Tolkien Gateway

Letter 246

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 246
RecipientMrs. Eileen Elgar (drafts)
DateSeptember 1963
Subject(s)Frodo's "failure" in the Cracks of Doom

Letter 246 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

It is a draft of a letter sent to Mrs. Elgar on 3 October 1963.[1]

[edit] Summary

Tolkien said that Frodo's "failure", which only Mrs. Elgar and one other had commented upon, was a very important point. From a storytelling point of view the event simply proceeded from the logic of the tale and was not deliberately worked out until it occurred (actually, said Tolkien, he had devised several trial versions but used none of them). After all that had happened clearly Frodo would never have been able to destroy the Ring voluntarily. The final form of the event was central to the whole "theory" of true nobility and heroism as presented.

Simple minds would see Frodo as a "failure" for not having endured to the end. Tolkien did not disdain "simple minds" for they often see clearly simple truths and absolute ideals, but their views contained weaknesses. They missed the complexity of situations involving an absolute ideal and tend to forget that strange element called Pity or Mercy, which is also an absolute requirement in moral judgement. For ourselves we must pursue an absolute ideal without compromise since we do not know our own limits; if we fail to aim at the highest we shall fall short of the utmost we could achieve. For others we must temper our judgement with "mercy". We can judge others without the bias by which we judge ourselves and take account of others' strength weighed against the circumstances.

Frodo's was not a moral failure. In the Cracks of Doom the Ring's pressure reached its maximum upon Frodo, after long possession, months of torment, starvation, and exhaustion. He had done what he could, spent himself completely, and produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility, sufferings, and patience and mercy towards Gollum were rewarded: his failure was redressed.

Tolkien stated that we are creatures with absolute limits upon our powers of action or endurance. Moral failure only occurs when effort or endurance falls short of the limits, and blame decreasing the closer the limits are approached. Frodo did receive "grace", the enhancement of his power by Providence, but even grace is limited. It can be observed, Tolkien thought, that some individuals seemed to be placed in "sacrificial" positions wherein the solution demands powers beyond utmost limits.

Frodo undertook his quest to save the world at his own expense while knowing that he was inadequate to the task. His real contract was to do what he could as far as his strength of mind and body allowed and that is what he did. Breaking of mind and will under demonic pressure and torment is no more a moral failing than being strangled by Gollum or crushed by a falling rock. This appears to be Gandalf and Aragorn's judgement, but how Frodo felt was another matter entirely.

Initially, restored to sanity and peace, Frodo felt no guilt. He had expected to die as a sacrifice. Having lived a disquiet grew in him. Arwen was the first to see the signs, gave him a jewel for comfort, and gave him her place to sail west. Tolkien comments that this was not as simple as transferring a boat ticket! He said that she put in a plea to Gandalf who, as an emissary of the Valar could accept her plea. He was also in accord with Círdan the ship-master, who by giving him his ring had placed himself under Gandalf's command.

Frodo faded "out of the picture", saying and doing less, not only realizing that he was permanently wounded but he was also filled with self-reproach for having failed. It was actually a last flicker of self-pride: he desired to return a "hero" and not just as a mere instrument of good. There was also another and darker temptation: since he had not cast away the Ring he was tempted to regret its destruction. Frodo was sent or allowed over the Sea to heal him before he died. In Aman he could reflect in peace and gain a truer understanding of his littleness and greatness.

As completion of the plan begun by Arwen, Gandalf arranged for Bilbo to come too. His companionship was necessary for Frodo's sake, who as a Hobbit would need the company of one of his own kind. But Bilbo also needed and deserved the favour. He still bore a trace of pride and personal possessiveness engendered by the Ring. Also there was the reward for his part in the story – experiencing the "pure Elvishness" of Aman and hearing the legends and histories in full.

Sam is meant to be lovable and laughable, although some readers find him irritating and even infuriating. Tolkien called Sam "trying" as times and the hobbit most representative of all Hobbits. He exhibited a mental myopia that was proud of itself, smugness, cocksureness, and readiness to measure all things by his limited experience. The other hobbits (of the Fellowship) are exceptional with a grace or gift. Imagine Sam, suggested Tolkien, without education from Bilbo or his fascination with Elves and he would be like the Cotton Family or the Gaffer. Sam was a little conceited, but that had been transformed by his devotion to Frodo. That devotion had an ingredient of pride and possessiveness that prevented him from fully understanding the master that he loved. Sam plainly did not understand Frodo's motives with regards to Gollum; had he done so things might have turned out differently in the end. For Tolkien the most tragic moment in the Tale happens when Sam failed to note the complete change in Gollum's tone and aspect.[2] Gollum's repentance was blighted, Frodo's pity was wasted, and Shelob's Lair became inevitable.

The blighting of Gollum's repentance was due to the "logic of the story". If it had happened the entry into Mordor and the struggle to reach Mount Doom would have been different, with the reader's interest shifted to Gollum. Tolkien thought that between repentance and love for Frodo on one hand and the Ring on the other, Gollum would have tried to satisfy both in some queer twisted and pitiable way. He would have stolen or used violence to take the Ring, but having satisfied "possession" he would then for Frodo’s sake have voluntarily cast himself into the fire. The effect of a partial regeneration by love would have given Gollum a clearer vision when he claimed the Ring. He would have perceived Sauron's evil, realized that he did not have the power to use it in Sauron's despite, and realized that the only way to hurt Sauron would have been to destroy the Ring and himself – which would also be the greatest service to Frodo. In the story Frodo actually claims the Ring and he would have had the revelation of Gollum outlined above, if he had had the time, and cast himself into the fire.

Suddenly realizing his peril, Sauron sent at once the Ringwraiths. Fully instructed, they would not have been deceived as to the real lordship of the Ring, and the wearer would not have been invisible to them and would be more vulnerable to their weapons. But Frodo had grown since Weathertop; would they have been immune to his power? Not wholly, said Tolkien. They would not have attacked or taken him captive; they would have pretended to obey any of Frodo's commands that would not contradict Sauron's, who still held their nine rings and thus had primary control of their wills. They would endeavor to remove Frodo from the Crack and once he had lost the power or opportunity to destroy the Ring the outcome could not be in doubt.

Frodo had been enlarged spiritually and had a much stronger will, but he had only used it in resisting the Ring. He would have needed much time before he could control it, or actually before the Ring increased his will and arrogance to the point where he could dominate other major wills. Even so for a long time he would believe his acts to be "good", to be for the benefit of others. Frodo facing the Eight (the Witch-king was gone) was like a small brave man with a devastating weapon facing eight savage warriors of great strength and agility armed with poisoned blades. Frodo's weakness would be not knowing how to use the weapon and being adverse to violence. Their weakness would be their fear of his weapon and their conditioning of servility to its owner. They would have called him "Lord" and induced him to go look upon his new kingdom. Once outside the chamber they would have destroyed the entrance. Then all would have waited until Sauron came, when Frodo would have been overthrown. Sauron would have had no fear of the Ring! It was his and under his will. In his presence none but very few of equal stature could have withheld it from him. Aragorn could not; he only won the battle for the Palantír because he was the rightful owner and because it took place at considerable distance. Sauron should be thought of as very terrible, in form a man of more than human stature (but not gigantic).

Of any others only Gandalf might be expected to master him since he was a creature of the same order. In Lothlórien Galadriel appeared to believe that she could wield the Ring and supplant Sauron[3] but she knew it was not so; her rejection of the Ring was based on previous thought and resolve. Had she or Elrond used the Ring they would have built great armies under absolutely subservient generals and gone to destroy Sauron by force.

Gandalf as Ring-Lord would have been a contest between the Ring's true allegiance to Sauron versus Gandalf's actually possession of the Ring. But if Gandalf had been the victor it would have been far worse than Sauron winning. The "righteous" Gandalf would have become self-righteous, ruling and ordering things for "good" until he had made good detestable and seem evil.


  1. Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond (2006), The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: I. Chronology, p. 608
  2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Stairs of Cirith Ungol"
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Farewell to Lórien"