Frodo’s picture, above, is a call to prayer. Isn’t that how you feel sometimes when you go to God? Hanging off your own cliff?
Frodo is not my favorite character in The Lord of the Rings because I am too much like him. All his problems and struggles seem too close to home to be part of a character.
I think my favorite character is still Gollum. Tolkien based him on all sorts of slimy, dark creatures in European stories, and gave us a psychologically interesting being to whom we can all relate. In Gollum we can recognize the parts of us living out in some cave where we exiled them — ugly, unwanted, unacceptable parts lurking in the shadows. We, too, are the Smeagol who might kill Deagol (the Cain who might kill Abel, if just in our hearts) to get the ring of power.
In the story, Gollum shadows Frodo (like he did Bilbo) looking for a chance to get his “precious” back: the ring which had the power to enslave him and deform him. Dark desire for the ring’s power drove him to follow Frodo right to the edge of the fires of Mt. Doom.
On that precipice Frodo is overtaken by his shadow as Gollum is lost in the perverse joy of retrieivng his “precious.” As they wrestle, Gollum falls off the edge, and Frodo almost goes with him. In their wrestling, I see us all battling with our own shadows (as I think Tolkien saw, too), tempted to give in to our lust for power and self-sufficiency when we are called to love and community. Frodo almost lets himself go into the lava – you might be feeling that look in his eyes right now.
In case you think this LOTR stuff is a topic that got beat to death 20 years ago, I refer you to Sza wondering how her shadow took over in Kill Bill. I had to laugh when I first heard her clever song. But then I watched the video [not suitable for any ages] and wondered why she let go.
My second favorite character in The Lord of the Rings is Samwise Gamgee. Tolkien called Sam the “chief hero” of the saga, adding:
I think the simple “rustic” love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero’s) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the ‘longing for Elves’, and sheer beauty.
If Gollum is Frodo’s shadow, Sam might be his idealized self. The former being his shameful parts, the traits and feelings that our family and community would rather not have us deal with. The latter being the part of us that only admits to having good and admirable qualities even though this might not be true. In between the two hangs Frodo, now missing a ring finger, wondering if a true self is even possible.
As Gollum is burning up. Sam looks down on Frodo with love and hope. (Who would not like to be as free and loyal as Sam?!). Frodo is hanging by his fingertips, trying to find enough strength to lunge for Sam’s hand. It is definitely a Christian story! You may have been in that scene too. At least I hope you were on the edge of transformation some time and thought, “I must ‘lay hold on that for which also I was laid hold on by Christ Jesus.’” (Phil 3:12)
The other reason I like Gollum and Sam is the collaborative effort they make with Frodo. Life is a group effort. We have a collection of selves inside to coordinate. We also need help from other people to get anywhere in a human/spiritual life. I can’t help but think Tolkien might see them as a prayer group, the two or three gathered in His name.
It is easy to see how Sam is crucial to Frodo’s effort. Without his friendship, all of Middle Earth would be taken over by orcs! It is harder to see what Gollum has to do with the success of Frodo’s quest, but his negative motivation also ends up being used for good. There is a lot going on with us, which is why the prayer of discernment in so important. Frodo is, in himself, a little community inside and he travels in one outside – so are we and so do we. We all need to pray to figure out who we are now, how we belong, and where we are going.
The quest to Mt. Doom is not just about what is happening inside Frodo (or you) it is also about what happens in the group. Three people went. Their journey went forward just like the familiar Akan proverb:
It is because one antelope will blow the dust from the other’s eye that the two antelopes walk together.
They do not know where they are going, how they will complete their task, or whether they will die before they get there. They need individual and group discernment, none of which is easy to find. Sound familiar? We need awareness of all our parts to be our true selves. And we need our brothers and sisters to get to our awareness — they blow the dust out of our eyes. Frodo gets to see the self-destruction of his avoidance and invisibility in Gollum and sees the possibility of love and honor in Sam. As he bravely stays on the path of his destiny, he becomes himself.
When we are discerning the presence of God in our lives it is wonderful to sit face to face or in a circle where the caring love of God is respected. As our companions question, challenge or simply hold us in prayer, they blow the dust from our eyes and we recognize the leading of God’s Spirit. Sometimes they might clarify our vision with their insights, but most of the time they just lend us support as we claim the truth we see and commit to its implications for our lives.
It is a dusty world. Seeing what God gives us to see is not always easy. It takes serious living to discern, to perceive clearly and judge accurately. We have to sift through a lot of illusion to discover what is real. That is just what Frodo had to do, isn’t it?
Poor Gollum! He gave up sifting and lost his name! His sense of self was bent. He was stuck in avoidance. He loved the power to make himself invisible. The ring of power finally killed him (Poor Sza!). Our unacknowledged and unloved shadow parts often drive us the same direction. We may not fall into lava, but our true selves might be invisible, even to ourselves.
The whole drama on the precipice seems like a replication of what a good time of prayer might look like. We are often wrestling in the presence of God. And what transpires is often a matter of really living or falling into some abyss.
Prayer, with the community within or without, is love for God in action. For me it is often love for God in inaction, in silence. But it can be taking a walk or walking with a friend. It could be five minutes of centering at work. For some right now it is all night in their seminary chapel. It could be a pause to listen to geese returning, or sorting donations at the thrift store.
Prayer fine-tunes our hearts to hear the prayer of God in us, to feel God’s desire for us. After a journey in prayer, we may come to live out of that desire in all of life. As we pray, our attachments (our rings) are soon easier to recognize and we are freed to latch on to the hand reaching to save us.