The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 55-59
The story of Gollum that Gandalf tells comes to a great climax in two separate passages in which Gandalf speaks of Pity. The first comes after Frodo’s desperate cry, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”
And Gandalf replies, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.”
The second climax comes as Frodo cries out, “He deserves death”.
And Gandalf replies, “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least.”
Readers of The Lord of the Rings know that Gandalf’s words are prophetic. The fate of all the Free Peoples is indeed ruled by Bilbo’s Pity because it is Gollum who takes the Ring to the Fire in which it had been forged when, in the violence of his attack upon Frodo and his uncontrollable excitement in regaining possession of the Ring, he overbalances and so falls into the Cracks of Doom. And Frodo is delivered from the overwhelming power of the Ring that has overthrown his mind at last by that same Pity. If it had not been for Bilbo under the Misty Mountains and then Frodo himself when he captures Gollum beneath the Emyn Muil there can have been no triumph.
And yet… after Gandalf has told the tale of Déagol’s murder and Gollum’s dreadful deeds in Mirkwood (did he really sneak through windows to steal and eat small children?) and how he had betrayed the existence of the One Ring and the name of Baggins and the Shire to the Dark Lord himself so that the search was now on for its whereabouts, how can we blame Frodo for what he says?
And when he says that Gollum “deserves death” surely he is right. He deserves death for the crimes he has already committed and also to prevent the appalling consequence of the Ring falling into the hands of the Dark Lord.
Yet when Gandalf responds to Frodo’s cry he is not persuaded in the slightest. He ends his argument with the appeal to Pity which is appropriate in one who sat in the school of the Lady Nienna, the Lady of Pity, of Mercy and of Mourning, the one who taught the importance of lamentation, of tears, in the life of Arda. It is Pity that eventually leads to the destruction of the Ring and the downfall of Sauron but Pity cannot guarantee any outcome. What Gandalf appeals to before he speaks of Pity is something quite remarkable.
“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
The remarkable thing that Gandalf appeals to is the ability to take away and to give life. It is a great sadness that we are all capable of taking away life and so we give much thought to this power. Who has the right? Under what circumstances can this right, if right it is, be exercised? And so we think about murder, manslaughter,judicial execution and warfare, just or otherwise. Much of our judicial attention is given to preventing death or to punishing those who cause it illegally.
But what about the giving of life? This ability plays such an important role in Tolkien’s work. And it is made clear from the beginning that this right belongs only to God, to Eru, the One, Illuvatar. Morgoth seeks to create life, but fails, and at the last is able only to mar the creation in mockery of Illuvatar so forming the twisted shapes of the orcs and trolls and other fell creatures. And Aule does give life to the dwarves but has to make them sleep until the permissive word is given by the source of all life.
So, Gandalf argues, if you do not have the right to give life what right do you have to take it? Both the giving and taking of life is a denial of Providence the hand of grace that orders all our affairs whether we are small or great. And in many ways the whole of The Lord of the Rings is an extended meditation upon Providence, upon those who are willing to trust it and those who try to resist it.
4 thoughts on “The Pity of Bilbo.”
And if the pity of Bilbo ruled the fate of many, it was Sam’s that ruled the fate of all – if he had not given it none of the others would have mattered. Aule sub-created the dwarves and Iluvatar gave them independent life – wouldn’t it be interesting for a scribe to meet their own sub-creations in the flesh – I did a fanfic of that once Tolkien meeting those from Middle-earth in Heaven. 🙂 It would be cool to meet those from there and elsewhere who made such impressions upon me and those I will write about myself in the coming years. Love your last paragraph – so true!
Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂
And for Sam the victory that he wins at the Cracks of Doom with Gollum at his mercy is so hard won. Each act of Pity and Mercy enables another.
God bless you, Anne Marie 😊
I am more familiar with LOTR than with the lore behind it, so I always find it helpful to link the two. I had always though of Gandalf’s question, “Can you give it to them, Frodo?”, as a simple question with a simple answer: no one can give out death, and reprieve from death, exactly as needed, so it’s foolish even to talk as if you could. But it seems that Gandalf was pointedly referring, also, to the divine ability to give life, which makes his questions to Frodo that much more substantial and significant.
Thank you, Kevin, for taking me, once again, back to something that I wrote nearly three years ago. Yes I do think that Gandalf is warning Frodo, and perhaps himself, of trying to “play God” as we spoke about in another place. Gandalf refuses to be an executioner for this very reason, something that is very different to slaying a foe in battle, as with the Balrog of Moria.