Frodo and Sam sleep restlessly on the hard stones. In the morning, Sam looks around at the flat, lifeless land. Mount Doom is at least 50 miles away, and Sam realizes for the first time that even if their provisions last them that far, it’ll be impossible to survive a return journey. Sam thinks of the Shire and of the people he loves there. He believes Gandalf to be dead after his fall in Moria, and thinks that, if Gandalf hadn’t fallen, things would have turned out much better. Sam steels himself and goes to rouse Frodo, who is already awake.
In this moment, Sam realizes the true scale of his loss: not only are he and Frodo in acute physical danger, but the reality is that they have no way of making a return journey—they just don’t have enough to eat or drink. But Sam is also disadvantaged by his lack of knowledge. Perhaps if he knew that Gandalf was alive, he’d find a way to hope for his and Frodo’s survival.
Frodo is so exhausted after a few miles of picking out a path that he and Sam decide to take the easier but more visible main road. At this point, Aragorn’s army has passed the crossroad. Frodo and Sam journey on for days, taking breaks to rest fitfully. Even more harrowing than their hunger and exhaustion is the threat they feel from Sauron, toward whom they are moving. On the fourth day after their escape from the orc company, Sam notices that Frodo has stopped speaking and has begun to raise his hand to shield his eyes as he walks, sometimes reaching towards his chest before he finds the strength to let his hand drop. They are at the point of turning towards Mount Doom, and Sam despairs at their diminishing supply of water—they could still be days away from the summit.
The hobbits’ struggles compound: Frodo’s inability to take the harder road due to his exhaustion leads to an increased risk of being found, captured, or killed on the main road. Sauron’s power comes not only from the physical presence of his armies or even the symbols of fear and destruction, but his very essence himself which seems to leach out through the lands of Mordor. The Ring becomes more animated when it’s closer to its master, and its temptation for Frodo increases as Frodo loses his sense of rational thought and succumbs more to his subconscious desires.
When Sam wakes Frodo again, Frodo tells him he has no strength to go on. Sam warily offers again to carry the Ring, at which Frodo moves to challenge him with his sword before catching himself. He tells Sam that there’s no way he can give the Ring up now. Sam suggests instead that they leave some things behind—their orc armor is easy to part with, but Sam is saddened to let go of his cooking equipment. He asks Frodo if he can remember the rabbit he cooked, or the day they saw the oliphaunt. Frodo can’t remember these things or anything else: he feels “naked in the dark.” Sam throws his gear into a deep ravine and the sound of it clattering is like a death knell to him.
Unlike Frodo, who is slipping into utter exhaustion, Sam is still attached to the material objects that connect him with his identity and his desire to return home. This makes getting rid of his pots and pans—his only physical comforts—very difficult, as if he’s finally giving up any hope of returning home. Further, Sam still has positive recollections of the journey so far. But Frodo is losing all sense of his identity, and even his senses are leaving him.
Frodo and Sam turn at last towards Mount Doom. They’re no longer worried about hiding, only about moving forward. Frodo seems to have some new strength and they walk faster than expected, but soon it gets dark again. Frodo tells Sam he’s thirsty; Sam gives him a mouthful of water. Only one more mouthful remains. While Frodo rests, Sam debates with himself the way forward. He thinks there’s only one more day until they finish their journey, but he knows Frodo doesn’t even have the strength for a day left. Still, he resolves to help Frodo finish his quest, even if he has to carry him up the mountain.
Frodo and Sam have given up on secrecy or stealth. Their only hope is to reach their destination before collapsing from exhaustion or succumbing to Sauron’s power. Sam is still firmly committed to his task of helping Frodo, and even if he can’t help him with his burden, he’ll use the strength of his own body to finish the quest.
The next day, Frodo and Sam, exhausted and in excruciating pain, reach the foot of the mountain. As they approach, Frodo throws himself to the ground, and Sam sees that he’s shivering. They no longer have a blanket, so Sam does his best to warm Frodo with his own body. After a while, as light filters down on them, Sam rouses Frodo once more and begins to carry him up the mountain. He’s surprised to find that Frodo feels light on his back, either because he’s so shrunken from his journey or because Sam has found some new strength. Halfway up the mountain it becomes easier to breathe above the smog of Mordor, and the mountain is not as tall as it looked on their approach. Sam holds onto a shred of hope that they’ll reach the top alive.
Sam’s surprising show of strength suggests that in the event of great desperation, one small person might still have enough power to make a significant difference. Even as the hobbits get closer and closer to their perilous destination, hope begins to arrive in the form of light and clear air. It seems that the actual completion of their quest has been overshadowed by their exhaustion and fear—the physical demand is now possible to meet.
Sam sees a path stretching up the mountain. Unknown to him, it’s Sauron’s road from his tower to the Chambers of Fire. Sam and Frodo crawl up the cliff “like small grey insects” to reach the path, where Frodo turns to look at the Eye in Sauron’s tower. It’s turned away from them towards the north, where Aragorn’s army waits at the Black Gate. Looking towards the Eye makes Frodo reach towards the Ring on the chain around his neck, and Sam kneels down to hold his hands. He senses that they’ve been seen and must make their final struggle up the mountain.
Sam will do anything to help Frodo achieve his quest, even if he’s only able to use his physical body to keep Frodo from putting on the Ring. The description of the two of them as insects is a sign that Sauron hasn’t thought much of their presence or might not have noticed them climbing the mountain at all, giving them the advantage of secrecy.
The path is more treacherous than it first appeared. As Frodo and Sam turn a bend in the road, Sam is struck by a weight and finds Gollum has come to seize the Ring from Frodo. Sam draws his sword, but Frodo and Gollum are locked together and he can’t strike. Gollum seems to have lost some of his strength, though, and Frodo shakes him off, telling him his time has come. Sam steps between them and tells Frodo to carry on up the path while he deals with Gollum. Sam has the chance to kill Gollum, but Gollum begs for mercy, and Sam knows—having now carried the Ring even just a short way—how wretched and despairing Gollum must be. Sam tells Gollum to flee, but Gollum, unseen by Sam, stops partway down the mountain and turns to slink up behind the hobbits again.
The fact that Gollum followed Frodo and Sam all the way through Mordor, despite his previous experience of torture in Barad-dûr, emphasizes his utter desperation to reclaim the Ring. He’s no longer tempered by the innocence of Smeagol, the being he once was, and is now completely wracked by the Ring’s temptation. Sam’s firsthand experience of this temptation and his unwavering peaceful qualities lead to him showing Gollum mercy, even though he knows that killing him would’ve been both logical and safe.
Sam climbs on up the path and comes to a door in the side of the mountain. He calls for Frodo but hears no answer. He then tries to use Galadriel’s phial, but its light is no match for the oppressive darkness at the heart of Sauron’s dominion. He sees flashes of red before him and understands that he’s walked into the fiery heart of the mountain. Ahead of him he sees Frodo standing at the edge of the chasm. Frodo turns to him and speaks in a strange, powerful voice. He says he will not carry out the quest—the Ring belongs to him. Frodo puts the Ring on his finger and vanishes.
Frodo seems to have been completely transformed by the Ring, succumbing to its power at the very last moment of his quest. Sauron’s power at the heart of the mountain is indeed too strong for even Galadriel’s phial to pierce, and it seems that the hobbits have finally come up against the impossible. It’s this hopelessness that perhaps encourages Frodo to give in to the Ring’s temptation.
In the same moment, many things happen. Sam is knocked over from behind and hits his head on the floor. He blacks out momentarily as a dark shape leaps over him. When Frodo puts on the Ring, he draws Sauron’s attention, and Sauron at once understands Aragorn’s intention was only to distract him. Sauron’s armies all falter: his mind has abandoned all battle plans and is now entirely focused on the Ring. He summons the Black Riders to make their way to Mount Doom. Sam regains consciousness and sees Gollum at the edge of the chasm fighting an invisible figure.
This moment demonstrates that, despite his complex orchestrations and huge power in battle, Sauron’s chief priority is to sustain his power and maintain his claim over the Ring. As soon as his attention turns away from the battle, his troops lose their strength and cohesion, demonstrating their lack of individual loyalty or motivation—they’re only holding together because of Sauron’s will.
Gollum bites down on something with his fangs. Frodo becomes visible again, and Gollum holds the Ring, still with Frodo’s finger inside it. He dances with mindless joy and topples off the ledge into the fire below. There’s a huge cacophony; the mountain begins to shake. Sam picks Frodo up and carries him out of the mountain to a scene of massive destruction. The mountains and towers of Mordor are crumbling, black rain is falling, and the Nazgûl, flying into the storm, are destroyed in the fiery ruins.
Lust for the Ring has transformed Gollum into a being more animal than person, using even his teeth to struggle for the item he desires. This relentless greed is ultimately the downfall of both Gollum and Sauron—they’re killed by their single-minded focus on this sole item which has distracted them from the danger that surrounds them.
Frodo says to Sam that this is the end. He’s totally spent, but his burden has been lifted and he’s regained the spirit he had when he lived in the Shire. Though they seem to have reached the end of their story, Sam is overcome with joy to see Frodo become himself again. He’s glad to know that Gollum is gone forever, but Frodo says that Gandalf was right: Gollum did have a part to play in the story, and without him, Frodo could never have let the Ring go. He adds that he’s happy Sam is here with him at the end.
Even though they’re presumably about to die, Frodo can experience some joy at the end of his quest because he’s regained his sense of self, with which comes freedom and the experience of pleasure. Sam’s companionship is profoundly precious to Frodo, who, thanks to Sam, will not die alone.