A Thought For Strange Times

Art can teach us about life.

In the book The Fellowship of the Ring, as in the movie, Frodo receives the Ring from Bilbo after the latter’s departure at his 111th birthday. In the book, Frodo and Bilbo share the same birthday, and the birthday is doubly significant because it is Frodo’s coming-of-age: he’s turning 33. But although Gandalf warns him about the Ring, he doesn’t identify it as the Ruling Ring for nearly two decades. In the meantime, Frodo’s been living a fairly peaceful life in Bag-end, enjoying his position as a young Hobbit of means.

Then, a few months before Frodo’s 50th birthday, Gandalf drops in with some ill news. He tells Frodo all about the Ring. About how it was forged by the Dark Lord Sauron himself, how it contains most of his power, how it was lost, and how, now that it’s been found, Sauron is putting all his effort into seeking it.

Imagine hearing that a family heirloom you have tucked away somewhere was created by a supremely evil being who is getting ready to start a war that the good guys might lose. It’s a lot to take in.

Frodo, understandably, begins to feel sorry for himself.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide.”

JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Shadow of the Past

Sauron’s return shattered Frodo’s world. He was headed for a life of relative ease, and then through no fault of his own, events beyond his horizons changed his life forever in huge, difficult-to-comprehend, terrifying ways. He didn’t really know what was going on and for all we know was hearing a lot of this for the first time.

Having seen this young Hobbit swept up in world events beyond his control, our heart breaks again at Rivendell when he breaks the stalemate of the assembled representatives of powerful groups, stepping forward with a bold declaration of “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.”

Frodo isn’t an adventurer or a hero. He’s not a disaffected young lad yearning for adventure and the far shores, chafing against the bonds of his bucolic upbringing. Frodo didn’t want any of this. He wanted to live his quiet life in Hobbiton. Failing that, he wanted to take the Ring to Rivendell and be rid of it. But instead, he carries it all the way to Mount Doom. It shapes him, and scars him, forever.

I can’t help but imagine that Tolkien was thinking of all the young men, himself included, who found War on their doorstep. These men, barely out of childhood, were faced with something huge and unknown and scary coming from world politics well out of their control.

There will always be scary things out there, metaphorical Dark Lords and Ruling Rings. The twin specters of a global pandemic and entrenched racial injustice loom large over our generation, and it seems that there’s little we can do. There’s no trinket to throw into a volcano; no hero’s journey to undertake.

But there is still something to learn from this story. We can choose to not let the sometimes overwhelming weight of these events paralyze us. Frodo may have been carried along by events out of his control, but he still had choices to make along the way. Not just big choices, but small. He was not perfect, but he marched on anyway.

In the second book of The Fellowship of the Ring, Elrond says:

“This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”

JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Council of Elrond”

The message I take from all of this is that, yes, my life is moved and shaped by forces outside my control or, sometimes, even comprehension. But the greatness and implacability of these forces do not make my actions meaningless. Instead, how I…how we…respond to these events is what defines us and the course of history.

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