Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Will, Evil and… Failure?

It wasn’t until after Monday’s class that I realized that I was very bothered by the fact that Frodo failed to carry out his task completely, though I didn’t really know why. I let the realization sink in for a while, and it was then that I decided to think about why it bothered me, which then took me to broader questions…

Frodo Baggins’ story and his journey seems to be sort of an allegory to our lives and the things we face every day, a fact that makes him a very relatable character. Just like Frodo’s constant torment and temptation with the Ring, here in the primary world many of us are often tempted to do things that are not considered good, and we often feel like giving in to our “sinful nature”. All of us, in both our world and Tolkien’s world, have an infinite number of choices to make, but there’s always that shadow of temptation hanging above our heads that makes our decisions harder to make. It sounds like a simple thing, comparing our lives and struggle to that of Mr. Baggins, but then one might have to think about what that means in the context of the larger scope of the story, the one that deals with the One Ring and its effect on Middle-earth and its inhabitants.

In letter 246, Tolkien responds to a comment regarding Frodo’s “failure” and says, “At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum—impossible, I should have said, for anyone to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted” (Pg 326). Although he includes all the circumstances that would justify the failure to destroy the Ring, the part of “impossible to resist” stuck out to me the most. What does this say about the power of evil in the whole of Tolkien’s world? What about our own world?

If, as Tolkien says, no one could have completed the task, does it imply that the evilest of evils cannot be defeated by will alone? After all, Frodo’s will was overpowered and he couldn’t let the Ring go after holding on to it for so long. Other people who came into contact with the Ring made their choice to either take it (like Boromir would have done if Frodo hadn’t put the ring on and disappeared) or to resist it (like Faramir and Galadriel). But ultimately it was a different position for Frodo, to bear the Ring and have it in his possession, and it was in this situation that the choices and the will of the person in question were in the most danger. In the readings that we did, we saw the instances in which Frodo’s will fought against and was tested by some seemingly greater will. As the story progressed, Frodo’s resistance kept getting weaker and weaker (with the exception of the scene at Cirith Ungol where he manages to stay his hand from reaching the Ring) and his inner conflict within his will affects the last choice he makes. Though we were not privy to Frodo’s thoughts during the last scene at Mt. Doom, the fact that he said “…I do not choose to do now what I came to do…” (Pg 945) and kept the Ring seemed to be, in my opinion, not because he wanted to keep it for himself, but because he took the action that did not require the strength he did not have. He might have wanted the ring; but on the other hand he simply might not have wanted to fight anymore (again, Tolkien seems to justify this in the quote above). I think these are two very different reasons, and although they might not have changed outside things like his actions, we as readers can afford to look at the bigger picture and, while accepting the “failure” on Frodo’s part, we can also understand where he was coming from. I think that despite the “failure” that DID happen, this can be a small point in Frodo’s favor—after all, it was HIS journey that brought the ring to the edge of the volcano and together with some stroke of chance (or was it?) led to the destruction of the volcano.

This does not lessen the fact that I was bothered by the failure, however, and I think that the main reason of this was because of how I read into this failure and what it could (and might) tell me about our lives here in the real world. If we, as readers, start making connections between ourselves and the characters (like many of us might have done with Frodo Baggins), we come up with more questions: does the Ring signify the worst of evils that we face in our world? Are we helpless against it? After this, we might think about the parallels between our lives and Frodo’s life, and that would then lead to us thinking about the type of journey we are in and the type of person we have to be in order to be successful in that journey (if that success is up to us at all). Allegorically speaking, not all of us are on the most perilous journeys to destroy the ultimate evil; some of us come across smaller obstacles and temptations that are considerably easier to deal with. If we happen to be on a BIG one though, are we all Frodo Bagginses? SHOULD we be Frodo Bagginses? Is there a difference between our world and Tolkien’s that might help us achieve success if we WERE Frodos, or one that would not require us to be Frodos at all? Mayhap we could afford to be Faramirs and Galadriels….

- Seleste M.


  1. Did Frodo truly fail though? It is certain that he was not able to destroy the Ring independently—indeed, chance (or perhaps fate, as Gandalf would suggest) played a significant role in the Ring’s eventual ruin. But given the importance Tolkien places on the variety of characters of Middle Earth—those that are both good and evil—it would seem odd that he would allow Frodo to save the day all on his own. In fact, Frodo would have failed long before he ever reached Mt. Doom, if not for the efforts of his friends and allies.

    Thus, it seems to me that Frodo did not in truth fail at all, for even Tolkien asserts that it would be impossible for anyone to dispose of the Ring after enduring it for so long. In forming and believing in the relationships he’d made with others—including “evil” characters like Gollum—Frodo succeeded in the truest sense he could, for Tolkien’s purpose was to exhibit the role all sorts of Middle Earth inhabitants played in the composition and preservation of their world. I too admit to aggravation when Frodo succumbs right at the crux of victory, but I understand the purpose behind this disappointment. If Tolkien was relaying any sort of message about “evil” in our primary world, it is that it cannot be conquered or banished without the efforts of many…and indeed, that evil itself must somehow contribute to its own mitigation.

    -Jessica Adepoju

  2. I can relate to your disappointment at Frodo not being able to cast the ring into the fire; however, I would ask if it was not an expected disappointment. This moment, to me, was a cinematic denial of catharsis mandated by the story arc. The testing of Frodo's will to resist the ring throughout the book leads up to his ultimate failure in Mt. Doom. He cant not fail. Drama demands his capitulation to the power of the One Ring.

    If he can not succeed, then can his refusal to give up the ring be truly called a failure? I believe not, and the inevitability of the ring's triumph over Frodo's resistance is evidenced throughout the book. The ring continually tests Frodo's will, telling the reader that it has a will of its own. This foreshadows the ultimate inability for Frodo to resist. After all, it is not merely a trinket, but a phylactery of sorts for the most powerful being in Middle Earth. It would have been unbelievable for Frodo to have simply tossed the ring into the fire. To do so would be for the will of one Hobbit to overpower the will of Sauron.

  3. Frodo’s failure is indeed a cause of disappointment for the reader, but to me it is a very necessary disappointment. Tolkien’s insistence that this was a failure (in multiple letters) leads me to believe there is no point to try and sugarcoat this truth. Tolkien saw this failure as inevitable, a completely logical part of the story and a significant development. The power of the ring was in no way going to be overpowered by the will of a hobbit, and I’m sure throwing the ring into the fire would have been the equivalent of Frodo trying to break Helm’s Deep with his hands.
    More importantly however, I think this failure is connected to the discussion LeGuinn uses to talk about “shadows”. Disappointment and failures are inevitable in life, in quests, and in all attempts. I think you pose an interesting question- is there a difference between wanting something and not being able to fight the temptation for it? And how do our shadows play a role in temptation. I think Tolkien’s point is that failure, in the end, can be exalted. It was always a fool’s quest, so it makes sense to think that the failure of one was inevitable. But more importantly, it was saved by the good actions and good intentions of both Frodo and the rest of the fellowship.


  4. the second post is mine, sorry! I forgot to sign it.

    -Nick Carter

  5. I am intrigued by your suggestion that we should somehow imitate Frodo in our primary reality, but are you sure that it is Frodo (or Frodo alone) who is to be our guide? What about Sam? What if we are not the heroes of the story but the servants?


  6. Something you said in your second to last paragraph really struck me and made me realize what part of Tolkien's claim that Frodo could not go any farther and was doomed to need external assistance has been bothering me: "kept the Ring seemed to be, in my opinion, not because he wanted to keep it for himself, but because he took the action that did not require the strength he did not have." And yet, as Gandalf and Galadriel and so many others, even Tolkien himself, have told us, claiming the Ring takes an immense feat of will.

    I realize, of course, that when these statements are made, they are made with an assumption that the claimant of the Ring will then go on to attempt to master and use its power for some sort of purpose. But to merely be conscious of that Other Will, to strive against it and to master it, must take immense mental strength as well, since one has to wrap one's mind around that power and truly comprehend it. And Tolkien seems to indicate that Frodo's mind has become extraordinarily weak as well; he can no longer remember the rabbit from Ithilien, the Shire, or anything else that has occurred.

    So does he actually claim the Ring? Or is the Ring claiming him in that moment? (Tangent: does the Master of the Ring disappear when the Ring is placed on the finger? We are led to believe that Saruon didn't disappear when he bore the Ring, so is invisibility the actual test of the Ring's power versus the Bearer's power? End tangent).

    Actually, I think this whole post was a random tangent. But now I'm stuck on the Choice vs. No-Choice debate again. How much of that decision at Mount Doom was Frodo Baggins, the hobbit from the Shire? (remember, after the Ring is gone, Sam looks at Frodo and sees again the "dear sweet master" which indicates that something had completely changed in the last part of the journey) How much was it the will of the Ring? How much of it was the combination of Frodo-Ring? I'm fairly convinced that, at the end, Frodo was not just exhausted. He was no longer fully there and was actually linked to the Ring. [In a moment of sheer irreverence: Fringo?]

    J. Trudeau

  7. What Frodo’s ‘failure’ says about the nature of evil in Middle Earth is a good question to ask. But it seems to me that Frodo’s choice, at the end, to stop fighting and to keep the Ring were one and the same: he could not stop fighting without it resulting in him keeping the Ring, and keeping the Ring would necessarily mean there was no longer anything to fight against. It might be better to say, rather than choosing to stop fighting but not choosing to keep the Ring, Frodo chose to stop fighting, knowing it would have a bad outcome, and keeping the Ring was merely incidental to that decision, an inseparable part of it. After all, Frodo didn’t say he wanted to keep the Ring and use it, he simply said he chose not to destroy it.

    the whole of the power of good is greater than the sum of its parts. The struggle for good can dominate over the forces of evil even if some fighting for good fall. Perhaps it was the force of will of the powers of good that created the circumstances that led to the destruction of the Ring.


  8. I always understood Frodo's possession of the Ring to be a slow deterioration of his personal self, his goodness, and his will. With the Rings corrupting influence, it always seemed as though Frodo's main charge was simply not to let it blacken his soul while the others around him were really the ones responsible for getting him where he needed to be. Its not simply the possibility of what can be done with the Ring that makes it so dangerous. Truly the problem of the Ring is the supernatural pull toward true evil.

    I've always felt that the concept of good can only be felt when there is a presence of evil. It seems like a really basic concept I know, but when you lack the ability to know the difference, that's when I suppose you are stuck without knowledge as before the fall of Adam and Eve. I also believe that good and evil are not so much opposite concepts as they are two sides of the same coin by this logic, giving the world more dimension and creating a sense interconnectedness. Tolkien's portrayal of this same concept through The Lord of the Rings is important for our ability to understand it and interpret it as a projected reality.

    As Tolkien said in his letter, the last moment of the possession of the Ring is when the pull toward evil would be the strongest and it makes a great deal of sense for him to be unable to complete the task. From a writer's point of view its simply too easy and anticlimactic to just throw it in the fire, but it also maintains that the whole work is not about Frodo. He is not the classical hero who can conquer all trials in order to accomplish his goals alone. He is in fact fallible (I'd say "he's human" if he wasn't a hobbit) and this allows the story to be very real and believable.

    As I was saying earlier as well, evil seems necessary in Tolkien's world in order to give purpose to good, in order to give the characters a reason for existing even. Thus if we are to view the Ring as literally all the evil in Middle Earth encapsulated and perhaps animated in one object, then to have been able to simply destroy it would be in a way destroying part of Middle Earth. Thus I believe that had he actually achieved his goal and willingly thrown the Ring in the fire himself, then perhaps there would be no more evil in the world and the book would have had to take an entirely different turn, perhaps even ceasing to exist. Since it was a haphazard accident of chance and other forces that threw the ring in the fire, I believe that the world of Middle Earth lives on and though the balance is tipped toward good obviously the corrupting influence the Ring left behind is what keeps the world still flowing.