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.

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.