Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Decisions, Decsisions

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.



  1. An excellent extension of the lesson of kindliness and the capaciousness of mercy: yes, it is the whole situation that saves the Quest, not just Frodo's decision not to kill Gollum. I had not thought about this before, but you are definitely right. It is a mistake to focus too narrowly on Frodo's decision (or series of decisions). We need to look to the whole to understand why the Quest ultimately succeeds, even if Frodo himself does not at the moment of doom.


  2. I agree that one has to look at the entire situation of the book to see Frodo’s true success in those final, crucial moments at Mt. Doom. It’s like how Sam and Frodo can trace their current situation via Galadriel’s phial all the way back to the Silmarils; the little and large decisions of all those historical people, and people like Bilbo, and those of the Fellowship have all combined to bring them to that moment, and eventually to Mt. Doom.

    Not to lessen the accomplishments of Frodo, Sam, or any of the other members of the Fellowship, but it is interesting that with Gollum and the Ring, Sauron in many ways created his own undoing. Hubris, in many ways the root of most evil, has a way of destroying those who suffer from it.


  3. I hadn’t considered before that Gollum’s presence at Sammath Naur at the crucial moment of the Ring’s destruction is not only the result of Frodo’s mercy, but a series of other people’s, as well. This sheds light on the nature of free will and the ways in which it is affected by its intersection with both the free will of others and the events that occur along the way. You note that we have spent a lot of time discussing the nature of free will in situations of crucial moral decisions, which is complicated enough, but the circumstances in which such decisions must be made have been created by an almost undecipherable web of previous decisions, seemingly unconnected and sometimes so small it’s impossible to imagine they could matter in a large way. I think this fact emphasizes Tolkien’s belief, reflected in your quote, that it’s the small, everyday decisions that ultimately construct the paths of our lives; that they are the decisions that, in many ways, matter the most.


  4. As the post argues, Gollum remains alive “by the goodwill of other characters.” These merciful choices, as the piece also argues well, were not made with direct consideration of the Ring’s fate. Much like Chance’s point, the characters making these independent actions were manifestations of Tolkien’s beliefs for how people should be good conduct themselves to be good servants and a good kings. Because they did not merely hope for good fortune nor yield to the “vagaries of fortune, the corruption of others, and the threat of natural and supernatural death,” their cumulative kindliness in making choices brought about an important moment of grace in the story.

    In her paper Men, Halflings, and Hero Worship, Marion Zimmer Bradley agues that Gollum’s fall into the Crack of Doom was more than simply an accident. To her, its was the ultimate product of Smeagol/Gollum’s love-ate relationship to himself, the Ring, and Frodo. She claims that Smeagol’s demise (with the Ring) saves Frodo from destruction and liberates both from the agony of the Ring. However, I disagree that Smeagol should be given so much agency at this important juncture in the story. Because kindliness and goodwill contribute to Tolkien’s conception of grace, it is more important that Gollum is at Sammath Naur to take the Ring from Frodo and destroy it than his unique love relation to himself, the Ring and Frodo. Smeagol does not choose to liberate Frodo from the Ring by tearing off Frodo’s finger, nor does he choose to liberate himself from the Ring by throwing himself and Gollum off the ledge. To me, Gollum merely falls. However, many other characters choose, often independently of the fate of the Ring itself, to spare Gollum’s life. Those acts of kindliness ultimately allow for the divine moment in which good[will] prevails because it is good.


  5. I liked how you said that there are many decisions that were made before the actual start of the Lord of the Rings that affected the characters directly. It puts things in an interesting perspective, especially when we consider Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom. While in class we focused on the “big” decisions he makes – the choice to take the Ring to Mount Doom, the different times when he considered whether or not to wear and use the Ring – perhaps we should also think about the many “little” decisions Frodo must have had to make along the way. There must have been so many times when Frodo could have decided to bail completely on the journey. I mean, it was an extremely arduous and discouraging journey at times – from being snowed out in Caradhras, to creeping through the Mines of Moria, to going through the Dead Marshes. At every step of the way, Frodo could have chosen to leave, he could have chosen to throw away the Ring and return to the Shire and pretend that he knew absolutely nothing about the Ring. But he didn’t. So, while yes, he might have been a “failure” at the end and while it was not entirely surprising that he failed, I think Frodo deserves some credit for having lasted as long as he did.


  6. I completely agree with this posting. The destruction of the Ring was a group effort that resulted successfully with the right choices of everybody. It is remarkable to think that the mission would have only been completed with Gollum at Mount Doom, which could only have happened by the goodwill of Gandalf and the Elves so long ago. By remaining morally sound and keeping devotion to God throughout the previous few hundred years at least, these decisions culminated in the destruction of evil.

    Tolkien believes that we are all given free will, but with that power comes great responsibility (sorry to mix in the Marvel universe). God wants us to make the conscious decision to follow Him in the path to goodness. But free will allows us to make evil choices that may seem beneficial to you at the time but end in darkness. Thus, Tolkien created this sequence of good choices that conquer evil.

    Alex Allen