Did Gandalf Plan to Rescue Frodo and Sam From Mount Doom?

Thanks to some challenging questions from my readers recently I have been thinking a lot about the question of strategy and planning in The Lord of the Rings. And because this blog is in essence an extended reflection on the relationship between spirituality and life with the aid of J.R.R Tolkien I have been thinking about the relationship between the way in which we act in a time of crisis. What is the connection between our plans and our actions at such a time? Do our plans have any meaning when we have gambled all that we have on one slender possibility?

At the climax of the battle before the Black Gate, as the armies of the West make their last stand, Gwaihir, Lord of Eagles of the North, arrives with all of his vassals. Their first intention is to engage the Nazgûl but even as the Eagles arrive the Nazgûl flee from the battle answering the desperate call of their master as the Ring stands upon the brink of destruction. Soon the Ring has gone to the Fire, the realm of Sauron is at an end and Gandalf meets with Gwaihir.

” ‘Twice you have borne me, Gwaihir my friend,” said Gandalf. “Thrice shall pay for all, if you are willing. You will not find me a burden much greater than when you bore me from Zirakzigil, where my old like burned away.’

‘I would bear you,’ answered Gwaihir, ‘whither you will, even were you made of stone.'”

And so Gandalf and the Eagles fly to the rescue of Frodo and Sam at Mount Doom.

But what plans for Frodo and Sam had Gandalf made before the battle? The answer that I would like to make was that he had made no plans whatsoever. Of course, as soon as the eagles have come and the battle is won, he does all that he can to save them but if there had been no eagles there would have been no rescue. The eagles may have been hoped for but never planned for.

Does this reveal Gandalf’s essential heartlessness? Is he a general so fixed upon his goal that he is prepared to spend the lives of any of his men in order to achieve it? Again I would argue, no.

It was at the Black Gate some days before that Frodo had given much thought to the question of Gandalf’s intentions. Gollum had just made his suggestion that they try to enter Mordor by his “secret way”. As Frodo pondered this Gandalf was standing upon the steps of Orthanc, speaking with Saruman and yet thinking too of Frodo and Sam. Maybe Frodo felt this, even though he believed that Gandalf was gone for ever, but as he sat in silent thought he tried to recall all that Gandalf had said about the plans for the journey and the way he should enter Mordor.

“For this choice he could recall no counsel. Indeed Gandalf’s guidance had been taken from them too soon, too soon, while the Dark Land was still very far away. How they should enter it at the last Gandalf had not said. Perhaps he could not say.”

And Frodo concludes his reflections with a remembering of his decision “in his own sitting-room in the far off spring of another year” to take the Ring. This is critical. We are not talking about plans but about choices, decisions and commitments. Gandalf had made no plans for the entry into Mordor or any other part of the journey. The whole quest was a stepping forth into the complete unknown in which all plans were meaningless but all choices and commitments critical. The whole thing is a crazy gamble, a “Fool’s Hope”, as Denethor rightly described it. Frodo called it an “evil choice” and he is right too.

There are no plans, only a desperate gamble “costing not less than everything”, as T.S Eliot puts it in his Four Quartets.

Is Gandalf lucky that the Eagles turn up at the right moment? Of course he is. But it is the kind of luck that can only come to those who are prepared to risk everything for the best good.


The Downfall of Sauron

Gollum falls into the Fire clutching the Ring to his heart and in the confusion that follows Sam is able to carry Frodo to the threshold of the Sammath Naur, the Cracks of Doom, and there he gazes upon the fall of Sauron in wonder and terror.

“A brief vision he had of swirling cloud, and in the midst of it towers and battlements, tall as hills, founded upon a mighty mountain-throne above immeasurable pits; great courts and dungeons, eyeless prisons sheer as cliffs, and gaping gates of steel and adamant: and then all passed.”

And then all passed.

All the might of the Dark Lord, painstakingly constructed throughout the ages, ever since he first pledged his loyalty to Morgoth, all passes in a moment. Unlike his enemies of the West whose decline has been long but slow Sauron’s passing happens almost in the blink of an eye. At one moment all his attention is given to the battle before the Black Gate and he eagerly, if anxiously, awaits the capture of the Ring and his final triumph over all his foes. Then comes the moment of realisation, fury and terror, as he perceives the Ring in the one place in which it can be destroyed. And then… all passed.

“There rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent; for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.”

All the might that has held sway over ally, slave or foe for so long is simply blown away.

For the “shape of shadow” that the wind catches is all that Sauron has been and certainly all that he has been since the forging of the Rings of Power. For Sauron chose to create a thing that would be a complete expression of his power, “fraught with all his malice”, and by which he would be able to overcome and control all other peoples. Nine Rings he gave to Lords of Men, tempting them with dreams of power, and so they became the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths. Seven Rings he gave to lords of the Dwarves, tempting them with dreams of wealth, and although they were able to resist his control nevertheless they were diminished in power. The Three Rings of the Elves were not made by him nor did he ever see or touch them and so they did much good in the world and yet they were still bound to the Ruling Ring either to be exposed to his gaze once he held the Ring once more or to pass away in  its destroying.

The Ring gave Sauron great might and yet it also made him vulnerable. He thought that his vulnerability lay in a mighty one siezing the Ring and using it against him. In actual fact it was the impossible deed, the destruction of the Ring, that was the greatest danger that he faced.

What Sauron shows us is the spiritual diminishment of someone who becomes entirely identified with the things that he makes. Fëanor becomes entirely identified with the Silmarils and binds his sons to them as well and in so doing causes untold harm. In a lesser manner Saruman the White falls from greatness both in his desire for the Ring and also in his obsession with the machinery that he creates.

But what of Ilúvatar, the Maker of all? Is not he the one most identified with all that he has made? Here we see the difference between the true and the false maker. The false maker creates in order to own and control. The true maker creates in order to make free, in order that all that the maker creates can be its true self and belong fully to itself, giving or withholding itself freely as it chooses. Sauron never permits this freedom and yet in enslaving others to himself he enslaves himself to the thing that he has made. In making himself great in his own pride through his creation Sauron diminishes himself to such a degree that when the thing that he has made is destroyed what he is most truly is revealed to be mere shadow that passes away.

Gollum Takes The Ring to The Fire

Frodo cannot cast the Ring into the Fire. It has mastered him and will not be destroyed in that way. In the last two weeks, firstly in my own post, Frodo Claims The Ring For Himself and in Anne Marie Gazzolo’s wonderful meditation, The Ring Claims Frodo we saw that Frodo spent all that he could of himself just to bring the Ring to the Mountain. He had nothing more to give. As Tom Hillman put it, with typical wisdom in a comment on Frodo Claims The Ring For Himself, “no-one could have achieved the Quest by throwing the Ring into the Fire”

I think it is necessary to pause here a moment to say that when Tom says no-one he means that not Elrond, nor Galadriel nor Gandalf nor Aragorn could have thrown the Ring into the Fire. There is an amusing meme that does the rounds of the World Wide Web in which the entire plot of The Lord of the Rings is simplified by Gandalf and the Eagles flying to the Mount Doom and dropping the Ring into the Fire. All that the witty purveyors of this meme achieve is to reveal their spiritual shallowness. For one thing, as a comment from Gwen showed on the same post the mountain would not have been undefended except through the remarkable coalescing of circumstances that Tolkien gives us. Secondly, there is no such thing as a simple throwing of the Ring into the Fire.

And so a grace is given in a form that could not have been anticipated and that form is the last desperate attack by Gollum. It is a form that Sauron ignores entirely regarding it as being completely insignificant. When Shagrat took his report to Barad-dûr of the events in Cirith Ungol did he leave out the detail of “her ladyship’s sneak” turning up again after a long absence? I doubt it. I think that, compared to the news of the dangerous spy who has somehow got past Shelob, Sauron thought that there was nothing more for him to learn about Gollum than he already knew.

That is Sauron’s fatal weakness. He is only capable of seeing things in terms of power and once he had extracted from Gollum all that he had done and all that he knew Sauron had no more interest in him allowing him to play the role in relation to Shelob that Shagrat and Gorbag referred to.

Only Gandalf had a sense that Gollum might have a role to play in the story. “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end.” Gandalf learned respect for small things in his long pilgrimage and for deeds that no-one else notices. “The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least.”

Gandalf has learned a deep wisdom through a conscious attentiveness to small people and small deeds, a wisdom that began with his long tutelage in the school of the Lady Nienna, a school in which I suspect he may have been the only pupil. It was Nienna, one of the Valar, who taught him pity, both its necessity as a moral quality and its significance in the history of the world. It is Gandalf who realised that in the long, violent and malicious history of the Ring only Bilbo took it without violence and only Bilbo gave it up freely. Grace takes Bilbo’s kindly disposition, a very small thing in the great scheme of things and puts it to world-transforming use. Grace perfects Nature and so opens the door to Frodo’s pity for Gollum and Sam’s realisation that he too cannot kill Gollum, much as he wished to do so. And it opens the door to Gollum’s last attack upon Frodo and his fall into the Fire with the Ring on his grasp. Without all these small things the Ring could not have been destroyed. Grace would have had no door by which to enter the story. Grace cannot achieve perfection without Nature.

“But for him, Sam,” says Frodo after the Ring has gone, “I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him!”

And let us all forgive Gollum too and trust that he finds his way at the last to peace and to healing just as we long for peace and healing for ourselves too.


The Ring Claims Frodo

From time to time it is a great pleasure to welcome guest authors to my blog that explores wisdom from Tolkien’s great work, The Lord of the Rings. This week it is a particular pleasure to welcome Anne Marie Gazzolo with whom I have enjoyed a regular correspondence in the Comments Section of the blog for some time now. I have enjoyed reading her book (see below!) and warmly recommend it to you. In this post Anne Marie picks up from my own reflections on the dramatic climax to Frodo and Sam’s journey in the Cracks of Doom that I posted last week and takes them further. I am sure that you will enjoy her reflection and that you will want to read more of her work. 

Anne Marie Gazzolo is the author of Moments of Grace and Spiritual Warfare in The Lord of the Rings, which includes a chapter on The Hobbit. Sign up for her mailing list at http://www.annemariegazzolo.com and get a free copy of her ebook about applying to your life the lessons taught by Hobbits, Wizards, Elves, Men, and Dwarves. Works in progress include Chosen, which focuses on the journeys of Bilbo and Frodo, due out on their birthday 2018, from which this essay comes, and a book of poems inspired by the Quest. Two original fantasy series also await their turn as patiently as they can. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Pinterest.


Despite Frodo’s formidable endurance to the Ring, he becomes increasingly aware his resistance to its demonic assaults weakens the longer he bears it. After he reaches the Sammath Naur, worn out physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, he has nothing left with which to defend himself against the last terrible attack. “Tolkien is close to Paul and Augustine and their long train of followers who argue that real freedom is the liberty to choose and do the good, and that to do evil is to act unfreely, to exercise an enslaved will. … Not all evil is chosen. For while evil can subtly seduce, it can also brutally enforce its will. … The Ring creates a compulsion, in short, that cannot be broken with mere human strength of will” (Ralph C. Wood, Gospel According to Tolkien 70, 71). With the Ring’s power to “burn [the] mind away” (LotR V:4, 796), it is no wonder after months of incessant torment, Frodo’s will gives way. That it lasts as long as it does is a moving testament to its incredible strength, fortified as it is by grace and by Sam. Tolkien wrote, “But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us” (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 252). He notes in another letter, “It is possible for the good, even the saintly, to be subjected to a power of evil which is too great for them to overcome – in themselves” (252-53).

At the same time Éowyn speaks of feeling as though she stands upon the edge of an abyss, Frodo truly does stand at the brink of “the spiritual abyss into which Sauron has fallen ages earlier” (Brian Rosebury, Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon 37).

As the Ring consumes Frodo, its Bearer can battle it no more. He said yes to Ilúvatar many thousands of times with each painful breath and step, but there is now but a strand of will that can no longer speak. “Towards the end of the quest, Frodo is left with only the capacity to will, as he becomes physical incapable of performing his task. Then, when the moment comes for the actual destruction of the Ring, the theme of self-negation in sacrifice reaches its highest point: the ability to will is taken from him” (Barry Gordon, “Knighthood, Priesthood and Prophecy in The Lord of the Rings”).

Sam hears Frodo use a strange tone of voice, as he speaks terrible words: “I have come…. But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!” (LotR VI:3, 924). This is not the freely willed act it appears. The hobbit cannot resist the evil power anyone else would fall prey to much sooner, but this does not mean he actively chooses to surrender to it. Frodo does not claim the Ring; the Ring at last claims him. His will is, in actuality, the least free at this time, as he already knew was near. He told Sam not long before, “I am almost in its power now. I could not give it up” (LotR VI:3, 916).

Tom Shippey remarks, “It is…interesting that Frodo does not say, ‘I choose not to do’, but ‘I do not choose to do’. Maybe (and Tolkien was a professor of language) the choice of words is absolutely accurate. Frodo does not choose; the choice is made for him” (Tolkien: Author of the Century 140). Tolkien agrees. “I do not think that Frodo’s was a moral failure. At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum – impossible…for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted. Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence)…” (Letters 326, italics in original)

The weight of Sauron’s dark power crushes the created, but it has no power over his Creator. The Dark Lord is but a servant himself, serving a greater evil, just as the hobbits serve a greater Good. Morgoth wove evil into the Song from the beginning and into the fabric of Middle-earth from the time of its creation. Ilúvatar could have changed that, but He allowed it to continue, so He could use even that to show it had no power over Him and His designs. Frodo and Sam and so many others suffer because of this evil, but Ilúvatar does not allow it to claim them utterly. He wants to show He can overcome Sauron’s might in the hobbits’ weakness. The Ring plays a part in its own destruction. Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are the vessels to get it there.

“Frodo deserved all honour because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further. Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far. The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named’ (as one critic has said)” (Tolkien, Letters 253).

Even if Ring-bearer and Ring-destroyer was thought by others and by Frodo himself to be one and the same, they are actually two different missions in the mind of Ilúvatar. Frodo’s task is to create “a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved” (Letters 326). This he does perfectly. Indeed, only after Frodo fulfills his vocation does his will fail at last.

In response to readers who cried for Frodo’s condemnation for claiming the Ring, Tolkien argued the Ring-bearer should be judged not from actions resulting from breaking under torment, but like those who were broken by torture while a POW in WWII: “by the will and intentions with which they entered the Sammath Naur; and not demand impossible feats of will…” (252). Frodo’s will and intent to destroy the Ring never alters, but he comes to the Cracks of Doom at the nadir of his own strength and the height of the Ring’s. His will is no longer his own to claim.

Ilúvatar knew the burden would be too much for His child at the end, but He wants Frodo as a living sacrifice, not a dead one. He turns the no the Ring forces out of Frodo’s broken body and will into the yes foreseen from all eternity. “[Gollum] did rob him and injure him in the end – but by a ‘grace’, that last betrayal was at a precise juncture when the final evil deed was the most beneficial thing anyone cd. have done for Frodo!” (234). Because the Ring-bearer pitied Gollum and showed him mercy and compassion, he receives the same. Ilúvatar returns to him what the hobbit relinquished to Him: his self and his life.

Works Cited

Gordon, Barry. “Knighthood, Priesthood and Prophecy in The Lord of the Rings”. Accessed 10/4/17.

Rosebury, Brian. Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Shippey, Tom. J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. Houghton
Mifflin, 2000.

—. The Lord of the Rings. 2nd edition. Houghton Mifflin, 1965, 1966.

Wood, Ralph C. The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth.
Louisville, KY: Knox, 2003.


Frodo Claims the Ring for Himself. Is He a Traitor?

Frodo comes, at the last, to Sammath Naur, the Cracks of Doom where the One Ring was first forged by its master. But he cannot do what he had purposed to do. He cannot destroy the Ring. He will not destroy the Ring.

“I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!”

Has Frodo turned traitor at the very last, betraying all those who had put their trust in him, all who had marched to the Black Gate and were prepared to lay down their lives for him? And had Frodo betrayed Sam who had for love of him gone every step of the way with him, risking his life time and again?

Certainly one of Tolkien’s correspondents thought that Frodo was a traitor. Tolkien wrote that “I have had one savage letter, crying out that he should have been executed as a traitor, not honoured.”

Tolkien’s reflections on this letter and on others who questioned him about Frodo’s “failure” take us right to the heart of his deep compassion, not just for Frodo, but also to all who have given their all but who fall at the last. Tolkien wrote this about Frodo at the Cracks of Doom:

“Frodo indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end. I do not say ‘simple minds’ with contempt: they often see with clarity the simple truth and absolute ideal to which effort must be directed, even if it is unattainable. Their weakness, however, is twofold. They do not perceive the complexity of any given situation in Time, in which an absolute ideal is enmeshed. They tend to forget that strange element in the World that we call Pity or Mercy, which is also an absolute requirement in moral judgement (since it is present in the divine nature).”

In this blog we have thought about the place of Pity and Mercy in the story on more than one occasion, not least last week when we thought about Sam and Gollum. If it is right that Pity and Mercy should be extended to a murderer like Gollum how much more should it be offered to one who gave his all but failed like Frodo?

Tolkien pointed out that Frodo never sought the role of Ringbearer as Boromir sought the task of carrying the message to Rivendell. He began his mission with the deepest humility and he extended patience and mercy towards Gollum. He undertook his mission out of love “to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task.” Speaking for myself it is Frodo’s humility that makes me love him above every character in The Lord of the Rings. He seems to speak for everyone who finds themselves having to do something that they feel is beyond their capacity simply because it has been asked of them.

Tolkien makes two other points about Frodo’s failure. One is a vitally important point about Grace. Tolkien tells us that we can never take Grace for granted assuming that it will make up for our shortcomings. We have to offer the very best that we can. We do not know the limits of our natural strength until we have tested them. Can anyone say that Frodo did not test his natural strength to its very limit? He goes to “the breaking of his mind and will under demonic pressure after torment” and so he fails. Tolkien argues that such a failure is no more worthy of blame than if he had been strangled by Gollum or crushed by a falling rock.

It is after this breaking of his mind and will that strange mercy and grace is given to him through Gollum’s last desperate attack. It is to this mercy and grace that we will turn next week.