On the Impossibility of Casting Away the One Ring. So Why Even Try?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 59-60

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(An audio recording of my reading of this post)

The point has come in which a decision has to be made concerning the Ring. The time of hiding and waiting (not that Frodo had known that he was doing either of these things) has come to an end. Sauron knows that the Ring is in the Shire and that it is possessed by a hobbit called Baggins.

Frodo will take the Ring to Mordor but at the last he will fail to cast it into the fires in which it was made in Mount Doom. Only an inbreaking of the most extraordinary grace will finally destroy it.

And yet, surely, we already have evidence enough here, in the peace of Bag End in the spring time, to know that the task is far beyond Frodo’s capacity to achieve it. When Gandalf encourages Frodo to try to “do away” with the Ring he fails miserably.

“Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it. It now appeared plain and smooth, without mark or device that he could see. The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious. When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire. But he found now that he could not do so, not without a great struggle. He weighed the Ring in his hand, hesitating, and forcing himself to remember all that Gandalf had told him; and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away- but found that he had put it back in his pocket.”

And so right at the very beginning of the story Frodo fails even to cast the Ring into the small fire burning in the grate at Bag End, a fire as we have already seen would have no effect upon it at all so what chance is there that he might cast it into the Fire of Orodruin?

Gandalf makes it clear that Frodo has little talent for the task, anyway, that he lacks the necessary power or wisdom so why not give the Ring to one who possesses both power and wisdom too? Frodo offers Gandalf the Ring.

“No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.”

And with that reply Gandalf makes it clear that it is not just Frodo’s wisdom and power that are insufficient to deal with the Ring but his own too. If Frodo has too little of either then Gandalf has too much. This quest, the search for the Cracks of Doom and the destruction of the Ring, will not be achieved either by strength or even by wisdom.

Then how is the Ring to be destroyed?

Surely the clue lies in Gandalf’s words to Frodo. “You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power and wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.” It is in the words, “but you have been chosen” that we learn how the Ring is to be destroyed. Frodo will have to leap into faith and to travel, step by step, to the Cracks of Doom and there he will have to do what he can. At no time will there ever be some kind of blueprint for him to follow. No one will ever say something like, “When you get to Mount Doom this is what you have to do”. And that is because no one, not even Gandalf himself, knows what to do apart from the need to cast the Ring into the Fire and we have already seen that Frodo does not possess the capacity to do that and neither, as far as we can see here, does Gandalf. The Ring is too powerful for either of them. Some other power, the power that has done the choosing, will have to intervene.

One might wish that this power would give a little more guidance, either to Frodo or to Gandalf, but all that is given is the choosing. And that is enough.

Frodo Comes to the End of All Things on Mount Doom but Sam is Not So Sure.

“I am glad that you are here with me,” said Frodo. “Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

The Ring has gone to the Fire; the mighty tower of Barad-dûr has fallen into the dust; and the Dark Lord has passed forever into the shadow never to rise again. Amidst all of the ruin Frodo is content that his labours are at an end, his burden has gone and the night is falling. He has no wish to make some kind of escape. There is no future that he can see in which he might play some part. He has been wounded in the shoulder by the terrible knife of the Lord of the Nazgûl in the attack upon the camp below Weathertop; he has received a sting in the neck from Shelob in her lair; and his finger has been bitten clean off by Gollum in his desperate and final attempt to regain the Ring. Besides this he has been wearied beyond any strength that he might possess by the Ring that he has borne, mile after mile all the way from Bag End to the Cracks of Doom themselves.

And there is one thing further. At the very end of his journey he failed. He came to Orodruin with the purpose of casting the Ring into the Fire but when he came there he could not do the deed and claimed the Ring for himself. If it had not been for Gollum’s final attack Sauron would have regained it and all would have been lost. Frodo may be free from the Ring’s hold upon him, the Quest may be achieved, he may even be at peace in a certain way having forgiven Gollum but it is a peace that almost welcomes death. Death means that nothing further need be explained or even resolved.

Three times Frodo tells Sam that they have come to the end but Sam is not so sure.

“Yes I am with you, Master,” said Sam, laying Frodo’s wounded hand gently to his breast. “And you’re with me. And the journey’s finished. But after coming all that way I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me somehow, if you understand.”

Sam has much to live for. His love for Frodo means that he will always do what he can for him, always seek, to the best of his understanding, his best good. And Sam has other longings too. He longs for life itself. You will recall that as they approached the mountain and their water had finally run out that Sam remembered “every brook or stream or fount that he had ever seen, under green willow-shades or twinkling in the sun… He felt the cool mud about his toes as he paddled in the Pool at Bywater with Jolly Cotton and Tom and Nibs, and their sister Rosie.” There is much that Sam would like to go home to, the gentle beauty of the Shire, good friends and Rosie Cotton. Sam would like to be married, to build a home and raise a family. Simple and good desires.

The twentieth century philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich, spoke about the need, in our age of anxiety about meaninglessness, to find a courage to be. In many ways Frodo is a modern man in search of meaning. His restlessness is growing even before he leaves the Shire and when the Ring goes to the Fire he sees no more purpose to his existence. Sam is, by contrast, a pre-modern man, rooted in a sense of place and a stable society and unafflicted by Frodo’s anxiety. Ultimately, and much to his disappointment, Sam will not be able to heal Frodo, but now amidst the ruin of Mordor, he will do what he can.

And so he gently but firmly leads Frodo away from the Cracks of Doom and down the road that they had taken in their ascent of the mountain until they reach a low ashen hill at the mountain’s foot that, for a brief moment, has become an island in the sea of ruin round about them. He cannot give up and it is his indomitable spirit as well as his love for Frodo that keeps them alive just long enough for Gandalf and Gwaihir to rescue them, performing a kindness for which all Tolkien’s readers have been grateful ever since he first brought us this wonderful story.

Did Gandalf Plan to Rescue Frodo and Sam From Mount Doom?

Thanks to some challenging questions from my readers recently I have been thinking a lot about the question of strategy and planning in The Lord of the Rings. And because this blog is in essence an extended reflection on the relationship between spirituality and life with the aid of J.R.R Tolkien I have been thinking about the relationship between the way in which we act in a time of crisis. What is the connection between our plans and our actions at such a time? Do our plans have any meaning when we have gambled all that we have on one slender possibility?

At the climax of the battle before the Black Gate, as the armies of the West make their last stand, Gwaihir, Lord of Eagles of the North, arrives with all of his vassals. Their first intention is to engage the Nazgûl but even as the Eagles arrive the Nazgûl flee from the battle answering the desperate call of their master as the Ring stands upon the brink of destruction. Soon the Ring has gone to the Fire, the realm of Sauron is at an end and Gandalf meets with Gwaihir.

” ‘Twice you have borne me, Gwaihir my friend,” said Gandalf. “Thrice shall pay for all, if you are willing. You will not find me a burden much greater than when you bore me from Zirakzigil, where my old like burned away.’

‘I would bear you,’ answered Gwaihir, ‘whither you will, even were you made of stone.'”

And so Gandalf and the Eagles fly to the rescue of Frodo and Sam at Mount Doom.

But what plans for Frodo and Sam had Gandalf made before the battle? The answer that I would like to make was that he had made no plans whatsoever. Of course, as soon as the eagles have come and the battle is won, he does all that he can to save them but if there had been no eagles there would have been no rescue. The eagles may have been hoped for but never planned for.

Does this reveal Gandalf’s essential heartlessness? Is he a general so fixed upon his goal that he is prepared to spend the lives of any of his men in order to achieve it? Again I would argue, no.

It was at the Black Gate some days before that Frodo had given much thought to the question of Gandalf’s intentions. Gollum had just made his suggestion that they try to enter Mordor by his “secret way”. As Frodo pondered this Gandalf was standing upon the steps of Orthanc, speaking with Saruman and yet thinking too of Frodo and Sam. Maybe Frodo felt this, even though he believed that Gandalf was gone for ever, but as he sat in silent thought he tried to recall all that Gandalf had said about the plans for the journey and the way he should enter Mordor.

“For this choice he could recall no counsel. Indeed Gandalf’s guidance had been taken from them too soon, too soon, while the Dark Land was still very far away. How they should enter it at the last Gandalf had not said. Perhaps he could not say.”

And Frodo concludes his reflections with a remembering of his decision “in his own sitting-room in the far off spring of another year” to take the Ring. This is critical. We are not talking about plans but about choices, decisions and commitments. Gandalf had made no plans for the entry into Mordor or any other part of the journey. The whole quest was a stepping forth into the complete unknown in which all plans were meaningless but all choices and commitments critical. The whole thing is a crazy gamble, a “Fool’s Hope”, as Denethor rightly described it. Frodo called it an “evil choice” and he is right too.

There are no plans, only a desperate gamble “costing not less than everything”, as T.S Eliot puts it in his Four Quartets.

Is Gandalf lucky that the Eagles turn up at the right moment? Of course he is. But it is the kind of luck that can only come to those who are prepared to risk everything for the best good.

 

The Downfall of Sauron

Gollum falls into the Fire clutching the Ring to his heart and in the confusion that follows Sam is able to carry Frodo to the threshold of the Sammath Naur, the Cracks of Doom, and there he gazes upon the fall of Sauron in wonder and terror.

“A brief vision he had of swirling cloud, and in the midst of it towers and battlements, tall as hills, founded upon a mighty mountain-throne above immeasurable pits; great courts and dungeons, eyeless prisons sheer as cliffs, and gaping gates of steel and adamant: and then all passed.”

And then all passed.

All the might of the Dark Lord, painstakingly constructed throughout the ages, ever since he first pledged his loyalty to Morgoth, all passes in a moment. Unlike his enemies of the West whose decline has been long but slow Sauron’s passing happens almost in the blink of an eye. At one moment all his attention is given to the battle before the Black Gate and he eagerly, if anxiously, awaits the capture of the Ring and his final triumph over all his foes. Then comes the moment of realisation, fury and terror, as he perceives the Ring in the one place in which it can be destroyed. And then… all passed.

“There rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent; for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.”

All the might that has held sway over ally, slave or foe for so long is simply blown away.

For the “shape of shadow” that the wind catches is all that Sauron has been and certainly all that he has been since the forging of the Rings of Power. For Sauron chose to create a thing that would be a complete expression of his power, “fraught with all his malice”, and by which he would be able to overcome and control all other peoples. Nine Rings he gave to Lords of Men, tempting them with dreams of power, and so they became the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths. Seven Rings he gave to lords of the Dwarves, tempting them with dreams of wealth, and although they were able to resist his control nevertheless they were diminished in power. The Three Rings of the Elves were not made by him nor did he ever see or touch them and so they did much good in the world and yet they were still bound to the Ruling Ring either to be exposed to his gaze once he held the Ring once more or to pass away in  its destroying.

The Ring gave Sauron great might and yet it also made him vulnerable. He thought that his vulnerability lay in a mighty one siezing the Ring and using it against him. In actual fact it was the impossible deed, the destruction of the Ring, that was the greatest danger that he faced.

What Sauron shows us is the spiritual diminishment of someone who becomes entirely identified with the things that he makes. Fëanor becomes entirely identified with the Silmarils and binds his sons to them as well and in so doing causes untold harm. In a lesser manner Saruman the White falls from greatness both in his desire for the Ring and also in his obsession with the machinery that he creates.

But what of Ilúvatar, the Maker of all? Is not he the one most identified with all that he has made? Here we see the difference between the true and the false maker. The false maker creates in order to own and control. The true maker creates in order to make free, in order that all that the maker creates can be its true self and belong fully to itself, giving or withholding itself freely as it chooses. Sauron never permits this freedom and yet in enslaving others to himself he enslaves himself to the thing that he has made. In making himself great in his own pride through his creation Sauron diminishes himself to such a degree that when the thing that he has made is destroyed what he is most truly is revealed to be mere shadow that passes away.