It is true that Sam never failed in his own task, but Sam’s task was not the same—and not as difficult—as Frodo’s task. It is his willingness to sacrifice himself completely for the good of the world out of love that makes Frodo similar to Christ. Frodo knew taking the Ring to Mordor was almost certain to lead to his own death. As critic Sean McGrath writes, “The Quester for Life whose quest leads him to choose death is a distinctively Christian archetype” (182)—an echo of the words of Jesus in John 12.25, “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (New King James Bible). More than that, Frodo knew that the quest could very well lead to the destruction of his mind and soul—with the pathetic and repulsive figure of Gollum, hopelessly enslaved to the Ring, constantly before him, he could hardly help knowing it. When Sam offered to help him bear its growing weight, Frodo reacted with uncharacteristic anger: “But then quickly his voice changed. ‘No, no, Sam,’ he said sadly. ‘But you must understand. . . . I am almost in its power now. I could not give it up, and if you tried to take it I should go mad’” (Return 238).
Unlike Christ, Frodo fails, and yet the impossible task is accomplished, both in spite of him and because of him—because of the Christ-like love and pity he had shown toward others. His mercy toward Gollum, sparing his life on more than one occasion, ensured his own salvation and the success of his quest. “Tolkien chooses the kindlier virtues—forgiveness, mercy, pity” (and, of course, self-sacrifice) as the key to true heroism (Schlobin 78). It is significant that, although Sam also spares Gollum’s life, he is unable to treat him with the same kindness that Frodo shows him. Lewis notes, “What finally pushes [Gollum] over the brink is an unpremeditated speech by the most selfless character of all” (1982, 87). This is a reference to the scene in The Two Towers where Gollum, watching Frodo asleep, almost repents and changes until angered by some harsh words from Sam, who thinks Gollum is trying to hurt Frodo.
Looking beyond “the kindlier virtues,” we see it was the unseen power behind the scenes, the power that truly controlled the situation, that stepped in when all seemed lost. Gunton points out that under the conditions Tolkien had created here, in this monotheistic but pre-Christian world, there could be no real “Christ figure” because there was no visible Christ. This is where we see the problem of the will resolved. Frodo can come close to being a “Christ figure” but cannot actually become one, because the greatest tool he has been given is his own will, and that can take him far but never far enough.
Birzer, who compared Frodo’s burden to Christ’s, points out that “the experience of carrying the Ring, and ultimately succumbing to its temptation, transforms [Frodo] profoundly. He knows the experience of mortal sin firsthand, and he repents by embracing mercy” (Sanctifying Myth 70). It is noteworthy that after the Ring is destroyed, Frodo refuses to fight any more, even when fighting is called for. One might speculate that, having given in (however briefly) to the overwhelming temptation for power, he is afraid to trust himself with any kind of power from then on. Again, he has done Christ-like deeds but is not actually Christ, who fulfilled his quest and thus did not need to repent.
Christians believe, as mentioned earlier, that the will of the self must be subordinated to the will and direction of God for salvation of any kind to be achieved. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus tells his disciples (John 15.5, New King James Bible). As Gunton puts it, “At the heart of the matter is the incarnation. The cleansing and completion of the creation comes about when the eternal Word of God, through whom all things were made, took flesh so that he might himself, as true man, bring together God and the world which evil had sundered” (137).
As a Christian, Tolkien would argue that Frodo cannot do any such thing—that no mortal can. So even though Christ as God incarnate is not visible in the story, we may say that he is obvious by his absence—or, if we identify him (as Tolkien might have) with the unseen benevolent power at the heart of the story, by what he does without being recognized.
A Timeless Vision
Looking both at Tolkien’s expressed views about the role and power of myth and at the myth he created, we may speculate that he would have altered the question we asked at the beginning. His concern was not “How does one create a hero in the twentieth century,” but “How does one create a hero at any time?” He knew and loved the ancient Western myths and legends, but with what he called the “true myth” of Christianity he went a step further: He believed it. For him, even though other myths contained echoes of the truth, this was the one myth that was completely relevant to the world at all times, regardless of what kind of hero was in fashion.
And so it was this myth that informed his imagination and gave him his own vision of greatness: the hero who, in his own words, “had done what he could and spent himself completely,” and whose “exercise of patience and mercy . . . gained him Mercy” (2000, 326). He would have agreed with his contemporaries that heroism is not enough to save the world—but he would have added that nonetheless heroism must exist in order for the world to be saved, and that wherever a person is found who is willing to act like Frodo, it does exist.
This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.