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.

 

Trusting to Luck on the Roads of Mordor

Life sometimes takes you to places that you would rather not go to. Tolkien found himself in the trenches of the Western Front on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 when nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed in a single attack on the German lines and a further 40,000 were wounded. He gained a great respect for ordinary British soldiers and largely based the character of Sam Gamgee upon those who he got to know. Sam, like those men, would rather not be in the trenches. He does not pretend to some kind of heroism. As far as he is concerned behaviour like that would be entirely inappropriate, like pretending to be Aragorn, or Faramir, or Boromir, or… Frodo for that matter. Sam just gets on with whatever needs to be done. Things like dealing with “Gollum’s treacherous attack, the horror of Shelob, and his own adventures with the orcs.”

Sam has no sense of entitlement. He does not believe that he has an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He hopes and even expects that Frodo will treat him fairly and with due respect but that expectation lies within certain bounds. He does not think of himself as Frodo’s equal.

And Sam believes in luck. Not that he thinks that he has a right to it but that he wants to give it a chance if possible. In his fine study, The Road to Middle-earth, Tom Shippey reflects on the place of luck in Tolkien at some length. Shippey tells us that the poet of Beowulf “often ascribes events to wyrd, and treats it in a way as a supernatural force.” But Shippey notes that luck or wyrd is not the same thing as fate. There is an implacability about fate, there is nothing that you can do about it; but you can change your luck. As Shippey puts it, “while persistence offers no guarantees, it does give ‘luck’ a chance to operate.”

And so Sam decides to go in search for water and, as he does so, he says to the sleeping Frodo, “I’ll have to leave you for a bit and trust to luck.”

Sam does find water but he also nearly runs into Gollum and his response to these events is to say, “Well, luck did not let me down… but that was a near thing.” In other words, it is wise not to push luck too far.

Later, when they are forced to take the road, Frodo and Sam are overtaken by a company of orcs on the way to reinforce the garrison at the Black Gate as the armies of the West approach. They know that they cannot escape and Frodo despairs. “We trusted to luck, and it has failed us. We are trapped.” Sam, however, is not so quick to give up. “Seems so,” he says. “Well, we can but wait and see.” They are not able to escape the orcs’ attention but later, in a moment of confusion, they are able to escape and so continue their journey to the mountain. Their persistence has given luck a chance to operate.

In recent weeks in this blog we have thought about the role of Providence in the hobbits’ journey through Mordor. We have seen the part played by the gifts of the Valar in the light of the Silmarils captured in the star glass of Galadriel and in the retreat of the smokes of Orodruin before the West Wind. Shippey reflects on the relationship between Providence and Luck in King Alfred the Great’s translation into Old English of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, a text that was one of the most influential in the shaping of the medieval mind. He comments that “What we call God’s fore-thought and his Providence is while it is there in his mind, before it gets done; but once it gets done, then we call it wyrd. This way anyone can tell that there are two things and two names, forethought and wyrd.” Sam is content to live in the experience of luck or wyrd and leave the discernment of Providence to kings or scholars. The result is that he lives life cheerfully and thankfully and he never gives up.  

Pippin Follows His Captain

When I wrote last week’s blog post on Denethor’s cry of despair that “the West has failed” I came across something that took me by surprise. That moment came when I read Pippin’s speech to Denethor after he is released from the Steward’s service. It is a speech of some nobility and it shows how far Pippin has come since he looked into the Stone of Orthanc just a few days before. He is becoming the “very valiant man” that Gandalf declared him to be when they passed through the outer defences of the Pelennor Fields. He is making the kind of journey that someone with good foundations will make when those foundations are challenged. He will grow up into mature adulthood and become a source of strength to others.

“I will take your leave, sir,” he said; “for I want to see Gandalf very much indeed. But he is no fool; and I will not think of dying until he despairs of life. But from my word and your service I do not wish to be released while you live. And if they come at last to the Citadel, I hope to be here and stand beside you and earn perhaps the arms that you have given me.”

In saying this Pippin displays a kind of courage that was very dear to Tolkien and one that he saw in the heroic tales of northern lands. It is a courage that is not dependant on a happy outcome. It is a courage that is most truly displayed when hope is lost. We see it in the cheerfulness of spirit that Merry and Pippin display when they are prisoners of the orcs and when the Ents march upon Isengard. And we see its absence in Denethor’s despair. The Tolkien scholar, Tom Shippey, puts it this way. “Its great statement was that defeat is no refutation. The right side remains right even if it has no ultimate hope at all.”

This is courage indeed and it requires great inner strength to maintain it. And in Pippin’s speech we get an idea of where he finds that strength. “I will not think of dying until he [Gandalf] despairs of life.” All through the story the young hobbits have been aware of being of no great significance to the final outcome of the quest. For Merry this realisation has been a burden. He feels himself to be an item of baggage in someone else’s story and it hurts him to feel in this way. Pippin is not burdened in the same way. He is happy to leave the big decisions, even the big beliefs, in more competent hands. If Gandalf has not given in, well, then neither will Peregrin Took.

Let us not judge the value of Pippin’s courageous choice and find it wanting because it seems to require the greater courage and faith of someone else. Pippin does make brave choices and when he urges Beregond to stop great harm coming to Faramir he inspires a brave choice in another. But he is content, not to be a leader, but a follower. What matters is that he has a worthy cause to give his “gentle loyalty” to and a captain worth following.

If we think about this with some care we will come to this conclusion. We are all followers in certain aspects of life and if our leaders are of the right quality then it will be easier for us to keep going even in challenging times. Equally if our captains let us down our own capacity to keep on going gets a little harder. And we will also realise that other people depend upon us to keep going and that we must not let them down. We are all part of a community that needs each other and sometimes we can be surprised how widely that community extends and that people look to us that we rarely think about. Faramir will survive his father’s despair because Beregond gains strength from Pippin.