Tolkien and Betrayal

by DoctorGamgee

Much has been said about the impact of Tolkien's beliefs upon LOTR, and as such, I find myself wondering about Tolkien's treatment of those who betray. Before I begin, however, it should be pointed out that LOTR is not an allegory for the life of Christ. Certainly there are elements and themes that can be related to it, but the theme of folks being free of tyranny then could make the case for LOTR being an allegory for the French Revolution -- and that is nonsense as well.

However, having said that, it is interesting to look at those who did betray and speculate which (if any) would be most akin to Judas -- Boromir, Smeagol, Saruman, or yes, even Frodo? And so I shall muse about this here, and await your thoughts as well.

Many of you may be asking "How can you include Frodo and ignore Denethor?" My reason revolves around the action and circumstances.

While Frodo is the hero of the story, had bourn so much to get the Ring to Mt. Doom, and deserves our love and sympathy, none of us can deny in claiming the Ring for his own, he betrayed the quest; and had not Gollum entered the scene, all of Middle Earth would have been lost to Sauron. This act was directly against what the whole story had been about -- distroying the Ring.

Denethor, while not a white-hat wearing "Good guy" made no such direct betrayal of the folks of Minas Tirith. Those who wish to argue with me may say that by giving up he did very passively help the enemy. His, however is more an act of cowardice and hopelessness than betrayal. Granted, not anything which would make him an eagle-scout -- I am not condoning what he did. However, he didn't fire shots at his people in the back as they defended the city, nor did he open the gates of the city to the swarm of Orcs, nor did he stop those who still had the courage to fight to do so. Instead, he set himself ablaze in an effort to avoid what he felt was the inevitable result of this battle -- death in the hands of the enemy. This, I feel, is distinguishable from the betrayal of the others on my list.

So, with this in mind, I am curious about Tolkien's Treatment of betrayal. He seems to be rather of the "to err is human; to forgive, divine" school of thought. I say this, as the first person we see betray the quest is Boromir (the reader never meets a good version of Saruman -- he is a bad guy throughout). Boromir begins as a good buy, then does the unthinkable, tries to take the Ring for himself. However, Tolkien doesn't end his story there, having another member of the party lob his head off. He is more benevolent and makes him repent for his actions, and thus is he able to atone for his actions by defending Merry and Pippin -- even unto death.

A similar treatment is given to Frodo as well. Nobody questions him about "How could you DO that?" They understand that he is not proud of his actions, and having suffered so much, they forgive him has moment of weakness and still trust him. This is most clearly seen in his role with Saruman.

In the woods, on the way back from Minas Tirith, they come across the former White Wizard. The group, faced with one who would have killed them easily, do not react, but rather ask Frodo what should be done. Frodo doesn't allow him to be hurt, and instead takes pity upon him and lets him go free. This, of course, shows that their trust in Frodo was well warranted, as instead of seeking vengence, he responds with mercy.

Saruman, on the other had, has been offered clemency twice, and rejects it both when Gandalf offers it, and mocks it when Frodo grants it. His pride is such that he would never allow himself to be considered someone's equal partner. He must always have the upper hand, and thus, brings about his own doom. Here we see Tolkien again sending forth the hand of Forgiveness. It is rejected, as is often the case in the real world, and it is this detail to reality that draws us in to this fantasy world.

So if we are looking for a Judas among the betrayers, it seems that the only logical choice is Smeagol. An odd choice, granted, but here is my reasoning.

We see in Smeagol, who was once an evil creature, moments of kindness. He is not all bad -- if he were, he would have poisoned the coneys. And he would never have shown "Master" any good at all. Not that he was great, but there were moments in the story where we all see the good side of his character and root for it to win out.

Neither Judas nor Gollum are offered forgiveness. After the betrayal in the Garden and on the Stairs, these two both run away. In the end, both of them got what they were after (Judas the Silver, Gollum the Ring). And they both served the purposes of God, for without each of them, the outcome to the world (both the real and the mythical) would have never seen the defeat of darkness.

Just a few moments thought on a Friday afternoon. I hope to hear your thoughts as well. Thank you for reading all of this.


Response from Varda:


Many thanks for this excellent musing on a theme dear to my own heart. It is strange too, because in the Empire supplement on 'The World's Greatest Directors' Jackson is included, but it is in discussing another director, Quentin Tarantino, that the editor points out that one of the most enduring themes of film is friendship and its opposite, betrayal. It just looks so darn good on screen, remember Frodo running through Shelob's lair screaming for Gollum?

I think you are correct to include Frodo, but only because Tolkien himself had a black and white attitude to misdeeds and in that moral scheme Frodo was a failure.And for Tolkien, once you fell, you were out; there is no way back for Boromir, Saruman and Gollum. Even those who seem to have been 'rehabilitated' after their slip, like Théoden and even Frodo, only buy a respite before they are destroyed.

Frodo's failure, however, was a glorious one; and it was programmed into the story. Gandalf and Elrond must know that Frodo does not have the strength to resist the Ring for ever. They intend him to get to Mount Doom then let fate do its work, and it does. So Frodo's 'failure' is not only forgivable but necessary and inevitable. Also, as no-one feels let down or failed by Frodo (in fact everyone sees him as the saviour of Middle Earth) his failure can't really be seen as betrayal in the conventional sense of the word.

Denethor is given too little credit for what he has achieved in the defence of Gondor. But his betrayal is despair. Tolkien always sees despair as a great betrayal, for it loses us the future. It is not as obvious as Theoden's despair and succumbing to Wormtongue, but it is insidious and corrosive, and it destroys his house and almost his line.

I would see Boromir as the classic betrayer, the closest to Judas as he is like Iscariot a loved member of a Fellowship. He is trusted, unlike Smeagol, who is trusted by Frodo but mistrusted to a hilarious degree by Sam. Also unlike Smeagol, Boromir is honoured and lauded by all and has a high position in the land, son and heir to the Stewardship of Gondor. So highly is he regarded that he is not suspected right up to his betrayal, whereas Smeagol has slipped away some time before he tricks the hobbits into Shelob's path. Unlike Judas, however, Boromir does not betray for gain, but for what is actually a good cause, the survival of Gondor. He does wrong for the right reasons, as the Ring can twist people's purposes and principles.

Gandalf says to Aragorn that Boromir redeems his betrayal by dying in the defence of the hobbits. But as Aragorn says, it is a bitter end; he dies not really knowing if Merry and Pippin are still alive and receives Aragorn's encouraging words with an enigmatic smile just before he dies. He is not really redeemed, and may not feel forgiven. This is a bitter death, and shows Tolkien reserves the worst punishment for betrayal, even by those who are not themselves actually evil.

Tolkien similarly allows no way back to Saruman, who has betrayed not only his own high rank but the races of Middle Earth he was sent to guard. He is offered forgiveness by Frodo but Tolkien hardens the wizard's heart and he dies by the hand of one he has himself betrayed.

Smeagol does seem to be the closest to Judas. But Judas was a loved and trusted member of an inner circle. Not even Frodo loves Smeagol, and his wretchedness is really from his role as outcast as well as his misery at losing the Ring. His betrayal of Frodo comes as an ambush rather than as a surrendering of a trusting comrade. When Sam rails at him, Frodo answers wearily 'If he is false, he is false...' Frodo's fatalistic acceptance of Smeago/Gollum's treacherous nature arises from his understanding, because of his own experience of carrying the Ring, of how it pushes and pulls ones heart and mind.

But still, Smeagol's betrayal of Frodo is more personal and painful (and more disastrous) than Boromir's, because Frodo places trust in him, and more, he lifts him up and tries to treat him like a person,not a beast. The scene where Smeagol watches Frodo and Sam sleeping, and feels overcome by tenderness and pity for Frodo, shows how close Frodo's compassion comes to saving Smeagol. But just then Sam wakes up and sees him 'pawing' his beloved master, and abuses him, and the opportunity is lost forever, and Smeagol sinks back into bitterness and resentment that will fuel his betrayal.

Frodo obeys Gandalf and spares Smeagol because he might 'yet have some part to play' but it is not clear that he is just destiny's tool. Smeagol's death is the result of his own actions, and those spring from what he is. He precipitates the catastrophe, just like Judas, but in following his own urges. Character is fate, in the end.