Frodo And Grace

Frodo And Grace April 19, 2024

Mark J. Ferrari: Frodo / Wikimedia Commons

Tolkien, examining what happened to Frodo, and how he failed in his mission, said that looking at Frodo only as a failure represented a simple engagement with The Lord Of The Rings. That is, while it was true on a rather simple examination of the story, there was and is much more we could and should gain from it if we used a different approach to engage The Lord of the Rings:

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 judgement (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 judgement, we must apply a scale tempered by ‘mercy’: that is, since we can with good will do this without the bias inevitable in judgements of ourselves, we must estimate the limits of another’s strength and weigh this against the force of particular circumstances.[1]

To be a failed hero one must first try to be a hero, that is, one must try to do something invaluable and extraordinary, and in doing so, be tested and find out the limits of their potential. Those who do not try to do anything heroic, those who let things be, might not fail to achieve their goals in life, but they will fail themselves and others because they never will accomplish anything significant.  Recognizing one’s failure, to be sure, is important, but so is recognizing one’s successes along the way, for those successes often prove the value of one’s actions even if one fails to achieve all that one hoped to do. This is one of many reasons why we should be merciful to those who try and fail to achieve greatness, because, even if they do not achieve all they planned to do, they likely will accomplish much more than those who don’t even try to do anything great. Indeed, for Tolkien, mercy is important, and one of the things Frodo learned along the way was its value, which is why, when he rendered mercy to Gollum, he established the means by which he, and the rest of the world, would be saved:

But at this point the ‘salvation’ of the world and Frodo’s own ‘salvation’ is achieved by his previous pity and forgiveness of injury. At any point any prudent person would have told Frodo that Gollum would certainly betray him, and could rob him in the end. 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.[2]

Grace perfects nature; it is capable of bringing to success that which we cannot accomplish by ourselves. However, to receive it, we need to acknowledge its need, not only in our lives, but in the lives of everyone. This means we will be merciful to others because we will see how and why we need mercy, and the grace which comes with it, for ourselves. We are expected to do what we can, to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, but, due to our own weakness, due to our own imperfections, we should be humble about it and accept that we cannot and will not attain perfection on our own. God will take what we offer and elevate it with grace. This is exactly what Tolkien saw happening with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings: what Frodo was able to accomplish was great, but not enough; like everyone else, Frodo could not attain perfection by himself, indeed, his limitations made it impossible for him to complete his mission to destroy Sauron’s Ring. That did not mean he should not have tried. It is because he tried, because of the struggles he faced and overcame along the way, he was able to accept who he was, including and especially, his weakness, and so do all he could do without letting despair get in the way. His acceptance of who he was, including his failure, made room for grace, for providence to take what he offered and bring to completion what he himself started, and in doing so, bring salvation to the world at large. Frodo became a vessel of grace despite his own personal imperfections. Thus, as Tolkien made clear, from the very beginning of his quest, Frodo was going to fail, but it is what he did, and how he engaged not only his own failure, but the failure of others, which allowed him to be saved, and even to have contributed to the destruction of the Ring:

If you re-read all the passages dealing with Frodo and the Ring, I think you will see that not only was it quite impossible for him to surrender the Ring, in act or will, especially at its point of maximum power, but that this failure was adumbrated from far back. He was honoured because he had accepted the burden voluntarily, and had then done all that was within his utmost physical and mental strength to do. He (and the Cause) were saved – by Mercy : by the supreme value and efficacy of Pity and forgiveness of injury.[3]

This is a lesson which we should all learn and embrace for ourselves. Even though we are imperfect, and do many things which we should not do, we can and do many things which we should, many good things which contribute to the good in the world. If we are open to God and God’s grace, God can and will take what we offer, even in the midst of our failures, and use them as a foundation for grace to come in and lead us to our ultimate perfection:

This is shown because there are six things which make every heart surge towards those near it, namely, goodness, kindness, piety, sweetness, charity, and readiness to forgive, which have disposed God’s heart to prepare this grace [for us]. For goodness is the communication and diffusion of itself to all, as Dionysius says. Kindness is the flowing river of good fire and of the heart continuously melted in all goodness. Now piety in itself is similar, as ever-melting affection. Sweetness according to the nature of unions is a continual flowing forth that holds in itself a pleasantness that is nothing other than the agreeable reception of flowing sweetness. Charity is a burning, a heart blazing and flaming so that it completely spends itself in the enjoyment of the beloved. Now readiness to forgive is being easily appeased; by it, no one is turned away from [giving] his benefits on account of the offenses committed against him. These are the things that made the most gracious heart of God prepare this grace for us. [4]

We find it far easier to forgive, to show kindness, mercy, love, to others, when we know ourselves and know our need for such things as well. We will understand the imperfection of others, and how it can and will lead them to fail, because we will see it in our own lives and how we fail to do those things which we want to do. We will also understand how and why such failure does not have to be the end of the matter. We can and should share with each other our burdens, helping to complete for each other, what we cannot do by ourselves. But, we should also realize, even when we come together, we are limited creatures, and so we can only do so much before we come to exhaustion. That means, we need help from God, whose infinite capacity means God can provide the grace which we need to overcome our limitations. Our limitations should not be seen as the end of the matter. God can and will take what we have given, both personally and communally, and elevate it, so that the greater, indeed, the greatest good can be achieved. This is exemplified well by what happened to Frodo. He had help, such as the help given to him by Samwise, or even Gollum, as he made his way to Mordor to destroy Sauron’s Ring. In the end, Frodo found the Ring was destroyed, not by his own doing, but yet in a way it would not have been destroyed if he had not taken on the quest to destroy it. This is how the greatest accomplishments in history will be achieved. Despite ourselves, despite our weaknesses, and the ways we fall into temptation along the way,  if we embrace mercy and grace, then they will be able to take what we have doe and bring them to fruition in a way which we cannot do ourselves. Indeed, not only will do so in temporal history, we will find, they will also do so, in a greater fashion, in the eschaton, where we will see the true outcome of history.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Revised and Expanded Edition. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (Broadway, NY: William Morrow, 2023), 460-1 [Letter 246 to Mrs Eileen Elgar].

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 339 [Letter 181 to Michael Straight].

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 362 [Letter 191 to Miss J. Burn].

[4] St. Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord. Trans. Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, OP (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2017), 35.


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