The Flame Burns Bright but Consumes the Candle

by Vison

Frodo, at the ultimate moment of the Quest of the Ring, chooses to claim the Ring for his own.

I remember still, after more than 30 years, the shock I felt when I read that passage. What! Frodo, after all he suffered to get there, raises his weary head and announces in a loud, clear voice that the Ring is his! Before him, the molten rock boils and the black fumes rise, and the very stones under his feet shake. His face is lit with the red glare of the bubbling lava, and that glare shadows his thin face, making his pleasant Hobbit features into a mask showing his pain and torment.

For a few heartbeats’ time, Time stands still. The Mind in the Black Tower suffers a horrible shock --- that Mind must tear itself away from centuries of plotting and scheming and face the bitter truth that Another wields the Ring of Power. Another stands at the centre of the Universe of Evil, and that other now is plain to the Eye.

Until that moment, Frodo had become wearier and wearier. The long, arduous journey had told upon him. He was worn to the bone. He could scarcely put one foot in front of the other, and then at the last he had to be carried like a child. Into the tumultuous shadows of Mt. Doom, through the cavern’s opening, into the fumes and reeks at the edge of the Crack of Doom.

His burden had become heavier, so heavy he was bowed to the ground by its weight. His body was exhausted.

But what was in Frodo’s mind?

The Ring. The Ring, as it came near the place where it was forged, had become wilder and more unmanageable. The Ring drew strength from the very atmosphere, some kind of dreadful radiation poured from the volcano and the Black Tower and was drawn as if by magnetism to the simple gold band that Frodo wore hung on a chain around his neck. The Ring must have been glowing with Power at this point, red-gold, the Elvish letters sharp and bright. It might have been turning, spinning on the chain, seeking a way of escape.

Frodo could hear the Ring singing to him of power. Could the Ring hear Frodo’s heart, whispering of his longing to be free of his burden? Did the Ring know in some metallic way, some alignment of atoms spelling its fate?

It is hard to understand the connection that the Ring has with Sauron. Sauron calls and the Ring hears. The Ring has been working its way home for a long, dark time, like some fish of wickedness returning to home waters. At the end, when the Ring was at its zenith of power and Frodo at the nadir of his, Frodo stopped fighting. He could endure no more. Had the Ring awakened the lust for Power in Frodo’s heart? Was he claiming the Ring as Ringlord?

Can we ever know for certain what was in Frodo’s mind and heart at that moment? Will any of us ever feel what I think he felt? I think he was defeated by the Ring and the Fire and the emanations of Power from Sauron’s nearness, that when he claimed it and put it on he felt a surge of strength and power---and I think he felt dismay and terror as well, and shame, for his defeat. I never say Frodo failed, I can’t say Frodo failed. He was defeated, that’s all. Defeated by an enemy infinitely strong, an enemy with no conscience, no scruples, no existence beyond the mindless urge to be once more with its Master.

We all know what happened next. Gollum, the embodiment of ring-lust, maddened by fear, single-minded with the fury of desire for his Precious, leaps out of the shadows and takes the Ring. No longer anything approaching human (for Hobbits are human in this sense), Gollum is savagery personified, blind uncaring Need, and he bites the Ring from Frodo’s hand.

Had he put the Ring on, who knows what might have happened next? But he didn’t.

Gollum had, in his last frenzy, found the strength to attack and overpower Frodo. But he spent himself in that effort. Tolkien’s words about Gollum on Mt. Doom: “… whatever dreadful paths, lonely and hungry and waterless, he had trodden, driven by a devouring desire and a terrible fear, they had left grievous marks on him. He was a lean, starved, haggard thing, all bones and tight-drawn sallow skin………” No, Gollum was not strong with “his old griping strength”. Holding up poor Frodo’s finger, Gollum, delirious with delight, dances too close to the edge, and he and his Precious go into the Fire.

Frodo himself, the Ringbearer, promised Gollum: “If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.”

So then the Quest ends, and after a time Frodo returns to the Shire and Bag End. Now Frodo can rest, and enjoy the fruits of his labours.

Alas, poor Frodo. For there is no end to his suffering.

Had he thought there would be? Had he hoped there would be? Did Frodo look for “happiness”? What did “happiness” mean to Frodo? Content? Peace and quiet?

I suspect that Frodo knew, all his life, that he was never going to be like other Hobbits. Marked early by pain, he always walked his own path. Every description of him, every passage about him, makes plain his uniqueness.

Frodo was always lonely, always the outsider, always watching from the shadows while other Hobbits lived their gregarious lives. Not that he was a figure of woe and sadness. He could be merry, he could enjoy life as it was. Yet he was drawn to the edges of Hobbit life, wandering the woods and communing with Elves, given to reading, and watching the stars.

So when he returned, marked by blade, claw, and tooth, what was he returning to? What he had ever had, in many ways.

He had his friend Sam, that is true. But Sam “was meant to be whole”. Sam was never meant to spend the rest of his days in servitude to Frodo’s pain. What a friend could do, Sam did. But he could not heal Frodo.

There was no end for Frodo except the road he took to the Grey Havens. There was no cure for his suffering in the Shire or anywhere else in Middle Earth. He had become what Gandalf had said, “A vessel filled with light………” But burning with the fire of his being, he was wearing away. The candle gives light, but is consumed. And so it was with Frodo.