'...those as just went on...'
While attempting to put together an explanation of "the way things work" from a Catholic perspective, and how that plays out in The Lord of the Rings, I picked the brains of some fellow Catholic Franciscans who are also Tolkien appreciators. I've been realizing more and more just how Catholic is JRRT's statement that Frodo is a study of a hobbit who "is broken down and made into something quite different."
Why is it, I asked my friends, that being broken is a necessary part of being transformed - of being "made into something quite different"? Why does growth in our relationship with God need to involve darkness? Note that, for Catholics, this isn't a question of "Does it?" but a question of "Why does it?" The truth of the matter is so much a part of the Catholic way of looking at life that it's not surprising to find it as one of the - probably unconscious at first - foundations of LotR. Frodo is taken apart piece by piece in a way none of the other mortal characters are. In the end, Frodo is transformed in a way none of the others are. It's difficult to imagine even one of the elves giving a command to a wizard, as Frodo does to Saruman, and implicitly expecting to be obeyed. But are the two things connected? Couldn't Frodo have gained that spiritual power without going through that suffering? Couldn't he have been made into something quite different without first being broken down?
Of course, it would have been possible, since the spiritual power we're talking about doesn't belong to the person using it, but is the power of God acting through that person - and God's power can act in any way that God decides. But that's not the way life normally works. Which brings us back to the question of why.
As I'll say again in the essay on "The Way of Perfection," when talking about our calling to have a deep, personal relationship with God, most of us fall short of what we're capable of, but that's because it's a tough Road and most of us stop and settle down before we make it to the end.
As mentioned on the Core Concepts page, the Road is one of Tolkien's major sacramental images in LotR. During the discussion of stories in "The Stairs of Cirith Ungol," words such as "paths" and "turning back" are used without clear demarcation of whether the character is talking about moving through a physical distance, or moving through part of life or a task that someone has made a commitment to. That kind of fluid usage is common in the sacramental way of looking at things. (Story itself is the primary sacramental image in that discussion, but at this point let's look at the road/path.) This is Sam speaking:
I used to think that [adventures] were things the wonderful folk of the stories went and looked for, because they wanted them... But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually - their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on...
For traditional Catholics, "the wonderful folk of the stories" include the people who went before us who are held up as examples of holiness. Some of them ended up as pretty amazing individuals, but they didn't start out that way. Generally speaking, they started out facing the same kinds of obstacles and needing to make the same kinds of decisions as their fellow human beings. What made them different was the fact that they didn't find a place to settle down along the way when the Road started getting steep or when spiritual darkness fell like "the shuttering of a lamp." As Sam says, "We hear about those as just went on." It's important to note that going on doesn't mean just continuing to be a good person and Christian and dutifully fulfilling the given duties of life; it means going on, as Frodo and Sam (and, as Sam notes, Beren) did, moving forward, sometimes needing to change plans, often going deeper into enemy territory, and always further into dependence on God. Being "landed in" a story is just the beginning; we have to decide how - or if - to follow the path that's laid before us.
Francis of Assisi was first broken in a prison in Perugia, where he was held for a year as a POW, under conditions meant to assure that those being held would never be able to fight again. When they were close to death, if their families paid a hefty enough ransom, they would be thrown out of the city to be picked up and taken home. Obviously, some didn't survive the prison itself, more died shortly after returning home, and many were lifelong invalids physically and/or mentally. Like Frodo after the Sammath Naur, Francis was able - with the grace of God - to recover relatively well physically. But his health was permanently broken to the point that he had to abandon his lifelong plan of being a soldier and, eventually, a knight. His dependence on that plan was strong enough that he even set out on another campaign, but he was forced to turn back because of illness - supported by a word from Christ, in a dream, that he would be shown what he was to do.
Francis had a guaranteed future if he chose to follow it, continuing on with his father's extremely lucrative business of trading in luxury fabrics for the nouveau riche of Assisi. It wasn't the life Francis had wanted, but the life he'd wanted was now impossible. It would have been a life of "quiet desperation" for him but, as Thoreau noted, that's not an unusual way to live. If Francis Bernadone had spent his life in the family business, making trips to the great fairs in France where products from the east met wealth from the west, and wooing customers in Assisi's rising merchant class, would we have ever heard of him? I very much doubt it. As Sam says, "we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten." Being a merchant isn't an inherently bad thing, but for Francis it would have been finding a spot to stop and settle down. Instead of that, he stepped into the spiritual darkness of not knowing his direction as he waited for God to make it clear - an action he repeated a number of times during his life as the Road got steeper (and, as a comfort to all of us, an action he didn't always get right the first time).
That's only the beginning of Francis' story, of course. There were a lot of other chances for him to turn back. The fact that he kept going led to more brokenness and more darkness, but also to being remembered as one of "those as just went on," with the order of friars that began with a few of his friends still active and alive more than seven centuries later.
We don't hear about all of "those as just went on," and I don't think Sam (or Tolkien) meant the statement to be taken that way. The stories of those we do hear about are examples to encourage us and reminders that we're not on the Road alone. One thing the stories tell us is that if we do keep going, we're going to run into difficulties and darkness and things that will break us apart. That's the nature of the Road. If we keep going long enough to have our relationship with God deepen, or long enough that we become a clearer glass for His power to shine through, those are things we're going to run into. And I think that's one element of an answer to the "Why?" that began this essay. Frodo's Quest - as a sacramental story - is a stronger answer than any I could write.
Peter Kreeft*, writing about Frodo's story, tells us that "Calvary is the rule, not the exception." Jesus says that if I'm going to follow Him I need to pick up my cross, not His cross. In the Catholic way of looking at things, salvation through Jesus doesn't mean that there's no longer a need for us to give ourselves in sacrifice; it means that, joined to His Sacrifice, as members of His Body and as branches on the one Vine, our sacrifices are no longer futile. But, being part of that Body and branches on that Vine, we can expect to make sacrifices, as He did, out of love. Because of Providence, Frodo's sacrifice of himself wasn't futile - but his sacrifice was still needed. Calvary is the rule, because evil is defeated by love and sacrifice rather than by force, and Calvary is followed by the empty tomb.
Jesus' life is the story of one who just went on; his story isn't different because of what happened to him, but because of who He is. Good Friday and Easter form the climax of salvation history as well as the Church's liturgical year. But there's a quieter event that the Church honors with a "Solemnity" (the highest order of recognition that can be given to a day outside the celebration of Holy Week and Easter). The Solemnity of the Annunciation is celebrated on March 25** - not coincidentally exactly nine months before Christmas. What it recognizes is the fact of the Incarnation: that God became Man "and pitched his tent among us" (as a literal translation of John's Gospel might read). The story of that day is told from Mary's point of view, as it's her free will that needs to answer "Let it be done to me as you say." But in the thread of salvation history, it's God's story, with the Second Person of the Trinity loving us enough to die. He freely chooses that fate when he becomes Man. The events 33 years later set in motion the way he will die, but that he will die is a fact determined at the moment he becomes human in a human woman's womb. Would we be any less saved if Jesus of Nazareth had died of old age, contentedly in his bed? Maybe not, but his story reminds us that contentment is not the usual fate of those that just go on, when going on means not swerving to the right or to the left but being completely dedicated to the Road that God lays beneath our feet.
*In "Insights about Evil" in A Hidden Presence: The Catholic Imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Ian Boyd, C.S.B., and Stratford Caldecott, The Chesterton Press, 2003.
**And we know what else happened on March 25. If you don't remember, back up a bit to the essay on "Times and Seasons".