Sunday, May 12, 2019

Yup. Frodo failed.

Back in 2014, in an email I'd written to my buddy Charles, who is an avid Lord of the Rings fan, I wrote about what I saw as Frodo's moral failing at a crucial moment:

Having reread the trilogy a year or so ago, I really came to appreciate Tolkien's complicated morality: Gollum may seem like a figure of pity, but in truth he's bad to the core (Sam was right), and in the end, it's his evil actions, his ineluctable hunger for the Ring, that end up saving Middle Earth! This certainly complicates the moral picture that we think we see in LOTR. At first, it all seems very clear: we know who's good, and we know who's evil. Many commentators describe Tolkien's story as a battle between good and evil. But in the end, noble Frodo's on that precipice, and he can't pull the trigger! It's evil that does evil in! Gollum to the rescue! It's almost as if LOTR is an enormous, trilogy-length joke, with Gollum's act as the punchline. Then, to heap irony upon moral ambiguity, Frodo gets honored for what he "did"! And never once (if I recall correctly) does Frodo do anything to disabuse the people around him of the false notion that he was the one who destroyed the Ring. Sure, we can credit Frodo with carrying the Ring 99.9% of the way to its unmaking, but in the final analysis, it's wretched, evil little Gollum who defeats Sauron. Rich irony, indeed.

Charles replied:

Hmm. I think I'm going to have to disagree. For one, Gollum is hopelessly corrupted, driven by his "ineluctable hunger for the Ring." I'm not saying that he is not responsible for his actions (he is, of course), but I also don't think it's a stretch to say that he is not acting rationally or logically. Even if he can be considered evil, he is not the same type of evil as Sauron or his minions. Anyway, my point here is that Gollum no longer has any real agency, so I don't think we can credit him with destroying the Ring, even though technically he was the cause of the destruction.. And I don't think this is what Tolkien intended either—it's pretty clear, in both the books and the films--that it is the pity of Bilbo that ruled the fate of many. Gollum may not have had a choice, but Bilbo did, and he chose to spare Gollum's life. That choice is what ended up saving Middle Earth—or, at least, this is what Tolkien intends us to believe, I think. If anything, we can say that Bilbo's choice allowed evil to reach its inescapable conclusion, where it destroys itself. (And there is precedent for that idea in Tolkien; cf. Minas Morgul, where the orcs essentially all kill each other for no good reason.)

Also, don't be dissin' my homeboy Frodo. Everyone knows what happened at the very end—after all, the ballad sung in his honor is titled, "Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom." Frodo didn't disabuse anyone of a false notion because he didn't have to.

I think there's a lot that goes into this, but I've always thought that one of the reasons why Frodo could not destroy the Ring is because it wouldn't have made any sense story-wise. With the visible hold that the Ring has over him by that point, for him to simply cast it into the fire would have turned the Ring of Power into a mere trinket. And, like you said, the Tolkien idea of salvation coming from an unexpected source is also of great importance here.

Below is an interesting vid by a Tolkien fan, Tim Hickson, who discusses Frodo's failure at the Crack of Doom, and whose insights reflect some of what I said, and some of what Charles said.

Charles and I agree that evil does evil in. Tim Hickson agrees with Charles that Bilbo's mercy, in not killing Gollum, also figures into Sauron's defeat. I'd like to point out, though, that if Gollum has lost all agency because he's so in thrall to the One Ring, then Gollum can't be called evil. That's a term reserved for someone with moral agency.

As for Frodo, Hickson argues that Tolkien's experience of World War I probably allowed him to craft a character who, in the end, proved too weak against temptation, but only because there are forces in life that are too great for some of us to master, given that we all have different capacities when it comes to resisting evil. In other words, according to Hickson, Tolkien's view of Frodo would be that, yes, Frodo failed at the crucial moment, but this failure was perfectly understandable given the sheer attractive power of the Ring's temptation. Who could have done better than Frodo had done?


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, there are two sorts of evil: Moral Evil and Natural Evil. Gollum has lost all agency and is therefore an example of natural evil, but of a special kind - he allowed himself to lose moral agency.

Jeffery Hodges

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Kevin Kim said...


I recall learning the distinction between the two types of evil in a Problem of God class in 1987. Even back then, I was skeptical that "natural evil" was a coherent concept. A storm or earthquake (or mudslide or forest fire) might be calamitous, but there's no intentionality there, and I see intentionality as fundamental to any definition of evil.

In his book on free will, Sam Harris offers the example of the murderer who murders because, as it turns out, he has a brain tumor that makes him psychotic. The impulse to murder might be caused by the tumor, but to my mind, this doesn't explain how the murderer is still able to use his rationality to plot and plan his kills. In other words, intentionality still plays a role in these murders, even if the killer's acts might be considered a species of "natural evil" (to be clear, I wouldn't categorize them as such) because of the brain tumor. From my perspective, the murderer's acts are still evil given the continued existence of intentionality. This is not the same as the random damage caused by storms, quakes, mudslides, fires, etc.

It could just be that "natural evil" is coherent or not depending on whether one accepts its definition.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If God exists, then natural evil is somebody's fault, maybe God's.

Jeffery Hodges

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Kevin Kim said...

If God is ultimately the cause of everything, then He's definitely to blame for evil and suffering, if for no other reason than that He built the potential for evil and suffering into the universe's ontology. When a playground swing gives way and a child gets killed, the parents (rightly) sue the makers of the playground.