we discover it about someone that we hate then our first response may well be horror. At a level deeper than words Sam realises his connection to Gollum, the suffering that they have both shared and that they share now at this terrible moment.

Would Sam have been just if he had killed Gollum? Probably. Gollum’s desire will lead him to one last attack upon Frodo and he deserves to die for every murder that he has committed but as with Bilbo and Frodo,  the pity of Sam will “rule the fate of many” not least his own and Frodo’s.


Frodo and Sam Cast Away What They Do Not Need in Mordor

As I began to think about this part of the story a beautiful line from a French poem came to mind.

Partir, c’est mourir un peu 

To leave, or to say farewell, is to die a little.

As Frodo and Sam draw nearer to the mountain so the Ring, Frodo’s burden, becomes more and more unbearable.

“I can’t manage it, Sam,” he said. “It is such a weight to carry, such a weight.”

Sam offers to help Frodo to carry the Ring and this rouses what energy remains within him but the fact remains that the task of bearing the Ring is increasingly beyond his strength. And so Sam suggests that they lighten their load.

Some of the items are easy to dispose of. Frodo gladly casts away his disguise of orc shield, helmet and sword. “I’ll be an orc no more… and I’ll bear no weapon, fair or foul.” But he casts aside his elven cloak too. He describes himself to Sam as “naked in the dark”. Not a nakedness as a kind of liberation, that sees clothing as a kind of imprisonment but a nakedness that means that there is no protection, even the illusory protection of clothes, that lies between Frodo and destruction and there is no protection that lies between Frodo and shame.

In the fourth century, after the Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, the newly built churches were filled with people who were there in order to further their careers. It was Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem, one of great spiritual geniuses of his age, who addressed this by creating the idea of Lent, a 40 day period of fasting, prayer, instruction and discipline for the many who were preparing for baptism. Baptism had once been a courageous thing to do in a world hostile to the Christian faith but it was now required behaviour for all. At the end of Lent those who were to be baptised presented themselves in a darkened church and they removed all their clothing, becoming naked in the dark, before descending into the water. All this signified a dying to them, a symbol of the ending of one life, and it was a ritual cleansing to. It was followed by an arising from the water after which they were clothed in a white robe, were given a lighted candle and received the bread and wine of the Eucharist that symbolised the new life that had just begun.

Cyril was doing what the great spiritual guides of every culture have done before the culture of the modern west and that is to teach that it is necessary to die before we die. He recognised the spiritual catastrophe of a baptism that simply affirmed the ascent to success that the young people of his day naturally desired. He knew that this could not prepare them for the inevitability of the descent that every life must know before the final and complete descent into death.

The church always recognised that those who were martyred required no baptism for martyrdom, the act of bearing true witness to the cross, is true baptism. Frodo and Sam in their journey through Mordor know the reality of death. Frodo knows what Coleridge named as a death in life. He is almost in the power of the Ring and if the Ring goes to the Fire he expects to be destroyed with it.

And for Sam, the moment when his pots and pans are cast into one of the deep fissures of the Plain of Mordor is “like a death-knell to his heart”. It is as if he is saying that there is no way back from the Mountain.

Partir, c’est mourir un peu. 

To leave, to say farewell, is to die a little.

Frodo and Sam know the truth of this.

But not quite. In a pocket of his tunic, next to his heart, Sam still keeps two things, “the phial of Galadriel and the little box that she gave him for his own”.





Sauron and Frodo and Sam Show Us Two Different Relationships to Darkness

Frodo and Sam begin the last stage of their journey. A fifty mile walk, or stagger, that Sam estimates will take a week because of Frodo’s condition. There is only one path that they can take and that is the main road from the Black Gate to Barad-dûr itself. It ought to be bustling with traffic and it usually is. But not now. Now there is a strange quiet and so Frodo and Sam are able to take the direct road to the mountain.

Tolkien tells us why.

“Neither man nor orc now moved along its flat grey stretches, for the Dark Lord had almost completed the movement of his forces, and even in the fastness of his own realm he sought the secrecy of night, fearing the winds of the world that had turned against him, tearing aside his veils, and troubled with tidings of bold spies that had passed through his fences.”

In other places Tolkien tells us that after the fall of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, at the end of the First Age, Sauron submitted for a little while to the authority of the Valar. Sauron had been Morgoth’s chief lieutenant in the wars of the First Age, second to him in power but not in malice and his brief submission was a recognition of the greater power of the Valar but when their command to him to go to Valinor for judgement was not enforced and when he perceived that there was no lordship in Middle-earth but rather a kind of anarchy he began to try to make himself its lord.

There is no time here to reflect upon the history of the Second Age but we could remember that this was the age of great Elven kingdoms and Durin’s great kingdom of Moria, of Khazad-dûm, as well as the age of Númenor and the glory of Men. For a time Sauron appeared to be an ally to them all but always he was plotting his own rise to supreme power chiefly through the forging of the Rings of Power that he would bind and rule through the One Ring.

This was always his desire but with the desire came also a fearfulness. Sauron may have sometimes miscalculated his power but the experience of failure made him cautious. There is one thing missing that will make his triumph complete and that is the Ring itself. He will risk everything in order to regain it but his fear is that either Aragorn, the heir of Isildur, who once cut the Ring from his hand, or Gandalf the Maia, now wealds the Ring against him. Their forces may be small but he fears them nonetheless and the change in the wind just at the moment of triumph and those spies…

In other words Sauron is always in search of the ever elusive experience of total and perfect control, always anxious about everything and anything that could be a threat to that experience. Eventually this will mean anything that has its own will. Only that which is entirely enslaved and that has no longer any capacity for freedom will allay his anxiety. Until that time comes he requires darkness and secrecy to protect himself. When that time comes there will be only darkness.

Sauron has spent millenia seeking this certainty. Frodo and Sam have learned, in just a few short years, that such certainty is impossible. Sauron is the ultimate example of one who in seeking to save his own life loses it. Frodo and Sam walk freely into a darkness knowing that it is likely that they will lose their lives. Indeed Frodo fully expects that he will lose his life and it is possible that by this point he even looks forward to death as a kind of release. For Frodo and Sam the darkness, an experience that they have not chosen yet, in so far as they are able, they have embraced, is the road to life, both to the world that they will save and to themselves.

This is the difference between them. For Sauron the darkness is a defence that will ultimately prove futile. For Frodo and Sam the darkness is something that they feel they must embrace and will lead to life.

Sam Gamgee Finds Strength to Finish the Job.

It was in trusting to luck on the roads of Mordor that Frodo and Sam were driven northward by the orcs in a forced march almost to the same Black Gate that they had seen from the other side just two weeks before. In those short days they have encountered Faramir and his Rangers of Ithilien; journeyed through the Morgul Vale; made the long climb to the pass of Cirith Ungol and there Frodo has been assailed by Shelob and carried by orcs into Mordor and the tower that guards the pass while Sam has defeated Shelob, briefly taken the Ring and rescued Frodo. 

Now as Frodo lies, exhausted by the torment of the march, Sam begins to ponder the journey that still lies before them to Mount Doom. 

“‘It looks every step of fifty miles,’ he muttered gloomily, staring at the threatening mountain, ‘and that’ll take a week, if it takes a day, with Mr Frodo as he is.’ He shook his head, and as be worked things out, slowly a new dark thought grew in his mind. Never for long had hope died in his staunch heart, and always until now he had taken some thought for their return. But the bitter truth came home to him at last: at best their provision would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless in the midst of a terrible desert. There could be no return.”

As we shall see as they make this last journey Sam is never quite able to despair. There is always an action that can be taken to get them a little nearer to their goal and, even at the very end, a place that is a little safer than the utter destruction that lies within the Cracks of Doom. Sam cannot quite abandon the optimism that has played such a part in bringing them so far upon the impossible journey. Trusting to luck, to wyrd, on the roads of Mordor that we thought about two weeks ago, was not just the consequence of dire necessity but a part of Sam’s character formed long before. And even when all hope has gone he must give luck every opportunity that he can.

Sam longs for a happy ending to his story and to Frodo’s and it is Rosie Cotton that he first recalls. His longings are for home and family and a woman to share them with and now, for the first time, it seems to him that he is never to enjoy these things. He would have the right to be angry, with Gandalf or Elrond who sent him on such a hopeless task, or with whatever sense of higher power that Sam has but at this moment he discovers something quite new, and even exciting. “He felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone or steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.”

It is only possible to make such discoveries at moments when they become necessary. Life must be entirely wagered on a venture whose outcome is, at best, doubtful, and most likely impossible, before such strength is given. Sam has laid his bets already, choosing to leave the comfortable world from which he came in order to go with Frodo. It is the kind of wager that we all consider at some point of our lives when the really big choices are laid before us. For only the big choices have the kind of degree of uncertainty about them that make us truly afraid. Now Sam sees, for the first time, the possible consequences of his wager and with it his will hardens and mighty strength is given. He is ready to carry himself, and Frodo if necessary, to the mountain and to the end of their journey. And that readiness to see the wager through to the end is what makes Sam great.