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.