An Incomplete Christ Figure
At this point, it is essential to look at this climactic scene in full—first noting two things. First, the scene occurs after both Frodo and Sam, meeting with Gollum again after a long separation, have spared his life even though he had betrayed them and left them for dead. Second, it occurs after “long possession, months of increasing torment, and when [Frodo was] starved and exhausted,” as Tolkien would later put it (2000, 326). The scene unfolds as follows:
He was come to the heart of the realm of Sauron and the forges of his ancient might, greatest in Middle-Earth; all other powers were here subdued.
Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice . . . and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
“I have come,” he said. “But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!” And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight.
Something struck Sam violently in the back, his legs were knocked from under him and he was flung aside . . . as a dark shape sprang over him.
He groped forward, and then he saw a strange and terrible thing. Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe.
Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was made from living fire.
“Precious, precious, precious!” Gollum cried. “My Precious! O my Precious!” And with that even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail precious, and he was gone. (Return of the King 247–9)
Sam carries Frodo from the cave, and they see the land around them being destroyed by storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.
“Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee,” said a voice by his side. And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire. . . . His master had been saved; he was himself again, he was free. (249–50)
The critical consensus on this passage is that Frodo had finally lost control of himself when he claimed the Ring as his own. It is also the consensus of the characters in the story; when Frodo and Sam are rescued, both of them are honored, not blamed. Tolkien suggested later that Frodo blamed himself—that this was why he could find no real peace of mind until his departure from Middle-Earth at the end of the story—but if he did, he was the only one who did so (2002, 327–8).
Tolkien also stated that the climactic scene made him think of the Lord’s Prayer, particularly the lines “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6.19-13 and Luke 11.2-4). He added, “A petition against something that cannot happen is unmeaning. There exists the possibility of being placed in positions beyond one’s power” (2000, 252). Critic Colin Gunton sums up the consensus when he writes, “We find that Frodo has so long carried the hideous article that he has joined those in thrall to the ring and cannot voluntarily give it up” (131).
Another paradox central to Christianity makes itself evident here: that at the moment when we think we have become masters of ourselves, we have actually become slaves. In the words of critic George Clark, “Frodo recovers his strength and turns into a powerful figure as he loses the battle with the Ring” (47). Fellow critic Stratford Caldecott also stresses this point, comparing the Ring to “the Ego, the false self”: “Its renunciation is impossible, without help from ‘outside’, from beyond ourselves. (In theology this is called grace.) The self cannot unmake the self. ‘I can will what is right, but I cannot do it,’ as St. Paul says (Romans 7:18-19)” (31).
So Frodo willed what was right as long as he could, until, “under demonic pressure,” he came to the place “where all other powers [including his own will] were . . . subdued” (Tolkien 2000, 327). He could not then accomplish the task—because no one could. It was quite literally an impossible one.
Egan goes so far as to write,
This last theme culminates in ‘eucatastrophe,’ Tolkien’s word for the greatest of all Happy Endings, the good disaster, a concept which leads straight to Christian theology. It derives from a tradition going back to Augustine of Hippo, who exclaimed “O felix culpa”—“O happy guilt, that did deserve such and so great a Redeemer!” (47)
Yet although most critics understand this point, Frodo’s failure nonetheless has led many of them to pick another hero for the book. Aragorn and Gandalf have qualities that are both Christ-like and heroic. Gandalf is killed and resurrected; Aragorn is a healer and, as Nitzsche observes, shows many of the qualities of a Christian king.5 However, the fact that their actions for the most part serve only as “a diversion” from the central quest generally is considered to disqualify them from being seen as the heroes of the work.
Nevertheless, one other candidate exists. Several Tolkien critics, including Pearce, Birzer, Caldecott, Clark, and to some extent Lewis, have identified Sam as the primary heroic figure, based mainly on three criteria: his selflessness in aiding Frodo, the fact that he never failed as Frodo did, and what occurs at the end of the book.
As Frodo departs from Middle-earth, Sam, though mourning his loss, is nonetheless happily installed as mayor of the Shire, their homeland, and the father of a growing family. As Schlobin puts it, Sam “completes the monomyth” by returning to and settling down in his native land (75). Tolkien himself wrote to his son before finishing the work,
The Book will prob. end up with Sam. Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarified by the achievement of the great Quest, and will pass West with all the great figures; but S. will settle down to the Shire and gardens and inns. C[harles] Williams who is reading it all says the great thing is that its centre is not in strife and war and heroism (though they are understood and depicted) but in freedom, peace, ordinary life and good liking. (2000, 105)
But this does not necessarily imply that Sam was meant to be the book’s hero. The passage from The Return of the King where Sam and Frodo say goodbye throws light on this point:
“But,” said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, “I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you have done.”
“So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” (345)
The raising of Sam to the hero’s position may result from a misunderstanding of the role of a Christian hero. Peace and freedom and a happy family life may receive the highest value in Tolkien’s world, but if this is true, then who is the greater hero: the one who gives these things up so that others may have them, or the one who sustains them after they have been preserved? If the Christian myth is indeed central to the story, as has been demonstrated, the answer is clear.