Thursday, June 21, 2007

Tolkien - Chapter Three

The Choice of the Ring

by Michael I. Colwill

When reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one is reading an epic in the form of a novel. In giving us this tremendous tale, Tolkien has kept in mind the style of the epic story. The story should follow a particular person who resembles a hero both mentally and physically. This hero ought to embody the ideals and values of a particular group of people. Like the heroes in The Odyssey and Beowulf, this hero will go on a journey and experience several adventures. And after surviving many hardships during his journey the hero will return once again to his own home and people.

In writing his epic, Tolkien has given us several variations on the typical format of the epic. In the classic epic the hero encounters a collection or council of gods; in The Lord of the Rings we are shown the council meetings at Rivendell. The traditional epic hero usually visits legendary places during his journey that are spoken of in legends; Tolkien’s hero visits places of legend in Middle-earth, such as the house of Tom Bombadil, the Mines of Moria, and the kingdom of Mordor. During the traditional epic a bard is usually found singing about the history of times past, such as the deeds of ancient heroes; this is found continually in the use of song and tales throughout The Lord of the Rings. In the epic a hero will often travel to an underworld of sorts and return with information that allows him to go on with his journey; during Tolkien’s story we see the descent into the Mines of Moria. We sometimes see visions of the future being granted to a hero in the epic; such glimpses of things to come are given from Galadriel’s mirror in Tolkien. The epic hero will frequently be held captive in the arms of a beautiful woman who prevents him from continuing on his journey; Tolkien brought in an ironic twist to this element through the use of Shelob, the giant female spider. But perhaps one of the most significant changes for Tolkien was his use of a hero. The hero, Frodo Baggins, is a distinctly unheroic figure.

The Lord of the Rings does contain its heroic characters, like Aragorn, son of Arathorn. But the continuous use of unheroic characters throughout Tolkien’s novels seems to imply that Middle-earth must be saved by someone who is quite ordinary and even humble in many respects. Tolkien’s hero is made great by the fact that, despite the obvious lack of mental and physical heroic qualities, he decides to take on the task of destroying the one Ring of his own free will. It is the personal choices of Frodo Baggins throughout the story to continue with his quest that truly makes him a hero.

It seems, however, that not everybody shares my opinion of free will in The Lord of the Rings. C.N. Manlove recognizes Tolkien’s use of an unconventional hero in his book, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies. He tells us that Tolkien chose “a little man, a four-foot halfling of a race happiest just to eat and sleep. The idea is to give us in Frodo a protagonist who grows into being a hero as his journey proceeds” (174-175). It is here, says Manlove, that Tolkien’s problems begin.

Manlove goes on to say that the conception of any hero “demands that the hero’s actions be substantially based on free choice and human will; and Tolkien certainly seems to have meant this to be a major spring in the action of his fantasy” (175). He believes that the decisions Frodo makes in the Shire and at Rivendell are simply arranged to appear as if they are acts of personal choice on the part of the hobbit, “in each case he is presented with the facts and we are to believe that he has a choice between the comforts of staying and the rigours of going which he alone must decide” (175).

Free choice is not meant to be the sole thing that drives the action in The Lord of the Rings. After all, it was the Ring that chose Frodo to be its carrier. With one exception, a Ring-Bearer is never the one to make the decision to pass on the Ring. Bilbo, though with some regrets and persuasion, willingly passes on the one Ring to Frodo. Even Gandalf hints at the already made decision for Frodo to carry the ring by saying, “only a small part is played in great deeds by any hero” (The Fellowship of the Rings, 283). However, the whole idea behind the Ring is that its bearer is constantly tempted by the power it has to offer, and must make a conscious decision to resist every step of the way.

Manlove also goes into the fact that in all of his most important decisions Frodo always seems to choose correctly. By some stroke of good luck he is led along the correct paths throughout his journey to Mordor. “And if he is in doubt,” states Manlove, “as he is at Parth Galen whether to go to Minas Tirith or Mordor, he is pushed into making the right decision” (177). In this case it is the attempt of Boromir to possess the Ring, thinking that it will aid him in conquering the evil forces that threaten his people, that pushes Frodo. The result appears to be a continuous run of correct choices that cause the reader to expect Frodo to never go wrong. In fact, this makes the possibility of making a wrong choice all but disappear, and with it goes the very thought of choice.

There are several examples of this luck that seem to be surrounding Frodo during his quest. Many of these examples occur during his near encounters with and narrow escapes from the Black Riders. On one of these occasions a black rider turns away from Frodo’s hiding place when he is nearly upon him. We realize what an unusual occurrence this is when Aragorn later describes the Black Riders’ heightened senses. “’In the dark they perceive many signs that are hidden from us: then they are most to be feared. And at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it. Senses, too, there are other than sight or smell. We can feel their presence…they feel ours more keenly. Also,’ he added, and his voice sank to a whisper, ‘the Ring draws them’” (The Fellowship of the Ring, 202). There are also other near encounters where Frodo and his party are saved by elves that appear to protect them. And we never find out why the Black Riders do not guard the road to the Shire when they already know that the Ring is in the possession of a Baggins there.

Manlove continues his argument; “The treatment of the Black Riders is only one strand in a whole skein of apparent coincidences and luck by which the hobbits are protected” (182). Tom Bombadil rescues them from Old Man Willow on the one day of the year that he is found in the Old Forest. Gandalf finally discovers the spell that will open the gates to Moria as the monster that was residing in the Sirannon Lake emerges. Sam Gamgee happens to wake in time to stop Gollum from stealing the Ring off of a sleeping Frodo. The giant eagles rescue Frodo and Sam just in time before the molten lava that surrounds them from all sides swallows them.

In the face of all this, any conception that the reader might have had of Frodo or the others as heroic will battling against giant adversaries fades into oblivion. It may be true that from the point of view of the characters themselves, the constant assistance is not expected, and that to themselves, their fear and courage are real; but for the reader, who sees that it is not mortal luck which is the architect of success, the struggles with the evil forces become unreal (Manlove, 183).

Manlove seems to indicate that, from the reader’s point of view, Frodo was not moving through the narrative by way of his own free will. I do not agree with what he has been saying. I think that it is evident to the reader that Frodo was moving through the narrative based on personal choices that he made as he went along. For him there were a number of possibilities for the future. He could conceivably have taken an entirely different route with different occurrences in order to reach his final goal, but that is not how Tolkien wanted it to happen, or perceived it happening. In his essay, “The Quest Hero,” W.H. Auden makes this comment, “Man is a history-making creature for whom the future is always open” (40).

When the decision has been taken to send the Ring to the Fire, his feelings are those of Papageno [The Magic Flute]: ‘such dangerous exploits are not for hobbits like me. I would much rather stay home than risk my life on the very slight chance of winning glory.’ But his conscience tells him: ‘You may be nobody in particular in yourself, yet, for some inexplicable reasons, through no choice of your own, the Ring has come into your keeping, so that is on you and not on Gandalf or Aragorn that the task falls of destroying it’ (Auden, 55).

Yes, this could be seen as a removal of Frodo’s power of free will. However, being human, he still has the choice to refuse the task of destroying the Ring. Frodo knows that the Ring has come into his possession through some higher fate than he is aware of. Knowing that he can’t pass on such a task to someone else, and still have a clean conscience, Frodo makes the decision to carry this item of power that has worked its way into his life.

In his book, Master of Middle-Earth, Paul H. Kocher speaks about Frodo being chosen to bear the Ring. Frodo is not quite sure as to why he was chosen and not someone else. He is sure that it is not because of any past merits that he has. Gandalf tells him that even he is unaware as to the reasons that Frodo was chosen, but assures him that he has been chosen and must now use what wit and strength he has. Gandalf carefully goes on to inform Frodo that he is free to accept or reject the choice: ‘…the decision lies with you.’ The option not to cooperate with the grand design is open to Frodo’s will, as it is to that of all other intelligent creatures who are aware of the issues” (Kocher, 36).

In order to show that Frodo’s decision to make the journey to Mordor with the Ring was one of his own free will, we should look at what could have caused him to make that decision. Frodo seems to have an extraordinary sense of what is right and what is wrong. And he possesses a conscience that helps him determine the right thing to do. “If Frodo’s acceptance would be ‘right,’ would not refusal be, if not ‘wrong,’ at least an abdication of duty, diminishing him morally?” (Kocher, 41-42). The refusal of the Ring is not in Frodo’s character. In order to do what he knew was the right thing, Frodo made the conscious decision to be the bearer of the Ring on the journey to its destruction.

Tolkien does want to give his readers a mystical sense that some divine hand may be guiding some of the action; however, he does not want to cause this theme to overshadow the fact that his characters have a choice in what they do. He does not want to take away the suspense from the narrative by allowing the reader to know that Frodo will make it to his next destination safely. Kocher says that one “technique Tolkien finds handy is to couple every incident anyone calls foreordained with some notable exercise of free will by one of the characters involved in it” (40). An example that is given is the encounter of Bilbo and Frodo with Gollum. Both hobbits are said to have been chosen as Ring-bearers. This is where they have no choice in the matter. However, when either one of them comes across Gollum, they have had at least one chance to do away with the evil creature that is driven insane by a mad longing to possess the Ring, and passed it up. They spared Gollum’s life.

This free will that both Bilbo and Frodo have shown in their decisions to spare Gollum, and throughout the rest of their adventures, is something that Tolkien has believed in since he was a child. It was taught to him at an early age by his mother when she was teaching him the basic convictions of the Roman Catholic Church. As the scripture says from the Book of Joshua, “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (NIV Bible, 225). Even after all that God had done for them, the Israelites still had a fundamental choice to make. It is this ability to choose that Tolkien places in Frodo’s character.

This choice that Frodo makes inevitably has a great impact on the outcome of his adventure. At the Cracks of Doom the Ring seems to finally gain power over Frodo. He, like many of the bearers in the past, cannot stand the thought of parting with the Ring, and slips it on his finger. Frodo’s salvation ends up being the mad creature, Gollum, who leaps out of the shadows and wrestles with the invisible form of Frodo until he manages to bite off his ring finger. And then, while dancing about in triumph, with both the ring and Frodo’s missing finger, he slips on the edge of a cliff and falls into the flames below.

I believe that Tolkien has done a wonderful job of mixing the use of intervention by a divine force, and the free choice of the characters to drive his narrative forward to its conclusion. The divine force, which represents God, watches over Frodo as he willingly makes the decision to carry the Ring of Power to Mordor and the Cracks of Doom. He also seems to take part in the story at those times when Frodo and his friends are most in need of help. Some examples include, the apparent resurrection of Gandalf after his fall with the Balrog, and the narrow escapes that Frodo has from the Black Riders. And we cannot forget the timely appearance of Gollum at the end to steal the Ring away from Frodo, who is unable to bring himself to destroy it in the volcano’s fire.

Tolkien uses these to drive home one of his great themes: that good shall triumph over evil. Richard Mathews says, in his book Lightning From A Clear Sky, “free will is of paramount importance in Tolkien’s moral scheme” (20). And Burton Raffel comments on the continuous appearance of deus ex machina like rescues. He says that these rescues are “part of the delight that we take in the story…discovering for us how Good is to prevail over Evil” (241). And the story of The Lord of the Rings is, ultimately, a story of a small force of Good against an extraordinarily powerful force of Evil, and how that Good came to triumph. In no way does the use of divine luck and intervention take away from the narrative that centers around the free choice of a small halfling to carry the greatest power in Middle-earth to its destruction.


Auden, W.H. “The Quest Hero.” Tolkien and the Critics. Ed. Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press1968.

The Bible. New International Version.

Kocher, Paul H. Master of Middle-Earth: The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972.

Manlove, C.N. Modern Fantasy: Five Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Mathews, Richard. Lightning from a Clear Sky. California: Borgo Press, 1978.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954.


Rodrigo said...
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Jason Heath said...

Another excellent post! I think that this kind of post will really add some foundational material for your blog. I really enjoyed reading this, and I look forward to seeing what else you've got in store. BTW, I also like the material you've added in the sidebar.

Kanteker said...

Sorry, I never left an explanation for the removal of that recent comment. The comment was spam. I'm all about promoting other people's blogs, podcasts, websites, or work when they have something to do with writing or if I take a personal interest in them. I will not, however, submit my readers to spam posts. I will continue to leave the comments open for all, but will rid this blog of anything that does not belong here. All legitimate correspondence and comments are more than welcome. In fact those types of comments are encouraged.

Be well.