“I Tried to Save The Shire, and It Has Been Saved, But Not For Me.” Frodo Leaves the Shire and Goes Into the West.

In a letter that he wrote in 1963 to a Mrs Eileen Elgar Tolkien wrote this about Frodo.

“Frodo undertook his quest 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. His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that.”

Frodo went as far as he could but ultimately his mind was overthrown in part by the endless demonic onslaught of the Ring and in part by his own desire to possess the Ring for himself. Gandalf and Aragorn never blamed him for this. Gandalf was deeply tempted by the Ring and knew its power over him. Aragorn never even mentioned it. But Frodo blamed himself. In the same letter Tolkien wrote that Frodo had hoped to return to the Shire as a hero but knew that the manner in which the Ring had gone to the Fire had robbed him of this possibility. This hurt him very much indeed.

Tolkien wrote: “We are finite creatures with absolute limitations upon the powers of our soul-body structure in either action or endurance. Moral failure can only be asserted, I think, when a man’s efforts or endurance falls short of his limits, and the blame decreases as that limit is closer approached.”

So no blame is attached to Frodo by any other person except for the blame that he attaches to himself but that is sufficient for Frodo to experience both judgement and punishment.

Tolkien addresses this with wonderful sensitivity in his letter.

“‘Alas! There are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured’, said Gandalf- not in Middle-earth.  Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over the sea to heal him- if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil.”

This is an extraordinary passage and I hope that my readers will take time to ponder it and allow Tolkien to be their guide and counsellor. Like Frodo we are tempted to believe that we exist in a universe of reward and punishment and we do not require the idea of a universal judge in order to hold onto that belief. We are quite capable of being our own judge. As far as we know, Frodo does not hold a belief in a supreme judge himself but he is perfectly capable of self-judgement. Tolkien tells us that he needs a purgatory, in other words, a place in which he can reflect in peace, not a place of punishment. Frodo’s purgatory is most definitely not a place of punishment. Bilbo is his companion and together they journey towards wholeness. Readers of this blog have suggested that Lady Nienna of the Valar, the teacher of Gandalf, the one who prepared him for his great work in Middle-earth, watches over their gentle education and I agree with them. Frodo and Bilbo will have to give up all illusion regarding themselves and to be healed at last of the hurt that the Ring has done to them, Frodo will have to give up his sense of failure and, as Tolkien puts it so beautifully, to accept both his smallness and his greatness.

And so too will we.

10 thoughts on ““I Tried to Save The Shire, and It Has Been Saved, But Not For Me.” Frodo Leaves the Shire and Goes Into the West.

  1. “Frodo and Bilbo will have to give up all illusion regarding themselves and to be healed at last of the hurt that the ring has done to them.” I love this! So true Frodo’s failure was an illusion for he succeeded perfectly in his vocation as Ring-bearer. It was never his calling to be Ring-destroyer. Once he understood that, that he was not a perpetrator. of evil but had evil done to him, then he would understand what everyone else already knew, what Elrond foresaw even before the Quest began, that he would counted among the greatest heroes of Middle-earth. I love Tolkien’s insights. I hope you will start reflections on The Hobbit next. 🙂

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • I agree with you entirely on this and I love Tolkien’s words from his letter that I quoted, that Frodo should gain “a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness”. The littleness being, as you say, that he was never meant to be the Ring-Destroyer, the superhero, greater even than the Ring itself. He was meant to be merely the Ring-Bearer and, again as you say, that was enough to place him (and Sam too, of course!) among the great heroes of Middle-earth. How much we need more of such humble yet great heroism in our own times. A willingness to bear a burden and to trust to God.
      Thank you for your encouragement to continue writing. I set out on this project back in 2012 after attempts to write a book on The Lord of the Rings, as you have done, had failed. I realised that I could write short reflections of about 500-700 words at a time and I learned about blogging. My first efforts on The Fellowship of the Ring were written elsewhere on a website that I created after buying a package and were read by just a few friends. When I discovered WordPress in 2013 it coincided with beginning the reflections on The Two Towers and Aragorn’s astonishing and glorious choice to pursue the orcs who had captured Merry and Pippin when it must have felt that by doing this he was giving up all his hopes. For the next two years I only had a handful of readers (by the end of 2015 about 15 a day) and I was sustained by the encouragement of people like yourself who left regular comments. Now the daily readership is approaching 100 a day and still growing although the comments are still very important to me. Very important indeed. I think that what I would like to do is to rework my early efforts on The Fellowship of the Ring that almost nobody read and post these regularly as I have done on The Two Towers and The Return of the King. They really need reworking. They were early fumbling efforts. I also hope to use that project to prepare them for print publication too. Where I go after The Fellowship of the Ring I do not know. I only ever wanted to write about The Lord of the Rings, a book that has accompanied me for nearly 50 years now and which was my first introduction to Tolkien.

      • Stephen, when you turn your blog posts into a book, as I sincerely hope you will, please consider writing a foreword that will include some of what you’ve written in this reply. It is inspiring to read and provides much to reflect upon. Thank you, and to Anne Marie and your other readers. I always look forward to reading the comments below as much as I do the post itself. For now I am unable to put into words my reflections on this post. But thanks, as ever.

  2. I never really thought about the theological implications of going into the West, but might not at least Gandalf/Olorin, or some of the Vanyar, be able to speak openly to Frodo and Bilbo of Iluvatar? It might well be a great comfort to know that they too are Children of the One, created to work as best they can to mitigate the Marring of Arda.

    • Thank you so much for this. You make such an important point. It is a place in which Tolkien and his good friend, C.S Lewis, took such a different course. Lewis told an explicitly Christian story in his Chronicles of Narnia but although Tolkien wrote that he could never have written The Lord of the Rings without his Catholic faith it is hidden to such a degree that many have missed it. There are many neo-Pagans, for example, who love The Lord of the Rings and never feel that it is a Christian text. Tolkien’s entire mythology is set in a northern world that is pre-Christian in the sense that the Incarnation has not yet happened or the preaching of the gospel either.
      Gandalf hints at a bigger story when he tells Frodo that Bilbo was “meant to find the Ring” and that there are other powers at work in the world than the Ring and its maker, but he never makes that any clearer. I think that the hints keep on appearing throughout the book but even at the end Tolkien does not explicitly talk about Frodo and Bilbo’s destiny. He was more explicit in his letters and so I draw upon them as well as following my own instincts and insights. I quoted directly from Tolkien’s letter here because I felt it would be a helpful illumination of this part of the story.
      It might have helped Frodo if Gandalf had offered more than hints but The Shadow of the Past would have had to be a lot longer and Tolkien might have lost a lot about readers. Maybe it speaks too about Gandalf’s mission which was to walk with people as far as they see within their own understanding.
      One last thought. Do you remember that moment when Sam gazes on the star shinier above the darkness of Mordor? He was getting it then and he was getting it for himself based on his experience of the journey.

  3. I think you are right, and that having established his Secondary World as definitively pre-Christian (by how many Ages???), Tolkien would not allow explicit Christian elements into his world. Re-reading that 1963 also brought to mind ‘Leaf by Niggle,’ with its vision of artistic purgatory followed by reward. I can well imagine that when Frodo “beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise,” he said, “It’s a gift!.”

    • Beautifully put! And I love the picture of the grateful Frodo as he gazes upon the white shores although he has challenging times ahead. I hope that I respond in the same way when my time comes.

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