Our deepest official lie is that the line between good and evil runs through sexes, classes, and races—not through every human heart.
Many have hoped that “cancel culture” in its various manifestations might be on the cusp of flaming out, given the inhumane behavior that it fosters. Sadly, it seems to be alive and well. Hysterical activists deviate far from the norms of decent human behavior, hounding and vilifying strangers for the most trivial of offenses. Extirpating such activity, at least for now, seems a Sisyphean challenge. Fortunately, J.R.R. Tolkien illuminates the moral philosophy and psychology that underlies this social blight.
One of the fascinating rewards of reading Tolkien’s fiction is that he employs fantasy as a way of explaining reality, enlisting non-human characters to provide insight into what is truly human. In this case, Tolkien offers no quick solutions to cancel culture, but he does explain that such behavior is enabled by a lack of appreciation for the human condition, a judgmental intolerance toward others—without applying the same standards toward oneself—and a refusal to exercise mercy toward the shortcoming of others.
In September of 1963, Tolkien responded to a reader who had asked, in respect to Lord of the Rings, if Frodo was a failure because, in the last moments of his heroic quest, the hobbit refuses to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mordor. Rather, in a desperate reversal, he claims it as his own rightful possession. Fortunately for Middle Earth, Gollum intervenes one last time: he attacks Frodo and bites off his finger to recapture the ring. Unfortunately for Gollum, he loses his balance in the melee so that both creature and ring are consumed in the fires of Mordor. Ring destroyed, and quest completed, even if Frodo faltered in the end.
Tolkien notes that Frodo’s attachment had grown so that he was “incapable of voluntarily destroying the ring.” The author concedes that “Frodo indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted.” The key here is to understand what Tolkien means by “simple minds,” which is not meant to be derogatory. Tolkien explains that a simple-minded moral judgment involves a “twofold” weakness: a lack of understanding of the complexity of any given situation in which “an absolute ideal is enmeshed”; and, an insufficient appreciation of “that strange element in the world that we call ‘Pity or Mercy.’”
The first shortcoming has to do with an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that though ideals are essential for moral growth, human beings fall short of that to which they aspire. Tolkien states the obvious: an individual may hold with clarity “absolute” ideals that, however indispensable, are in the long run “unattainable.” Indeed, this is the definition of ideals: they serve as a focus, a goal, a rubric—but to conquer them requires nothing less than perfection. Tolkien then insightfully explains that individuals are thus obligated to use “two different scales of morality.” The first scale serves as a challenge to ourselves and it should be applied “without compromise,” because the “higher we challenge ourselves to achieve, the greater will be our achievement” even though we will always fall short.
Judging others, however, is a different matter. He explains that “we must apply a scale tempered by ‘mercy’ since we know so little of another’s capabilities and circumstances.” The “force of particular circumstances” may only be known to another; and, the knowledge of the one exercising judgement is imperfect—“perhaps radically imperfect and for that reason judgement must always be tempered with mercy.” That mercy is informed by “pity,” by which Tolkien means sympathy for the brokenness and limitations of the human condition.
Tolkien explains that the hobbit’s failure was not a “moral failure” because it became impossible for him to fully complete his quest after having carried the ring so long, enduring “months of increasing torment,” and ending up “starved and exhausted.” But in doing his best, he created a situation in which his quest could be completed. Such a circumstance reinforced the “humility” with which he had started his mission. Accordingly, in the closing chapters of the book, he enjoys the honor appropriate to his herculean effort. But even if it had been a moral failure, he deserves our mercy because of the pity we should hold for others.
There is yet another reason why he deserves that mercy: he himself has been merciful, specifically to Gollum. Indeed, Frodo’s relationship with Gollum is carefully nuanced with considerable psychological insight. Tolkien, then, further explains that we are even more disposed to look favorably on Frodo because he had looked favorably on Gollum: his mercy towards Gollum, in a sense, earned him mercy.
Frodo’s charity toward Gollum runs deep. Indeed, earlier in the story, Gandalf had explained to a less mature Frodo why Bilbo had not disposed of Gollum when he had the chance. Frodo first observes, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had the chance.” Gandalf responds, applying what Tolkien explains in his correspondence. The wizard says, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.”
One of the fascinating psychological insights in Tolkien’s novel has to do with the possibility that, because of Frodo’s grace and charity, Gollum might somehow make his way back to his better self, Sméagol, the name that Frodo chooses to use, even if everyone else calls him Gollum. At a critical moment, however, that possibility is disrupted by Sam, not because of malice, but because Sam does not have the luxury of thinking the best of Gollum given his own single-minded mission to support and protect “Mr. Frodo.”
This tension is evident in the chapter “The Forbidden Pool,” when Gollum unwittingly follows Frodo and Sam into Henneth Annûn, the hiding place of the Rangers of Ithilien; accordingly, Gollum is in mortal danger, though oblivious to his plight. The Forbidden Pool is a basin of water created by the waterfall that concealed one of the two entrances into Henneth Annûn. Observing Gollum from the precipice above, Faramir, the captain of the Rangers, is prepared to slay Gollum with bow and arrow:“‘Shall we shoot?’ says Faramir, turning quickly to Frodo. Frodo did not answer for a moment. ‘No!’ he said. ‘No! I beg you not to.’
Sam’s reaction is predictable: “If Sam had dared, he would have said ‘Yes,’ quicker and louder.” Frodo, though, has such compassion for the corrupted hobbit that he offers himself as collateral: “‘Let me go down quietly to him,’ said Frodo. ‘You may keep your bows bent, and shoot me at least, if I fail. I shall not run away.’”
In a later scene, Tolkien deftly describes the effect Frodo’s kindness has had upon Gollum, as the creature observes Frodo and Sam sleeping:
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress.
Tolkien continues, describing the subtle but genuine first steps toward Gollum’s redemption as he appears more a deflated Sméagol than a malevolent Gollum:
For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.
It is a harsh and accusatory Sam, however, who interrupts Gollum and extinguishes the spark of humanity that Frodo has kindled. Though Gollum’s trust in Frodo has grown, he knows that Samwise is not his friend; rather, Sam is the “cross, rude hobbit.” But at that touch “Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake.” His suspicious, harsh assessment of Gollum’s gentle touch destroys Gollum’s fleeting opportunity for redemption. Tolkien explains that the first thing Sam saw was Gollum—“pawing at master.”
Gollum tries to explain: “‘Nothing, nothing,’ said Gollum softly. ‘Nice Master!’” Sam, however, is unmoved: “‘I daresay,’ said Sam. ‘But where have you been to—sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain?’
And that was it: “Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spider-like he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes.” The Sméagol moment had passed beyond recall as Gollum returns, ugly and sarcastic. Mildly chagrined, Sam offers a weak “Sorry,” though it is insufficient to restore the opportunity that Frodo’s pity and mercy had earned. Sam’s rush to judgement reawakens the dominant side of Gollum’s beastly nature. The interior debate, undertaken with the now-lost Sméagol, is gone.
Tolkien’s explanation of mercy and pity, Frodo’s application of those virtues to Gollum/Sméagol, and Sam’s quick and easy ability to extinguish the opportunity those virtues had produced remind us of at least two passages from Scripture. The first is from the “Sermon on the Mount,” and reads, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy”(Matt. 5:7, NIV). As Tolkien has explained, Frodo is not to be condemned for his “failure” to destroy the ring; he should be granted mercy, and that mercy is more easily given because of his merciful attitude toward Gollum.
Sam’s easy interruption of that mercy, moreover, recalls the Proverb, “Death and Life are in the Power of the tongue: and they who love it will eat the fruit thereof” (Prov. 18:21, KJV). Sam’s understandable but destructive harshness toward Gollum demonstrates just how fragile is the human personality. The Samwise-Gollum exchange is a reminder that one encounter may have profound and lifelong consequences. Further, it is axiomatic that one uncharitable encounter is by no means neutralized by one charitable encounter. It’s not clear just what the ratio might be, but, a harsh word, gesture, or act, may not be counterweighed by ten encouraging words or gestures; the ratio may be more like 1000 to 1, or 10,000 to one. Or perhaps there is no ratio to be found; malicious behavior simply can’t be undone. The best one can hope for is that over time injuries will not be so injurious. As the adage goes, time heals, but deep wounds may never entirely be healed. Rather, no matter how distant the injury, the metaphorical broken leg may only be compensated for by a lifelong limp, and the lifelong pain may still be experienced periodically as the once-injured knee throbs in inclement weather.
Though Tolkien sublimated religion in his fiction, in his correspondence he is at times more transparent, and in this case, he explains that the elements of moral judgment and the virtues of mercy and pity ultimately find their grounding in God, in “the Divine nature.” That suggests that the extraordinary virtue of mercy is the inheritance, most importantly, of the Judeo-Christian heritage—far more so than the Greek philosophical legacy or the bequest of Enlightenment rationality. This leads to an uneasy question: if America becomes more secularized—and that process may be underway—will an empathetic appreciation of our broken, fragile nature wither away? Will the habit of mercy weaken amongst us? Is cancel culture an aberration—or a portent of cultural decline?
Frodo’s failure renders his saga far more relevant to the rest of us than if he had, through super-hobbit effort, succeeded. If he had not faltered, there would only be cause for celebration; but, since he did fail, Tolkien teaches us how to commiserate with the shortcomings, not just of hobbits, but of human beings.