Through a series of events, many of which are prompted by his own decisions and, many of which are not, at last “at the very Crack of Doom, stood Frodo, black against the glare, tense, erect, but still as if he had been turned to stone” (LotR 945). Here, despite his slight stature, Frodo is an image of greatness, of darkness, of horrible resolve, succumbed to the horrible power of the one ring. Tolkien writes of Frodo, “‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed’” (945). And so, of course, it would seem that Frodo had failed. His free will was called upon, and he willed not to destroy the (or as he saw it, “his”) ring. But obviously there are a few hundred pages of action before this point, and a judgement of success or failure is unjustified without taking the whole of the book into consideration.
Thus far, I believe we have discussed free will namely insofar as it is involved in crucial moral decisions. Of course, the story, and the journey, is propelled at least as much by chance as it is by hard-wrought decisions. For example, we reflect on Frodo’s pity for Gollum, and his decision not to kill him, but Frodo would not have even gotten the chance to make such a decision were it not for the elves who held Gollum in custody prior to “The Council of Elrond.” Legolas informs the council that he had escaped, “[n]ot through lack of watchfulness, [...] but perhaps through over-kindliness [...] Gandalf bade us hope still for his cure, and we had not the heart to keep him ever in the dungeons under the earth, where he would fall back into his old black thoughts” (255). Gandalf, just as he does with Frodo, convinces Gollum’s elvish captors to take pity on the creature and they do so, even without knowing the power of the ring firsthand. By deciding to allow him some time outside of his prison, they unwittingly aid in Gollum’s escape and, of course, we know that Gandalf is right when he says, “But he may play a part yet that neither he not Sauron have foreseen” (256).
Gollum is a character who is only allowed to continue to play a role in The Lord of the Rings by the goodwill of other characters. As Tolkien explains of Frodo’s failure (or non-failure) in light of Gollum’s role in the demise of the Ring, “his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed” (Letters 326). Having been so deeply, and I think it it important to note, unwillingly, influenced by the power of the Ring, by the time of Gollum’s last act, Frodo has essentially been stripped of his free will. Is Frodo to be judged? It seems a bit strange to judge a being so wholly intoxicated by the supernatural power possessed by ring which the reader could likely never understand. At the same time, it’s a bit tricky to absolve someone of blame just because their offense is beyond comprehension. So that’s probably not the point.
In delightful harmony with her last name, Jane Chance explains that “Tolkien’s major interest does not lie in predicting the future or in encouraging Man to hope for good fortune. He wishes to illustrate how best to conduct one’s life, both privately and publicly, by being a good servant and a good king, despite the vagaries of fortune, the corruption of others, and the threat of natural and supernatural death” (Tolkien’s Art 181-182). And so we are brought back to kindliness. Gollum’s interference in Frodo’s decision to keep the Ring for himself was not fortune or chance. It was a direct result of the merciful actions of a number of characters, ranging from wizards to elves to hobbits. This, I think, is a good point for reflection on the results of choices made under free will of the characters which were not necessarily made specifically to aid in the destruction of the Ring. These decisions began to take place long before the opening of The Fellowship, and are a part of the history of all the peoples and races of Middle Earth, and debatably, our world. It is just as much the choices of others that affect Frodo’s outcome as it is his own. Had the elves kept Gollum underground and thereby succeeded in holding him captive, or had Sam or anyone else decided to rob Gollum of his miserable and pathetic existence, then it seems Tolkien would have had no choice but to throw Frodo down into the “fiery abyss” because, had he been given time to think, “he would have had a clear vision” (Letters 330).
This is where I think things begin to break down ever so slightly. I don’t think it matters much what Frodo would have done had Gollum not attacked him. I think judgement of this issue has to be reserved to what is in the text because, as in life, we have to use our free will to make decisions and judgements based on what we are given. Frodo did not fail because he “had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved” (Letters 326). Frodo had been able to make choices his entire life which yielded a successful outcome, from befriending Gandalf, to offering to take the Ring to Mt Doom. Choices cannot be taken as isolated incidents. Every decision he made in his life got him to that point in the novel, redeemed him, and saved his life, and it is Tolkien’s lesson on how to live that is most compelling, not his explanation of other ways Frodo could have succeeded.