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Tolkien and Frodo's Motivations

Earlier in this blog, I examined the development of the character at the heart of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins. I looked into whether or not there was anything that we could put our finger on about Frodo as a character that might explain what he does, including in the climactic moment of the plot, in a search for his deepest, innermost motivation.

His background includes that loss typical of many protagonists: while he is still a child, his parents die in a boating accident, leaving him an orphan. He is also bereaved and uprooted as a young hobbit, and becomes almost a juvenile delinquent before his uncle Bilbo adopts him and takes him in to live at Bag End, eventually leaving him the One Ring which is the cause of his further adventures and the basis of the fantasy epic.

This leads to Frodo’s most surprising offer at the Council of Elrond to take the burden of the Ring upon himself, and I argued that he did it, psychologically speaking, because he felt his own personal burden of debt towards his benefactor, Bilbo.

Yes, of course, Frodo was moved by a power beyond himself. He lacked any particular desire to become a hero. When he speaks at the Council, his words are in one sense clearly outside expected self-based motivations, and seem driven by altruism or even Providence, which is active in the world Tolkien made. But the argument was that Frodo’s obligation to Bilbo comes into play on a personal level - it is his sense of duty to his uncle which overrides his fears.

But what does Tolkien himself say about his protagonist’s motivations? Here is part of an undated letter written probably in January or February 1956 to Michael Straight, editor or the New Republic, who had asked Tolkien some questions:

The final scene of the Quest was so shaped simply because having regard to the situation, and to the 'characters' of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, those events seemed to me mechanically, morally, and psychologically credible.

But Tolkien immediately leaps out of any kind of inner, psychological framework to give a religious perspective:

But, of course, if you wish for more reflection, I should say that within the mode of the story the 'catastrophe' exemplifies (an aspect of) the familiar words: 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.'

Tolkien goes on in the same letter to describe his Roman Catholic view that all situations in which people find themselves are both for their own good (depending on their choices) and for the broader good of the world - but he feels that there is an exception: a set of circumstances in which, for the good of the world, an individual must bear a burden far greater than the norm, a burden which he ultimately won’t be able to manage:

he is in a sense doomed to failure, doomed to fall to temptation or be broken by pressure against his “will”: that is against any choice he could make or would make unfettered, not under the duress’.

In Tolkien’s mind, Frodo fits into that ‘sacrificial' category. He would inevitably fail - Frodo couldn’t possibly have it in him to resist the Ring’s temptation at the last:

The Quest was bound to fail as a piece of world-plan, and also was bound to end in disaster as the story of humble Frodo's development to the 'noble', his sanctification. Fail it would and did as far as Frodo considered alone was concerned.

It had always been the case that Frodo would fail, from the first outline of the plot in 1936. But it is Frodo’s earlier kindnesses and mercies that deliver him -and the world - in the end:

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.

Tolkien’s train of thought in the letter gives a mystical/religious explanation for Frodo’s actions:

He did rob him and injure him in the end – but by a 'grace', that last betrayal was at a precise juncture when the final evil deed was the most beneficial thing any one could have done for Frodo! By a situation created by his 'forgiveness', he was saved himself, and relieved of his burden.

Some months later, in a draft letter of 26 July 1956, Tolkien reiterates his religious interpretations of Frodo’s quest:

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.

He goes on to say, in the same letter:

No, Frodo 'failed'. It is possible that once the ring was destroyed he had little recollection of the last scene. But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however 'good'; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us.

As far as inner or psychological motivations, Tolkien at least saw that the ending was more credible psychologically than some. In a letter to Amy Ronald dated 27 July 1956, he writes:

… surely it is a more significant and real event than a mere 'fairy-story' ending in which the hero is indomitable? It is possible for the good, even the saintly, to be subjected to a power of evil which is too great for them to overcome – in themselves.

But he again draws upon a religious context:

In this case the cause (not the 'hero') was triumphant, because by the exercise of pity, mercy, and forgiveness of injury, a situation was produced in which all was redressed and disaster averted…But we are assured that we must be ourselves extravagantly generous, if we are to hope for the extravagant generosity which the slightest easing of, or escape from, the consequences of our own follies and errors represents. And that mercy does sometimes occur in this life.

A few years later, Tolkien returned to the discussion of Frodo’s failure in this draft of a letter to Mrs Eileen Elgar, dated September 1963:

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).

But Tolkien didn’t consider Frodo’s failure to be a moral one:

At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum – impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted. Frodo had done what he could and 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.

In a footnote in this letter, Tolkien tells us that he sketched out various alternative scenes for the climax of the tale:

Actually, since the events at the Cracks of Doom would obviously be vital to the Tale, I made several sketches or trial versions at various stages in the narrative — but none of them were used, and none of them much resembled what is actually reported in the finished story.

Frodo’s motivation in taking the quest upon himself in the first place is portrayed as the result of divine intervention:

Frodo was given 'grace': first to answer the call (at the end of the Council) after long resisting a complete surrender; and later in his resistance to the temptation of the Ring (at times when to claim and so reveal it would have been fatal), and in his endurance of fear and suffering. But grace is not infinite, and for the most part seems in the Divine economy limited to what is sufficient for the accomplishment of the task appointed to one instrument in a pattern of circumstances and other instruments.

Given all this religious framework, in which Tolkien as a devout Roman Catholic clearly believed and embodied in The Lord of the Rings, is there any credence given to the psychological development of a character as a character? Tolkien does speculate a little on what Frodo himself may have thought about all of this, when writing about him after the quest was accomplished:

He appears at first to have had no sense of guilt…he was restored to sanity and peace. But then he thought that he had given his life in sacrifice: he expected to die very soon. But he did not, and one can observe the disquiet growing in him. Arwen was the first to observe the signs, and gave him her jewel for comfort, and thought of a way of healing him. Slowly he fades 'out of the picture', saying and doing less and less.

Indeed, Tolkien says explicitly that Frodo was full of self-reproach:

I think it is clear on reflection to an attentive reader that when his dark times came upon him and he was conscious of being 'wounded by knife sting and tooth and a long burden' (III 268) it was not only nightmare memories of past horrors that afflicted him, but also unreasoning self-reproach: he saw himself and all that he done as a broken failure.

Even further, Frodo was a victim of the sin of pride, Tolkien insists:

'Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same, for I shall not be the same.' That was actually a temptation out of the Dark, a last flicker of pride: desire to have returned as a 'hero', not content with being a mere instrument of good.

This is presented in clues throughout the latter part of the story, after the Ring is destroyed, as Tolkien points out:

And it was mixed with another temptation, blacker and yet (in a sense) more merited, for however that may be explained, he had not in fact cast away the Ring by a voluntary act: he was tempted to regret its destruction, and still to desire it. 'It is gone for ever, and now all is dark and empty', he said as he wakened from his sickness in 1420.

Tolkien’s view of Frodo’s motivations, then, was clearly based on an Epic viewpoint: the Epic world contains objective forces, real, supernatural agencies and the possibility of an individual character being ‘influenced’ (the word ‘influence’ originally had the general sense ‘an influx, flowing matter’, and also specifically meant, in astrology, ‘the flowing in of a fluid from the divine ‘ether’, affecting human destiny) by an outside power. Looking at characters as motivated by internal factors is a later view, more associated with post-Fruedian psycho-analysis and Irony. Nevertheless, in fiction, both views can co-exist. Frodo was both given ‘grace’ by a higher power to perform his mission, and then granted relief and a period of purgatory in the Blessed Lands even though technically he failed to accomplish his quest on a personal level; at the same time, he was motivated by his debt to his uncle, and, on a psychological level, weighed down by his apparent failure to accomplish his repayment.

In summary, then, Frodo, taking on the quest of the Ring both from a sense of obligation to his uncle who had rescued him from a wasted life and given him everything, and because of grace given to him by a higher power, bears the Ring through a series of torments and ultimately fails to resist its power when he reaches the heart of Sauron’s realm. Though the quest is accomplished nevertheless, Frodo returns home with another burden: his guilt about his failure. Worse than that, he still has traces of the deeper sin of pride - which, in the context of his earlier life, could be seen as a resurgence of that dark youth who was rescued from a misguided path by his uncle.

Viewed ironically, Frodo’s problem at the end of the story is the one he has had throughout: how can he repay his debt? Certainly it was a debt that had driven the mechanics of the entire tale in getting the Ring to Mordor, ready for Gollum to intervene and destroy it. But that was of no real use to Frodo - even the honours showered upon him afterwards would do nothing but exacerbate his deep sense of failure.

Viewed from the point of view of the Epic, there is divine Mercy in the world. Perhaps in Valinor Frodo had the opportunity to reflect and be relieved of his deepest, innermost need.

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