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.

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.