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Did Frodo Fail?

Author: Antane
Title: Did Frodo Fail?
Rating: G
Summary
: An exploration of what happened to Frodo at the Fire.
Word Count: 2284


“Man always travels along precipices,” Pope John Paul II said. “His truest obligation is to keep his balance.” Frodo loses his at the Fire after his heart, mind and soul endure a months-long siege of “torture and disruption of personality,” words Tolkien used when speaking of techniques employed during World War II which “would rival that of Mordor and the Ring” (Letters 234) and which certainly describe Frodo’s agony as well. Bit by bit, his will and his very self are eroded as he struggles on, losing even his memories while he, along with Sam, valiantly tries to hold himself together. Balm by Armariel says it so beautifully: “I am wrecked, the voice says. Be still, I tell it. It has no right to say such things. Not to the being who is trying with all his small might to keep more pieces from falling, to keep what is left moving along, tearing pieces from himself to patch it.” As Peter Kreeft notes, “the self is saved only when it is lost, found only when really given away in sacrifice. True freedom comes only when you bind yourself to your duty” (“Wartime Wisdom” 46). This Frodo does to the utmost. By the time he reaches the Fire, he has drunk the last dregs of a very bitter cup and emptied it completely. As Gunnar Urang said, “the world is saved, ultimately, not just by grace as overwhelming presence and power but by grace as humble redemptive suffering” (Shadows 117).

Yet for all Frodo’s strength and endurance, he is increasingly aware that his resistance to the demonic assaults on his will is failing. When he reaches the Sammath Naur, worn out physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, he has nothing left with which to defend himself against the last terrible attack. Still, this failure at the end is not a weakness unique to Frodo alone. As he has been shown throughout the Quest, it is simply not possible for our wills to always overcome a stronger one. “Not all evil is chosen,” says Ralph Wood in his wonderful book, The Gospel According to Tolkien. “For while evil can subtly seduce, it can also brutally enforce its will. . . The Ring creates a compulsion, in short, that cannot be broken with mere human strength of will” (70, 71). With the Ring’s power to “burn [the] mind away” as Gandalf says to Denethor (LotR V:4, 796), it is no wonder after months of incessant torment that Frodo gives way. It is a moving testament to the incredible strength of his will and the grace that fortified it that he lasts as long as he does. Tolkien wrote, “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” (Letters 252). He notes in another letter, “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” (Letters 252).

So at the same time that Éowyn speaks of feeling as though she stands upon the edge of an abyss, Frodo truly is, as his will crumbles at last. As Gandalf and Aragorn fight at the Black Gate and men are willingly giving their lives in the blind hope that they will be able to give the hobbits the time they need, without any knowledge where they are, the Ring-bearer stands in the Sammath Naur at the very brink of destruction, physically and spiritually.

As Frodo is consumed, Sam hears these terrible words: “I have come . . . But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!” (LotR VI:3, 924). This is, however, not the freely willed act it appears to be, and which Frodo later thinks it is. Every word in this tale has been very deliberately chosen to mean very deliberate things. Some of the most respected Tolkien scholars, including Tom Shippey and Verlyn Flieger, not to mention the Professor himself, consider the words “I do not choose” to mean literally that. Frodo did not claim the Ring; he was claimed by it. His will is, in actuality, the least free it has been the entire time, as he already knew was coming when he tells Sam near the Mountain: “I am almost in its power now. I could not give it up . . .” (LotR VI:3, 916).

Shippey remarks, “It is . . . interesting that Frodo does not say, ‘I choose not to do’, but ‘I do not choose to do’. Maybe (and Tolkien was a professor of language) the choice of words is absolutely accurate. Frodo does not choose; the choice is made for him” (Tolkien 140).

Flieger observes, “His use of choose and will makes it clear that he believes he is acting freely. But the negative, the repeated not is telling evidence that his will has been perverted and his choice preempted” (Splintered 153-54).

Tolkien notes in one of his letters,

I do not think that Frodo’s was a moral failure. At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum - impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted. Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) . . . . I do not myself see that the breaking of his mind and will under demonic pressure after torment was any more a moral failure than the breaking of his body would have been - say, by being strangled by Gollum, or crushed by a falling rock.” (Letters 326, 327)

Urang observes,
 
Frodo has not developed, or has not been brought, to the point of being able not to succumb . . . What Gollum does is a vindication both of his freedom to pursue his own evil will and of an overruling Providence which exercises its freedom in his willful act. The upshot is that Frodo here seems not to be free to do either good or evil. Tolkien has chosen to emphasize one side of the paradox of grace and freedom, giving the last word to an overriding grace. (Shadows 128)
 
Sauron rules in Mordor, but even at the Sammath Naur, at the heart of his strength, the Dark Lord’s power is not absolute. It crushes the created, but it has no power over the Creator. Just as God later allows with Job to demonstrate to Satan, He permits evil to do its worst to Frodo’s body and soul so that He may put forth His strength through Frodo’s weakness, that He might show Sauron Who retains charge of all. When Frodo, small, spent and mortal, stands at the edge of the Abyss, completely exposed and defenseless before his Enemy, his soul at the point of its greatest peril, he is also, as he always has been, completely exposed to God. The One knows His child will be broken by the burden in the end, but still He sets him aside from all others to be His Bearer. His. Not what the Ring twists Frodo into, but a holy vessel of the One Who gives him a sacred task none other could perform, for none other was created to do so. When God asks Frodo to be Bearer, He is asking for everything Frodo is, which is what the hobbit gives in the thousands of ‘yes’s, silently offered with each painful breath and step. That he is unable to say ‘yes’ at the end and falls prey to a power under which any other would have broken down much sooner, does not mean he is anything less of a hero, a fact Tolkien heartily agrees with:
 
Frodo deserved all honour because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further. Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far. The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named’ (as one critic has said). (Letters 253)
 
Indeed, it is only after Frodo fulfills his vocation that his will fails at last. Even if Ring-bearer and Ring-destroyer is thought by others and by Frodo himself to be one and the same, they are actually two different missions in God’s mind, for He knows it is too much for one person to sustain. None of us could bear such a terrible cross and not be crushed by it, which is why Frodo is given companions to help him and why we are also. It is his task is to create “a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved” (Letters 326), and this he does perfectly.

When the beleaguered Ring-bearer can no longer say ‘yes’ to God, God says it for him and gives him what the hobbit has relinquished to God: his self and his life. The One turns the ‘no’ that has come from His child’s broken will at the nadir of Frodo’s strength and at the height of the Ring’s into the ‘yes’ foreseen from all eternity. By working through Gollum, God shows that nothing has power over Him, that He can still work His will through whatever instruments He chooses, whether these vessels say ‘yes’ like Frodo and Sam did or whether they are do not, even those enslaved to evil. All powers are indeed subdued at the Fire, except for the Power of God that nothing could defeat.

Rolland Hein rightly observes,

Above and beyond the intentions and purposes of all the characters in the saga stands an overarching Power whose purposes will not fail, but whose workings quietly exist outside the conscious awareness of created beings. Its greatest strength is realized through human weakness. The presence of such Power is glimpsed in the text such as . . . Gandalf’s statement . . . to Frodo that he was meant by a Higher Power to possess the Ring. The sudden transfiguration of Frodo in his struggle with Gollum just prior to the Ring’s destruction further attests to the presence of the supernatural in league with the good. Nowhere in the text are decisions freely made by individual characters or groups abrogated. The One honors without exception the set of the will and works completely through human endeavor. It is, therefore, hardly accurate to call it Fate, as some scholars tend to do. It is the power and purpose of God. (Christian 208)
 
C. Baillie speaks beautifully of this when she says,
 
Love watched him all the way through Mordor. ‘You can do this and you must do this, or I will demand a reckoning of you,’ Love said.

Then Frodo came to the brink of utter damnation and fell, and Love said, ‘This is beyond your strength, what I am allowing to happen. Therefore I will not demand reckoning of you. I will save you.’

In that instant, when [Frodo’s] soul hung imperiled between life and eternal night, he became no longer responsible. The trial had become too much.

So, no, I don’t think Frodo failed, not morally. Because nothing he could give could save him, only something given to him.

Only Love. (“Frodo”)
 
This is why we need not fear when everything appears to be falling into ruin around us. We are never alone in the dark. We are helpless by ourselves, and that would be cause for despair if we had only ourselves to depend upon, not relying at all on the power that only God can provide. He will carry us through any difficulty if we allow Him to: “I know the plans I have for you . . . plans for peace, not disaster, reserving a future full of hope for you” (Jer. 29:11). We must trust that God will take care of us, just as Frodo also trusted.

Patti Benson writes beautifully of this: “Evil found him, and for a brief, terrifying time it took him; but it could not keep him. His light still shone out of the darkness, despite it all. . .” (Mallorn 46).
 
Additional Reading

‘I do not choose…’ and ‘not a moral failure’ both by Trudy G. Shaw.

Works Cited

Baillie, C. “Frodo and Grace.” Christianity and Middle-earth. Web. 26 Jun 2010.

Benson, Patti. Letter. Mallorn 46 (2008): 5. Print.

Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Rev. ed. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2002. Print.

Hein, Rolland. Christian Mythmakers. 2nd ed. Chicago: Cornerstone Press, 2002. Print.

Kreeft, Peter. “Wartime Wisdom: Ten Uncommon Insights About Evil in The Lord of the Rings.” Ed. John G. West, Jr. Celebrating Middle-earth: The Lord of the Rings as a Defense of Western Civilization. Seattle: Inkling Books, 2002. Print.

Shippey, Tom. J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Print.

---. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965-66. Print.

Urang, Gunnar. Shadows of Heaven: Religion and Fantasy in the Writing of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J. R. R. Tolkien. Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1971. Print.

Wood, Ralph C. The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth. Louisville, KY: Knox, 2003. Print.

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
dreamflower02
Jan. 17th, 2011 11:49 pm (UTC)
Very well argued! I have always believed the Ring used sheer force at the end on Frodo's will, to crush it, to its own undoing.

But I had never before considered the way the words were used: "I do not choose..." That is very interesting.
antane
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:55 pm (UTC)
Not sure if I messed up my first reply so doing it again. Thank you, my dear. :) I believe the same as you and I hope that is clear.

Namarie, God bless, Antane :)
virtuella
Jan. 18th, 2011 01:48 pm (UTC)
Interesting point about the "I do not choose"!

Actually, I've never read that scene as a failure; I always thought that Frodo had done all he could and more than anyone could have expected of him in the first place.
antane
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:57 pm (UTC)
I agree completely with you and I hope that is clear here. Frodo himself thinks he failed, but he actually succeeded brilliantly and it was not his fault that his will was not able to withstand that last assault, even if he thinks it is. So we are one accord here and I thank you for the review!

Namarie, God bless, Antane :)
blslarner
Jan. 19th, 2011 02:14 am (UTC)
Indeed, well argued, Antane. And excellent choice of references as well.
antane
Jan. 19th, 2011 02:19 am (UTC)
Le hannon! I am glad you approve! :) That was most important to me.

Namarie, God bless, Antane :)
lindahoyland
Jan. 20th, 2011 04:21 am (UTC)
A fascinating essay.I had not realised how significant Frodo's words are.I believe he did more than any other could have done.
antane
Jan. 22nd, 2011 10:33 pm (UTC)
Thank you! Frodo did indeed do absolutely everything he could.

Namarie, God bless, Antane :)
armarielrozita
Jan. 21st, 2011 02:05 am (UTC)
Interesting points here, very nicely expressed. And I liked how you used my quote.;);)

~~~~~{~@
antane
Jan. 22nd, 2011 10:35 pm (UTC)
Glad you approve! :) That quote was really too lovely not to use so thanks again for letting me use it.

Namarie, God bless, Antane :)
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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