By Daniel A. Keating
Though the story begins lightheartedly, there is nothing lighthearted about the kind of suffering that Frodo Baggins is invited to embrace in The Lord of the Rings. Frodo’s initial response is predictable: he is terrified by the news that he possesses the great Ring of the Dark Lord, Sauron, who is seeking him even as they speak. In a show of remarkable courage and wisdom that surprises even Gandalf, Frodo accepts his role and agrees to bear the Ring out of the Shire.
And so he sets out, pursued by Dark Riders whose presence (and voice) freezes the blood with fear. Aided along the way by a myriad of helpers, Frodo barely makes it to the safety of Rivendell. But now he has faced the terror of the Riders and been stabbed with an evil blade that nearly turns him into a wraith. Now he now understands just how evil and powerful his foes are.
The chapters that narrate the journey of Frodo and Sam to the mountain of fire are magnificent but they make for painful reading. Tolkien paints scenes of blackness, misery, torture, and pain almost beyond imagining. It’s all that Frodo can do to put one foot in front of the next. He is in constant agony, hopeless of ever reaching the mountain, aware that even if he does he will never live through the aftermath. But he plods onward, strengthened outwardly by Sam’s constant help and inwardly by the miraculous vigor granted through the waybread of the Elves. Against all hope and odds, the quest is accomplished and the Dark Lord is utterly overthrown. In one sense, Frodo fails at the end—he gives way to the power of the Ring and cannot resist the temptation to take the Ring for himself. He cannot destroy it. But somehow providentially, this very inability was foreseen—no one could have accomplished this quest on his own strength. And so Gollum plays his role, seizing the Ring for himself and then falling into the abyss along with the Ring. Frodo is rightly showered with the greatest honors for bearing the Ring—he did everything that was in him to do. But the horrendous suffering he experienced has ongoing consequences that make it impossible for him to return to “normal” life. Pain and distress mark his next few years, and a way is arranged for Frodo to leave Middle-earth and travel to the Undying Lands of the Elves for the healing that he needs.
What is the reader to make of this powerful account of deep suffering? Tolkien is insistent that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory of the Christian life or of anything else. But he recognizes that the truths of the Christian faith shaped how he wrote the story, and he readily acknowledges that readers are justified in seeing spiritual truths exemplified in the story. Many have seen in Frodo’s burden of bearing the Ring a reflection of Christ carrying the Cross and bearing the sorrowful burden of our sin. The miraculous power of the Elves’ bread has been likened to the spiritual power of the Eucharist, especially for strengthening the faithful in times of great trial and suffering. In fact, the trials and tests of all the main characters offer profound examples that can instruct and inspire the reader.
One profound truth, not typically noted, is the presence of “grace” in the story of Frodo and the Ring: grace that comes sometimes directly from on high and grace that is often mediated through the help of others. Frodo is tempted to think that he must bear this burden alone and go off in the wilderness by himself. Instead, he is “given” wonderful companions and a host of helpers along the way, without which he would never have come close to escaping the Black Riders. Then again, when fleeing the Company, he sets out by himself to carry the Ring to the fire. But this instinct to go alone is again frustrated. Sam catches up and accompanies him to the finish; Gollum tracks him down and proves to be the irreplaceable guide; Faramir and his men re-provision them for the journey; the phial of Galadriel delivers them from the power of Shelob; the waybread of the Elves keeps them on their feet; the infighting among the Orcs allows them to escape and flee; the bold maneuvers by the captains of the West keep the Eye of Sauron distracted; and a divine-like urgency and strength inspires them for the last lap up the mountain. In the end the most decrepit and pitiable of all creatures, Gollum, enables the quest to be finally accomplished.
The story of Frodo and the Ring is preeminently a story of grace, of help in time of need, and of the turning of evil to good. Frodo suffers intensely and has to bear his part of the quest alone, though even here Sam bears the Ring for a short time and carries Frodo himself with the Ring at the crisis point. But Frodo was not allowed to “go it alone” in the quest; he was accompanied in his trials and suffering by extraordinary grace and help at every turn. His intense suffering was personal and unique to him, but not solitary; he accomplished the quest but only with a plenitude of grace.
Discover how the world’s greatest adventure stories, like The Lord of the Rings, can’t compare to the ultimate adventure of friendship with Christ in Daniel A. Keating’s The Adventure of Discipleship.