The Ring Claims Frodo

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.

Works Cited

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
Mifflin, 2000.

—. 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.

 

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.