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.


  1. Lileks on Bond…

    Lileks finally watched On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I thought this was an interesting note: But Lazenby keeps surprising you, because he displays something else you never saw in Moore and only rarely detected in Connery: cruelty. When he starts……

    Trackback by JunkYardBlog — July 10, 2007 @ 1:12 am

  2. That puts me in mind of one of the ‘allowable Southern defenses to murder’ – he just need killin’.

    Comment by Steve — July 11, 2007 @ 12:49 pm

  3. I still don’t think Frodo was in the wrong for sparing Saruman, or even for trying to protect the ruffians who had surrendered earlier. The Hobbits-in-arms had wanted to slaughter their POWs due to their losses. Frodo prevented a needless atrocity. That’s beside the point in the case of Saruman’s last chance at pardon, his refusal, and his near-immediate punishment.

    Frodo was in the right to forgive Saruman for the attempted murder, and his actions. Not necessarily to be self-righteous and full of Pharisee-like hypocrisy like today’s PC Left, no. Frodo had seen and felt the impact of cruel actions and vngeful actions taken solely to hurt others to avenge slights real or imagined. Why should he lower himself to the level of Gollum, Shagrat, or even the Dark Lord in order to get back on Saruman? It was fairly obvious at the time of the incident that Saruman had fallen below his earlier power, to the point of getting petty revenge on the Hobbits who had ruined all his schemes. Still, he wanted to be Sharkey, the big Chief.

    Frodo decided to let Saruman go because he felt that Saruman was fallen, but it was not his place to judge whether Saruman was deserving of punishment for his actions. Well, maybe he was, but he was also a (former) member of the Istari, and Frodo wasn’t ready to declare himself worthy of judging someone who had once been one of the chosen champions of the West. He was out of Frodo’s league for punishment, but Frodo decided not to be judgemental, and to let Saruman face the decision of a Higher Power. He deserved justice, yes, but he also deserved mercy, and a last appeal to the few remaining shreds of goodness that might be left. Saruman realized Frodo’s kindness, and rejected it, bitter at having failed to mar Frodo’s heroism by even tha degree of pettiness.

    So, after Frodo decided not to enforce justice-or take vengeance-on Saruman, Saruman angrily refused Frodo’s offer of a last chance, and also denied Wormtongue a last chance, too. Wromtongue finally snapped and took revenge for many slights and degradations. He then tried to escape, but since Mercy had been slighted, then Justice had to be given, in the form of arrows. Unwavering Justice was also served on the spirit of Saruman, denied reunion with Aman the Blessed for all eternity.

    Comment by exdem13 — July 11, 2007 @ 8:13 pm

  4. exdem13, welcome. You sound like you’ve been reading my old stuff. Possible implied compliment notwithstanding, though, a few points:

    1) I’ve no quibble with your point about the ruffians. Enemies who surrender should be spared. Imprisoned, but spared.

    2) But you seem to be conflating Frodo a) not enforcing justice and b) not taking vengeance. The two are different, and although it’s certainly his right (and many would say his charitable duty) to forgive Saruman for Frodo’s own attempted murder, my argument is that it’s not his place to forgive on behalf of all the Shire, and even if it were, forgiveness and “get out of jail scot-free” are also not the same. As for the Istari, who was left to judge him? Gandalf had already ordered him locked up and had his orders relaxed by the soft-hearted Ents. There were no Istari left with the power. Maia who might have sat for the Istari were scattered and largely not of Middle-earth at all. My argument is: judgment belongs to the leadership of those wounded, and Frodo showed he was unwilling to assume that leadership by his forfeiture of judgment. Mercy’s needs could have been met by Saruman’s imprisonment against the possibility of him hurting others. Frodo chose not to rise even to that level of justice. Still a misapplication, in my view.

    Comment by Anwyn — July 11, 2007 @ 10:20 pm

  5. I have read some of your earlier essays. In fact, I bought the book when it came out. :)

    As regards Frodo’s act towards Saruman, it might be considered forgiveness independent of legal justice or vengeance. It might also be said that Frodo had already said his piece and made up his mind on Saruman after meeting him as a vagabond in Enedhwaith. I suppose that even if Frodo had felt vengeance towards Saruman, his truncated ring finger would have reminded him that acting in anger, vengeance, and “pay them back” mode would not be to his liking or interest. Frodo was ready to forgive Saruman, as long as the fallen Wizard left the Shire and sought a non-obtrusive life somewhere else. It was justice, but leavened with mercy and a little compassion. Frodo had also been tempted by the Ring, and for one awful second he had embraced it wholly as its master. Maybe tossing Sharkey into the Lockholes would feel too much like hypocrisy?

    Saruman’s reaction to Frodo’s forgiveness reminded me of the New Testament to forgive one’s enemies, because doing so “will pile hot coals on their heads”. If so, then Saruman’s hair was smoldering. His revenge on Frodo and the other Hobbits of the Fellowship had been spoiled by their heroic behavior. They had politely scoffed at the collaborators, broken the gangs of ruffians, and called out the general populace to reject tyranny & rejoice in renewed freedom. If Merry and Pippin had been heroic leaders, and Sam had showed a gift for (intended) restoration, then Frodo would finish the job of heroic revival & reform with magnanimity, albeit of a conditional sort.

    It would fall to Frodo to fall into the model of the Christianized Anglo-Saxon ruler as idealized by Tolkien, and give fair judgement. He must have the willingness to hear a plea from the accused, and give fair & equitqable judgement for the offense. Thus are the good rulers separated from the tyrants and bullies-in-arms. It’s an echo of Theoden’s judgement on Wormtongue; Wormtongue had done wrong, and had committed treachery, but he could take advantage of Royal mercy and earn a pardon with true service. Or he could leave quickly and ride out of Rohan, never to return if he was prudent. Wormtongue elected to run off to Isengard for his promised reward, only to find the offer was null & void. Likewise, Saruman rejected Frodo’s offer of mercy in return for good work in favor of spite and a desire to flee or die in order to escape humiliation. He made the wrong decision, and paid for it. So, I am more inclined to blame Saruman for being a hard-hearted jerk, than chastise Frodo for taking the high road.

    Comment by exdem13 — July 16, 2007 @ 7:29 pm

  6. Well, my fellow authors and I thank you, exdem13.

    I’m still dubious. Mercy misapplied does not make a great Christian ruler any more than any other kind of leader, methinks. I don’t really think there was any fair judgment involved, still less a plea from the accused, but rather far more weariness of bloodshed–which is my point, that it’s dangerous to make decisions on that head.

    Comment by Anwyn — July 18, 2007 @ 9:03 am

  7. It would do for anyone interested in this conversation to read Ralph C. Wood’s excellent booik, “The Gospel According to Tolkien,” wherein the pity or mercy shown to Saruman is consistent with the “animating theme of the epic.” Wood notes that the statement, “The pity of Bilbo” is repeated in all three volumes of LOTR. Bilbo is said to have began his ownership of the Ring with pity/mercy shown to Gollum. Gandalf reminds Frodo of this, and Frodo reminds Sam of this.

    Aragorn shows mercy and Pity on Boromir even though Boromir betrayed the company. Yes, I know that Boromir died heroically, but he could have let him die feeling like a failure. Instead, Aragorn recognizing the penance Boromir paid, absolves Boromir by telling him that he has conquered while kissing his hand.

    Gandalf offers Saruman mercy after the battle of Helms Deep, which Saruman spurns. Theoden offers Wormtongue mercy also.

    I have not hit on all of the instances of this theme, but pity/mercy is what Wood calls also, “The Christian epicenter as well as the circumference” of the epic.

    Wood also notes that “Frodo denies the villian the justice that he is due. He will not deal out judgement in death, knowing that if Saruman dies in rage, his life as a wizard will have indeed come to nothing-and perhaps worse than nothing.” Wood later notes that “while revenge curdles the soul and paralyzes the will, pity frees those who receive it. Repentence does not produce forgiveness, Tolkien shows, but rather the other way around: mercy enables contrition.” Now, paraphrasing Wood, when Saruman becomes furious and throws Frodo’s pity/mercy back in his face because by this time Frodo has robbed him of his only remaining reason for living, his revenge.

    I have been reading as much of Tolkien as I can for years and the book by Wood is the best discussion on the his works that I have read.

    Comment by James — July 20, 2007 @ 11:18 pm

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