'I will take the Ring...'


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

'I will take the Ring...'
Fourth mansions

By the time he reaches Rivendell, Frodo has had a spiritual initiation. The fourth mansions bring the beginning of God's direct action in the soul or, we might say, the beginning of supernatural action in the person's life. The episode with the barrow-wight shows us how far Frodo has come up to this time; he has enough strength to waken during the wight's spell, and enough faith to call on a strange little man whom logic would say couldn't hear him. The barrow-wights are servants of the Enemy: during life they were subject to the Witch-king when he ruled over Angmar. I assume this is what Gandalf is referring to when he tells Frodo that the barrow was his most dangerous time on the trip.

But being stabbed by the Witch-king's knife is really what opens Frodo to the spiritual realm - for good or evil. He not only sees the wraiths more clearly, but sees Glorfindel as he is "on the other side." As Gandalf notes the hint of transparency in Frodo's wounded arm, his thought is that Frodo won't end in evil, even though the transparency could signify that Frodo has taken a step toward becoming a wraith. Instead, Gandalf thinks that the transparency will lead to Frodo becoming '...a glass filled with a clear light...' Everything we know about Frodo to this point would support Gandalf's thought. Frodo has been chosen and prepared. He has called on Elbereth when in danger, a name "deadly" to servants of the Enemy. He is ready to go further.

Another characteristic of people in the fourth mansions, Teresa says, is the willingness to accept adversity. Frodo shows this in his "I will take the Ring..." He doesn't have any illusions about the fact that he is accepting adversity in becoming Ring-bearer; he tells Bilbo that the endings he can imagine to his own story are all "dark and unpleasant."


Frodo's second calling at the Council is, I believe, different from his first back at Bag End. The decision to leave the Shire is logical and reasoned - although courageous and loving. Once Frodo understands that Gandalf dare not take the Ring, there's really no one else to do the job. And the job needs doing. This is similar to many of the decisions we need to make as Christians; we don't always need God to directly step in and tell us what to do.   

At the Council, however, Frodo's surrounded by people who would be more logical choices for the task ahead. On the face of it, there's nothing reasonable about giving it to a hobbit - any more than there was about sending a stuttering fugitive back to the land he'd fled, in order to speak God's words to the Pharaoh. This isn't simply a decision - it's discernment. The question isn't who would be the best Ring-bearer based on logic, but who has been called to fill that role.

As discussed in "Frodo as Paradox," something that's accepted as a basic fact in the book is that no one has the ability to destroy the Ring. That kind of puts a damper on the normal method of screening job applicants; you're not going to find the person who's "most likely to succeed," because no one is. You have to look at it in a different way, and discover the person to whom the job has been appointed. That doesn't necessarily mean he's going to succeed, but it means you're cooperating with whatever Power appointed him, trusting that Power's wisdom, and giving it the most opportunity to act when the appointed person reaches the limits of his abilities.  

Deciding if you're that person, especially when you have no personal knowledge of the Caller, isn't easy. I think many people who've faced somewhat similar instances of discernment would identify with what Frodo experiences:

No one answered. The noon-bell rang. Still no one spoke. Frodo glanced at all the faces, but they were not turned to him. All the Council sat with downcast eyes, as if in deep thought. A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.

Some people take the reference to "some other will" to mean that Frodo was forced into volunteering by fate or by Ilúvatar. But I don't think this is likely, given that Elrond later asks him if he is still willing to take on the task and he answers "Yes" without any mentioned hesitation. I believe that, instead, it's the action of grace supporting him rather than forcing him. According to Teresa, a characteristic of those who are in the fourth mansions is the willingness to accept difficult situations - and, as we said earlier, the direct action of God in the soul.

Of course, Frodo didn't "get the job" simply because he spoke up; Bilbo's offer had just been turned down by the Council. The group - most obviously in the person of Elrond - affirms Frodo's discernment that he's the one being called to the task. This is essential because (1) we're looking at a strong-group process, which means that discernment is the responsibility of the community rather than of one individual, and (2) we're dealing with a group that believes there is a specific person being called. It's interesting that the recent LotR-FotR movie eliminates this process. If someone is called it implies a caller or, in this case, a Caller, which is a concept the movies tend to play down as much as possible. The composition of the Fellowship in the movie is also based solely on individual, personal decisions, rather than the careful choices by Elrond and Gandalf that are made in the book. I think this is related to the fact that the movies show the Quest as something possible - although extremely difficult - for a person to accomplish, thereby avoiding any absolute need to rely on Providence. (It's also interesting that in an early draft of the book, assembling the Fellowship happens more along the lines of the movie than those of the completed book, which seems to indicate that Tolkien decided it needed to be changed.)

The way Tolkien told the story, the crux of Frodo's heroism is that he can't do what he's setting out to do. He knows it, Gandalf knows it, Elrond knows it, everyone at the Council that gives him the task knows it. But they also know that no one else could do it. When they send Frodo off as Ring-bearer, they're not trusting him to get the job done (Tolkien's already shown us by that time that Frodo couldn't perform the necessary action even in his own parlor). They're trusting whoever or whatever Power it was that "appointed the task" to him, that decided he was "meant" to have the Ring. In essence, though Tolkien doesn't use the word, they're trusting in Providence, in whatever form that takes in the beliefs of the inhabitants of Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age. And I think it's essential to understand that's what Frodo is trusting in, too. If he'd been trusting in his own strength or power to do the job, the Ring would have drawn him into its temptations almost from the start.

One of my favorite religious works of art is a painting that shows the calling of the prophet Samuel as a boy. The picture shows him listening intently to God's message, but this didn't happen until after he'd misunderstood the call three times, thinking it had come from Eli. At that point, the Bible tells us, Samuel "did not yet know the LORD," but, as Eli instructs him, the next time Samuel is called he responds with a statement that leaves him open to whatever God might ask: "Speak, for your servant is listening." It seems to me that Frodo at the Council is in a situation similar to Samuel's. Like Samuel, he has already left his home but doesn't know what his next step will be. He does "not yet know the LORD," but responds to the call as far as he understands it. It's Elrond who plays a role similar to the older prophet, confirming that Frodo has, indeed, been called by Someone or Something higher than the Council itself. In taking that next step, Frodo accepts a call beyond the logical one to leave Bag End.