Gifted and Graced

LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

Gifted and Graced

Tolkien says that Bilbo and Frodo shouldn't be seen as examples of what ordinary hobbits are like, because they're far from ordinary*, and that LotR is a story of people who are "specially gifted and graced." He also tells us that even though Frodo couldn't complete the Quest as he saw it, he got the Ring farther than almost anyone in history could have, and possibly farther than anyone else living in Middle-earth at the time. But why? (Consider that a rhetorical question for the moment.) From "The Shadow of the Past":

'...I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?'

'Such questions cannot be answered,' said Gandalf. 'You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.'

'But I have so little of any of these things!...'

In the writing of many authors, Gandalf's 'Such questions cannot be answered,' would have been a way for the writer to avoid having to come up with an explanation. For Tolkien, on the other hand, it's a straightforward statement of the truth, and any other response from Gandalf would have been a way to avoid stating that truth. Even the emissary of the Valar can't answer Frodo's question, although he can discern that Frodo has, indeed, been chosen; he'd discerned something similar about Bilbo 70 years earlier, with seemingly even less of an answer as to why. Like Samuel, who anointed the young David as king of Israel instead of his oldest, kingly-looking brother, Gandalf trusts that the One who has chosen Frodo doesn't judge a person by outward appearance but "looks into the heart."

It's interesting that in the original draft of this conversation, Gandalf does explain to Frodo why he was chosen, but only why he was chosen to be Bilbo's heir. The deeper "why" behind that one isn't mentioned. In what I see as a clear case of Tolkien's understanding of the story and the characters deepening over time, being chosen as Bilbo's heir isn't mentioned in the published version; Gandalf goes immediately to the heart of the question, which is much more of a mystery.

Although Gandalf couldn't say why Frodo had been chosen, the hobbit had gained Gandalf's respect even before the Quest. When Frodo decides he must guard the Ring and go into exile, Gandalf says he hardly expected that answer, 'not even from you.' He continues, 'But Bilbo made no mistake in choosing his heir,' and, as we find out on the Barrow-downs, he and Bilbo considered Frodo the 'best hobbit in the Shire.' I also detect an interesting distinction between 'You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess' and 'not for power or wisdom, at any rate.' Gandalf seems to pull back from the broader statement, as if he realizes Frodo may well have been chosen because of a 'merit that others do not possess,' although the wizard himself might not know what that quality is.

And Gandalf certainly realizes it's not that simple. Frodo's not a "quality," but a person - and a complex one at that. He has somewhat the same mix Bilbo does of Baggins practicality/common sense and Took/Brandybuck openness to adventure; Tolkien broadly hints in The Hobbit that Took ancestry carried with it a drop of Elvish blood. The situation in the barrow that led to the 'best hobbit in the Shire' statement demanded not only spiritual strength (to waken when the others didn't) and courage (to stay with his friends instead of saving himself), but also the faith to call for help that common sense would have said couldn't hear him (which he also does on the occasions he uses the name of Elbereth). That, along with his dreams of the Sea, seems to indicate a spiritual openness that may have come in part from connection to Elves - whether that was through ancestry, his life with Bilbo, and/or his own meetings with Elves after Bilbo left.
Verlyn Flieger has said that Frodo is the most undifferentiated** of the main hobbit characters. Not having one identifying trait might be seen as a drawback, but it can also be a sign of balance. Frodo is somewhere between Pippin, who seizes the opportunity of the moment, and the consummate planner Merry. We learn that he enjoys "pottering" in the garden, but he's not a gardener like Sam. He knows some Elvish, but he's not fluent in it, and certainly isn't a scholar like Bilbo.

But, for all that, Frodo does have some qualities of his own. He has good discernment in regard to other people, and that guides him as he acts and speaks (or doesn't speak). The most obvious instance of this is his statement that a servant of the Enemy would 'seem fairer and feel fouler' than Strider. Given how carefully Tolkien chose his characters' words, it's interesting that Strider shifts this a bit by saying, 'I look foul and feel fair. Is that it?' Well, no, actually that wasn't it; how someone seems can go far beyond how he looks. But I think it would take someone with the gift of discernment to grasp Frodo's differentiation between "seem" and "feel"; I'm sure I don't fully understand it. One of my favorite lines of dialogue is Frodo's understated, 'You misunderstand me' to Boromir in "The Breaking of the Fellowship," when it would have been dangerous to say more than that. His verbal exchanges with Faramir are lessons in the diplomacy needed when dealing with someone you basically trust but can't yet allow into your full confidence. Throughout the story, Frodo has the wisdom to accept the word of those he knows are wise. He never doubts Elrond's and Gandalf's statement that the Ring must not be used, even when confronted about it by Boromir.

Frodo's also a pretty good judge of himself and of what he is and isn't capable. It's the kind of self-knowledge someone needs in order to be truly humble, and if any role in the War of the Ring required humility, it was that of Ring-bearer. Someone with less humility would never have been able to resist the Ring's temptations. Humility is also necessary for pity and mercy, for Frodo to finally be able to accept Gandalf's earlier statement that Gollum's story could have happened "...even to some hobbits that I have known."

If we look at how the Ring operates, we might say that, besides humility, there are two things especially needed to resist it: lack of desire for power (specifically power over other people), and strength of will. It's interesting that those two things often aren't found combined in the same person, but they are in Frodo. Even before the Quest, we don't see him striving for the power or status he might have had in the Shire - which could have been considerable if he had worked toward that end. And then he willingly throws aside what he does have to go into lifelong exile. He seems to be an ideal person for the kind of reverse Quest needed, "not to find a treasure but to lose one." Frodo's experience of losing his parents and not knowing his place in Shire society until Bilbo adopts him could have made some people prone to hanging on to what they've gained. Instead of this, it seems to have made Frodo more detached from it. The years of witnessing, and benefiting from, Bilbo's generosity, most likely had some part in this.

The lack of desire for power is needed to withstand the Ring's temptations. When temptation fails, and the Ring instead tries to batter Frodo into submission, his strength of will grows in importance. During the last part of the Quest, specifically after Cirith Ungol, we see through Sam's eyes that "...his right hand would creep to his breast, clutching, and then slowly, as the will recovered mastery, it would be withdrawn." The constant internal struggle going on here would be too intense if Tolkien tried to show it to us from Frodo's point of view. Sam sees it occasionally, when the Ring assumes enough control to move Frodo's hand, but Frodo's living it with every breath and heartbeat. As essential as Sam was to the Quest, he was right when he said that he couldn't be "their Ring-bearer." His humility saves him from the Ring's temptations, but he doesn't have Frodo's strength of will: "He was not aware of any thought or decision. He simply found himself drawing out the chain and taking the Ring in his hand." (This "couldn't" only speaks to the actual circumstances; with Providence in charge, who knows what help Sam would have received through grace if he'd really needed it? But if we asked Providence what would have happened if Sam had needed to take over as Ring-bearer, Providence would, of course, reply, "He didn't.")
Who else among the Fellowship would have had the strength of will to cross Mordor through the unrelenting battle Frodo faced? Aragorn, possibly, but the calling for which he's gifted and graced is the kingship; for that very reason, his relationship with power is necessarily different, and he most likely would have fallen to temptation before reaching this stage of the battle. His gifts were more needed elsewhere. Gandalf was in somewhat the same position as Aragorn, only more extreme; his falling to the temptation would destroy not only himself but Middle-earth. Gandalf knows himself well enough to be very aware of this; when Frodo begs him to take the Ring, his reply is, "Do not tempt me... The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength."

Yet Gandalf believes it won't be too great for Frodo's strength? Not really - he "laughed grimly" when Frodo couldn't throw the Ring into his own fireplace. But Gandalf knows that if he takes the Ring himself, the results will be disastrous. He also knows, or at least is beginning to accept, that Frodo was "meant to have the Ring"; so by leaving it in Frodo's possession, Gandalf isn't trusting Frodo but the Power that chose him, and is allowing that Power to act. The hope without assurance that's explicit at the Council is implicit here.   

With his belief that free will is bound up with our identity as humans, Tolkien would have considered strength of will to include much more than our usual concept of "will power." It would include a deep sense of identity***, and the ability to hang onto that sense past the point where many others would have lost it. Frodo's strength of will is underestimated both by Gandalf ('And I could not "make" you - except by force, which would break your mind.') and by Frodo himself ('I could not give it up, and if you tried to take it I should go mad.'). Or perhaps they underestimate the grace that will be given to him when he needs it; the fact that Frodo's already "specially gifted and graced" when we first meet him doesn't change the fact that no one has the ability to willingly destroy the Ring.   

There's another aspect of Frodo that we hear immediately after Gandalf's line about being meant to have the Ring:

'I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.'

'It is not,' said Frodo...

Is Frodo really a pessimist? His dark sense of humor seems to indicate that at times:

[Bilbo said] '...What about helping me with my book, and making a start on the next? Have you thought of an ending?'

''Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant,' said Frodo.

I think that, at times like those, Frodo's in an "If I don't laugh, I'll cry (or run away)" situation. Most of us can relate to that feeling, if not to the extreme level that Frodo faced. Using humor, he accepts the reality of the situation. One trait Frodo shares with Tolkien is that of being a realist. Of course, there's reality and then there's reality. In Middle-earth, as in our primary creation as Tolkien saw it, the deepest reality is the active presence and involvement of God. In his limited, pre-revelation way, Frodo is in touch with this perhaps more than any other mortal in the story, with the possible exception of Bilbo who was, after all, his mentor, and Aragorn, who had been raised by Elrond. All of them understand it in an "Elvish" way, mediated through the Valar. But at the Council, Frodo finally accepts that he was meant to have the Ring, and that the task was appointed to him; the only way to accept that is to accept the existence of One doing the appointing. We're reminded at times of how limited that understanding is; Frodo tells Sam that he believes they'll find a way into Mordor because going there is his "doom," and he talks later about trusting to "luck." There's nothing in LotR that makes me think Tolkien himself believed in either doom/fate or luck as active forces in the universe, but it's realistic to portray them as part of Frodo's pre-Christian worldview.   

During the writing of LotR, Tolkien said in a letter to his publisher that the story " what would happen if you really take the ring seriously, and make things happen that would happen, if such a thing existed."  In the same letter, he says of the characters: "...they each, of course, contain universals, or they would not live at all, but they never represent them as such." What we see in Frodo throughout the story, I believe, is what would happen to someone who starts with the "universals" needed to take up the vocation of Ring-bearer and then lives out "what would happen, if such a thing existed." It's very possible - probable, I believe - that as Tolkien allowed the story and the characters to unfold as they would "if such a thing existed," that much of what draws me to Frodo was a result of that process rather than being specifically planned. But that's exactly why LotR has a reality that carries more truth than the majority of factual, non-fiction books. One of Tolkien's gifts was the ability to so clearly see what would happen "if such a thing existed," and that includes what kind of person would be needed for the role of Ring-bearer, and how the role would affect him interiorly. Tolkien had such a deep sense of this that it didn't need to come completely from his conscious mind. We know that the character who ultimately became Frodo changed a great deal in the book's revision, as the author continued uncovering the story that needed to be told (as opposed to the story he started out to write), and the type of character needed as Ring-bearer.  

Frodo's anything but a static character. The qualities he has when he begins the Quest are deepened as he goes forward, and new layers emerge. Even before the Quest, he has been unknowingly preparing for it. It wasn't until the movies omitted the 17 years between Bilbo's departure and Frodo's that I realized those 17 years of carrying the Ring in his pocket unused had probably been strengthening Frodo's resistance to it. He avoids using it simply because he trusts Gandalf's judgment in the matter, being humble enough to admit to himself that the wizard understands the situation better than he does.

Frodo begins the Quest with humility, trust, realism, discernment, detachment, openness, faith, hope, and love. Not a bad set of qualities for an undifferentiated hobbit.

*The following is one of my pet theories so I have to throw it in somewhere, and it kind of fits here. I've had an offer on the table for years asking for any evidence that Frodo smoked - besides the circular logic of “Hobbits smoke. Frodo's a hobbit. So Frodo smokes.” Not only have I never been able to find evidence of his smoking, I believe that on the trip back to the Shire we have a line that could be evidence that he didn't, at least at that point in his life: his “I would if I had any” to Saruman (referring to giving Saruman pipe weed). Of course, this is in no way proof that Frodo didn't smoke - maybe he'd just used his last bit. But why would Tolkien put the statement in there at all? Is it meant to be a hint?

We have something similar when the travelers return to Rivendell and Bilbo gives pipes to Merry and Pippin: “The Elves made them for me, but I don't smoke now.” Bilbo was a smoker, beginning with our first sight of him in The Hobbit, so if he's going to become a non-smoker it has to happen somewhere along the line. It's possible, however, that Frodo never smoked; he's the only major hobbit character we never “see” with a pipe in his mouth, and who never says anything about the subject (except that one line to Saruman).

I don't think this is merely a bit of trivia. For Tolkien as a person, pipe smoking was part of normal life. Hobbits who don't smoke are extra-ordinary, which is exactly what Tolkien says about Bilbo and Frodo. Being non-smokers is one way they're shown as being less attached to the things of this world, like Bilbo's earlier statement that he doesn't “go in much” for things like feasts anymore.

**In her lecture "Gilson, Smith and Baggins" at the Tolkien at Oxford Conference, August 2006.

***For a negative representation of the link between identity and will, we have the Mouth of Sauron. Not a wraith, we're told, but a "living man" who has so surrendered his will to Sauron that he no longer remembers his own name.