"Well I'm Back", Academic Book, Author of the Century, Billy Conolly, desire, Evil, Eyes Wide Shut Orgies are actually a pain to schedule, fantasy, Frodo, Frodo Baggins, Good vs Evil, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Lawrence of Arabia, Literature, Michael D.C. Drout, Middle Earth, Novel, Of Sorcerer’s and Men, Philosophy, Road to Middle Earth, Sam, Samwise Gamgee, Slipknot, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Return of the King, Tom Shippey, virtue, Writing
I had to pee up to around 10 times when I saw Return of the King in theaters, and that was during my third watching.
Though my condition has improved as I’ve aged, my wife has gone so far as to suggest that I download an app to my phone which actually sets a timer on your phone which coordinates one’s bladder while one is watching a movie. The basic premise is, that way, you won’t waste a lot of time during a movie going back and forth to the toilet. RunPee isnot only an app, it is an entire website where there is a community of fellow pissers who exchange dialogue about when is the best time to get and urinate during a film. I have yet to really dig into the language and psychology of this community because frankly I’m terrified of the reviews of Lawrence of Arabia. I’m terrified they’re going to say the whole film is one long piss-fest, and I like Lawrence of Arabia.
As for my nervous pissing as a teenager, it came about entirely because I didn’t want to miss anything because I knew, as I watched, that this would be the last time I would see Middle Earth on the big screen. I was wrong largely for two reasons. The first reason was that by getting up to pee I was actually missing part of the film, and the second reason was because Peter Jackson would begin The Hobbit trilogy just a few years later. And while The Hobbit films were not the barbarous human rights atrocity that they’ve been made out to be, Billy Connolly plays a dwarf who rides a motherfucking boar and he only shows up in the last hour of the last fucking film for fucks sake…I’m a little bitter. But that’s only because it’s Billy motherfucking Connolly.
The Lord of the Rings the Return of the King was a beautiful film however, and so for many years I hated myself for never actually finishing the book. It was fun knowing how the story ended, and it was fun appearing smart as I informed people who knew nothing about the series (and who probably didn’t give a shit about it) that I knew that in fact that when the Hobbits returned to Hobbiton the Great Party Tree was destroyed andthe Hobbits actually had to fight a large gathering of ghouls and cretins who had polluted the Shire, but it was all, ultimately, just an exercise in ego. That is when I finally finished The Return of the King at the end of last year, I finally felt as though I was not so much of a “would-be.”
Book six of the Return of the King came and went, and I was left in a rather difficult position: how am I going to write about the last book. Book five at least had Eowyn, but for the most part the final section of the book is for Frodo and Sam, and I don’t have much to say about either. It’s not that I fail to recognize the potential for character exploration as both men have interesting material to work with, but by the end of Return of the King both of these characters have been essentially stripped to the bareness of their souls and are nearly destroyed.
The quest for the Ring, and the physical and psychological effects it has upon Frodo have been analyzed by scholars, fans, bloggers, writers, poets, and that weird guy at CVS pharmacy with the neck-beard who’s actually got great puns the world over. Whether it’s been interpreted as a metaphor for drug use, the ultimate corrupting power ofpower, veiled symbolism of unholy temptations, or simply human weakness, ultimately everyone arrives at the same conclusion for why Frodo ultimately fails to drop the Ring of Power into the fire of the Crack of Doom in Orodruin, usually just called Mount Doom: Frodo has no choice. Ultimately the ring corrupts otherwise good people to it’s will, and they are powerless to stop such evil. Temptation is a force that compels and corrupts the will, and those who possess the ring are ultimately undone by this power.
What fool would I be to argue against this interpretation? Apparently a great fool indeed, but I not only disagree with this collected sentiment, I actually find it a dangerous proposition. Though I’m not the only one who find this argument weak.
As I have noted since the start of these essays, Michael D.C. Drout’s lecture series Of Sorcerer’s and Men completely altered my perception of the trilogy and the ultimate aesthetic effect that Tolkien was attempting in this fantasy series, and I’m still feeling the reverberating effects as I consider each text one by one. What struck me most about his analysis of The Lord of the Rings was the final failure of Frodo, and as he quoted the scene directly I suppose I should as well. Sam and Frodo have traveled over the plains of Gorgoroth, and as they made their way up the side of Mount doom they have been attacked by Gollum. Frodo manages to escape and make his way inside of the volcano and after Sam has spared Gollum he chases after his master who he finds standing on the perch. All is darkness until the fire lifts up and Tolkien writes the scene so that every word matters:
The light sprang up again, and there on the brink of the chasm, at the very Crack of Doom, stood Frodo, black against the glare, tense, erect, but still as if he had been turned to stone.
“Master!” Cried Sam.
Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, 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. Sam gasped, but he had no chance to cry out, for at that moment many things happened. (924).
There is always going to be somebody whispering to the reader and saying “the book was better,” and while I won’t say that this scene in the final film of the trilogy was not great, it reinforced the traditional narrative of Frodo’s failure where the book left a more nuanced point. Every word in Frodo’s declaration speaks to the real power of the ring and the effect that it has upon those who bear it or desire it.
If the reader pays close attention to Frodo’s language it is clear what is compelling Frodo is not solely weakness of spirit or supernatural influence, it is choice. Frodo does “not choose” to destroy the ring, instead his choice is to keep it for himself. And this idea of choice is everything because choice is always a matter of one’s personal conviction. A person chooses what color clothes to dress in, what books to read or not read, what films to see, what religion or philosophy should govern their life, what political beliefs they subscribe to, what games to play or not play, and what sort of people they prefer to spend their time with. Each of these choices reflects the character and values of that individual, and those choices are ultimately founded upon a foundation of desire. I choose to spend most of my time reading andwriting, because I desire to communicate to other people in a different way than conversation, dinner parties, or Eyes Wide Shut Orgies every third Tuesdays at Sarah and Jacob’s house (BYOB). These actions coalesce together to create who I am, but it’s always the desire that compels these choices.
The power of the One Ring then is not just to warp a person using evil magic, what’s truly horrifying is that the power of the ring is to warp a person’s choice.
This of course creates problems because most readers would probably prefer a reality where Frodo does not choose to keep the One Ring, because if it his choice it becomes harder for us to forgive his final failure? If it is just supernatural power, magic, temptation, then it’s easy to forgive the man’s weakness. But as long as the final choice to keep the One Ring for himself is his choice the reader has to make an important decision: is it fair to fault Frodo?
This is where I look to outside books, which, in my case, tends to be the entire space of my office which is not just dedicated to coffee stains, cat hair, 3D prints of busts and statues. There’s an entire shelf dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien (which he shares, just for the record, with Ta-Nehisi Coates), and as of this writing a significant amount of space is dedicated to the writings of Tom Shippey. Shippey is a big name in Tolkien studies, largely because he has become a sort of literary successor to Tolkien, assuming the man’s former position at Oxford University and also writing multiple books about the man’s collected work. Shortly after my inhalation of Drout’s lecture I absorbed every book the library hadabout Tolkien and his body of work, and Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century served as one of the first real stimuli of the of my intellectual flood.
That’s all a fancy-pants way of saying I read a lot of Shippey’s work.
Author of the Century is an important book in looking at almost every level of Tolkien’s oeuvre, and there’s no element of the book series that Shippey doesn’t analyze. Whether it’s the linguistic models of character names, parallel mythic structures of themes, literary references contained within the novels, or even simply studying the shorter poetic works of Tolkien, Shippey is often the sort of writer that cuts open the butterfly to see how it works without managing to damage or smudge the original beauty.
Looking at this book then I looked to see how Shippey handles this problem of Frodo’s choice:
With that he puts it on for the sixth and final time. It is a vital question to know whether Frodo does this because he has been made to, or whether he has succumbed to inner temptation. What he says suggests the latter, for he appears to be claiming responsibility very firmly […] Against that, there has been the increasing sense of reaching a centre of power, where all other powers are ‘subdued’. If that is the case Frodo could no more help himself than if he had been swept away by a river, or buried in a landslide. It is also interesting that Frodo does not say, ‘I choose not to,’ but ‘I do not choose to do.’ Maybe (and Tolkien was a professor of language) the choice of words is absolutely accurate. Frodo does not choose; the choice is made for him. (140)
Looking at this passage Shippey seems to come to the conclusion that Frodo has no real say in the matter. But if one looks to another one of his books, The Road to Middle Earth, he provides a far more nuanced perspective:
Nevertheless it seems that there the external power is abetted by some inner weakness, some potentially wicked-impulse towards the wrong side. In the chamber of Sammath Nauer one’s judgement must also be suspended. Frodo makes a clear and active statement in his own evil intention […] Are Frodo’s will, and his virtue, among those powers? To say so would be Manichaean, It would deny that men are responsible for their actions, make evil into a positive force. On the other hand to put the whole blame on Frodo would seem (to use a distinctively English ethical term) ‘unfair’; if he had been an entirely wicked person, he would never have reached Sammath Nauer in the first place. (144)
Shippey seems to arrive at what I would call a really mature understanding of good and evil and the nature of temptation. Like so many aspects of life, one’s actions are usually a multifaceted creature which is determined on your individual self and environment. Who I am and what decisions I make in my own home are entirely different from the decisions I make when I’m at work. Both spaces create my reality and the way I’m supposed to behave in that reality, and before I become ungodly academic about this its fair to say that your environment has as much determining factor on your choices as whether or not external forces play a role in your decisions.
For this I have to go to heavy metal, because just two years ago I went with a friend to see my favorite band Slipknot in concert. They were the last band to go on and my friend Josh really wanted to get in a mosh pit. So when Lamb of God came on, and we were both very very very VERY drunk, he handed me his forty and hopped into the hurricane which was the mass of bodies running and fighting in a large circle. I recognize comparing a Lamb of God mosh pit to Sammath Nauer is probably ridiculous, but in fact it actually bears some resemblance, because while my friend Josh was fine to hop into the chaos that was the pit, I stood at a distance watching grown men and women escape from the carnage with bloody noses and black eyes laughing while on the stage twin guitarists stood in front of atom bombs blowing up and head-banging. I chose not to go into the pit, largely for reasons of self preservation, but also because it was my choice.
A pit in a heavy metal concert is not a force of pure evil, (although “Force of Pure Evil” would be a great title for a Metal Album) but anyone who’s attended a concert knows these “rings” are spaces where rational thought disappears and one is left solely to one’s passions and impulses.
I guess what I’m trying to communicate is that Frodo’s decision is complex, and arguably the zenith of the entire trilogy, because in this moment Tolkien challenges his own conception of evil as something of absence, and allows the reader to question how we look at our own choices. And Shippey, to his credit, provides a beautiful analysis of it.
As to the questions of how far responsibility is to be allocated to between us and our tempters, how much temptation human beings can ‘reasonably’ be expected to stand—these are obviously not to be answered by mere mortals. Tolkien saw the problem of evil in books as in realities, and he told his story at least in part to dramatize that problem; he did not, however, claim to know the answer to it. (145)
The problem of Frodo’s choice is that it is a problem, largely for the reader. Up to this point Frodo has seemed to be a purely good person, or at least a good person who’sexperienced great struggle and has done the best he could. The ultimate choice to keep the ring for himself however calls many character aspects into question. Was this always his intention, and did he intend to keep the ring from the start? Or is it simply that the power of the ring is just too tempting and he realizes what he could be and do with its power? Is Frodo even in his right mind when he makes this decision, or is it the combination of the Ring and the fires of Mt. Doom?
I’m not sure that I have an answer that feels satisfying. My personal take at the end of everything is that, while the Ring is ultimately exerting the influence over Frodo, the extent of that influence is allowing Frodo the space to feel he can make this terrible choice. And at the end of everything perhaps the ultimate power of the One Ring is not that it possesses any sort of supernatural power other than to allow people their selfishness. This is not a terrible supernatural power, but it is a frightening prospect nonetheless for the reader who knows their own mind, and the terrible impulses and sudden desires they may have and not share.
Our wants are not always selfless, in fact almost all of them are selfish. Our wants are our selfish desires, and the real threat of evil is the temptation to act on everyone of them. Frodo was a good person, but ultimately no one could stand against the temptation to do and have everything they want. Frodo’s redemption then is the journey itself, for while he is ultimately a failure, his effort to deliver the ring to Sammath Nauer and Orodruin comes from a want and desire to be a good person and save the home he loves.
Goodness then, at the end of The Return of the King, is about overcoming personal selfishness and sacrificing for the general good. The hero cannot win this fight, because selfishness and temptation is ultimately too great an opponent, this is made clear when Gollum steals the ring from Frodo by biting off his finger and falling back into the fires of Mount Doom. Frodo too cannot escape the destruction of the Ring. He ultimately leaves Middle Earth with Gandalf, Bilbo, and the last of the Elves to the Grey Havens.
Though I suppose all of this is not entirely correct, for at the very end of this long journey is Sam who does not desire or want for much except a home, and good tilled earth. And Tolkien gives the man just that:
At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Eleanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said. (1008).
This ending may in fact offer the reader one more, and far more satisfactory conclusion about the journey. Want and desire is not a solely selfish emotion, and can in fact lead to one’s salvation, as long as one’s wants are not so great to blind one to what you have.
All quotes taken from The Return of the King were cited from the Mariner paperback edition. All quotes taken from J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century were cited from the hardback Houghton Mifflin edition. All quotes taken from The Road to Middle Earth were cited from the paperback Houghton Mifflin edition.
I realized not long after finishing this essay that there were multiple forums dedicated entirely to the question of Frodo’s failure, arguing whether in fact his final act is a failure. As I said before, I land in the middle of this issue personally but each person is different, and dialogue is vital to the health of the humanities. So if the reader is at all interested in seeing a few of the multitudinous perspectives which govern the Tolkien fan-base feel free to follow any of the links below:
I get that being a queer man this argument is probably pointless, but it must needs be repeated, I don’t believe that Frodo and Sam are gay. But even if they were that doesn’t make any part of their relationship stupid, silly, grotesque, or not worth exploring, and if you’re the kind of shitty asshole who disagrees with me then go fuck yourself. You take a long and emotionally exhausting adventure carrying the Ring of Power to Oroduin so that you can cast the ring into the fires of Samath Nauer ultimately to be undone by the will to dominate before managing to destroy the ring after all and hold each other close as the land of Morder begins to crumble in the aftermath of the collpase of the spirit of Sauron and NOT develope a bromance. Go on. Seriously. I dare you.