Frodo isn’t a hero.
Before you denounce me for a Middle-earth heretic or accuse me of being controlled by the power of the Ring, let me offer an explanation.
The typical progression of a story goes something like this:
- We meet a new character
- We come to know and like said character
- Conflict arises, requiring said character to act
- Said character goes on a journey (usually of both the internal and external variety)
- Said character must defeat the enemy as part of the plot
As far as heroes go, Frodo is fine—until that last point. Generalizing can be dangerous when it comes to stories, because no two stories are created equal. However, in this instance, it’s helpful. Keeping that in mind, the hero *should* end up saving the day, whatever that looks like.
Frodo came close. Oh so close. Yet, at the turning point, the moment when everything hung in the balance, he faltered and claimed the Ring for himself.
He didn’t complete his quest to destroy the Ring and thereby save Middle-earth from Sauron.
What are the implications?
- That Gandalf’s faith in the ability of hobbits was misplaced or misguided?
- That Frodo wasn’t the one cut out for the job?
- That the toll of the quest and the siren call of the Ring finally made him snap?
- That Sam is the true hero of the story?
Possibly, and my intention isn’t to debate the what-ifs and whyfors. What I want to focus on is the fact that by any standard, Frodo did more than his best (if that’s even possible). He gave his all to the quest.
He left home. He trudged for hundreds of miles. He fought. He submitted to the burden of the Ring and the myriad trials—physical and psychological—such an act entailed.
And in the end, it wasn’t enough. Because what good is running a marathon when you collapse fifteen feet from the finish line, unable to rise?
To Fail or Not to Fail
How many times are we told to do our best, that giving everything you have is all anyone can ask? That’s partially true, but it leaves situations like Frodo’s failure out of the picture.
The lesson here is startling yet profound. Though Lord of the Rings isn’t allegorical or overtly Christian, its themes and substance stem from Tolkien’s Christian worldview and as such present glimmers of truth throughout.
This image—Frodo’s failing despite his best effort—gets at the heart of the Gospel and the fact that left to ourselves, we can try-try-try all the livelong day and never measure up to what God requires. Never hope to come close.
Granted, the analogy breaks down because Frodo could have accomplished his task, indeed was on the verge of doing so, whereas we are utterly unable to live perfectly as God demands.
What’s the point in all this? To see the golden shafts of truth and hope woven into this dark moment of failure. Yes, Frodo failed, but did the quest?
No. Sauron was destroyed.
In the same fashion, we can take heart that our constant failings aren’t the end of the story. In fact, they’re where the story begins. The story is that of redemption.
Where we failed, Christ didn’t.
Where we sinned, he lived the perfect life.
Where we gave in to defeat, he conquered.
I don’t know how often people think of this moment in Frodo’s quest, but it’s a defining moment of the entire story. When framed with the lens of the deeper meaning running beneath the surface, it goes from an instant where everything went terribly wrong to a promise of hope beyond despair.
A eucatastrophe, as Tolkien termed it.
And that is a comfort to remember.
Next time you read Lord of the Rings or watch Return of the King, remember that truth. Next time you want to look at the many ways you’ve failed, remember the One who didn’t fail.