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20121115-180317.jpgAs I read through our posts and comments this week, I was struck by how much of the content was driven by leadership (or its lack), and doing our duty, including our duty to defend our citizens, to the point that we recalled that St. Augustine said not doing so is a sin.

As the war of terrorism on us all is seeming to heat up, it is time to ponder what our duty is. No one will be surprised to know that Jessica joins us in mourning the victims in Paris last week. But is our duty to them more than mourning? Jess is exceptional at drawing lessons from diverse sources, an example of what a proper liberal arts education can be and do. And here she draws lessons for us all from the Lord of the Rings. Neo

Frodo and the mystery of suffering

I have been enjoying Nicholas’ Tolkien related posts, so much so that I am tempted into one of my own. As these are no more than my own witterings, I offer any apology necessary in advance – but here goes.

A friend, who had never read the books commented that she found Frodo an unsatisfactory sort of ‘hero’. I know what she meant, but it seemed to me she missed the point. Frodo is in many ways an innocent victim who ends by sacrificing himself and all his hopes for the sake of others.

A the start of the Fellowship of the Ring no one knows the secret of the Ring. It seems almost an innocent trinket, which can be used to amuse others and to disappear oneself. Had it not been for the curiosity of Gandalf, then the Ring might well have fallen into the hands of the Enemy. When its secret is revealed, Frodo’s first reaction is to: ‘wish it need not have happened in my time’. Gandalf’s comment is worth meditating upon: ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

That is the key to what will happen to Frodo. His first reaction is one which tests Gandalf more than Frodo can realise, as it is to offer the Ring to him freely; with it, Gandalf could become the master of Middle Earth, but he is not tempted, and so the journey to Rivendell begins. That, perilous as it turned out to be, with Frodo suffering an assault which, but for the skill of the elves would have been mortal, should have been the end of it for the Hobbit. He had endured fire and sword to deliver the burden to those wise enough to make a decision about what to do with it; yet, as is the way of this world too, the Wise turn out to have no idea what to do. It is left to Frodo’s sense of duty to produce an answer which, however unlikely, is one upon which all can agree; he says he will take it – even though he does not know the way.

This is the central decision of Frodo’s life. He takes upon himself a burden which he feels unfit to carry, but it is precisely that pity (which he had once criticised in Bilbo’s sparing of Gollum, but now feels himself) which moves men to self-sacrifice, which pushes him forward where wise men fear to tread. Elrond the wise agrees, not because his reason tells him so, but because ‘I think this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will.’ He is right, but his intuition is proven right in a way no man could have predicted, and which was hidden even from the wise.

Frodo is sustained through the early stage of the journey by the courage and leadership of Gandalf, in whom he has infinite faith. Thus it is that the loss (as it seems) of Gandalf in the Mines of Moria is another almost mortal blow. Worse was to come. Boromir’s fall into temptation shows Frodo that he must leave the others and find his way to Mordor – alone.  But Frodo’s wish to spare others the fate he feels is his alone is alleviated by the love of Sam, who will not leave his master.

One of the defects of the  film for me was that it failed to capture the complexity of this relationship, preferring instead the cheap trick of having Frodo reject Sam because of Gollum’s mischief, so that there can be a reconciliation which tugs at the heartstrings. Tolkien was too subtle for Hollywood. In the book we see the trials wearing away at Frodo, as the suffering and the power of the Ring increase and his own energies and optimism fail; but we also see Sam suffer. Their suffering unites them, and even though Sam cannot enter fully into the suffering of Frodo, he can elect to share it. It is only when Frodo appears to be dead that Sam is willing to desert him – and he almost immediately realises he should have listened to his heart and not his head – before going on to heroically rescue his master. As Tolkien puts it: “His love for Frodo rose above all other thoughts, and forgetting his peril he cried aloud: ‘I’m coming, Mr. Frodo!’”

Sam, we see, is in many sense, earthy, he is less sensitive, less spiritual, if you will, than Frodo; and this is Sam’s salvation. Sam, of course, is not tried as sorely as Frodo. His worst moment is when Frodo expresses his anger at Sam having the Ring, but Frodo is shocked into realising how bad things have become: ‘O Sam! cried Frodo. ‘What have I said? What have I done? Forgive me! After all you have done. It is the horrible power of the Ring. I wish it had never, never, been found. But don’t mind me, Sam. I must carry the burden to the end. It can’t be altered. You can’t come between me and this doom.’ Nor will Sam, that never was his aim; he just loves his master and will do what duty is set for him to whatever end may be in store. Sam’s lack of imagination and peasant stoicism is, in many ways, Frodo’s salvation.

But as the trudge to Mt Doom begins, Frodo is now all but consumed by the Ring, which is like a great wheel of fire on which he is being sacrificed. As he confesses his utter weariness and defeat, it is only Sam’s artless offer from love, to carry the thing, which rouses Frodo from his utter weariness:

A wild light came into Frodo’s eyes. ‘Stand away! Don’t touch me!’ he cried. ‘It is mine, I say. Be off!’ His hand strayed to his sword-hilt. But then quickly his voice changed. ‘No, no, Sam,’ he said sadly. ‘But you must understand. It is my burden, and no one else can bear it. It is too late now, Sam dear. You can’t help me in that way again. I am almost in its power now. I could not give it up, and if you tried to take it I should go mad.’

But if the reader is imagining that Frodo will now be given the strength to do what needs to be done, Tolkien has another ending in mind. The Ring was, as Frodo had feared, too powerful for him. His sense of duty, and the love of Sam. brought him to Mt Doom, but as he stands by the great fires he shows he has fallen: “‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine.”

Only now are the words spoken by Gandalf shown to be prophetic:

‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’ 

Gollum, consumed as he has been by evil, proves the unexpected source of salvation for Middle Earth – and for Frodo – biting off the finger on which the ring is set, and falling into the fires, to the ruin of the work of the Enemy. Grace and mercy, not the will of Frodo, not all their works, bring salvation.

Sam, of course, after their rescue, looks forward to Frodo being able to resume his old life. One of the main problems with the famous film is that it misses out the whole ‘Scouring of the Shire’ which reveals how Pippin and Merry (and did he but know it, Sam) have grown in stature; it also shows that Frodo knows he will not come into his inheritance. This leads to one of the exchanges which still makes me cry:

‘Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side. 

‘Well, yes I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’

‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.

‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?

And at the end, as Sam realises that Frodo is, once again, planning to slip away, there is this:

Where are you going, Master?’ cried Sam, though at last he understood what was happening.

‘To the Havens, Sam,’ said Frodo.

‘And I can’t come.’

‘No, Sam. Not yet, anyway, not further than the Havens. Though you too were a Ring-bearer, if only for a little while. Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.’

‘But,’ said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, ‘I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you have done.’

‘So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you.

Frodo knows that what he has done is not for him; his suffering has been an offering to others, not least to Sam.

We cannot know why we are called to suffer, and like Frodo, we can only wish that whatever burden we bear had not come to us. But if we are faithful, we will find from somewhere strength to carry it, though in the process, and in this world, we may ultimately be worn down by it. Without the sacrifice which Jesus made for us, it would indeed be in vain; but He has died not for Himself, but for us, that we might, at the last, be inheritors of the Kingdom.