Tolkien on Frodo’s “Failure” Part IAugust 16, 2011
“Nolwë ola, ar cuila lohta”. [“Wisdom grows, and life puts forth flowers and fruits”].
What is the price of Experience? Do men buy it for a song,
Or Wisdom for a dance in the street? No! it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath — his house, his wife, his children.
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
And in the wither’d field where the farmer ploughs for bread in vain.
William Blake, The Wail of Enion
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
In September 1963 Tolkien began a draft of a letter to a Mrs Eileen Elgar, one of his fandom, who had commented on Frodo’s failure to surrender the Ring in the Cracks of Doom:
Very few (indeed so far as letters go only you and one other) have observed or commented on Frodo’s'failure’. It is a very important point.
From the point of view of the storyteller the events on Mt Doom proceed simply from the logic of the tale up to that time. They were not deliberately worked up to nor foreseen until they occurred.* But, for one thing, it became at last quite clear that Frodo after all that had happened would be incapable of voluntarily destroying the Ring. Reflecting on the solution after it was arrived at (as a mere event) I feel presented.
Frodo indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted. I do not say ‘simple minds’ with contempt: they often see with clarity the simple truth and the absolute ideal to which effort must be directed, even if it is unattainable. Their weakness, however, is twofold. They do not perceive the complexity of any given situation in Time, in which an absolute ideal is enmeshed. They tend to forget that strange element in the World that we call Pity or Mercy, which is also an absolute requirement in moral judgment (since it is present in the Divine nature). In its highest exercise it belongs to God. For finite judges of imperfect knowledge it must lead to the use of two different scales of ‘morality’.
To ourselves we must present the absolute ideal without compromise, for we do not know our own limits of natural strength (+grace), and if we do not aim at the highest we shall certainly fall short of the utmost that we could achieve. To others, in any case of which we know enough to make a judgment, we must apply a scale tempered by ‘mercy’: that is, since we can with good will do this without the bias inevitable in judgments of ourselves, we must estimate the limits of another’s strength and weigh this against the force of particular circumstances. [We frequently see this double scale used by the saints in their judgments upon themselves when suffering great hardships or temptations, and upon others in like trials.]
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 anyone 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) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honor; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed.
We are finite creatures with absolute limitations upon the powers of our soul-body structure in either action or endurance. Moral failure can only be asserted, I think, when a man’s effort or endurance falls short of his limits, and the blame decreases as that limit is closer approached. [No account is here taken of 'grace' or the enhancement of our powers as instruments of Providence. Frodo was given 'grace': first to answer the call (at the end of the Council) after long resisting a complete surrender; and later in his resistance to the temptation of the Ring (at times when to claim and so reveal it would have been fatal), and in his endurance of fear and suffering. But grace is not infinite, and for the most part seems in the Divine economy limited to what is sufficient for the accomplishment of the task appointed to one instrument in a pattern of circumstances and other instruments.]
Nonetheless, I think it can be observed in history and experience that some individuals seem to be placed in ‘sacrificial’ positions: situations or tasks that for perfection of solution demand powers beyond their utmost limits, even beyond all possible limits for an incarnate creature in a physical world — in which a body may be destroyed, or so maimed that it affects the mind and will. Judgment upon any such case should then depend on the motives and disposition with which he started out, and should weigh his actions against the utmost possibility of his powers, all along the road to whatever proved the breaking-point.
Frodo undertook his quest out of love — to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task. His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that. 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.
That appears to have been the judgment of Gandalf and Aragorn and of all who learned the full story of his journey. Certainly nothing would be concealed by Frodo! But what Frodo himself felt about the events is quite another matter.
He appears at first to have had no sense of guilt (III 224-5);t he was restored to sanity and peace. But then he thought that he had given his life in sacrifice: he expected to die very soon. But he did not, and one can observe the disquiet growing in him. Arwen was the first to observe the signs, and gave him her jewel for comfort, and thought of a way of healing him. It is not made explicit how she could arrange this. She could not of course just transfer her ticket on the boat like that! For any except those of Elvish race ‘sailing West’ was not permitted, and any exception required ‘authority’, and she was not in direct communication with the Valar, especially not since her choice to become ‘mortal’.
What is meant is that it was Arwen who first thought of sending Frodo into the West, and put in a plea for him to Gandalf (direct or through Galadriel, or both), and she used her own renunciation of the right to go West as an argument. Her renunciation and suffering were related to and enmeshed with Frodo’s: both were parts of a plan for the regeneration of the state of Men. Her prayer might therefore be specially effective, and her plan have a certain equity of exchange. No doubt it was Gandalf who was the authority that accepted her plea. The Appendices show clearly that he was an emissary of the Valar, and virtually their plenipotentiary in accomplishing the plan against Sauron. He was also in special accord with Cirdan the Ship-master, who had surrendered to him his ring and so placed himself under Gandalf’s command. Since Gandalf himself went on the Ship there would be so to (peak no trouble either at embarking or at the landing.
Slowly he fades ‘out of the picture’, saying and doing less and less. I think it is clear on reflection to an attentive reader that when his dark times came upon him and he was conscious of being ‘wounded by knife sting and tooth and a long burden’ (III 268) it was not only nightmare memories of past horrors that afflicted him, but also unreasoning self-reproach: he saw himself and all that he done as a broken failure. ‘Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same, for I shall not be the same.’ That was actually a temptation out of the Dark, a last flicker of pride: desire to have returned as a ‘hero’, not content with being a mere instrument of good. And it was mixed with another temptation, blacker and yet (in a sense) more merited, for however that may be explained, he had not in fact cast away the Ring by a voluntary act: he was tempted to regret its destruction, and still to desire it. ‘It is gone forever, and now all is dark and empty’, he said as he wakened from his sickness in 1420.
‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured’, said Gandalf (III 268) — not in Middle-earth. Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over Sea to heal him — if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil.
Bilbo went too. No doubt as a completion of the plan due to Gandalf himself. Gandalf had a very great affection for Bilbo, from the hobbit’s childhood onwards. His companionship was really necessary for Frodo’s sake — it is difficult to imagine a hobbit, even one who had been through Frodo’s experiences, being really happy even in an earthly paradise without a companion of his own kind, and Bilbo was the person that Frodo most loved. (Cf III 252 lines 12 to 21 and 263 lines 1-2.)
But he also needed and deserved the favor on his own account. He bore still the mark of the Ring that needed to be finally erased: a trace of pride and personal possessiveness. Of course he was old and confused in mind, but it was still a revelation of the ‘black mark’ when he said in Rivendell (III 265) ‘What’s become of my ring, Frodo, that you took away?’; and when he was reminded of what had happened, his immediate reply was: ‘What a pity! I should have liked to see it again’. As for reward for his part, it is difficult to feel that his life would be complete without an experience of ‘pure Elvishness’, and the opportunity of hearing the legends and histories in full the fragments of which had so delighted him.
It is clear, of course, that the plan had actually been made and concerted (by Arwen, Gandalf and others) before Arwen spoke. But Frodo did not immediately take it in; the implications would slowly be understood on reflection. Such a journey would at first seem something Not necessarily ot be feared, even as something to look forward to – so long as undated and postponable. His real desire was hobbitlike (and humanlike) just `to be himself’ again and get back to the old familiar life that had been interrupted. Already on the journey back from Rivendell he suddenly saw that was not for him possible. Hence his cry `Where shall I find rest?’ He knew the answer, and Gandalf did not reply.
As for Bilbo, it is probable that Frodo did not at first understand what Arwen meant by ‘he will not again make any long journey save one’. At any rate he did not associate it with his own case. When Arwen spoke (in TA 3019) he was still young, not yet 51, and Bilbo 78 years older. But at Rivendell he came to understand things more clearly. The conversations he had there are not reported, but enough is revealed in Elrond’s farewell (III 267). From the onset of the first sickness (Oct. 5, 3019) Frodo must have been thinking about ‘sailing’, though still resisting a final decision — to go with Bilbo, or to go at all. It was no doubt after his grievous illness in March 3020 that his mind was made up.
<<more to come>>