The Return of the King

The Return of the King

by

J. R. R. Tolkien

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The Return of the King: Book 6, Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Sam picks himself off the ground and tries to remember why he fell: it was when he threw himself at the doors of Cirith Ungol. He sees there’s no hope now of entering by that door, but he has no choice but to try to rescue Frodo. As he searches for his way back along the tunnel, he wonders if the others in the Fellowship think of him and Frodo at all. At this point in time, Aragorn has taken the fleet at the river, Merry is a day away from Minas Tirith with the Rohirrim, and Pippin waits on Denethor, and all of their minds are incessantly on the whereabouts and survival of Sam and Frodo. Still, the two hobbits are alone and beyond anyone’s help.
Sam is troubled not only by the physical danger he’s in, but by feelings of isolation and uncertainty. Being so far from the other members of the Fellowship, he has no choice but to struggle onwards without knowing whether anyone is thinking of him or Frodo. With this, the novel suggests that isolation and despair will have just as much of an effect on Sam’s ability to carry on as will his physical ability.   
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Sam finds himself back at the outlet of Shelob’s tunnel. He looks up at Cirith Ungol, a tower held by orcs, and his fear returns. He retraces his steps back to the place where the orcs passed him in their retrieval of Frodo. Sam feels that if he steps any further, he won’t ever return from Mordor. In his fear, he takes out the Ring and puts it on; he feels its huge weight and the searching evil of Mordor. With the Ring on, Sam’s hearing seems sharper but his sight is less reliable. He soon realizes that even his hearing is deceiving him: the orcs he thought were passing nearby are actually fighting in the tower above. Sam remembers his duty—he must rescue Frodo—and, taking the Ring off, he begins to run.
It’s clear here that the Ring is most powerful when its bearer is vulnerable and threatened—its hold on the desire of its bearer means that it’s most tempting when the bearer has a desperate need. And, like the Seeing Stone, its power is dangerously fickle—though Sam feels his hearing improves when he wears the Ring, this isn’t actually the case. This suggests that a huge power such as the Ring needs to be properly understood in order to be useful.
Themes
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon
Sam sees Mount Doom in the distance and its spiral plume of smoke. The glow from the mountain allows Sam to see the whole of Cirith Ungol more clearly, and it’s larger and more threatening than he thought. He realizes that the tower’s purpose is not to keep enemies out but to imprison them. It was in fact built in defense by men of Gondor but was then taken by the Lord of the Nazgûl and held by Mordor. Sam sees how hopeless his task is; he cannot possibly enter without being noticed.
The way that Mordor’s red glow and dark smog alter Sam’s perception and make him feel more daunted and powerless exemplifies the idea that dread and despair make a difficult task seem impossible. Nothing has physically changed about the Tower, but Sam feels more threatened by it because he’s seeing it from a different perspective.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Sam considers the Ring again, but he understands that its power is growing and it is dangerous to wield. He feels that even carrying the Ring makes him more important and powerful—he knows it tempts him with the promise of strength. He avoids the temptation both because of his devotion to Frodo and through his “plain hobbit-sense” that reminds him his place is as a gardener, not a ruler. The only thing to do is go to the main gate of the tower, no matter how doomed that way might be. 
Despite his fear, Sam knows the only thing for him to do is to keep moving forward until it’s impossible. He knows that using the Ring to increase his power is a trick—he’s not suited for grand ambitions, and his role is to help Frodo, not to command armies. Sam’s narrow focus will be his greatest strength.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon
Quotes
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As Sam nears the gate, two orcs come running past before falling dead. Sam wonders what the conflict is between Shagrat and Gorbag. He knows they’ve been ordered not to kill Frodo, but he remembers Frodo’s mithril mail—that’s probably what the orcs are fighting about. Sam urges himself forward but finds he cannot pass through the gate. Some invisible force seems to hold him back. He looks up to see two huge stone statues that guard the gate and keep out intruders. Sam thinks to use the phial of Galadriel: he holds it up and shows its light and is then able to leap through the gate. As he enters, he hears a shrill cry alarming those in the tower of his entry.
Sam’s use of the phial of Galadriel shows that the force keeping him from entering the tower is similar to Sauron’s other forces in its hatred of darkness, and further implies that Sauron relies on darkness and despair in order to control his lands and defeat the enemy.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Sam expects to be surrounded by orcs, but none come. He sees that the courtyard is littered with dead orcs. He enters the tower unchallenged but doesn’t know which path to take; he decides to climb as high as he can. The only thought that keeps him moving forward is of Frodo in danger or pain. Suddenly, hearing someone running towards him, Sam stops. He finds himself clutching at the Ring but doesn’t put it on before an orc hurtles down the stairs ahead and stops short of him. But the orc doesn’t see a hobbit—he sees a huge, cloaked shadow, and assumes Sam to be a terrifying enemy. The orc runs back up the stairs. Sam climbs up after him but much more slowly.
Sam’s hopeless feeling about entering the tower is overshadowed by the confusion he feels at seeing piles of dead orcs. It seems that, once again, the orcs’ desire for violence and destruction has worked in their enemies’ favor, leaving a clear path for Sam to venture through just as their destruction of the wall in Gondor meant they could no longer defend the land they violently claimed. Their greed is once again leading to their own demise.
Themes
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon
Just when Sam feels he can’t climb any more, the stairs come to an end. He hears through a closed door two arguing voices. Shagrat is demanding that Snaga leave the tower to deliver some news. Snaga refuses, flouting Shagrat’s authority; he believes that a man of Gondor has found his way into the tower. Shagrat hurls Snaga from the room and Snaga eventually disappears from Shagrat’s view. Sam sees all this, and also sees a fallen orc moving. The orc grabs the bundle Shagrat is holding and moves to stab him with a broken spear, but Shagrat slits his throat first.
Once again, the rumor of a threat is more potent than the threat itself, which is apparent when Snaga thinks Sam, a small hobbit, is really a man of Gondor due to the size of his shadow. As in Denethor’s case, presumption and anticipation of the worst have become the orcs’ greatest weakness.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Sam knows he won’t go unnoticed for long. He leaps out at Shagrat with a cry. Shagrat, holding the bundle, cannot fight Sam, but he uses the bundle as a shield and slips away. Sam moves to follow him but remembers Frodo and continues his search. He climbs until he reaches a dead end, though he thinks the tower has another level. He sits down, tired and defeated, but to his own surprise he begins to sing a simple Shire tune, adding his own words. He thinks he hears a voice answering the tune, and stops singing, but now all he hears is Snaga ordering someone to stop singing. He sees Snaga climb a ladder at the end of the passage and realizes that the high chamber can only be reached through a trapdoor.
Sam’s song and (presumably) Frodo’s reply, and the subsequent revelation of the trapdoor, suggests that even in the face of danger and violence, beauty has a place and purpose. And though Sam feels hopeless, he’s still able to come up with his own words to a Shire tune, which implies that the comforts of home and the capacity for creativity are integral to his character.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Quotes
 Sam hears the crack of a whip and, filled with rage, follows Snaga up the ladder to the chamber. He leaps towards Snaga and cuts his arm off. Snaga fights back, but he gets thrown off balance and falls through the trapdoor. Sam runs to Frodo and holds him. Frodo asks him if he’s dreaming, and he tells him he was answering Sam’s song when he heard it coming from below. Sam wants to sit with Frodo and bask in his happiness, but he knows they must get up and leave. He looks for something for Frodo to wear. Frodo begins to despair, telling Sam the orcs took everything from him and their quest has failed.
Even in the darkest place he’s yet entered, Sam is able to feel overwhelming joy when he finds Frodo alive. This emphasizes both the huge capacity he has for delight, and the strength of his loyalty and love for Frodo: the most important thing for Sam is that Frodo is still alive, so in his mind, he’s achieved a huge victory.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Sam tells Frodo that he has the Ring. Frodo demands Sam give it back to him, and when Sam suggests they share the burden, Frodo calls him a thief. Frodo’s immediately ashamed of his behavior and explains that the burden is his alone to carry. Sam forgives him and returns to the task of finding clothes, telling Frodo to wait in the tower until he’s found orc garb that will help them blend in on their journey. Frodo worries as he waits, but Sam returns quickly with a pile of dirty, ill-fitting clothes, and they both attempt to dress well enough to be disguised in Mordor.
Frodo’s behavior shows that he is both hugely affected by the Ring and under the power of its temptation, and still self-aware enough to know that he’s acted irrationally and unkindly towards Sam. This dual existence weighs perhaps more heavily than a complete surrender to the Ring would, and it shows that Frodo has to have an unprecedently strong character in order to carry the Ring and avoid succumbing to its power.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Power, Wisdom, and Mercy Theme Icon
Frodo asks if Sam has any food or drink to offer. Sam remembers he hasn’t eaten for a long time; he has a little lembas bread—the Elvish bread they were gifted upon leaving Lothlórien—but only a drop of water in his bottle. Frodo finds that the orcs left his food bag, but he only has the same amount as Sam does. Still, he doesn’t move until Sam has a bite to eat. They don’t think any more about the water, knowing that their journey is hopeless as it stands, and their lack of water won’t make a difference.
Though Sam plays the role of Frodo’s servant, it’s clear that Frodo thinks of him more as an equal companion, which means he ensures that Sam eats when he does even if it means he’ll have less food to sustain him. The two hobbits are able to continue on their journey even in the face of hopelessness, suggesting that they’ve accepted the reality of their situation but are motivated by the chance of success.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Frodo and Sam descend the tower. At the gate, they find the statues’ resistance impossible to pass. Sam once again shines the phial of Galadriel, and they both cry phrases in Elvish. They stumble past the gate and onto the road, narrowly escaping the collapsing arch. Another cry emits from the gate which is answered by a winged figure in the sky.
The hobbits’ use of Elvish in this situation shows that they’ve grown and accumulated at least a little knowledge of the greater world of Middle-earth since leaving home, and also highlights their respect for the Elven culture that gifted them the phial.
Themes
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon