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.