Playing with Fire


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

Playing with Fire

One thing that "doing one's duty" in the narrow sense is, is safe. Not necessarily safe physically, but in other ways. If we're assigned a duty and we perform it dutifully, what complaint could anyone have against us? (Well, the servant who buried his master's money comes to mind - which may say something in itself.) If Éowyn had stayed at Meduseld, and the Witch-king had defeated Gandalf instead of being dispatched himself, Éowyn certainly wouldn't have been blamed for the catastrophe; she was doing her duty. When our conscience tells us to step outside that narrow duty, and we follow it, we're taking a risk.  

There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.
- John F. Kennedy
In a discussion on hobbits, one Tolkien reader made what I think was a very insightful remark: that hobbits in general aren't very bad, but they also aren't very good. Residents of the Shire basically do what their orderly society tells them to do. What complaints could your neighbor have about you if you "did your duty" as the social contract defined it? If the society collapsed under attacks from within and without, you certainly wouldn't be blamed for it. It was a very safe situation to be in, for the individual if not for the society. But if a handful of Shire residents hadn't stepped outside that personal safety and narrow definition of duty, the society would have been in worse danger than it already was. "Playing it safe" may keep people from doing bad things, but it also keeps them from doing great ones.

In "Shadow of the Past," after Gandalf has talked about the negative effects the Ring has on Its holders, Frodo decides that his duty is to keep and guard the Ring, 'No matter what it may do to me.' This is not safe by any meaning of the word. It's playing with fire. Gandalf and Elrond, and later Galadriel, refuse to take the Ring for fear that they will fall under its evil influence; they have to consider the fact that if (when) they did fall, they'd have the power to enslave all of Middle-earth.

Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly.
- Robert F. Kennedy
But someone has to take the risk; the Ring is a very dangerous toy to leave lying around (even at the bottom of the Sea, as noted at the Council) without someone being responsible for it - without a Ring-bearer. Frodo realizes there's a risk ('No matter what it may do to me'). So does Gandalf. He tells Frodo the Ring's effect on him will be 'slow to evil' if he keeps it with that purpose. He doesn't say the evil will never come.

This could be quite a moral dilemma. Aren't we supposed to avoid situations that have the potential of leading us into sin? There's certainly danger in placing ourselves in them for their own sake ("How far can I take this before it becomes sinful?"), or as a way to test our own willpower. Throughout LotR, people fall under the power of the Ring when they think they have the power within themselves to resist it. But even before he leaves Bag End, Frodo doesn't have that illusion. Someone who considers himself impervious to fire is more likely to be killed by it than someone who knows how vulnerable he is, and that holds true even though the latter person might make the decision to run into a burning building to rescue someone.

One of my favorite glimpses into Frodo's spiritual growth comes in a single line of dialogue in "The Taming of Sméagol." Immediately after he's told the absent Gandalf that he pities Gollum and will not kill him, Frodo says, 'But yet I am afraid.' He doesn't allow Gollum to live because he considers him a safe companion, but because - dangerous as it is - it's the right thing to do (the same reason he agrees to keep and guard the Ring). Sam doesn't quite understand that in deciding to let Gollum live, Frodo isn't ignorant of the danger but is accepting it.

Tolkien certainly considered playing with fire for its own sake to be spiritually dangerous. As Elrond says during the Council, referring to Saruman, 'It is dangerous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy.' Referring to the Black Riders, Gildor tells Frodo, 'Flee them. Speak no word to them.' And some parts of Frodo's story remind us that playing with fire can, indeed, lead to getting burned. 'Whatever it may do to me,' turns out to be a stripping of his very personhood. Allowing Gollum to live, and then following him, leads to Shelob's Lair and the Tower of Cirith Ungol. But avoiding those dangers out of fear could have led to much worse consequences.
 
What did the Ring do to Frodo - in the end? The end Gandalf is speaking of when he says '...to what he will come in the end, not even Elrond can foretell'? Was he right in thinking, 'Not to evil' - in the end? This is a vital question in discerning Frodo's call to be Ring-bearer. That hint of transparency that Gandalf sees in Frodo's wounded arm isn't necessarily a good sign; in fact, it could be a very bad one - the first step toward becoming a wraith. But Gandalf doesn't think so. Rather, he thinks that Frodo '...may become like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can.' If the One is going to call someone to the path the Ring-bearer will have to follow, a path which Frodo 'is not half through yet,' it will be someone who has the potential to allow the journey to purify him rather than turn him to evil. Either process will require him to "fade" - to become transparent - but with very different results. At the ford, when Frodo has begun to fade, he not only sees the ring-wraiths more clearly; he also sees Glorfindel as 'a shining figure of white light.'

We usually know what we can do, but temptation shows us who we are.
- Thomas á Kempis
Along the same lines, Sam's vision of Frodo as a powerful being robed in white, with a voice speaking from within the circle of fire he bears, is much more ambiguous than the Biblical images of the saints clothed in white and bearing palm branches in their hands. In fact, the vision is frightening when we consider the dangers to which Frodo's acceptance of his call has opened him. Earlier, he had asked Galadriel why he wasn't able to see the other rings of power and know the thoughts of those who wore them. She replied, 'Did not Gandalf tell you that the rings give power according to the measure of each possessor? Before you could use that power you would need to become far stronger, and to train your will to the domination of others. Yet even so, as Ring-bearer and as one that has borne it on finger and seen that which is hidden, your sight is grown keener. You have perceived my thought more clearly than many that are accounted wise.' What saves Frodo from the spiritual danger of training his will to the domination of others is the love and humility with which he began the Quest.

Gandalf becomes one of the few people who is possibly in a position to discover what Frodo does come to in the end. The end for Frodo lies in the West, beyond the pages of the Red Book, so not even Tolkien had any knowledge of it. But I believe we see enough to say that Gandalf was correct in thinking that Frodo would come 'Not to evil.' By the end of the Quest, evil had wounded, battered, and broken him, but he hadn't responded to evil with evil.
 
In an earlier essay, we looked at a culturally Catholic aspect of the movie Babette's Feast. I don't want to give away the ending for those who haven't seen the movie, so will just say that when we learn the true extent of what Babette has given to her neighbors we realize that the cross she's worn around her neck throughout the movie is more than a cultural piece of jewelry. To decide to give yourself so fully that you leave yourself no way to turn back* is playing with fire: the same fire Frodo risked when he agreed to guard the Ring 'no matter what it may do to me.'   
 
I've debated including the following story because, although it moves me deeply, I can't really explain it. But that's what stories are for, right? And I always think of it in connection with Gandalf's "He may become like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can." And it says something about not playing it safe - although I'm not sure just what. The story takes place early in the life of Christianity, when the men now known as the Desert Fathers lived as hermits in the desert of the Holy Land:

One day a young hermit visits the older man who has been his mentor and director, and says, "Abba, I fast as strictly as I am able, I deprive myself of sleep in order to meditate on God's Word, I remain completely faithful to my prayer, and in all other things I follow your instruction. But I feel that something is still missing. Abba, what more can I do?" The older hermit raises his arms against the setting sun, so that he appears to burn with fire, and says, "If you will, you shall become all flame."  

...No, I can't say I understand that story, but it brings tears to my eyes. So does the "clear light" that Frodo holds. I think the two are somehow related. Perhaps connected by how Sam sees Frodo just after Frodo has lost everything - including, he believes, the Ring, the Quest, and Middle-earth:

He stood up, and it looked to Sam as if he was clothed in flame: his naked skin was scarlet in the light of the lamp above.

I think it has to do with giving the totality of yourself, and that's always playing with fire.


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*On the Elijah Wood side of this website, I've made some comparisons between Frodo's Quest and that of Mumble in Happy Feet. I think Mumble's most Frodo-like moment comes when he not only swims "farther than any of us had gone before" (to quote Lovelace) in his search to find the reason for his people's lack of food, but beyond any hope of return.