Friday, 4 February 2011

Moral failure...

''The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.'' (The Lord of the Rings, Book I, Chapter II).

How very haunting and resonant, and one of few quotes to survive into the film trilogy. So spoke Gandalf the Wise to Frodo in the peace of the Shire when he recounted the sad story of the creature Gollum. Bilbo, lonely and afraid in the tunnels of the Misty Mountains playing the cruel riddle game with the unseen creature of the lake, must scarce have thought that his choice not to kill Gollum would ultimately, astoundingly, lead to the downfall of Sauron. Yet it is an interesting concept and measurable in the theology of Salvation - how the downfall of Sauron was brought about not by battles and contest of wizardry, but by the most unlikely, even ordinary, people, and by the mere exercise of virtue - pity, mercy, forgiveness and forbearance; just as the heart of the Law is mercy. The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, and this is seen most clearly (at least to me) in the relationship between Frodo (and of course Bilbo before him) and Gollum; two very different characters and yet akin. Their common ''experience'' (let's say) of the Ring is the most important bridge over the gulf of their years and personalities. The Ring, while altogether evil, was an instrument that brought them together. Ultimately Frodo and Gollum had to meet, in order to redress their own peculiar ''prejudices,'' if you will - Frodo had to see Gollum to feel pity for him; Gollum had to meet ''Baggins'' in order to finally render him his ultimate service, whom he long pursued with evil purpose. Gollum, that wretched, miserable and wicked creature, is Frodo's salvation - the very anti-hero of the Tale. Because Frodo found it in his heart to put up with Gollum's wickedness, and ultimately to forgive him his treachery, Frodo's failure at Mount Doom (often overlooked) was redressed.

Tolkien wrote once that he had that famous petition in the Lord's Prayer in mind when he composed the final events of Mount Doom - ''and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.'' In fact the events of Mount Doom almost exemplify these immortal liturgical words - in the sense of the ''moral failure'' of Frodo. Frodo did not fail the Quest of Mount Doom simply because he ''gave up'' at the finish line, renounced the Quest and named the Ring unto himself, any more than he would have failed if he had been strangled by Gollum, or captured by the Orcs. Frodo, at the cracks of Doom, was emaciated by long hunger, wounded with tooth, knife and a long journey, exhausted, and under immense demonic pressure and temptation - far beyond the native strength of his will. But, though he admitted his own inadequacy to the task, Frodo was the perfect man in spite of his ''failure'' - because the way of the Ring to his heart was pity, and Gollum was his salvation.

Tolkien wrote of this to a certain Michael Straight in February of 1956:

''To 'pity' him, to forbear to kill him, was a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time. He did rob him and injure him in the end - but by a 'grace', that last betrayal was at a precise juncture when the final evil deed was the most beneficial thing any one cd. [sic] have done for Frodo! By a situation created by his 'forgiveness,' he was saved himself, and relieved of his burden. He was very justly accorded the highest honours - since it is clear that he & Sam never concealed the precise course of events. Into the ultimate judgement upon Gollum I would not care to enquire. This would be to investigate 'Goddes privitee,' as the Medievals said. Gollum was pitiable, but he ended in persistent wickedness, and the fact that this worked good was no credit to him. His marvellous courage and endurance, as great as Frodo and Sam's or greater, being devoted to evil was portentous, but not honourable. I am afraid, whatever our beliefs, we have to face the fact that there are persons who yield to temptation, reject their chances of nobility or salvation, and appear to be 'damnable.' Their 'damnability' is not measurable in the terms of macrocosm (where it may work good). But we who are all 'in the same boat' must not usurp the Judge. The domination of the Ring was much too strong for the mean soul of Sméagol.'' (The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien, no.181).

I like to think that Gollum became acutely aware of all these things upon the brink of the cracks of Doom, even for a split second. The good corner of his native mind, a tiny slither, or a dark window left adjar in his mind opening upon an enclosed space filled with the unstained memories of trees, grass and windblown rain may have been given a special Grace by God in that final hour, the knowledge that his greatest service to Frodo, and to himself and mankind, would be to sacrifice himself. Of course Gollum tripped and fell, gloating over his Precious, so perhaps this is nonsense, but Gollum was not irredeemable, and certainly his time with Frodo, who was merciful and forgiving of his ways (even rewarding at times), would not have been for naught in the ''great scheme of things.'' Who knows, maybe Gollum's salvation was a glimpse of humanity from Frodo, where everywhere else he was shunned - and dying horribly perhaps his thoughts were set free, for a second, from the overmastering lust of the Ring.

The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece, whatever you may rank it in terms of literature or genre. Tolkien never ceases to amaze me, and I have been reading his work for fifteen years. He can be at once familiar and heartwarming as Bilbo's birthday party, the musings of Sam on Caradhras etc, but also as profound as Gollum, and noble as Gandalf - a work that inspires tears and laughter. Not one of the 150,000 or so words in The Lord of the Rings went unconsidered, and I expect that the full study of the legendarium would outlive the lives of many men. There are so many unexplored facets of the legendarium that every word seems alive with nuance and meaning beyond the bald dictionary description of words. If only I could look back in time and observe the unimaginable heart and mind of that great man at work in the mid-20th century, when everything else good and wholesome was being brought down.

Well there we are, my lunchtime musing about Tolkien. My Tolkien posts seldom get comments, which is a shame really, since I put more effort into them than my liturgical ones...

Art by Ted Nasmith, a famous Tolkien illustrator. Not as I imagined the Sammath Naur of course...


  1. A good and enlightening post, thank you Patricius. I am told that it is dangerous to look at Tolkien with a morally interpretive eye but you may have proved that saying wrong.

  2. Tolkien disliked ''analysis'' of his work, in the sense of political applicability or what not, or allegorical interpretation. He despised people saying that Orcs were Communists (or Nazis), that Sauron was Stalin etc.

    My post here is my own view of Gollum and Frodo based on my own understanding of Catholic moral theology and soteriology. Frodo's ''salvation,'' almost that it was anticipated, reminds me of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in a way. Never mind about comparing St Mary with Galadriel or Elbereth - Gollum and Frodo are more Catholic than all that!