WHEN I AM WEAK, I AM STRONG: FRODO’S PROVIDENTIAL HEROISM
By Ellen Virginia, July 16, 2015
Word Count: 2028
Rating: G (suitable for all audiences)
Summary: How Frodo did not fail his quest, instead showing that Divine Providence was in control.
The tiny figure of a hobbit stands on the edge of a precipice, shrouded in a surreal haze. With an eerie glare flickering across his face, he clutches a chain in his grimy hand, staring mesmerized at the golden Ring dangling in front of his bloodshot eyes. He’s trekked countless miles of barren wilderness through unspeakable hardship to reach the Cracks of Doom and cast the Ring into the churning red flames below. The fate of Middle-earth depends on him. All he has to do now is let it go . . .
But Frodo simply can’t do it.
It’s arguably the most shocking moment in the history of literature, and certainly one of the most misunderstood. Soon after The Return of the King’s publication, J.R.R. Tolkien received a “savage letter, crying out that [Frodo should] have been executed as a traitor, not honoured” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 234). My own brother, while not reacting that harshly, nevertheless insists that Frodo Baggins utterly failed to complete his mission. Such a dreadful misunderstanding, however, is a tremendous affront to Frodo’s heroism that stems from a failure to realize the true nature of his mission.
Regardless of his inability to literally cast the Ring into the fire himself, the fact remains that Frodo succeeds in doing all that was asked of him to the best of his ability, thereby fulfilling his role in God’s plan. As Tolkien himself described it, Frodo’s “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” (Letters, 327). Let’s delve a little deeper . . .
Above all else, The Lord of the Rings should be read from a spiritual perspective, with a keen eye for the subtle hand of God at work. Although God is never mentioned by name, Tolkien makes it clear that He exists and has designed a plan for Middle-earth that focuses on a humble hobbit from the Shire. The intricate chain of events that places the Ring in Frodo’s possession prompts Gandalf to observe that it didn’t happen by chance, telling Frodo that “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker, in which case you also were meant to have it” (The Fellowship of the Ring).
Just as God repeatedly uses the weakest, most unlikely individuals as instruments to carry out His will in our world, He chooses Frodo to undertake this monumental task in Tolkien’s epic story. As Elrond observes, “I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will. This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. [ . . .] I do not lay [this burden] on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right.”
Elrond’s words emphasize the importance of free will in living a vocation. Rather than forcing us to act, God offers us the chance to freely cooperate with Him, which is exactly what Frodo does. Once he realizes that he is meant to have the Ring, he chooses to submit himself to God’s will with a humble spirit. Though he insists he “is not made for perilous quests,” he nevertheless leaves his peaceful life in the Shire behind and accepts a burden “so heavy that none can lay it on another.” He acts out of selflessness, not vainglory, previously telling Gandalf, “I should like to save the Shire, if I could […] I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable” (Fellowship)
In Tolkien’s own words, he “undertook his quest out of love – to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense […] and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task” (Letters). Moreover, as he reveals to Boromir, Frodo is afraid. He is just a hobbit, after all, not a wizard like Gandalf or a capable warrior like Aragorn, yet even though he knows he will be “flying from deadly peril into deadly peril” (Fellowship), he never wavers in his commitment. His true test is based not on whether he measures up to a narrow definition of success, but on whether he accepts the staggering responsibility entrusted to him.
Also, Frodo does more than accept a merely difficult task; he accepts, literally, an impossible one, in which case he can’t be blamed for “failing” to complete it. The impossibility is evident from the beginning, before he even leaves the safety of Bag End. When Gandalf challenges him to throw the Ring into his own fireplace, Frodo finds “that he could not do so, not without a great struggle.” Even with “an effort of will,” Frodo tries “to cast it away – but found that he had put it back in his pocket.” If the Ring can exert such powerful influence over Frodo in the familiar comfort of Bag End, how can he, or anyone, possibly have the strength to resist the Ring’s power at its zenith, at the Mountain where it was forged? The author himself provides the answer when he writes, “the pressure of the Ring would [be] impossible for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted” (Letters, 326).
“Torment” only mildly describes the ravaging effects of the Ring on Frodo’s mind and soul, which only intensify the closer he gets to Mount Doom. Despondently, he tells Sam that “there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades” (The Return of the King). As his mind and body deteriorate, he is powerless to retain control of his will through his own strength. He has no choice in the matter. Tolkien yet again provides some insight, writing that “some individuals seem to be placed in ‘sacrificial’ positions […] that demand powers beyond their utmost limits […] in which a body may be destroyed, or so maimed that it affects the mind and will” (Letters, 327).
While crossing the Dead Marshes, Frodo asks Sam, “What hope is there that we ever shall [destroy the Ring]?” and confides that, “If we can nurse our limbs to bring us to Mount Doom, that is all we can do. More than I can, I begin to feel” (Two Towers). Frodo is painfully aware that his task is hopeless, but instead of inducing him give up, his despair actually motivates him to continue. Endless miles of noxious swamps, barren wastelands, and rugged mountains don’t weaken his resolve; neither does exhaustion, hunger, or thirst. Even the power of the Ring itself, which Frodo feels as “The Eye: that growing sense of hostile will that strove […] to pierce all shadows of cloud and earth and flesh and pin you under its deadly gaze” (Two Towers) doesn’t tempt him to give up. He literally crawls up Mount Doom when his strength wanes, refusing to collapse and die.
Certain that the Ring is his responsibility and his alone, he voices his determination to Faramir, insisting that he is “bound, by solemn undertaking to the Council, to find a way or perish in the seeking” (Two Towers). Frodo tries his utmost to complete his mission, persevering until the end, climbing his own Calvary with the fate of the world around his neck. Since he is just a mortal hobbit, how can he be blamed for needing to rely on divine help instead of his own merits? In Tolkien’s opinion, “the breaking of his mind and will under demonic pressure after torment was [not] 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, 327).
The final key ingredient that enables the quest to succeed – something so obvious that I can’t believe it’s so often overlooked – is his mercy towards Gollum. Frodo and Sam first encounter Gollum while lost in the Emyn Muil, shortly after leaving the Fellowship – and Frodo is suddenly confronted with his first temptation to kill the sly, dangerous creature. Remembering Gandalf’s admonition not to “deal out death in judgment” (Fellowship), however, Frodo refuses to give in, declaring, “I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him” (The Two Towers). Later, when Gollum is caught gorging on fish in the Forbidden Pool, Frodo spares his life a second time. Though he is tempted to let Faramir’s archers shoot so that he “need never hear that voice again,” he instead goes to retrieve Gollum himself, knowing that killing him would be against Gandalf’s wishes – as well as intrinsically immoral.
Not in the least naïve, Frodo realizes even before they enter Shelob’s lair that Gollum is likely plotting treachery, but he accepts the fact that practicing virtue requires risk. As Tolkien writes, for Frodo “to ‘pity’ [Gollum], to forbear to kill him, was… a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time” (Letters, 234). In other words, Frodo’s mercy would not have been in vain even if he had perished as a result, due to the objective nature of morality – but as it turns out, in a remarkable testament to God’s Providence, that mercy actually becomes his salvation at the Cracks of Doom. When Frodo is unable to destroy the Ring himself, Gollum intervenes and seizes it for himself, only to topple over the edge of the abyss and unwittingly complete the quest.
Thus Gandalf proves to be correct in his prediction that Gollum has “some part to play yet, for good or ill,” (Fellowship) before the end, and by sparing his life, Frodo allows him to complete it. Therefore, Frodo succeeds in completing his part. As Tolkien says, “Frodo had 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 honour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed” (Letters, 326).
J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t intend to write about an action hero who conquers incredible odds and dazzles the world. On the contrary, The Lord of the Rings is a poignant depiction of human frailty and subsequent dependence on God. If Frodo had demonstrated his strength by simply tossing aside the Ring, we would have lost that crucial glimpse of God’s unseen Presence. Without that, we might even have taken satisfaction in the comfortable lie that we can do anything we want if only we trust our own strength. Thankfully, Frodo’s apparent failure jolts us out of our dangerous complacency, challenging us to open our eyes and confront the stark truth of our human weakness.
We may not have to undergo an ordeal of such magnitude, but, like Frodo, we are also helpless to resist temptation if we presume to rely solely on our own strength. Like Frodo, we also depend on the help of God’s grace. Instead of condemning him for his “failure,” then, we should empathize with his heartrending struggle and draw inspiration from his determination to cling to virtue and persevere through all adversity. Frodo Baggins epitomizes the paradox of 2 Corinthians 12:10: “When I am weak, then I am strong,” revealing the astonishing marvels that God can accomplish thorough a single person with the humility to unreservedly surrender his life to Providence. What appears to be Frodo’s darkest hour is, in fact, his greatest triumph.
So, from now on, let’s, acknowledge Frodo’s heroism and give him the credit he deserves. He did not fail.