By Scott Keith –
I did not immediately love J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was a late comer to reading them (well into my college years), and I initially found them slow and hard to finish. After all: “and they were walking, and walking, and walking, and then they walked some more.” (This is especially true in the Simirilian.) But, over time and with some help from friends, I have come to love these works and what they represent. Since then, I have read the books several times, listened to them via audio book format (my wife’s reaction to the voice of Gollum at 1:00am on Highway 395 in the middle of nowhere Nevada was not great), and of course watched all of the movies several times. (As a side note, the movies have been running non-stop on TNT this weekend which has prompted me to write this.)
If you are less familiar with these works of Tolkien, the story line follows the adventures of two Hobbits (small and kindly people/humanoids) who both acquire and then attempt to destroy the “One Ring” which is the most powerful ring of the Rings of Power. The older of the two hobbits, Bilbo Baggins who is one of the main characters in The Hobbit, is responsible for acquiring––really stealing––the ring. The younger of the two, Frodo Baggins who is one of the main characters in The Lord of the Rings, is tasked with destroying the ring. As it turns out, the One Ring is evil and links the ring bearer in a very personal way to the personification of all evil, Sauron.
As each of the stories progress, other plotlines are revealed, friendships are forged and lost, adventures are had, magic is revealed, and common life full of ale drinking, eating, traveling, and pipe smoking is lived. What is not to love, right? In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is Frodo who reluctantly accepts the task, vocation really, of destroying the One Ring. This can only happen if he takes the ring to where it was forged and throws it into the fires of Mount Doom. What Frodo discovers is that the evil and the power of the One Ring is very difficult to bear and to resist.
Time and time again, Frodo seems to want to do the right thing, and on occasion, he does. After all, he agrees to take the ring on this perilous journey full of hardships in order to destroy it. As he exclaims, “I will take the ring to Mordor,” he agrees to persevere, run the race, and see this thing through to the end. But he is no real hero along the way. He, on more than one occasion, succumbs to the ring’s tempting, as his Uncle Bilbo had as well. In the process he is wounded with a wound that never really heals and plagues him throughout the story.
In fact, there are times when it seems that the ring is too heavy for him to bear. On more than one occasion, I was sure that he would not make it one more step, let alone all the way to Mount Doom. He is partnered along the way with another hobbit, Samwise Gamgee, or Sam. Sam is Frodo’s loyal companion and friend. But the deeper into their journey the two travel, the more Frodo is influenced by the ring’s power and its evil. Though Frodo remains capable of wonderful kindness, he is more and more tormented by the One Ring. At one point, he even gives into the temptation of one of his eviler and untrustworthy companions, Gollum, and sends his true and good friend Sam away.
If Frodo is the hero of the The Lord of the Rings, he is a poor hero. He is reluctant, scared, sickly at times, weak, apt to succumb to the temptations of the One Ring, and he even turns on his friend and loyal companion. Yet, he is good too. Frodo loves his friend Sam, he is occasionally very brave, he perseveres, be it in a very imperfect manner, to the fires of Mt. Doom. Even at the end, the battle inside Frodo is evident. Frodo eventually manages to get the ring to the mountain and into the fire, but at great cost. Just when he has the chance to do the right thing and cast the ring into the fire, he gives in to the temptation of the One Ring one last time. The ring’s destruction comes almost in spite of Frodo’s intentions and not because of his heroic virtue. The final moments of the journey end with good being made from evil intentions, in a very unexpected way.
So, why do I say I am Frodo? Because, I am no hero, though I am capable of great heroism. I am not good, yet I have manifested wonderful goodness to others. I am weak of spirit, though others often rely on my strength. I am sickly of heart and soul, though I thank God for my health and wellbeing. I have been a great friend to many, yet I have often neglected my friends and cast them out of my life. If I am the great deliverer, I am also the most destructive person I know. The weight of my sin bears down upon me daily, just as the One Ring seemed so heavy to Frodo that it was surely to prevent him from taking even one more step.
Frodo in the tale is at the same time a hero and a wounded agent of the One Ring. I am at one and the same time a saint of God and an evil sinner. I think that Tolkien’s brilliance in these tales was not as much in presenting a clear Christ figure, as C. S. Lewis often did, but rather in presenting clearly human figures in the form of elves, wizards, dwarfs, men, and hobbits. Being a lifelong Roman Catholic, I’m not sure if J.R.R. Tolkien had an understanding of Simul Iustus et Peccator, but something like it was certainly revealed in the characters he created. This is the theological concept that all the saved, all the saints, are at the same time justified before God by grace, through faith, not by works but on account of Christ, and yet remain sinners as seen according to their own works and merit.
The Apostle Paul says in Romans chapter seven: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Our reliance is not in our own, even renewed, good nature. We, even when we want to be the hero of the story, find that there is evil right there with us. And yet ours is not a fabricated tale that only points to the truth in a clouded way. Our story is the true story of hope, grace, victory, and freedom. Our hero is the Christ who has saved us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. He has won the battle, cast evil into the fire, and will not let us down. Even while we were yet sinners, and though we remain sinners, He has delivered and will deliver us from this body of death.
So though I am weak like Frodo and no real hero at all; though I sin daily and do not deserve His deliverance; though I am just a saved sinner; Christ died and rose for me! I have only one hope and that is in Jesus Christ! Thus I say with Paul: “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” For as Paul also says: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…”