13 February 2018

'untouchable now by pity' -- Frodo on the slopes of Mt Doom (RK 6.iii.944)

Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice. 
(RK 6.iii.944)

The disturbing description of Frodo in this passage is fascinating. Frodo is now ‘a figure’, an 'it', not Frodo himself. He is ‘untouchable now by pity’, which given Gandalf’s emphasis on the crucial role of Pity (FR 1.ii.59), can only be a bad thing. That a commanding voice -- whose? -- speaks out of the fire blurs the distinction between Frodo and the Ring, the 'wheel of fire' which he has declared to be the only thing that he can see any more (RK 6.ii.919; iii.938). Indeed they now seem one, though whether it matters any longer whether Frodo has claimed the Ring or the Ring Frodo may be impossible to say.  What of “robed in white”? Gandalf is now robed in white, though Frodo doesn't know that. So was Saruman before he lost his way. Most importantly, perhaps, Galadriel wears white, while black is the color of Sauron and his servants. Is this the nearly fallen Frodo’s vision of himself that we are seeing? Like Galadriel’s projection of herself as a ruling queen? Yet she knew it would all end in despair.

In answer to these questions the text is silent. Yet it is Sam who takes up the Pity that the figure of Frodo has laid down (RK 6.iii.944).




  1. I am having the Morgoth of a time posting my comment. This is the third try.

    As usual, I love your insight and choice of focus. I went back to the scene at Emyn Muil for comparison. There, Gollum is “a little, whining dog,” but here barely a ‘living thing.’ Frodo is “a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud.” He is the shadow there, but still clearly an person (and one with more than a passing likeness to Gandalf the Grey). The ‘figure robed in white’ recalled for me the thoughts of Gandalf in Rivendell, where he saw Frodo as ‘a glass filled with clear light’ — a light which Sam also sees in Ithilien. But — ah, the ‘but’ which follows — what are we to make of the ‘wheel of fire’? Not a Ring of Fire, but a wheel. I thought not only of Boethius, but of the Catherine wheel - an instrument of torture (which is also, oddly enough, a form of firework). But then I was reminded that this is the vision of Sam. Is he seeing not only the light-filled Frodo whom he loves and serves, but also the tortured soul whose fate is spinning out of control? Sam doesn’t seem to have dreams, but he has some very perceptive visions.

    And of course you are right about the Pity. Bilbo’s Pity saved himself from the worst effects of the Ring; Sam’s Pity on Mount Doom saves the Quest. It is sad that he had no pity on the steps of Cirith Ungol. But also interesting that none of the three hobbit Ringbearers demonstrate Pity until after they have worn the Ring. I don’t know what to make of that fact.

    1. Kate, thanks as always for your comments. The question of why a wheel is an excellent one, and I don't have an answer for that, except to say that a torture device seems more likely than Lady Fortune's wheel. I, too, think of the light Gandalf and Sam see, and I think that is on the same continuum as that light, but very different, good where this is bad. The whole journey Frodo goes on has got two edges to it from the very start, which is something I've been working on a trying to understand and figure out how to explain properly for a couple of years now.

  2. Perhaps "wheel of fire" refers to G. Wilson Knight's classic book on Shakespearian tragedy, of the same name, and thus to the quote in King Lear from which Knight gets his title. It is interesting to consider just how much Frodo is a figure of tragedy. The tableau of Gollum as the abstract of anger and lust, Frodo the wheel of fire, and onlooking Sam the avatar of Pity, very nicely parallels Knight's description of Edmund, Lear, and Cordelia (cf p.200.) Frodo illustrates precisely Lear's experience of cosmic injustice, in that he is unable to understand that his own degredation and fall to the ring is in fact the means by which providence deigns to save the world.