Frodo looked at him as if at one now far away. "Yes, I must go on," he said. "Farewell, Sam! This is the end at last. On Mount Doom doom shall fall. Farewell!"
--Mount Doom, The Return of the King
He stood in the doorway to the Sammath Naur, trying to muster up the will to continue forward. Every fibre of his being screamed out in protest, commanding him to stop, to turn back, to flee from this dreadful place, to hide from the ever-searching gaze of the Eye. But yet he knew that he had to press onward; he could not stop now, not with the quest so close to its end. He had to do the thing he had come here to do, even if it killed him. Most certainly it would. There would be no return from Mordor.
Gritting his teeth, Frodo dragged one foot forward, and then the other, until finally he had passed through the dark portal. At first, all his eyes saw was a deep, inky black, but then as his vision grew accustomed to the absence of light, he beheld a deep ruddy glow which had at its source a deep crack riven into the earth. The surge of energy which had lent speed to his feet and carried him up the mountainside was all but gone now, replaced by a terrible weariness and despair which sapped his strength and will. The weight of the whole world rested upon his shoulders, but the weight of the Ring was even greater. It did not want to be destroyed, and Its will wrestled against his, fighting with a fury and determination stronger than any foe of flesh and blood. For though the Ring was inanimate, It was very much alive. Imbued with the spirit of Its Master, the Ring would dominate the mind of Its bearer and subjugate his will, seducing him with false promises and torturing him with pain and sickness, until he either surrendered or went mad.
The Ring was so terribly heavy now, heavier than it ever had been, and Frodo fell to his knees, collapsing upon the hard, rocky floor of the chamber. His fingers spasmed rhythmically, and he clenched his fists to still their frantic twitching. He had to put on the Ring – must put on the Ring – anything to stop the turmoil that raged inside his mind, the agony which wracked his body and set all his nerves afire – he would die if he did not! No! This was the one thing he must not do! Compulsions tormented him, the same compulsions which had grown ever stronger the further eastward he traveled, the intrusive thoughts that haunted him day and night until they filled his mind with poison and drove out any other thought. He tried not to dwell upon them, but that was the problem with such thoughts; the more one tried not to think them, the more savagely they tormented the thinker. This went beyond mere temptation; it was a canker eating away at the mind and heart.
Frodo rested his head upon the hard ground for a moment, listening to the thundering heartbeat of the mountain. Everything within him screamed to give in, to lie there forever in the darkness, and not get up. His eyelids felt heavy, so very heavy, and he longed to close them in sleep. It would be so easy to surrender to weariness and starvation, to breathe his last breath. He had gone as far as he could go; he had done all that he could. Surely no one would blame him if he just curled up and died. His sacrifice, though in vain, would have been a noble one. There was no hope for Middle-earth. There never had been. Death was the only escape…
No! That was the Ring talking again. He had to keep on going. For good or for ill, he had to see the quest through to the end.
Sam was not there to help him back to his feet; his ever-faithful servant was somewhere back on the mountain road, dealing with Gollum. Frodo was alone now, alone in the dark with the Ring of Fire, and he must carry on by himself. Drawing upon the last reserves of his failing strength, he began to crawl forward, his hands and knees scraping against the jagged stone. Tumbling out of the neck of his tattered garments, the Ring fell towards the ground, but its downward plunge was stopped by the chain about his neck. There the golden band hung, suspended in space, swaying back and forth like a pendulum. If it were possible, the dreadful weight of his burden seemed to have grown even heavier, and it was all that Frodo could do to keep his head up to see where he was going. At the edge of his vision, he saw the golden circle of the Ring as a spinning wheel of fire, rocking from side to side with each lurching movement of his body as though it were trying to break free from the chain that held it. Ever did it whisper to him, using his own inner voice as its means of communication, and it was difficult to tell anymore which thoughts had as their origin his own mind and which were borne of the Ring.
Piteously crawling along the ground like a wounded snail, at last Frodo reached the edge of the chasm. Peering down into the vast gulf before him, he watched mesmerized as the fiery lava far below him boiled and churned like the contents of a vast cauldron of some unholy stew. The air which rose up from the depths of the mountain shimmered and undulated with the terrible heat, and his eyes squinted from both the brilliance of the flame and the withering heat which blasted him full in the face. With a shuddering gasp, he wrenched himself up and knelt upon the edge of the abyss. His heart pounded in his chest and then hitched with a sickening contraction. Now was the moment to which endless miles and perils had led… the moment of doom.
Frodo reached his shaking hands up and drew the chain over his head, holding the Ring clenched in his fist. He looked down at the Ring held cupped in his palm, and his vision darkened until all he saw was the burning circle of fire. How it shone in the darkness, a thing of unsurpassed loveliness here in this dreadful place of smoke and shadows! He sighed wistfully, overcome by a feeling of adoration for the Ring. How beautiful it was, how precious… How unfair it seemed to destroy anything so lovely! Why did such a dreadful doom have to come to him? This whole quest had been utter foolishness. He should escape, and keep the Ring for himself. No, no! He must not think this way! The Ring was a relic of evil, and he had to destroy it, so that the Great Enemy might be destroyed, and Middle-earth be spared from His rule.
A wild notion intruded into his thoughts, persuasive and urgent. He should turn away from this place and take the Ring to the Dark Tower. Perhaps if he willingly returned the Ring to its Master, the Dark Lord would be so overjoyed that His precious treasure had been returned to Him that He would spare the Shire and all of Frodo's friends. And such a boon would be richly rewarded, with great wealth, lordship and power… a share of the Great Power. Instead of being the Dark Lord's enemy, Frodo would be His confidant and advisor, and persuade Him to rule Middle-earth with kindness and compassion instead of a fist of iron. He could avert the war that threatened to ravish all of Middle-earth, and no one would have to die. All of the peoples of Middle-earth would live in peace – Hobbits, Men, Elves, Dwarves… even Orcs. Yes, if he took the Ring to the Dark Tower, he could convince the Dark Lord to change His ways, and through his earnest entreaties and heartfelt pleas, save Middle-earth from much bloodshed and suffering.
No! No! He rejected that idea utterly. The very thought of giving the Ring to the Faithless Enemy filled him with a shuddering loathing. Doubtless that was the voice of the Base Master of Treachery Himself, speaking through the Ring! Frodo felt rage boiling up inside him. He would not willingly surrender the Ring to Him! No! Never! He would keep the Ring for himself, cast down the Dark Lord, and become Master of All! The Ring was HIS by rights, for he had been Its caretaker for many years and had borne It all this way, through great hardship and danger. And though he had come to destroy It, why should he not claim It for himself, and wield Its awesome power? He had already called upon the Ring's strength several times before, albeit passively; it was through Gollum's slavish devotion to the Ring that Frodo had been able to command and control the wretched creature. He would use the Dark Lord's own Ring defeat Him and then right all the wrongs He had committed! He would become the Hero of the Age, loved by all!
Filled with a newfound strength, Frodo leapt to his feet and turned his back on the chasm. As his hand clutched around the One Ring, wild schemes and plots came to his mind. Once he had defeated the Dark Lord, he would set about ruling Middle-earth. He would become King Frodo, Emperor Frodo, Frodo King of Kings and Master of All. The Shire would become the center of a vast and prosperous kingdom which encompassed all of Middle-earth, and Hobbits would become the rulers of Men. Frodo saw himself sitting upon a great throne, clad in robes of splendor, a crown upon his head, and a scepter in his hand. He would have a grand smial built to serve as his palace, a magnificent burrow the likes of which the Shire had never seen before. Every night there would be feasts, with much singing and dancing and making merry. All would love him – Men and Hobbits and Elves and Dwarves… and, yes, even Orcs and Trolls – and the kings of the world would journey to his halls and kneel before him, pledging their fealty. Bards would sing songs about him, praising the kind, just ruler of Middle-earth, and there would be peace and happiness for all time.
Yes, yes, he would challenge the Power in the Dark Tower and have the mastery, and thus save the Shire, and the rest of the world, and become the Emperor of Middle-earth.
Suddenly Frodo was aware that he was no longer alone. A breathless Sam approached, calling out to him with worry and desperation in his voice. Filled with grandiose thoughts of rule, Frodo decided that he would name Sam the Chief Gardener of the Shire in the new kingdom he would create. All of his friends would benefit greatly from the largess that he would bestow upon them, and he would be the most beloved ruler that Middle-earth had ever known.
"I have come," Frodo proclaimed, his voice rising above the great tumults of the mountain and seeming to echo from the walls of the chamber. "But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!"
With those words, he slid the One Ring on his finger and disappeared from the world of sight.
No earthly feeling could compare with the sensations which coursed through Frodo's being at that moment. After months of agonizing torture, of resisting the seductive allure of the Ring, of trying to ignore the maddening compulsions that It gave him, at last he felt peace and serenity. And power. Unbelievable power which coursed through his blood, bringing strength and healing to a body weakened by hunger and thirst, a long and grueling journey, a terrible burden, and near constant despair. A feeling of relief, like a cool, refreshing breeze on a balmy summer day, flowed over his body, and tears of joy streamed down his face.
The first challenge to Emperor Frodo's new lordship came in the form of the creature Gollum. Creeping along the shadows of the chamber, he took Sam by surprise, knocking him to the ground with a powerful lunge. Dazed by the blow, Sam lost unconscious for a brief moment. When he came back to his senses, he staggered to his feet with a groan, pressing his hand to his throbbing head. He felt the stickiness of blood clotting in his curly brown hair; crimson droplets oozed down his forehead to sting his eyes. Before him he saw a vision which would have been comical had his master's life not been at stake. As though a player in a gruesome pantomime, Gollum was engaged in desperate contest with an unseen enemy, his limbs flailing wildly as he struggled to retain his hold upon his adversary, his head reeling back from punches from an invisible fist, his grasping hands attempting to seize the prize and wrench it from Frodo's hand. Several times he was thrown back, but each time he leapt to his feet and pounced upon his enemy. Together Frodo and Gollum strove upon the edge of eternity, both driven by the mad desire to possess the Ring of Power.
Suddenly, the sweltering air in the Sammath Naur became bitterly cold as the dark, brooding shape of a Nazgûl strode into the chamber. Unsheathing his sword, the wraith advanced upon Frodo and Gollum, who were wrestling on the ground for ownership of the Ring. Gollum froze in place when he saw the wraith, his bony hands clenched tightly around Frodo's arm, his sharp teeth holding Frodo's finger like a vice. Overcome with dread, Sam cowered against the cavern wall. "Get a hold of yourself, Samwise Gamgee," he berated himself as his trembling fingers struggled to grip the hilt of Sting. "You must protect your master from this fiend!"
Their quarrel forgotten by the unexpected appearance of the wraith, Frodo and Gollum scrambled to rise to their feet. Hissing and sputtering like a frightened cat, Gollum rolled away from Frodo, and in his haste to flee from the Nazgûl, he stumbled and tipped over backwards into the chasm. With a cry of horror, Frodo stared helplessly into the abyss; did he spy a dark shape clinging to a ledge on the rock wall far below, or was that a trick of his imagination? There was no time to contemplate the matter, for behind him loomed one of the Nazgûl. But yet Frodo was not afraid of the wraith, for now he was the Master of the Black Riders. He whirled around to confront his foe, preparing to command him to leap into the fire.
But instead of attacking, the wraith dropped his sword and fell to his knees, pressing his forehead to the ground. Three times did he bow in worshipful subservience, kissing the ground before Frodo's feet and proclaiming him Lord and Master.
"Forgive me, my Lord," the wraith cried out hoarsely as he knelt before Frodo. "I arrived as quickly as I could! I was about to send that foul creature screaming into the arms of Mandos, but I see that his own clumsiness proved to be his undoing. Did the wretch injure Thee?" He cast a timid glance up at the small but mighty figure before him. The halfling was surrounded by a brilliant aura which radiated great power, and the Ring pulsed upon his finger like an ever-turning wheel of fire. The sacred light of the Ring and the radiance which surrounded the Ringbearer hurt the wraith's sensitive eyes, and he averted his gaze in deference.
"No – I am uninjured." Frodo stared at the kneeling Nazgûl with astonishment. Here at the wells of fire where the One Ring had been forged in ancient days, Frodo could perceive the Unseen Realm more clearly than ever before. He could see the spirit of the Nazgûl as he had once appeared in life, while Sam appeared as a pallid ghost, obscured by mists and shadows.
Surrounded by a soft luminescent glow, the man was cadaverously thin, with skin as white as bone. The hollows of his dark eyes were deep and filled with shadows, and his high cheekbones jutted out from his skeletal face, which came to a sharp point at the chin. A dark metal circlet wrapped around his brow, and his lank black hair fell limply to his shoulders. He wore a long, robe-like tunic which fell to mid-calf and a fur-trimmed mantle which was secured at the shoulder; about his slender waist was looped a long leather belt, and his boots turned up slightly at the toes. His garments, though of fine craftsmanship, were unadorned by any ornament; here was a man who was obviously of royal blood, but cared little about making an outward show of prestige. Frodo sensed that at one time he had been called Rulav, and in ancient days he had ruled a kingdom in Rhûn far beyond the inland sea.
His love for his master outweighing his fear of the Nazgûl, Sam bravely rushed forward and leapt in front of the wraith. "Why do you care if he's hurt, you devil?" Brandishing Sting, he glared at the kneeling Nazgûl with eyes filled with fury. "You and your accursed friends have hounded our steps for months, trying to steal away the Ring so you can give it to the Dark Lord!"
"I mean no harm to your Master, for now He is my Master as well." Pressing his hand over his heart, the wraith dipped forward in a bow. "I am Skrishau, the Eighth Nazgûl, and I am a loyal servant of the Lord of the Rings, who happens to be, at this present time, King Frodo of the Shire."
"Don't listen to him, Mr. Frodo! It's a trick!"
"Silence! I would hear what Skrishau has to say." Frodo ignored Sam's desperate entreaties, so focused was he upon the wraith before him. The Ring madness burnt hot within him like a fire, and the flames were fanned even higher by the sight of one of his most terrifying foes kneeling meekly at his feet.
Licking his pallid lips, Skri cleared his throat nervously. "Please, Great One, let us leave this place. My brethren and I would show Thee Thy new kingdom."
Frodo could sense that Skri was terrified of the Sammath Naur. Visions came to his mind of the Dark Lord holding the wraith over the flames, threatening to cast him into the fire and give his Ring to one more worthy. An echo from the past resurfaced in Frodo's mind, and he recalled the words of Aragorn, spoken in what seemed like an age ago: Sauron can put fire to his evil uses, as he can all things, but these Riders do not love it, and fear those who wield it. So that was why the Nazgûl feared the fire, because their Master tormented them with it…
This was the evil that threatened to take over Middle-earth, to subjugate all lands and peoples under His oppressive rule. Not even His most powerful servants were safe from His wrath. Frodo's spirit quailed in terror. He had to destroy the Ring – must destroy the Ring… Grasping the third finger of his right hand with his left, his fingers tightened around the golden band, but to his great dismay, he found he had not the will to force the Ring to budge even an inch. He turned his gaze to the fiery chasm, staring into the seething pit of lava below. If he had not the will to throw the Ring into the fire, then perhaps he could muster up the strength to throw himself into the fire. Perhaps that had always been what was meant to happen. Why had he not realized that before? He had never been meant to return from this Quest alive. Instead of trying to throw the Ring itself into the fire, he should have leapt over the edge, giving up his life to save the Shire and the rest of Middle-earth. For would life even be worth living without the Ring?
Sensing his new master's thoughts, Skri felt himself compelled by Sauron, who held the ornately wrought chrysoberyl band which commanded the soul of the Eighth, to intervene and prevent, by all means necessary, a heroic sacrifice upon the part of the halfling. Skri worried that this would be a sore challenge, for he, a man who had a morbid preoccupation with death, was a poor choice to counsel one who was considering plunging to his demise into turning away from such a deadly course. However, Skri, being the messenger of Sauron, was the Nazgûl who had been closest to the mountain when his Master's sudden call had reverberated through the ethers, and until his brethren arrived, it was up to him to avert calamity.
…If calamity indeed it would be if the One Ring were destroyed. If it were not for his Captain and a few of the others, Skri cared little if the Halfling destroyed the Ring. In fact, he was curious as to what would happen. Would his ancient body, preserved by arcane powers of necromancy, turn to dust as soon as the Ring hit the fire? Or would he live on for a time, until the power of his own Ring diminished, and he began to age as did mortal men? The thought of his own mortality caused a thrill of exhilaration to ripple through Skri, and for once his moribund soul felt somewhat alive. Why, if he managed to escape the catastrophic explosion which would surely occur when the great power held within the One Ring was shattered and dispersed, he might die of old age! As a man who had been born almost 5,000 years in the past, he found the thought morbidly amusing. Mayhap he would spend his last remaining days by the Sea, perhaps sojourning for a time with that strange Elf who wandered along the coasts of Middle-earth, playing mournful melodies upon his harp…
A surge of withering anger from the dark mind of his Master reminded Skri of his purpose at the Cracks of Doom, and he cringed as the baleful gaze of the Great Eye focused directly upon him. "My Lord, I know that Thou wishest to destroy the Ruling Ring, but I beg Thee to reconsider the fatal course that Thou art considering taking." He looked up into the pale, haggard face of the hobbit, and sensed that behind his silence there was a war raging in his mind. "I perceive that Thou art a halfling of great wisdom and knowledge, with lofty goals and ideals. Thou art possessed of an abundant love for Middle-earth and its peoples, and I deem that Thou wouldst be a just and compassionate ruler, listening to all Thy subjects, from the poorest peasant to the mightiest king. There is no need for Thee to sacrifice Thy life to save Middle-earth, for Thou couldst use the Ring for that purpose. Please, Great One, come with Thy humble servant, and let not this grim place become Thy tomb."
"Don't trust him, Mr. Frodo!" Sam cried out desperately, his eyes darting back and forth between the Nazgûl and the location where he thought his master might be standing. "He might speak fair, but he is a foul one indeed!" Sam's heart ached for Frodo. That devilish Ring had proved too great a challenge for him, and now they were in a terrible fix. Judging from the words of this Skrishau, Sam guessed that Frodo was considering leaping into the fire and taking the Ring with him. He prayed it would not come to that, but if it did… well, Sam knew that he would soon join his master in death.
And then things went from bad to worse. The darkness inside the chamber seemed to grow deeper, and the air became as cold as a barrow wight's breath. Sam's heart shuddered from both dread and cold.
Into the Sammath Naur entered three of the Nazgûl.
They were doomed!
The scenarios in this chapter are inspired by Tolkien's rejected outlines detailing the scene at Mount Doom and the destruction of the One Ring, as well as Tolkien's own "What If" scenarios exploring what might have happened had Gollum not bitten the Ring off Frodo's finger and subsequently fallen into the Crack of Doom with it.
REFERENCES AND INSPIRATION
"The Story of Frodo and Sam in Mordor," Sauron Defeated, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 1-7.
"The Story Foreseen From Moria," Treason of Isengard, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 208-210.
Letter #246, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, 330-2.
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, all books.
The Return of the King (1980 film).
The storylines in Lord of the Rings are intertwined and enmeshed so tightly that unraveling them is a bit like taking apart a puzzle, or unraveling a tapestry. Tolkien establishes that it is physically impossible for the Nazgûl to make it to the mountain in time to stop Frodo from destroying the Ring. The reason why the Nazgûl can't make it in time? They were harassing the armies of the West at the Black Gate, which had actually been all part of the plan to divert Sauron's attention from his own land and Frodo's mission. This just goes to show the mastery of Tolkien's writing, and how tightly woven each of the plotlines of Lord of the Rings really are.
However, if Gondor lost the Battle of Pelennor, OR the forces of the West never went to the Black Gate, the locations of the Nazgûl on March 25 would be quite different than they were in the book. Possibly the Nazgûl would be scattered throughout Gondor or Rhovanion. There would also be a lot of air traffic to and from Barad-dûr, so there would be a good possibility that some of the Nazgûl would be closer to Mount Doom than others. Since Skri is one of the Nazgûl messengers in "The Circles," it would be logical he would arrive at the mountain first.
LIFE AFTER RINGS
Skri explores the possibilities of what would happen to the wraiths after the One Ring was destroyed. Tolkien hinted that the wraiths might be able to survive, for a time, the destruction of the Ring, provided that something did not happen to their physical bodies. After all, their own Rings were not destroyed, but rather buried beneath the rubble of Barad-dûr. It is possible that the powers of the Nine Rings would have faded like the Three, at which point the Nazgûl would probably start aging rapidly, like Bilbo did.
This might be a controversial opinion, but I have always believed that the appearance of beings in the Unseen World (also known as the wraith world) is mutable and largely symbolic. This is the reason why Skri does not wear a helm upon his head as the Nazgûl did in the books; unlike at Weathertop or at the Ford, Skri comes not as a warrior whose mission is to capture or subdue Frodo, but as a vassal king swearing his allegiance to his overlord. Frodo sees Skri bedecked in his kingly robes, which is a reflection of how he once looked in ancient days. The fact that Frodo has claimed the One Ring might also affect what he sees (and how he himself appears) in the Unseen World.
Some people believe that the wraiths are forever stuck wearing the clothes they were wearing when they faded, like ghosts trapped in time. I have even seen theories that the Nazgûl use sorcery to create special invisible clothes to wear on their invisible bodies, and then put on a second set of visible clothing over the invisible one. I do not subscribe to either the "trapped in time static ghost clothing" or "special invisible clothing" theories, because, again, I believe that their appearances in the Unseen World could be symbolic. Now I can see the physical appearance of the Nazgûl in the Unseen World seldom, if ever, changing; quite possibly their bodies are indeed stuck in the period of time at which they became wraiths, sort of like vampires in popular culture. However, I believe their clothing can change, because it is symbolic of their moods and personalities, not actual garments. If a Nazgûl is devested of his "real" clothing (i.e., physical garments in the seen world), he would be physically naked, but to the eyes of those who dwell in the Unseen Realm, he still wears his kingly robes. Unless he wants to be seen as being naked in the spirit realm as well… As for powerful beings such as Maiar, they probably can perceive both the Nazgûl's physical and spiritual appearance simultaneously through supernatural sight.