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.
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
—. 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.
15 thoughts on “The Ring Claims Frodo”
Thanks Anne Marie!
I really appreciate her offering this reflection on my blog.
Thank you, Professor!
Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂
I think that this is a deeply thoughtful reflection and I am so glad that you offered it for publication on my blog. It is a wonderfully subtle response to my piece that I entitled, “Frodo Claims The Ring” and entirely just. Thank you too for introducing me to new sources, especially the essays by Gordon, Rosebury and Wood. And thank you for the photo and the beautiful meditation on the will of God. I do hope that some more people find their way to reading your work because of this. Every blessing 😊
Thank you! I am honored you liked it so much. Ralph C. Wood is one of my favorite Tolkien scholars. I am re-reading his book for the 3rd time. Barry Gordon’s essay is like the ‘Holy Grail’ of Tolkien essays, something the Professor himself saw and read. It was wonderful when someone guided me to it, as I had heard about it before and longed to read it.
Tolkien did not much appreciate being the subject of other people’s study and so that is praise indeed for Barry Gordon.
Fantastic. Though this is one of those difficult bits of theology that are, I think, easy to misunderstand, if, in fact, we really do understand it as much as we sometimes think we do.
I think there’s a gorgeous irony here, too, though it’s wrapped up in tragedy, too. That the Ring is ultimately destroyed by the very compulsion and control it has exerted over Frodo and Gollum.
I think that Anne Marie Gazzolo wrote a really fine piece here. She reminded me that she had promised this a long time back and I was so grateful to her for it.
For myself I was deeply moved by Tolkien’s compassion here. He recognises that Frodo has given all that he can. Ultimately this is not enough but, as a good friend reminded me today, what would Tolkien have been saying if Frodo had been able to cast the Ring into the Fire? That Frodo was stronger than the Ring? If that was true then he would have been in great danger of becoming a monster.
It is one of those points in the story when I think Jackson gets it wrong. You will remember the scene when Elrond takes Isildur into the Cracks of Doom to destroy the Ring but Isildur refuses to do so. Elrond’s comment on this is that Isildur/Men are weak. A just response to this would be to invite Elrond to lead the expedition to Mordor and to do the job himself. “We are all right behind you, my lord!” No, we need Frodo’s profound humility and his weakness too. And we need grace in huge measure because none of us, thank God, is big enough for the task, Elrond included!
I think you’re right. It was an interesting take on Elrond (though he’s not Elrond Halfelven for nothing…) and is something that some elves might think/feel, but Elrond would have known better. The butchering of the Hobbit movies is very telling, in that it completely diverges from the most important thread, I think, running through Tolkien’s work: the vital importance of the humble and the meek.
I agree entirely!
Thank you so much for this post and for introducing me to new readings. Such was Frodo’s humility we can only imagine how he blamed himself for his failure. To condemn and blame one – anyone – who is already tormented in such a way, would be unjust.
Condemnation and judgement requires that first we have to go to sit in the seat of judgement. Judges put on special clothes and sit in a place that is distant from the accused. That distance may be required when it comes to the operation of the law but when we start to do it we do damage to our souls separating ourselves from our fellows and eventually from ourselves.
Some of Tolkien’s correspondents seemed prepared to sit in judgement on Frodo. I suspect that they were prepared to do that to others too.
Many thanks for your comment 😊
Thank you, jubilare, and earthoak for your comments! Glad you enjoyed. I agree with our esteemed blogger here Elrond could not have destroyed the Ring either. Frodo did indeed condemn himself and I hope he found release in the West from the “unreasoning self-reproach” (as Tolkien termed it) that he plagued himself with.
Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂
I am so glad that Anne Marie’s post has been so well received.
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