Mercy Forgiveness

Tolkien's understanding of Mercy and Forgiveness is imprinted on his story. For someone who lived through two world wars and fought in WWI it is amazing to see how Tolkien's outlook deeply embraces the Christian philosophy of forgiveness.

It is shown in Gandalf's wise words regarding Gollum, after Frodo suggests,

"What a pity Bilbo didn't kill him when he had the chance." [LotR p.58]

Gandalf replies: "Pity, it was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand. Pity and Mercy: not too strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity."

Frodo cannot understand, that after all the horrible things Gollum had done, Gandalf and the Elves had allowed him to live. "He deserves death,"protests Frodo...

Gandalf replies: "Deserves it! I dare say he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured, but there is a chance of it." [LotR p.58]

This attitude of Frodo is something that changes through the course of the story; there is a classic cyclical theme in this part of the writing. Frodo comes to see Gandalf's wisdom and in fact, in living that wisdom, in showing Gollum mercy, Frodo plays his part in fulfilling the Quest.

The sacrificial love of Frodo and Sam in making it to Mt Doom is consummated by the Mercy of the hobbits towards Gollum: Bilbo's mercy and then the mercy of Frodo.

Without the mercy of Bilbo, Gollum wouldn't have been there to guide them into Mordor and more importantly he wouldn't have been at Mt Doom to inadvertently complete the Quest. Frodo succumbs after months of carrying the Ring into the heart of the enemy's realm and it is only Gollum's attempt to take the Ring that ends up achieving the Quest and fulfils Gandalf's prophetic intuition that Gollum "still had a part to play for good or ill." [LotR p.58]

Indeed as Gandalf understood and said to Frodo,

"...the pity of Bilbo, may rule the fate of many - yours not the least." [LotR p.58]

But more than just a physical result achieved through Mercy, - [ i.e. Gollum is physically spared through Bilbo's mercy and therefore can continue in existence to be physically at Sammath Naur - the Chamber at Mt Doom],

- is the eternal result of Mercy that occurs when Frodo offers love to Gollum. Tolkien explains on more than one occasion, that it is Frodo's mercy towards Gollum and willingness to forgive that proves the most important in causing the Mission to succeed. In a spiritual sense, his mercy has an effect in the eternal realm. There is a reward for his goodness, - the salvation of the peoples of Middle-earth.

This is one of the most beautiful messages of the Lord of the Rings.

Frodo's enlightenment and conversion is shown by his comment on Mt Doom after the Destruction of the Ring,

"But do you remember Gandalf's words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. the Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him!" [LotR p.926]

Gandalf had already foreshadowed this in his comment; A wretch, "...may betray himself and do the good he does not intend." [LotR p.797]

This deep mystery of Forgiveness, Mercy and Providential Goodness is brilliantly explained and deepened by Tolkien in a letter from 1956, [it's worth quoting the entire discourse]:

"The final scene of the quest was so shaped simply because having regard to the situation, and to the 'characters' of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, those events seemed to me, mechanically, morally, and psychologically credible. But, of course, you wish for more reflection, I should say that within the mode of the story, the 'catastrophe' exemplifies [an aspect of] the familiar words: 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.'

'Lead us not into temptation' etc... is the harder and the less often considered petition. The view, in the terms of my story, is that every event or situation has [at least] two aspects:

• the history and development of the individual [it is something out of which he can get good, ultimate good, for himself, or fail to do so],

• and the history of the world [which depends on his actions for its own sake] - still there are abnormal situations in which one may be placed.

'Sacrificial' situations, I should call them: such positions in which the 'good' of the world depends on the behaviour of an individual in circumstances which demand of him suffering and endurance far beyond the normal - even, it may happen [or seem, humanly speaking], demand a strength of body and mind which he does not possess: he is in a sense doomed to failure, doomed to fall to temptation or be broken by pressure against his 'will': that is against any choice he could make or would make unfettered, not under duress.

Frodo was in such a position: an apparently complete trap: a person of greater power could probably never have resisted the Ring's power for so long; a person of less power could not hope to resist it in the final decision. [Already Frodo had been unwilling to harm the Ring before he set out and was incapable of surrendering it to Sam.]

The Quest therefore was bound to fail as a piece of 'world-plan'. and also was bound to end in disaster as the story of humble Frodo's development to the 'noble', his sanctification. Fail it would and did as far as Frodo was considered alone was concerned.

But at this point the 'salvation' of the world and Frodo's own 'salvation' is achieved by his pity and forgiveness of injury. At any point, any prudent person would have told Frodo that Gollum would certainly betray him, and could rob him in the end. To 'pity' him, or forbear to kill him, was a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time.

He did rob him and injure him in the end - but by a 'grace', that last betrayal was at the precise juncture when the final evil deed was the most beneficial thing any one could have done for Frodo! By a situation created by his 'forgiveness', he was saved himself and relieved of his burden. He was very justly accorded the highest honours..." [Letters p.233-35]

Again this is re-iterated by Tolkien when answering a question as to why Frodo was honoured when in fact he had succumbed at the end;

"If you re-read all the passages dealing with Frodo and the Ring, I think you will see that not only was it quite impossible for him to surrender the Ring, in act or will, especially at its point of maximum power, but that this failure was adumbrated from far back. He was honoured because he had accepted the burden voluntarily, and had then done all that was within his utmost physical and mental strength to do. He [and the Cause] were saved - by Mercy: by the supreme value and efficacy of Pity and Forgiveness of injury.

Corinthians 1 Chap10:12-13 may not at first sight seem to fit - unless 'bearing temptation' is taken to mean resisting it while still a free agent in normal command of the will. I think rather of the mysterious last petitions of the Lord's Prayer: Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. A petition against something that cannot happen is unmeaning. There exists the possibility of being placed in positions beyond ones power.

In which case [as I believe] salvation from ruin will depend on something apparently unconnected: the general sanctity [and humility and mercy] of the sacrificial person. I did not 'arrange' the deliverance in this case: it follows the logic of the story." [Letters p.251-252]

Answering a similar question Tolkien explains further,

"Frodo indeed 'failed' as a hero" but ... "I do not think that Frodo's was a moral failure. At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum -impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted.

Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely [as an instrument of Providence] and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility [with which he began] and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honour: and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed." [Letters p.326]

This is the central component of Mercy in the Lord of the Rings.

But there are other smaller gems, included throughout.

Gandalf shows his attitude of Mercy is universal when he confesses to Denethor,

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