But one must face the fact: the Power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however “good”; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us.
– J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter #191
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We have spoken here at length about a number of shockingly counter-intuitive Pilgrim values; values that, taken together, create a sort of negative photographic image of the world and stand in direct opposition to everything the kosmos treasures most; values like meekness, weakness, defenselessness, child-likeness, poverty, madness, failure, defeat, and death. It remains to be said that the Pilgrim willingly embraces these values because, among other reasons, he recognizes his inability to do otherwise. He knows that it is not in him to be mighty, brave, powerful, good, pure, holy, successful, heroic, or victorious in his own strength. For all of this he is entirely dependent on Someone else.
The Lord’s Prayer concludes with this peculiar petition: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” If in the course of our mindless repetitions of this Prayer we were to pause long enough to feel the full weight of these words, we might find ourselves caught up short in the face of their deeper implications. Notice what they do not say: they do not say, “Strengthen us in the face of temptation that we might be able to resist.” Instead, the plea is “Keep us completely away from the influence of evil! Don’t allow us to go anywhere near temptation!” Why? Because if we do, we know we’re bound to fall.
This thought is powerfully and memorably illustrated at the climax of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. At the end of the long, bitter pilgrimage, after so many sorrows, sufferings, and dogged decisions to push ahead in spite of the odds, when in the final moments of his agony he stands at the edge of the Cracks of Doom, positioned at last to carry out the fulfillment of his terrible charge, Frodo Baggins looks at his incredulous companion, Sam Gamgee, and quietly says, ”I do not choose to destroy the Ring.” Against all expectation, Frodo – even Frodo – succumbs to the power of the evil talisman.
It was an outcome few had anticipated. With good reason, Gandalf and his colleagues had supposed – or at least they had hoped – that a humble hobbit from the Shire would not prove quite so susceptible to the seduction of Absolute Power as the so-called Great and Wise ones of the world. To a certain extent they were right: it took a long time for the influence of the Ring to reach Frodo’s heart, and that was only at the point of its maximum strength. But eventually the burden turned out to be too heavy for him. And had it not been for the dissolute creature Gollum, who at that very instant bit the ring-finger from Frodo’s hand in a lustful frenzy and fell with it into the abyss, the mission would have failed and the Cause would have been lost.
Tolkien reflects on the significance of this plot twist in a letter to one of his readers:
There exists the possibility of being placed in positions beyond one’s power. In which case (as I believe) salvation from ruin will depend on something apparently unconnected … [i]
In a second letter he adds:
Surely this is a more significant and real event than a mere ‘fairy-story’ ending in which the hero is indomitable? It is possible for the good, even the saintly, to be subjected to a power of evil which is too great for them to overcome in themselves.[ii]
Ultimately, says Tolkien, “Frodo failed” – just as St. Francis “failed” in the estimation of biographer Julien Green. He failed because he was stretched beyond his own power. And when at length Deliverance arrived, it was precisely from “something apparently unconnected” that it made its unexpected appearance:
Frodo deserved all honor because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further … the Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named …‘[iii]
This is a thought that the Pilgrim takes very much to heart. He recognizes his own weaknesses, limitations, and sins. He understands that the words “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” are not a promise of superhuman invincibility but rather a confession of utter dependence – dependence upon that “one ever-present Person.”
For all these reasons he is careful to “watch and pray that he might not enter into temptation.” For he knows that when he thinks he stands, that is the moment of all moments when he is most likely to fall.
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[i] Tolkien, Letter to Miss J. Burn, 26 July 1956; #191 in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981).
[ii] Tolkien, Letter to Amy Ronald, 27 July 1956. Ibid., #192.