A Bit Of Light
Visions and Transformations of the Ring Quest

by Cara J. Loup

Then as he had kept watch Sam had noticed that at times a light seemed to be shining faintly within; but now the light was even clearer and stronger. Frodo's face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiselling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: "I love him. He's like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no."
[TTT: Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit]

We all know and love this particular paragraph, but what exactly does it mean? What is it about the light that Sam can see in Frodo? Unless I'm overlooking something, it's first hinted at in Rivendell, as Gandalf studies the recently recovered Frodo:

But to the wizard's eye there was a faint change, just a hint as it were of transparency, about him, and especially about the left hand that lay outside upon the coverlet. "Still that must be expected," said Gandalf to himself. "He is not half through yet, and to what he will come in the end not even Elrond can foretell. Not to evil, I think. He may become like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can." [FOTR: Many Meetings]

And while Gandalf might not have had Sam in mind, it's strikingly clear later on that Sam's eyes indeed see beyond appearances. In fact, he seems to be the only one who ever perceives the light in Frodo, and not just that. There are at least two other scenes in TTT and ROTK where his vision seems enhanced and reveals Frodo in a new way. This happens the first time when they take up with Gollum:

For a moment it appeared to Sam that his master had grown and Gollum had shrunk: a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud, and at his feet a little whining dog. [TTT: The Taming of Sméagol]

Here, Frodo's appearance is ambiguous, an essential brightness merely glimpsed, yet concealed in shadow. The aura of power that surrounds him seems to be connected to the Ring by which Gollum swears to guide the hobbits into Mordor. A similar shadow envelops Sam when he wears the Ring himself in the Cirith Ungol chapter:

As Sam stood there, even though the Ring was not on him but hanging by its chain about his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor.

And so one of the orcs in the tower perceives Sam as well, shortly afterwards:

For what it saw was not a small frightened hobbit trying to hold a steady sword: it saw a great silent shape, cloaked in a grey shadow, looming against the wavering light behind... [ROTK: The Tower of Cirith Ungol]

These quotes could create the impression as if the Ring cast a shadow across both Frodo and Sam, so that whatever light they might carry within themselves is veiled by its darkness. Yet that's not quite how it turns out the next time the motive comes up. On the slopes of Mount Doom, as Gollum catches up to them again, Sam has another, more distinct vision of Frodo which seems to blur the clear divisions between light and shadow, and their respective meanings:

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 the 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." [ROTK: Mount Doom]

After the first encounter with Gollum, it's easy to speculate that the surprising authority Frodo demonstrates is due to the Ring, and that the Ring's power is somehow working through him. But in this scene, the Ring's fire seems to compete with a different power, represented by the white robes. Reminiscent as they are of Gandalf, by now also robed in white (and later revealed as the bearer of Narya, the ring of fire), that power can hardly be identified with Sauron and the Ring's influence. And yet it also seems to render Frodo impervious to the very pity for Gollum that plays such a pivotal role in the destruction of the Ring. It seems as if these superior, yet impersonal powers blend for a moment, and instead of a conflict between Good and Evil, there's a stark contrast between supernatural forces and humble, ordinary existence and emotion.

So, do these visions have anything to do with the light in Frodo that Gandalf mentions and which Sam perceives (not just once, but fairly often, going by the first quote)? How are they connected, what's going on with Frodo, and where do Sam's visionary talents come from? Of course, there's a lot of light symbolism in LOTR; the mythical conflict itself is represented as a struggle between the powers of Light and Darkness. But some of it is connected with Sam and Frodo in a very specific way, and that's what I'm wondering about. It also raises the question what Frodo is becoming, and how that change is brought into being.

Gandalf's notions open up the possibility of a transformation as early as Rivendell. The traces left by the Morgul blade suddenly seem not so much like a lingering injury but the first step in a process of something like purification (though Gandalf can't quite tell). Perhaps Tolkien had something like this in mind. In one of his letters, he wrote:

"Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarified by the achievement of the Great Quest, and will pass West with all the great figures (...)." [Letter 93, p. 105; written in 1944, while JRRT was still working on LOTR.]

But at the end of ROTK, Frodo seems to be tormented by his injuries and traumatic memories and sails into the West to find healing. There's certainly a distinction implied in getting to travel to the Undying Lands, but 'ennoblement' isn't quite what Frodo's struggles and recurring 'illness' suggest, and of course it's possible that Tolkien had simply changed his mind by the time he wrote the last chapters of ROTK. And yet, is there a blessing involved in having been a Ringbearer?

We know that the Ring affects not only the mind and soul, but also the body of its bearer. It preserves Bilbo against signs of age, even though he feels 'stretched', and has the same effect on Frodo: a most dubious effect, certainly. I doubt that this is what Tolkien meant by 'rarified', but at the same time, the Ring seems to set a peculiar process in motion that turns Frodo into a 'vessel of light'. (And by the Grey Havens, Frodo also reveals a prophetic gift when he predicts Sam's future.) During the later stages of the quest, it becomes clear that higher powers sometimes work through Frodo and Sam, and this is closely linked with their use of Galadriel's phial, another vessel of light. When the hobbits first use it against Shelob, both of them end up 'speaking in tongues'. It happens to Frodo first:

Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit. [TTT: Shelob's Lair]

And to Sam next:

And then his tongue was loosed and his voice cried in a language which he did not know:
A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel,
le nallon sí di'nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanuilos!

[TTT: The Choices of Master Samwise]

Finally, they defeat the Watchers of Cirith Ungol together:

"Gilthoniel, A Elbereth!" Sam cried. For, why he did not know, his thought sprang back suddenly to the Elves in the Shire, and the song that drove away the Black Rider in the trees. "Aiya elenion ancalima!" cried Frodo once again behind him. [ROTK: The Tower of Cirith Ungol]

The elvish voice that speaks through them both is apparently channeled through the star-glass, and perhaps the same power embodies itself in Frodo below the Cracks of Doom – though at this point, it seems to be channeled through his body, instead of a separate object. He becomes rather like the phial, or in Gandalf's words, "a glass filled with a clear light".

What is the meaning behind all this? That there's a bright side to the ravages of the Ring, and that resisting it the way Frodo does also intensifies or liberates his inner radiance? Reading it that way would be a big comfort, since the reward Frodo may eventually receive for all his struggles and sacrifices lies beyond the scope of ROTK, and all we ever see after his return to the Shire is his suffering. But it doesn't quite work that way. For one thing, Frodo himself never perceives the light within himself and doesn't seem to have any notion at all that he's being 'rarified'. And also, is this a transformation that turns him into something other than who he was before the Ring, or does it bring out his innermost self?

In the scene below the Cracks of Doom, Frodo's self seems nearly eclipsed by the warring powers that embody themselves in him; he disappears between the 'white robes' and the 'wheel of fire'. Yet in the quote I started out with, the very opposite is true: Sam can see the mysterious light, and in this light, the lines of Frodo's face are chiseled to greater clarity, yet Frodo's identity is 'not changed'. Taken together, both scenes seem to express a conflict across the images of a devouring or purifying light: on the one hand there's the danger that Frodo will 'burn out' in the grip of these forces that tear at him and render him 'transparent'; on the other there's the hopeful possibility that Frodo's inner light (his self, or his soul?) will shine more brightly. And both sides of this process are revealed to Sam and through him only.

Without Sam, we would not know of Frodo's light, and within the textual universe, it would not exist, except as a passing speculation from Gandalf. But why can Sam see what Frodo doesn't, and where does his visionary gift come from? Being a ringbearer affects Frodo's body, mind and senses, but Sam's heightened perceptions set in long before he carries the Ring himself.

When he studies Frodo in Ithilien, Sam doesn't see him as unnaturally young or well-preserved, but as 'old and beautiful' instead. In other words, he looks past the Ring's influence at something 'hidden': This scene, more than any other, makes Sam the keeper of Frodo's true identity, the light and beauty of his self that's nearly blotted out by the Ring's fire and the 'white robes' alike. And there seems to be no other explanation for it than Sam's love for Frodo, 'whether or no'. Looking at it that way, this scene parallels what Sam does throughout the quest: he sustains Frodo and keeps him anchored to life, to the point of achieving the Ring's destruction. This is eclipsed only by the white-robed power that finally blocks Frodo's mind to compassion. But here it's portrayed as a near mystical revelation, a true vision grounded in Sam's love for Frodo.

If he becomes the keeper of Frodo's 'light' in this scene, the same notion is played out in a more concrete form in the Cirith Ungol chapter, where the star-glass passes from Frodo to Sam and is 'activated' by the power of his feelings:

As if his indomitable spirit had set its potency in motion, the glass blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand. It flamed like a star that leaping from the firmament sears the dark air with intolerable light. [TTT: The Choices of Master Samwise]

There's an intimate connection between Sam's spirit and the light which at first shines fiercely when he fights Shelob to protect Frodo, and transforms as he looks at the seemingly dead Frodo:

And for a moment he lifted up the phial and looked down at his master, and the light burned gently now with the soft radiance of the evening-star in summer, and in that light Frodo's face was fair of hue again, pale but beautiful with an elvish beauty, as of one who has long passed the shadows. And with the bitter comfort of that last sight Sam turned and hid the light and stumbled on into the growing dark. [TTT: The Choices of Master Samwise]

The light falling from the phial brings out a similar impression as the inner light Sam had noticed before, and again it illuminates Frodo's peaceful beauty. If the light blazed with Sam's fighting spirit before, it's now gentled by his affection and sorrow. Within this light, the fragility of Frodo's soul, Sam's love for him and his 'indomitable spirit' seem to mingle and become inextricable. The imagery no longer articulates a metaphysical struggle between primal forces, but a far more personal connection, crystallized in the star-glass. And as Sam walks away with this last sight of Frodo and the phial, now a 'hidden light', he also seems to carry Frodo's soul with him.

A little later, the motive is played through another variation and charged with greater intimacy when the image of an inner (or maybe spiritual) brightness is replaced by the vision of a body transformed by light – and in the unlikeliest of places, too. When Sam finds Frodo imprisoned in the tower, this is what he sees:

[Frodo] stood up, and it looked to Sam as if he was clothed in flame: his naked skin was scarlet in the light of the lamp above. [ROTK: The Tower of Cirith Ungol]

This most passionate perception of Frodo is also the least connected to any notion of higher powers channeled through magic objects. Neither Ring nor star-glass are involved, and Sam's perception alone brings out another beautiful vision of Frodo in the murky illumination of a prison cell. But Frodo himself can see none of this.

If he's spiritually blinded, the influence of the Ring that increasingly overshadows his soul can account for it. In fact, we see him physically blinded early in TTT, while Sam and he still scramble across the Emyn Muil. A Nazgûl sweeps across the sky, and Frodo is plunged into a sudden, not entirely natural darkness ("But either the darkness had grown complete, or else his eyes had lost their sight. All was black about him. He wondered if he had been struck blind."). Sam, however, can see, and when he throws the hithlain rope down to Frodo, "the darkness seemed to lift from Frodo's eyes, or else his sight was returning. He could see the grey line as it came dangling down, and he thought it had a faint silver sheen." [TTT: The Taming of Sméagol]

This scene still involves the use of an object imbued with elvish radiance, but later on, as they struggle through Mordor, all Sam needs to do is wish for 'a bit of light', and it shines forth, once again set off against the gloom of a prison:

Under the lifting skirts of the dreary canopy dim light leaked into Mordor like pale morning through the grimed window of a prison. "Look at it, Mr. Frodo!" said Sam. "Look at it! The wind's changed. Something's happening. He's not having it all his own way. His darkness is breaking up out in the world there. I wish I could see what is going on!" [ROTK: The Land of Shadow]

Though all Frodo can see is the 'great wheel of fire', Sam is reassured: "I've got one thing I wanted: a bit of light." At this point, Sam seems to be favored not just with a gift of vision, but with a gift of light, of drawing, sheltering and strengthening it, if nothing else. The love that helps him defy the Ring when he carries it and keeps his hope alive during the hardest part of the quest has become a light that shines on Frodo as much as it shines out of him and between them. If Sam's visionary moments start out from a passive ability, the act of seeing is increasingly stressed as an active force that nurtures and sustains a fragile reality within which Frodo's inner light can shine as well, without being broken. Seeing at times becomes equal to illuminating (and this reminds me very much of medieval theories of vision: the eye itself emits rays of light illuminating what is looked at, and seeing is conceived as a subtle form of touch). Ultimately, I think it's impossible to disconnect whatever change Frodo goes through from Sam's power of vision.

While it may be true that Frodo's innermost being is somehow purified through the quest, this transformation unfolds only in connection with Sam: between the Ring and the star-glass, its medium is the kind of love that can see the soul shine through skin. The process is triggered by the powers that invade and change the hobbits' lives, but then becomes far more intimate and personal, as it materializes in the way they relate to each other, crystallizing a positive force that isn't derived from any higher power. In several ways, their struggle during the Ring quest involves not just a conflict between Good and Evil but also a battle to protect and preserve Frodo's self as impersonal forces tear at him and threaten to obliterate his individuality.

But this also leads up to an ambivalence at the end of LOTR that Tolkien didn't resolve. Frodo gets to dwell in the unfading light of Valinor, but for all we know never perceives the light in himself. Sam, who's been the guardian of that light is no longer with him – and maybe that's the real reason why Sam ultimately sails across the sea as well. Having been a ringbearer may entitle him to it, but he carried it only for a very short time, and there's no indication that it overshadowed his vision beyond that period. Only when Frodo leaves is he truly plunged in darkness:

But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. [ROTK: The Grey Havens]

At the end of his journey, there's still a homely 'yellow light' and a 'fire inside', but it's an isolated light surrounded by a vast darkness. And what about the promise implicit in Gandalf's speculation, and the idea that Frodo will somehow achieve a higher state of being? After the quest, everyone – including Frodo himself – seems to perceive Frodo as irrepairably damaged, and there's a sense of fatalism when Gandalf indicates that 'some wounds cannot be wholly cured', or when Arwen suggests that Frodo may want to sail West eventually. She also supplies another light ("a white gem like a star"), reminiscent of the phial, but it can't protect Frodo against the feeling that "all is dark and empty." Only Sam keeps hoping that Frodo will once again find joy in life, and while it's not mentioned again, perhaps he can still see the light in Frodo, too.

Finally, there's the prediction that Frodo will find healing across the sea, but as the ship departs, we also hear that "the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost". As Frodo's light leaves the world, the darkness deepens around Sam, and it seems that losing sight of Frodo also takes away his gift of vision. What he's left with is the sound of the sea, and the call to sail into the West.

Whatever healing and transformation Tolkien may have envisioned for Frodo beyond the borders of Middle-earth isn't anywhere near as prominent or as fully developed as the theme that unfolds during the quest and suggests a perception of Sam and Frodo as vessels of light. But that light is not so much a foreign, impersonal power as it is an articulation of individual souls, an expression of love and mutual dependence. All of this is so completely interconnected that it's difficult to imagine how Frodo's light will ever shine without Sam, or how Sam will see without that inner light to guide him: light and vision continually enhance each other, and this interplay seems to give rise to a subtle transformation, including Sam's tremendous inner growth. If it brings out Frodo's innermost being, it certainly reveals Sam's beautiful soul as well.

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