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.



18 thoughts on “Frodo Claims the Ring for Himself. Is He a Traitor?

  1. No one could have achieved the quest by throwing the Ring into the fire:

    “a person of greater native power could probably never have resisted the Ring’s lure to power so long; a person of less power could not hope to resist it in the final decision. (Already Frodo had been unwilling to harm the Ring before he set out, and was incapable of surrendering it to Sam.)”

    — Letter 181

    Thank you, Stephen, as always.

    • As I continued to think about your comment it struck me that the quote from Tolkien’s letter is the perfect answer to that joke that does the rounds on the Internet that all Gandalf needed to do was to call upon the eagles for help, fly to Mount Doom and throw the Ring into the fire. “No-one could have achieved the quest by throwing the Ring into the fire”.
      And thank you for your encouraging words once more.

      • And here I prefer the answer that the Eagles generally don’t like flying over settlements, since they have a history of getting shot at by people looking to protect their livestock so shooting one of them out of the sky is something just a normal hunter can do, and we KNOW that the Uruk have damn good archers, since they killed Boromir.

        So what would have happened if the Eagles tried to fly straight to Barad-Dur is that Sauron and all the Orks and Uruk would have known about it instantly, killed the eagles, overwhelmed even Gandalf and the entire felowship, and then reclaimed the One Ring, and proceeded to curb stomp Gondor and all the rest of the world except for Tom Bombadil’s domain with his full strength in a world that no longer has anything that could hope to combat it like the ancient armies of the Last Alliance.

      • Thank you so much for your comment, Gwen. It is great to hear from you. I am sure that there are many reasons why the idea of flying to Mount Doom would not have worked. As you say, it is unlikely that it would have been undefended and the orcs were skilled archers. It is only undefended when Frodo and Sam reach it because Sauron is convinced that the Ring is with the armies of the West. And there could be no dropping the Ring into an open crater. They would have had to land and then enter the Cracks of Doom. It would have been a catastrophe just as you say. I still think that Gandalf would have been no more able to throw the Ring into the Fire than Frodo. Yes, unlike Frodo, he had been able to throw the Ring into Frodo’s fireplace but he knew that Frodo’s fire could not do any harm. Only the hobbits could have got the Ring to the mountain. Only the grace of God through Gollum’s attack could get the Ring into the Fire.
        I hope to hear from you again.

  2. Thank you for your defense of Frodo here! I love what you said about the Professor’s compassion for him. 🙂 A good while back, you asked if I could do a guest blog post about this subject so dear to my heart when we arrived at this place. If this offer still stands, I would love to take you up on it! (You thought then it would take a year to get here and here we are at last).

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • I would be honoured if you were to write guest blog on this. I have often carried your earlier reflections on this scene in my mind as I have thought about it.
      Could you include a brief biography/about me paragraph? Also a link to your work. I don’t know if you have anything nearly ready but, if possible, I would like to post it next week.
      Every blessing 😊

  3. This is such a deep idea. I’ve never been able to comprehend why Frodo is regarded as a horrible traitor by some. Carrying such a weight and for so long is the task many others would have failed much earlier.
    Thank you, Stephen, for this wonderful piece!

    • I think that many still find it hard to understand the breaking of the mind, as Tolkien put it. We fear it in ourselves. We fear the judgement of others upon us. We are tempted to judge others too, tempted to associate the breaking of the mind with moral weakness, even failure. Here in Britain there has been recent debate about soldiers who were executed for cowardice during the First World War of 1914-18. I just did a Google search on this and noted that a royal pardon was given to all of them in 2006. To me a pardon still expresses the belief that a crime was committed even though forgiven. Perhaps one day it will be acknowledged that there was no crime.
      Certainly Sam never judged Frodo and neither did Gandalf or Aragorn. That should be enough for all of us.

      • I will join you in hoping there will be an acknowledgement there was no crime, and hopefully the pardon included a very belated but not needed apology for the tragedy of executing them. How terrible that was done.

        Just sent you my blog post.

        Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

  4. I was quite moved by this post. Thank you for sharing. I wonder, considering the era, how unusual was Frodo as a protagonist of such a tale? Was it the divergence from the expected path for a hero that sparked some readers’ condemnation? Did the politics of the time have a bearing on how people viewed Frodo’s ‘treachery’?
    Bilbo was unusual too, but he grew and triumphed in many ways in his story – he changed and succeeded and gained. Frodo changed, but failed and lost..
    And perhaps, in some circumstances, failure and loss is better for a person, and saves them from the pride that comes with glory. It is hard to ever see it that way, because we can’t see what might have come to pass if things were different. What would Frodo have become if he had succeeded in destroying the Ring through the strength of his will? Perhaps his innate humility would have protected him still.

    • I agree with all that you say here . I am struck that Tolkien subverts the heroic tale by giving his characters a task that is too big for them. And it is not just too big for Frodo either. It is so significant that both Gandalf and Galadriel refuse Frodo’s offer of the Ring. It is too big for them too. I am not sure that Jackson ever quite comes to terms with this in his films. He remains wedded to the belief in the hero who overcomes all obstacles and so, as the Ring slowly gains a hold on Frodo, Sam becomes the hero. He is the one who is not corrupted. Tolkien is much more subtle in his insight into who we are. That is why Sam never condemns Frodo. Even though he only carried the Ring for a short while he soon learned about its seductive power. He resists it then but that power would have grown day by day.
      Thank you so much for your encouraging words.

      • Many thanks for your replies, gives me more to reflect on! Regarding Jackson’s films – yes, I see what you mean. In particular, I had a problem with the decision to make Frodo fight back and effectively cause Gollum’s death. It derailed much of Frodo’s character development in the book, and the philosophy underpinning it. So according to the film version, Frodo did not fail, for he had a direct part in the destruction of the Ring, but morally it could be seen as an even bigger failure than to claim the Ring for himself.
        I never thought about Sam never condemning Frodo, thanks for pointing this out. His understanding comes from his own experience carrying the Ring. Isn’t it interesting that a Judge is one who is wise, but resisting judgment also comes from wisdom.

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