Weeklyish Tolkien: Some That Die Deserve Life

Filed under:Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on July 7, 2007 @ 9:14 pm

‘What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’

‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy, not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’

‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’

‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in.

‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.’

The Fellowship of the Ring


Does anybody else think Frodo took these words a little too much to heart?


‘I pity you. … Go at once and never return!’

The hobbits of the villages had seen Saruman come out of one of the huts, and … when they heard Frodo’s command, they murmured angrily:

‘Don’t let him go! Kill him! He’s a villain and a murderer. Kill him!’ …

But Frodo said: ‘… But I will not have him slain. It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. Go, Saruman, by the speediest way!’ …

Saruman turned to go, … but even as Saruman passed close to Frodo a knife flashed in his hand, and he stabbed swiftly. The blade turned on the hidden mail-coat and snapped. A dozen hobbits, led by Sam, leaped forward with a cry and flung the villain to the ground. Sam drew his sword.

‘No, Sam!’ said Frodo. ‘Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.’

Frodo then offers both mercy and sanctuary to Wormtongue, but it comes out that Wormtongue has killed Lotho Sackville-Baggins on Saruman’s orders. Wormtongue draws his knife and slays Saruman.

Before Frodo could recover or speak a word, three hobbit-bows twanged and Wormtongue fell dead.

The Return of the King


The simplest reading of this is that Frodo simply did not want Saruman’s, or Wormtongue’s, blood on his own hands. He accepts the fait accompli without a fuss and is relieved that it’s over. But it’s troubling that, having accepted the role of leader that the hobbits looked to him for, that he chose to vacate judgment in favor of doubt–doubt that he was worthy to judge Saruman, who was most assuredly fallen, doubt that removing him from menacing other innocents was a more proper course than letting him go.

It’s a gray area, for sure. Frodo’s words are valid–Saruman’s actions against the Shire were a specific act of revenge, and unlike reality, one is certain in reading the words of Tolkien that if Saruman had gone he would not have troubled the Shire again. And there’s a line of silliness that is eventually crossed in trying to analyze the actions of fictional characters, as in my upbraiding of Doctor Who for a similar action, but it’s valuable in understanding the story as well as the motivations of the writers. And at least the Doctor assumed responsibility for letting a mass murderer live by taking on his keeping himself. Though I shot down his arrogance for assuming he could keep any potential future victims safe, at least he had an alternative to executing him other than just letting him go. Frodo doesn’t just vacate judgment, like a Pilate leaving it up to the mob; he actively decides in favor of letting a murderer go. This isn’t even Frodo protesting against “death as punishment;” if it were, he should have provided for an imprisonment alternative.

Provided we can all stipulate (and some won’t, I know) that both the Master, in Doctor Who, and Saruman had committed obvious, established crimes for which we don’t need a jury trial to pronounce guilt, then Frodo’s decision to let Saruman go was at best a misguided application of mercy, with a healthy dose of “I’m so tired of it all” and self-doubt thrown in for bad measure. The fact that Tolkien does not allow either Saruman or Wormtongue to escape in the end leaves us to wonder whether Frodo or the hobbits represented his personal point of view as to what should be done in a similar situation.

A passage on Tom Bombadil from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien may give a clue:

…but if you have, as it were [like Tom Bombadil] taken ‘a vow of povery’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacificist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.

Hmm, that sounds familiar. But more of lefty peacemongers v. jihadis another time. Tolkien expounded this theme within the text, when Aragorn talks of peaceful folk living within a day’s ride of creatures who would freeze their blood if they were not guarded ceaselessly–like hobbits. It is very curious, then, that only after seeing (and being one of) those who guard the Shire’s way of life from infiltration and destruction, Frodo would turn to letting go the perpetrators and wearily doubting his own ability to judge what was most proper. Curiouser still that Tolkien, in the letter, describes this as “the view of Rivendell” without committing himself … though the letter in question was very centered on the text. I think it safe to surmise that the justice represented in the deaths of Saruman and Wormtongue was at least as satisfying to Tolkien as it must have been to much of his audience. Why then have Frodo’s voice be at once the dissenting pacifist and the purported leader?

Because: Frodo is shown not to be the leader. The hobbits initially look to him, but in the end they supersede his judgment of release by shooting Wormtongue dead before he can enjoin them not to. Eventually he has passed all claim to judgment or leadership and also passed right out of the world, to Valinor. Leadership falls to Sam, elected Mayor, and Pippin, as Thain, and Merry, as Master of Brandy Hall. Tolkien has shown that those who allow wishful thinking (that all criminals or “fallen beings” could be healed) to affect the practical process of leadership and judgment are showing that they would prefer not to lead or judge and indeed are unfitted for it. Those who assume judgment, as Frodo did in this case and the Doctor did in my other example, must be willing to put the needs of potential victims ahead of their own longing for life and peace without bloodshed. Frodo was unwilling to do this. One can hardly blame him, and maybe that’s why Tolkien put the onus on him rather than a character who had less richly earned the right to be wrong.

Confession of a Cubs Fan

Filed under:Cool,Sports — posted by Anwyn @ 5:32 pm

I love the Cubs, but ask me to pick my next favorite team and I have to go with the St. Louis Cardinals. Yes I KNOW they’re the Cubs’ traditional NL rival for Midwestern dominance. Yes I KNOW they won last year and so are even higher on the blacklist than usual. Yes I KNOW, I know, but who else am I going to root for, the American League? Please.

Besides, the Cardinals are cool. Bringin’ in the chicks with Stitch ‘n’ Pitch night, for practitioners of the needle arts, of which your humble blog hostess is one. Alas, though, it’s going to be a lot easier for knitters like Sarah than cross-stitchers like me, unless I were to gin up a small, simple, portable project rather than the enormous black hole of time and effort I’ve been avoiding working on for a year. Baseball and stitchery at the park–yeah, the Cards are cool.

Whither the Muslim Mothers?

Filed under:It's the Jihad,Mothering,Priorities,Religion,Sad — posted by Anwyn @ 3:01 pm

One line from this Telegraph article that Allah linked in his round-up of coverage about the Glasgow/London bombing attempts really jumped out at me, emphasis mine:

By the time he had graduated from medical school in the Iraqi capital in 2004 his views – already so hardline that reportedly his mother would not dare remove her headscarf in his presence when he was a schoolboy – had become positively toxic because of the US and British invasion.

“He” refers to Bilal Talal Abdulla, 27, being held by the police after the failed attack.

Why aren’t these boys taught from an early age that they’d better fear their mothers more than Allah? Why is it that she feared his reaction even as a schoolboy so much that she did not “dare” remove her headscarf? Surely he was not strong enough, as a schoolboy, to harm her. We know one answer–in a culture that murders women for being raped or for breaking their marriage vows, we can assume that most of them cannot stand up to their husbands and thus will not to their sons, either. Thus the sons are raised as the ultimate expression of the spoiled brat–“Don’t offend me or I will throw a tantrum that will result in your death.” Even in a more moderate form it involves riot violence defended as a natural consequence and a mistaken notion that they have the right to control the speech and behavior of others.

Obviously, also, there are many hardline mothers, or grandmothers, out there who believe in the cause as much as their sons do. But why don’t the more reasonable mothers care enough about their sons’ lives to do everything in their power to halt their progress down this deadly path, possibly to end in suicide bombing? Maybe it’s because they’ve spent years thinking their sons will kill them if they get out of line while the boys’ hardline education at the hands of religious extremists teaches them to do so. What a horrible cycle.

Mothers and feminists should be making common cause to break it. But it’s hard to expect that out of feminists who don’t view motherhood as important in the first place and who spend much of their time, like the hardline Muslims, working to control the behavior and speech of others who offend them. Muslim mothers need to be able not only to speak up but to consistently raise their sons in such a way as to prevent their sons’ departure down the path that will end in their deaths and the deaths of innocents. Western women need to find ways to support them in doing so.

image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace