I’ve been re-reading Lord of the Rings lately, which I’ve been loving. I read them for the first time in college, more than six years ago now. Fellowship is a great one to go back to in the fall, with Bilbo’s birthday being in September, and with so much of the book taking place in autumn. The descriptive language of the Shire and Rivendell just makes my heart sing.
Now, we all know (or should know) that Tolkien has a way with words and is a phenomenal writer. He also was a Catholic and there is truth, beauty, and goodness infused in his characters, his stories, and his themes. As I arrived at the Council of Elrond, I was struck by some beautiful speech of his. It is right after Frodo announces that he will take the ring to Mordor, and Elrond looks at him and says this:
“I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will […] But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right.” – JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings
This paragraph stirred something in me. I’m no theologian, but I at least know that our God has a divine will; he has a will for my life, for your life, for the whole world. But we are free to choose as we will. Sometimes that can be confusing, right? It is true that we can choose the wrong, a path that God had not desired for us. Does that mean he cannot still work our poor efforts for good? Of course not, he is God! All things are within the realm of His divine providence – nothing is beyond him. Sometimes he intervenes, and other times he lets nature take its course. But the greatest fruits come when our wills are aligned with that of our Maker’s.
I say this because when I read those words Tolkien wrote so beautifully, I saw a teaching that can be so hard for me to comprehend, written down in an accessible dialogue between and elf and a hobbit. Is it perfect and do I now understand fully how we, as created beings, can live freely while our God has a divine will for us? Nope. But it’s a start.
Elrond tells Frodo what he thinks, and he affirms the hobbit in his willingness, but also says that he would “not lay it on” him. Frodo is free to leave, to say no, to go back to the shire, or even to stay in Rivendell. If he does, there may be consequences that affect the free people of Middle Earth, including himself, but it is still his choice.
What if Frodo had been forced to take the ring? What if the Council had all looked upon him and demanded that he make this potentially impossible & deadly journey to Mordor? I imagine that would have made it all the more difficult. I imagine Frodo’s heart would have been colder towards his companions, or his longing for the shire may have been crippling. Or he may have felt angry and kept the ring for his own use along the way. Maybe not. While Frodo knew in his heart he must be the ring-bearer, he was the one to declare it – nobody else.
Furthermore, while Elrond deems Frodo’s decision to take the ring as the right one, he understands it is not easy. He, more than most, knows what an arduous task would lie ahead of Frodo and company. It is a burden that he could not give to Frodo, but one that Frodo must choose to bear on his own. That’s when the next line caught me as well. Immediately following the previous lines, Elrond says, “And though all the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador, and Hurin, and Turin, and Beren himself were assembled together, your seat should be among them.” By choosing the good, the right, and the just, in the face of such great temptation, there is greater hope and greater reward. (And to bring it back to the Catholic faith – is Tolkein hinting at Frodo living among the Angels and Saints for his brave choice?) It is precisely because Frodo takes up this burden, or this cross, with courage and free will, that he is worthy.
I think we can all agree that Frodo’s burden was great as well as his suffering. He could have chosen otherwise, he could have let someone else try to take the ring. But it was ordered that Frodo should take it – and all people were better off because of his yes that was freely given. And was he not ultimately rewarded for his choice?