. Alas, not me: May 2021

22 May 2021

The limits of pity and mercy -- an excerpt from 'To Rule the Fate of Many'


        As close as Frodo comes to a fall, however, he never carries out his desires or threats. Unlike Sméagol with Déagol, he does not strike Bilbo or murder Sam, even though they appeared less than human to him in the moment when he saw them as a threat to his possession of the Ring. Conversely, he does not kill Gollum when he has the chance – and justification since Gollum is throttling Sam – because his own experience of the Ring has led Frodo to see him as a person, not a creature, and to pity him. It is at first curious that Frodo does not kill Gollum in their first encounter on Mt Doom, in which he has the upper hand and all pity is gone. Stranger still is how alike his threats here and outside the Black Gate are: death in the fires of Mt Doom. It is almost as if he recalls the first threat while making the second and wishes to remind Gollum of it, too. Though he cannot remember wind or water, tree or grass or flower, the evil thought that with the Ring he has the power to see Gollum cast into the ‘Fire of Doom’ has not faded. But Frodo’s words here outside the Sammath Naur indicate that he regards Gollum as a despised nuisance. Contempt spares Gollum now, just as pity had done before and will soon do again.

        Even so, it is the power of the Ring which has turned Frodo’s pity into contempt and upon which is founded Gollum’s unquenchable ‘lust and rage’. What is the significance of a moral force that can succeed only with the timely assistance of chance that was no chance at all? Its quality is not denied by failure, nor by its success in setting the stage for eucatastrophe. For pity, ‘defeat is no refutation’. In Letter 246, from 1963, Tolkien noted that Frodo’s ‘exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed.’ The difference between ‘mercy’ and ‘Mercy’ is worth noting. Earthly pity and mercy could not accomplish the destruction of the Ring, but they were repaid in Pity and Mercy. The redress is that he fails but does not fall. He is delivered from evil. Yet the limits of the pity and mercy of this world stand revealed.

19 May 2021

'It did not always seem of the same size or weight' (FR 1.ii.47)

'Though [Bilbo] had found out that the [Ring] needed looking after; it did not seem always of the same size or weight; it shrank or expanded in an odd way, and might suddenly slip off a finger where it had been tight.'

(FR 1.ii.47) 

To argue that the Ring does not in truth change weight is fairly easy. For, although both Frodo and Sam feel it to be a physically heavy burden while they are bearing it, Sam is surprised to find when he carries Frodo up Mt Doom that he feels only the weight of Frodo (RK 6.iii.940). The changes in size, however, are probably not illusory. 

Recall that Sauron changes shape and appearance more than once in The Silmarillion, from human to werewolf to vampire bat (175). Recall also that in the Second Age, during which he forges the One Ring and transfers much of his native power into it, he can still change his form and appearance (285). After he is killed in the Drowning of Númenor, however, he can no longer 'put on his fair hue' (285) or 'appear fair to the eyes of Men' (280); and after he is killed again and the Ring taken from him he cannot take shape again for centuries (UT 388-89). Now since he had been able to change his size and shape previously it makes sense that the Ring would need to possess the same capacity if only for practical purposes. After his deaths the power he put into the Ring remains in the Ring, and so it adjusts to the hand that wears it. 


Taking the name of Elbereth in vain (FR 1.xii.212-13)


At Weathertop Strider says of the Witch-king that ‘more deadly to him' than Frodo's sword 'was the name of Elbereth’ (FR 1.xii.198), but he clearly does not mean the mere mention of her name any more than he means ‘deadly’ to be taken literally. Not only does the invocation of her name not kill the Witch-king, but Strider uses ‘deadly’ again in the very next sentence to describe the effect on Frodo of the Morgul knife, which does not kill its victim. To think that he means literally what he says about Frodo's use of the name Elbereth has absurd consequences. For if all one had to do to drive off the Ringwraiths were to say 'Elbereth', they would not be so fearsome: they would be the Knights Who Say Ni. The 'deadly voices' and the 'harsh and chilling laughter' with which they respond to Frodo's attempt to command them at the Ford of Bruinen proves the name of Elbereth alone cannot harm them.

Elbereth must have aided Frodo when he invoked her at Weathertop, but not when he did so at the Ford (FR 1.xii.212-13). It is impossible to say why this would be, but at the river Frodo's feelings and behavior when faced with the Ringwraiths differ in ways that may be quite significant. In the first place he is moved by hatred of the Riders, and in the second he attempts to command them to leave him and the Ring alone. If, as I think, Frodo is trying to harness the power of the Ring to dominate its dark servants here, it seems little likely that Elbereth would aid someone wielding the Ring any aid. However that may be, it seems entirely unlikely that acting out of hatred would win her support.