Frodo has come at last to the Morannon, the Black Gate of Mordor, with its mighty watch-towers. “Stony-faced they were, with dark window-holes staring north and east and west, and each window was full of sleepless eyes.”. He has come with no idea of how he is to go any further and only his sense of duty can impel him to to try to go on. All he can foresee is his own death and the failure of his mission but he stands with his face “grim and set, but resolute,” and his eyes are clear. Sam never had much hope in the affair but, as Tolkien tells us, “being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed,” and even as he reaches the end he can still die beside his master and so know that his life has not been without meaning.
It is at this moment that Gollum offers them an alternative: “a little path leading up into the mountains; and then a stair, a narrow stair…And then… a tunnel, a dark tunnel; and at last a little cleft, and a path high above the main pass.”
So this then is the choice that lies before them. On the one hand there is a brave, even noble, death at the hands of the Enemy, but with the knowledge that with their capture and death so too will die all the hopes of their friends and all that they hold dear. On the other hand there is a possibility offered to them by one they know to be false and murderous. How should they choose at such a moment?
For Sam there is only one choice and that is to stay true to his master. He sees no need to choose between options. All he needs to do is to follow. Sam is sure that Gollum will betray them if he can but that will not sway his own choice in any way. Frodo, on the other hand, must make a choice that gives at least some possibility that his mission his can be fulfilled.
How then does he decide?
The moment of decision comes when something entirely unexpected breaks into hours of agonised thought. Even as the day of choice has been passing companies of soldiers have been arriving at the gate in order to swell the armies of Mordor and as one arrives from the far south Sam’s curiosity causes him to forget his fear and to ask Gollum if he has seen oliphaunts among them, “Grey as a mouse, big as a house”. Sam chants a verse about them and tells Gollum what he knows of them and Frodo laughs. He laughs “in the midst of all his cares” and the laugh releases him from all hesitation. He will entrust himself to Gollum once more.
Frodo’s laughter is not the grim laughter of one staring the inevitability of death in the face and so making one last gesture of defiance before the night falls. And it is most certainly not the ravenous and mocking laughter most usually heard in that land, a laughter taking pleasure in the misfortune of another. Frodo’s laughter is the inbreaking of a reality that runs entirely counter to the reality of death that seems to govern our lives declaring endlessly and monotonously as it does so that there is no alternative; that the best we can make of this cruel joke is to try to make some deal with it just as those who belong to the peoples who have made Sauron their overlord have done, just as the many minor functionaries of the Third Reich did. Theologian, James Alison speaks of the alternative reality that breaks in upon Frodo’s unhappy thoughts in these terms when he speaks of Jesus going to his own death:
“I am going to my own death,” he imagines Jesus saying in his reflection on John 15.12-14 ” to make possible for you a model of creative practice which is not governed by death. From now on this is the only commandment that counts: that you should live your lives as a creative overcoming of death.”
Sam’s rhyme about oliphaunts and Frodo’s cheerful laughter makes the life that is not governed by death real once more and in the light of that reality they can continue their journey.