Forgiveness and Mercy

Posted March 23 2023. 9 min read.
#J. R. R. Tolkien#Literature#The Lord of the Rings#Philosophy#Christianity

In the Orthodox Church, the first Sunday of Lent is known as Forgiveness Sunday. There is a ritual done at the Vespers service on the afternoon of Forgiveness Sunday in which each member of the parish, clergy and laity alike, stands in front of every other member, individually and in turn, and both asks forgiveness from and grants forgiveness to the other, for any sins committed either knowingly or unknowingly. Forgiveness Vespers serves as a reminder for all of us going into the Lenten season of repentance that we must not only repent of our own sins, but forgive others of those sins they have committed against us.

The Gospel reading for Forgiveness Sunday is from the Gospel of St Matthew and begins with the following:

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

— Matthew 6:14-15

On this past February 27, the Monday after Forgiveness Sunday, the topic of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings came up again in a Telegram group I'm involved in. This group is full of nerds and we tend to talk about Tolkien a lot. This time it was about why Frodo had to be the Ring-bearer, in particular why Sam couldn't have just taken the Ring from him at some point and carried it the rest of the way to Mount Doom.

One of the group members said, "Anyone besides Frodo would have chosen to kill Gollum at first chance and then been unable to remove the ring to toss it into the fires," and I thought, "Man what an opportune thing to bring up around Forgiveness Sunday."

For those not in the know, here's some backstory. After Frodo and Sam leave the Fellowship and strike out on their own, they find themselves pursued by Gollumn, the former Hobbit now corrupted by the Ring. When Gollum catches up and attacks them, trying to take the Ring for himself, a tussle ensues which ends with Frodo holding Gollum at sword-point. Frodo and Sam then discuss what to do with him.

'Well, what's to be done with it?' said Sam. 'Tie it up, so as it can't come sneaking after us no more, I say.'

'But that would kill us, kill us,' whimpered Gollum. 'Cruel little hobbitses. Tie us up in the cold hard lands and leave us, gollum, gollum.' Sobs welled up in his gobbling throat.

'No,' said Frodo. 'If we kill him, we must kill him outright. But we can't do that, not as things are. Poor wretch! He has done us no harm.'

'Oh hasn't he!' said Sam rubbing his shoulder. 'Anyway he meant to, and he means to, I'll warrant. Throttle us in our sleep, that's his plan.'

'I daresay,' said Frodo. 'But what he means to do is another matter.' He paused for a while in thought. Gollum lay still, but stopped whimpering. Sam stood glowering over him.

It seemed to Frodo then that he heard, quite plainly but far off, voices out of the past:

What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!

Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.

I do not feel any pity for Gollum. He deserves death.

Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.

'Very well,' he answered aloud, lowering his sword. 'But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.'

The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter I: The Taming of Sméagol

The part in italics there is of course a remembered conversation between Frodo and Gandalf,¹ the wise mentor he now believes to be dead, in which Gandalf advised Frodo towards forgiveness and mercy and away from ruthlessness.²

Frodo takes Gandalf's guidance to heart. Gollum has just physically attacked him, clearly intending to take the Ring and thwart his mission, possibly killing him in the process if he needs to. Despite Frodo's clear knowledge of all of this, he chooses to spare Gollum's life out of pity and mercy, just as Bilbo did before him. Frodo not only spares Gollum's life, but also resists Sam's impulses to kill Gollum for the rest of their journey to Mordor, and talks Faramir into sparing his life after he unwittingly ventures into the Forbidden Pool of the Rangers of Ithilien. Frodo's mercy is not a one-time act, but a consistent, conscious decision throughout the rest of his journey that he undertakes with full awareness and at significant risk to his own life.

Of course, Frodo's mercy pays off in the end. When he finally makes it to Mount Doom, the Ring has weakened him so much that Sam has to carry him up the slope. The Ring's power has been influencing him for months, trying to corrupt his soul, and he is now hanging on by a thread. In the final moment, he is unable to let go and cast the Ring into the fire. He has given in to the same temptation Gollum did all those hundreds of years ago.

Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.

'I have come,' he said. 'But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!' And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam's sight. Sam gasped, but he had no chance to cry out, for at that moment, many things happened.

Something struck Sam violently in the back, his legs were knocked from under him and he was flung aside, striking his head against the stony floor, as a dark shape sprang over him. He lay still and for a moment all went black.

The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter III: Mount Doom

The thing that struck Sam turns out to be Gollum, who has followed the Hobbits up the slope to take the Ring for himself. And in the end, it isn't Sam who saves Frodo from total enslavement to the Ring, but Gollum:

The fires below awoke in anger, the red light blazed, and all the cavern was filled with a great glare and heat. Suddenly Sam saw Gollum's long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm's edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was wrought of living fire.

'Precious, precious, precious!' Gollum cried. 'My Precious! O my Precious!' And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone.

The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter III: Mount Doom

Go back and read that quote from St Matthew's Gospel again. Have you read it? Good.

There's a hypocritical element in being merciless and unforgiving towards other people. We ignore the fact that we've probably committed the same wrongs they're committing. Frodo gets this.

Gollum's real sin is being ensnared by the Ring and whatever it represents. Frodo not killing him is an act of mercy and forgiveness. Frodo also becomes ensnared by the Ring, committing the same sin as Gollum. This sin prevents him from completing his mission on his own, but his own act of forgiveness from before leads to Gollum being there at the end, which causes the Ring to be destroyed. Frodo is forgiven by Eru (the Most High God equivalent of Tolkien's universe), through his own act of forgiveness. Beautiful.

  1. Odd little detail I noticed: Frodo's memory of Gandalf's words here is slightly different from what Gandalf actually said in the conversation. In the conversation Gandalf says, "Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends." (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter II: The Shadow of the Past) Frodo's memory replaces "in judgment" with "in the name of justice" and adds in "fearing for your own safety". I just discovered this and spent the last hour distracted from writing this post while I tracked down the relevant quotes to make sure, then thought about what it might mean. I might do another post on it someday.

  2. I think it's interesting that in Frodo's memory of this conversation, Gandalf says "be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice", rather than just saying "be not too eager to deal out justice". It seems to me the implication is that what the dealer of death perceives to be justice might not be actual justice. Justice is an unambiguous good, so we should always be eager to do it. The problem is with our perception, and we shouldn't be too eager to do things we think are just because we could be wrong, and often we don't even know our own motives very well. What we believe to be a just act could in fact be a vengeful or wrathful act. Maybe Frodo understands deep down that his act of killing Gollum here would be an act of vengeance or fear and not of justice.


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