I suppose it's not altogether surprising that thoughts about this class and its themes and questions have crept into other areas of my life. This phenomenon was particularly striking to me this week, since I have just finished analyzing a passage concerning the interaction between free will and temptation for another class. The way this passage (from the Probation of Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi) describes free will in an instance of great temptation was at first slightly counter-intuitive to me, but after analyzing and understanding it more, I do think that it's an extremely helpful way of thinking about the effects of temptation, particularly when considering the cases in which Frodo is tempted by the Ring (ie. when looking at our “Choice?” column from class).
In the Probation, the nuns describe instances when Maria is tempted by the devil as times when her free will is not taken from her, but rather it is hidden from her. In the same way that, in the material world, it is harder to use an object when we cannot easily find it, Maria still can use her free will – it is merely much more difficult to do so. (In her case, this is happening as a part of a test set out for her by God.)
This seems to me to be a very apt image to keep in mind when considering how the power of the Ring works over Frodo. The temptation of the Ring (which seems to vary in degree with relation to his location and the circumstances in which he finds himself, as well as how long he has carried it) makes it far more difficult for Frodo to summon the will to prevent himself from slipping on the Ring, for it has, in a sense, been hidden from him. Consider as an example the passage at Cirith Ungol when Frodo's hand moves to the Ring as though compelled by some other force. After the outside power has begun to move Frodo's hand toward the Ring, “his own will stirred; slowly it forced the hand back and set it to find another thing...” (Bk 4, Ch 8). It is not the case that Frodo temporarily lost his will – he is not without it. Instead, it is merely hidden from him for the moment, and it must be “stirred” or found in order for Frodo to express it. Though it seems a time of temptation is just when our will should be most accessible to us, it seems rather to be a time when it is most hidden from us. Thus, we must rely on even greater strength than ever to overcome the temptation and find and use our own will.
But why must we be tested by temptation in this way? Why can't we keep our will handy and accessible at all times?
I believe that this can be explained though one of my favorite brief exchanges in the whole trilogy, which comes shortly after one of the Faramir passages we were assigned to read for class. Within the assigned passage, upon learning that Frodo bears the Ring, Faramir proclaims that it is “A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality!” (Bk 4, Ch 5). He says this in his moment of decision – this show of quality would be to return the Ring to his father at Minas Tirith. Afterward though, after Frodo has gone to sleep and Sam is preparing to do the same, Sam speaks to Faramir about the latter's previous remark:
“'Good night, Captain, my lord,' he said, 'You took the chance, sir.'
'Did I so?' said Faramir.
'Yes sir, and showed your quality: the very highest'” (Bk 4, Ch 5).
And Sam is correct. It is our choices that define the quality of our character and enable us to prove or demonstrate that quality to others. For that act of proof to truly mean anything, we must face challenges and temptations; it must be, at times, difficult for us to “find” the will to make the decision that we know must be made. One's quality must be tested before it may be lauded. In the same way, we see that no one will succeed every single time; no one is perfect. Similar to the conclusion in our discussion of whether Feanor's sins make him “evil,” we are thus led to reason that some badness or weakness does not ruin one's quality entirely. This is why, though Frodo does not complete his task in the appointed way, his personal quality is not to be blamed, nor did the quest actually fail. Though he faltered in that one final instance, caving to the immense power of the Ring's temptation, he had already established his quality over the course of all the other choices that had faced him over the course of the journey. Most notably, he had spared Gollum – the choice that ultimately allowed Gollum to be present at Mount Doom and to ensure that the quest was, in the end, completed. Frodo's quality was tested time after time, and one instance of “failure” was not enough to overpower the true representation he had established of himself as a good and merciful person. For that overarching quality, he was redeemed.
(Since I'm sure most of our page numbers are different, I've given books and chapters for the Lord of the Rings references/quotes.)