Friday, May 9, 2014

The Battlefield is the Heart of Man: Frodo's Failure and Redemption

"Frodo 'failed'. It is possible that once the ring was destroyed he had little recollection of the last scene. 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" 
-Tolkien (Letters 249).

I want to address our discussion in class of whether or not Frodo had the choice when he did not surrender the ring at Mount Doom. I challenge the idea that without choice, the situation would have been meaningless. Before I defend this claim, however, I'll make a case for why I believe Frodo was unable to destroy the ring.

I'll admit that Frodo does indeed explicitly mention choice while he stands at Mount Doom. "I have come," he says, "but I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!" (Tolkien 924). Frodo seems to believe he's making the choice; yet according to Tolkien himself, "it was quite impossible for him to surrender the Ring, in act or will, especially at its point of maximum power" (Letters 251). In another letter, he writes that "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" (253).

Jane Chance discusses this in her work, Tolkien's Art. She speaks of the "divided self" and urges that "Tolkien warns that the most dangerous evil really springs from inside, not from outside" (154). Ursula LeGuin too talks about this evil that springs from the inside in her discussion of the Hans Christian Anderson story in which the shadow within man is made manifest. She highlights Jung's ideas about shadows as the "other side of our psyche, the dark brother of our conscious mind" (59) and ultimately comes to the conclusion that "there is an incredible potential for good an evil in every one of us" (65). Shippey speaks of the same phenomenon, insisting that "in Middle-earth... both good and evil function as external powers and as inner impulses from the psyche" (153). This apparent duality of the psyche is obviously a very important point, so I'm going to examine it a bit further in my discussion of Frodo's choice (or lack thereof).

Tolkien's depiction of Frodo's failure at Mount Doom is, in my opinion, an illustration of this evil that exists in each and every one of us. While I don't think many people would argue with that, I'm going to once again assert that Frodo had no choice in the matter. The evil within himself, his shadow, had in that moment, completely overcome him. There was not resistance left within him to make an opposing choice, taking the ring was the only thing he could have done. The evil within him was completely in charge. I hardly think that constitutes as choice.

What's more, I find Tolkien's musings in his drafted letter to Miss J. Burn to be remarkably powerful evidence for the lack of choice Frodo had. He mentions the Lord's Prayer - "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" and then goes on to say that "a petition against something that cannot happen is unmeaning. there exists the possibility of being placed in positions beyond one's power. In which case (as I believe) salvation from ruin will depend on something apparently unconnected: the general sanctity (and humility and mercy) of the sacrificial person" (252).

Thus, I believe the choice, the position, was entirely beyond Frodo's power. Tolkien was setting up a situation in which evil, in its moment of glory, triumphed over good within the very core of a character. It's reminiscent of one of my favorite quotes from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov: God and the Devil are fighting and the battlefield is the heart of man (or in this case, a hobbit). I think it's critical to Tolkien that sometimes, the Devil wins. "We are finite creatures with absolute limitations upon the powers of our soul-body structure in either action or endurance" (Letters 326). We cannot always be what we want to be. Sometimes, evil wins, and man cannot save himself no matter what.

Rather than accepting this loss and lack of choice as meaninglessness, I think it's necessary to confront the grave implications of what Frodo's not having a choice would mean. If we accept that Frodo had no choice, we are accepting that none of us are immune to evil. Rather than being a personal choice, the book sends a universal message. Each and every one of us is susceptible to the evil within ourselves, and even if we're as remarkable and good and pure of heart as Frodo, it's always lurking within our natures. When pushed to the brink, it can be brought forth within any of us.

It's both curious and tragic to me that Frodo, for all the regret and sorrow he feels in regards to his actions at Mount Doom, is permanently haunted by them. Regret does not and cannot absolve him of his sin, the evil within him leaves a very permanent and very tragic wound. "I have been too deeply hurt, Sam" laments Frodo, "I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me" (LotR 1006). This, in my opinion, is one of the most tragic things about the book.

But while Frodo cannot save himself, he is saved. For a deeply religious author such as Tolkien, I think the emphasis he places on mercy absolutely cannot be overlooked. It is mercy which saves Frodo, his willingness to spare Gollum's life and to treat him with pity, that allows the ring to be banished and the hand of evil to relinquish Frodo's heart. In the end, he is not saved by his fellow hobbits or men or elves, but by the goodness that existed in his heart alongside the evil. I think this is critical to Tolkien's message, in a way it's a confrontation of the evil within us. It's not trying to explain it away or to justify its existence. Its saying that even if we lose, goodness can win.

I'm entering fairly preachy territory at this point, but I believe I've picked up a very intentional message from an examination of the readings for class. It is my belief that Tolkien intended to show that even if we ourselves lose, if the evil in ourselves triumphs and we must eternally bear the weight of our own sins forward into the future, goodness can still win; and through goodness, we can be saved.



  1. "Sometimes, evil wins, and man cannot save himself no matter what." Yes, I am sure Tolkien would agree--thus, as you rightly point out, the need (as he would also put it) for grace. RLFB

  2. Hm. The idea you introduce of God and the Devil fighting in the heart of man kind of makes it seem as if you don't allow free will to men. Eru Iluvatar can put the ring into Frodo's hand, and Sauron can torment him, but neither of them can force him to choose one way or another--or else it were no choice. The readings make it abundantly clear that Tolkien, at least, thought that way.

    However, I agree with your initial point, and I think that you've chosen all the right passages to support it--it's perfectly possible for the torment of the Ring to be so great that, for all practical intents and purposes, Frodo had no choice in the matter. His will was broken, and he had endured as long as he POSSIBLY could (tolkien's words, not mine). I think it's fair to say that "free will," in that context, was only present in the very most academic sense--Frodo "chose" to keep the ring like I "chose" to keep hitting myself when my brother used to get hold of my wrists. Whether this is enough of a choice to have merited inclusion in Wednesday's discussion alongside the fraught decisions of Aragorn and Bilbo, I don't know--but the impression I got from the letters we read was that Tolkien viewed the "choices" that Sam made before he reached the Sammath Naur to be more important by far, for good and ill.

    --Charlie Bullock

  3. I think these are some very poignant reflections about the themes that lie at the heart of LotR. It's interesting how we might see the interaction of good and evil interacting in the same way on the macro level. Indeed, the entire struggle with Sauron that concludes the Third Age might be seen as a reflection of the inner struggle within Frodo. The forces of good, pushed to the brink, weakened internally and assailed from outside find themselves locked in a struggle they are doomed to lose. The forces of the west are doomed to lose the battle before the Black Gates, until suddenly, from outside comes salvation. Another example might be the situation in the era when Melkor essentially achieved utter domination of Middle Earth, before the riding forth of the Valar. Could we even see this in the music of the Ainulindule? It's worth considering what the fact that these patterns exist means for Tolkien's worldview, and how he thinks about legend and truth perhaps.

  4. Ooh yeah, I didn't mean to imply that you've literally got God and the Devil duking it out by controlling Frodo, I more meant to extend the idea metaphorically (much the way I interpret it in the original text). I should mention that I know the quote doesn't transfer perfectly, but in this deeper examination of the Lord of the Rings, I've seen a great deal of parallel between it and TBK which I find rather fascinating, because they're two of my favorite works and they address very similar questions with deeply religious answers but in extremely different fashions.

    Anyway, I would agree that Eru Iluvatar and Sauron aren't making Frodo's choices for him, much the same way that I don't believe we have good and evil supreme beings making our everyday choices. I more meant to extend this idea that we all have those supreme forces within ourselves, although I get how that didn't transfer perfectly.

    That's a very interesting point about these interactions taking place at a macro level as well! I'll have to do some thinking about it - it's quite fascinating thinking about this kind of salvation within Tolkien's works though, you're right, it does seem to show up everywhere. It was certainly very important to him, that much is clear!

  5. This post makes a lot of points I have been pondering for a while, particularly with regards to Frodo and his 'failure' on Mount Doom. In the end, I am not sure we could ever have expected Frodo to be able to destroy the Ring - at the pinnacle of its power, so close to its home and its master, after having acted on Frodo for so long - when he could not even bear the sight of it in his own fireplace at the start of the journey. Here, at this point, how could he let it go?

    Ultimately, had Gollum not solved the problem, I wonder if Frodo would not have made the choice, when unable to relinquish the Ring, to sacrifice himself - a point which Tolkien ponders upon as well! By insinuating this as a possibility, Tolkien posits that Frodo still possesses free will, even under the influence of the Ring; the Ring acts as a powerful, manipulative force, but could only stop Frodo in his actions regarding the Ring itself, perhaps. Gandalf acknowledges this power himself - stating that he could not do what he has asked Frodo to do, and that, if he possessed the Ring, he would use it with the best intentions... but that these intentions would be twisted by the Ring. If even Gandalf is not immune to it, I sincerely doubt that any are.