Considered by many to be the hero of Tolkien’s main works (though, by the unlearned he may be considered a ‘weenie’), Frodo, Son of Drogo, survives many dangerous events and enemies to complete his quest. However, though the ending of the story is indeed a happy one, it may come as a shock to some to read this quote from Tolkien himself, with regard to the ending of his story:
“Frodo’s failure…is a very important point…”
Granted, this quote is partial and the more complete form will be found below. But did Frodo fail the mission?
The movie and book are in agreement for the most part on the ending of the story: Frodo decides to keep the Ring, to Sam’s dismay, and Gollum attacks him, bites the Ring from his finger, and (though the movie shows both falling) Gollum, in his glee, dances accidentally off the edge into the Crack of Doom. Up until this point in the story, the reader (or audience) feels only pity and sorrow for Frodo. He is weighed down to the point of complete exhaustion by the Ring and his responsibility for it. The farther he travels into Mordor, the more desperate his situation becomes.
By this point in the story, the tale is told almost entirely from the point of Sam, as Frodo has passed beyond relation as far as points of view go. The reader can sympathize with him, but any description of his internal conflict is almost beyond words; we only see the outward pain and suffering he endures. This eventually leads to the point of Sam physically carrying his starved, dehydrated, and distraught master up the side of Orodruin.
This typical setting of the dauntless hero heading into the source of darkness itself is empowering for those of us who can only imagine what they must be going through. Surely, though the odds are stacked far against our hero, he will make the journey and complete the deed. Surely.
However, Tolkien did not portray this typical ending in his work. The plot twist of Gollum destroying the Ring and Frodo claiming it as his own is (for the most part) unexpected and agonizing for the audience. However, until someone mentions it in this manner, most people do not consider Frodo any kind of failure. They simply empathize with him and salute him for his bravery to accomplish what was thought to be impossible in completing the task even to that point. But it can definitely be seen that Frodo did fail his appointed task.
Yes, he hauled the Ring all the way to its final destination, but he choked at the last minute. 99% is not 100%. The internet and many other books can provide a plethora of theories on this, but what is correct? It is interesting to see what others think about this and it is fun to discuss it, but what did the author say about this? The quote above is from a letter of Tolkien’s and a more complete version reads as follows:
“Frodo’s failure…is a very important point… Frodo after all that had happened would be incapable of voluntarily destroying the Ring. Reflecting on the solution after it was arrived at (as a mere event) I feel that it is central to the whole ‘theory’ of true nobility and heroism that is presented. Frodo indeed failed as a hero… [But] I do not think that Frodo’s was amoral failure… [He] had done what he could and spent himself completely and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honor; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed.”
So Tolkien was speaking of Frodo as a failure, in a sense. This shows, to me, the author has a deep understanding of what it means to write a narrative that is both interesting but stays true to itself. In another letter, Tolkien speaks of Frodo’s incapability to destroy the Ring:
“Not only was it quite impossible for Frodo to surrender the Ring, in act or will, especially at the point of its maximum power, but this failure was adumbrated from far back. He was honored because he had accepted the burden voluntarily, and had then done all that was within his utmost physical and mental strength to do… [But] Frodo failed. One must face the fact: the power of evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however good.”
Tolkien knew, possibly from the beginning, that his hero would fail. The Ring as something that actually existed could not be destroyed willingly by anyone and Tolkien followed through with that in the end. The ending could have consisted of Frodo tossing the Ring into the Fire and walking out to catch a ride on an Eagle, but where is the story in that? What does that show us of humanity? That would go against everything Tolkien built the Ring up to be from the start: a supernatural object of pure lust for everyone around it. Tolkien’s fiction shows us humanity as it is: susceptible, broken, and weak.
One other point to make is addressed in the previous quote: the fact that Frodo is honored. Now, to most, this is a no-brainer: “Duh! Honor the guy that got the Ring into Mordor and saved the world!” In another letter (…I think, though these letters are long and my memory can’t easily separate them and they’re hard to find on the internet sometimes), Tolkien speaks of what Frodo was actually deserving of: death, and justly so.
He took the most valuable weapon the Enemy had into His domain and claimed it as his own, putting not only himself in jeopardy, but also all of Middle-earth. Sure, Frodo miraculously made it that far, but the ends don’t justify the means. In the above quote, Tolkien addresses this justice with the idea of Mercy, a very prominent concept throughout the story. (Perhaps I’ll write a post about it’s importance soon.) Frodo’s moral success and his Mercy he showed to Gollum justified his failures and brought to him rest from his burden, as he obtain an even bigger mercy in being allowed to journey into the Undying Lands.
Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom truly has a happy ending because of this, despite its dark conclusion.