On Mount Doom doom shall fall…and Frodo shall fail.
[Sam] shook his head, and as he 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 could 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.
[…] But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.
Just because there’s small hope for his (or his master’s) own life doesn’t mean there’s no hope for anyone, not unless he gives up (because he is truly the will pushing them onward at this point). And as long as someone somewhere can enjoy peace and plenty in the future, he’s alright sacrificing everything. That’s the same conclusion Frodo came to long ago, when he was still master of himself.
‘I can’t manage it, Sam,’ he said. ‘It is such a weight to carry, such a weight.’
Sam knew before he spoke, that it was vain, and that such words might do more harm than good, but in his pity he could not keep silent. ‘Then let me carry it a bit, Master,’ he said. ‘You know I would, and gladly, as long as I have any strength.’
A wild light came into Frodo’s eyes. ‘Stand away! Don’t touch me!’ he cried. ‘It is mine, I say. Be off!’ His hand strayed to his sword-hilt. But then quickly his voice changed. ‘No, no, Sam,’ he said sadly. ‘But you must understand. It is my burden, and no one else can bear it. It is too late now, Sam dear. You can’t help me in that way again. I am almost in its power now. I could not give it up, and if you tried to take it I should go mad.’
So how is he supposed to destroy the Ring when he can’t even bring himself to let Sam carry it for a bit? The answer, of course, is that he doesn’t, because he can’t.
But first, Sam suggests lightening their load in other ways, by throwing away any non-essential items, like orc-armor, or even the cooking supplies Sam had carried all that way.
‘There, I’ll be an orc no more,’ [Frodo] cried, ‘and I’ll bear no weapon, fair or foul. Let them take me, if they will!’
All four of the hobbits have been caught up with a band of Orcs and forced to march with them at some point, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Tolkien was very clear that the orcs merely represented soldiers, saying that he and his comrades were just as much orcs, slaves to the war-machine, as those on the other side. They once were ordinary people, and they were merely twisted by the horrors of war. The hobbits are no less susceptible than any other people, except, perhaps, for their unquenchable spirits.
Sam keeps Sting and the last of the gifts from Galadriel, but Frodo is basically just carrying the One burden. I think part of the reason he’s lasted as long as he has (keep in mind that he’s had the Ring for nearly twenty years) is because he’s never killed anyone – like Bilbo, he’s been ruled by pity, and furthermore he’s been ruled by caution, so that even now when he sees his own end beyond doubt he still resists the temptation of the Ring. Much of the chapter covers the slow, painful approach to the Mountain as their food runs low, their water runs out, and their bodies deteriorate.
With a gasp Frodo cast himself on the ground. Sam sat beside him. To his surprise he felt tired but lighter, and his head seemed clear again. No more debates disturbed his mind. He knew all the arguments of despair and would not listen to them. His will was set, and only death would break it.
[…] ‘Come, Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.’
Sam began Book IV as the driving will behind the Quest, and now he’s literally taking the physical burden on his own back, even if he can’t take the psychological burden from Frodo. But no matter how strong his will is, Sam’s not in much better shape physically than Frodo, and he can’t carry him all the way up to the Cracks of Doom.
Then along comes the one thing that could stir Frodo’s own will: Gollum shows up and tries to take the Ring from him.
‘Down, down!’ he gasped, clutching his hand to his breast, so that beneath the cover of his leather shirt he clasped the Ring. ‘Down, you creeping thing, and out of my path! Your time is at an end. You cannot betray or slay me now.’
Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than a shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice.
‘Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’
This finally gives Frodo the impetus to enter the Fire on his own two feet, leaving Sam to deal with Gollum.
Sam’s hand wavered. His mind was hot with wrath and the memory of evil. It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: 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 the Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again. But Sam had no words to express what he felt.
‘Oh, curse you, you stinking thing!’ he said. ‘Go away! Be off! I don’t trust you, not as far as I could kick you; but be off. Or I shall hurt you, yes, with nasty cruel steel.’
Of course Gollum won’t be got rid of that easily, but Sam is too concerned about Frodo to notice when he keeps following him into the Cracks of Doom.
Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished to Sam’s sight. […]
And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.
In the end, despite knowing all the arguments for destroying the Ring, Frodo was incapable of destroying it – something that was implied way back in Chaper 2 when Gandalf asked him to throw it into his fireplace. He couldn’t do it on his own – but he hasn’t gotten all this way on his own.
Gollum finally steals it back by biting Frodo’s finger off.
‘Precious, precious, precious!’ Gollum cried. ‘My Precious! O my Precious!’ And with that, even as his eyes were lifted to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone.
It might seem anticlimactic (the filmmakers certainly thought so), and while I do enjoy the movie’s take where Frodo has a more active role in Gollum’s downfall and consequently, in his own decision to keep living, it does kind of miss Tolkien’s point, because his inability to act is precisely the point.
Frodo never had any power over the Ring, because it’s evil and Man never truly controls the evil he does. If anything, it was his act of kindness and mercy in sparing Gollum that allowed the Quest to be accomplished, not any power or wisdom within himself. Good doesn’t need power or skill to triumph, only a humble person willing to do what’s right, regardless of the personal cost.
‘Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee,’ said a voice by his side. And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire.
[…] ‘But do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.’
But this is only the beginning of the eucatastrophe…