Study Guide

The Fellowship of the Ring Compassion and Forgiveness

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Compassion and Forgiveness

Even Gollum was not wholly ruined. He had proved tougher than even one of the Wise would have guessed – as a Hobbit might. There was a little corner of his mind that was still his own, and light came through it, as through a chink in the dark: light out of the past, it was actually pleasant, I think, to hear a kindly voice again, bringing up such memories of wind, and trees, and sun on the grass, and such forgotten things. (1.2.107)

Gandalf suggests that Frodo should have compassion for Gollum. After all, Gollum may once have been a lot like the Hobbits; his life took an <em>extremely</em> bad turn, but he has also "proved tougher than even one of the Wise would have guessed" in resisting the Ring. Gollum is an intriguingly ambiguous character. Most of the evil in this book is<em> all</em> evil – there's no ambiguity. The Orcs are hideous and the Ringwraiths are terrifying. The fact that Gollum is mostly evil but still has "a little corner of his mind" that thirsts after sunlight differentiates him from nearly every other villain in the <em>Lord of the Rings</em> series. Do you share Gandalf's compassion for Sméagol/Gollum? What do you pity him for?

Pity? It was Pity that stayed [Bilbo's] hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity. (1.2.145)

Tolkien's moral lesson here is so clear he may as well be dropping anvils on our heads: Sméagol begins his ownership of the Ring with a murder. He becomes a strange, wasted, miserable, crawling creature as a result. Bilbo starts his possession of the Ring by refusing to murder Gollum, even though Gollum was a threat to Bilbo. And Bilbo goes on to live a long, mostly happy life. Clearly, compassion is one of the great virtues in this book.

"Just this, my dear old Frodo: you are miserable, because you don't know how to say good-bye. You meant to leave the Shire, of course. But danger has come on you sooner than you expected, and now you are making up your mind to go at once. And you don't want to. We are very sorry for you."

Frodo opened his mouth and shut it again. His look of surprise was so comical that they laughed. "Dear old Frodo!" said Pippin. "Did you really think you had thrown dust in all our eyes?" (1.5.51-2)

When Frodo talks to the High Elf Gildor Inglorion about his journey, Gildor counsels Frodo not to go alone, but only to take companions who are trustworthy and want to go. Here, Merry and Pippin prove that (a) they know Frodo well enough to know when something is wrong, (b) they are trustworthy enough to keep their speculations to themselves since they know he's worried, and (c) they are willing to help him in any way they can. Merry and Pippin's compassion for poor Frodo provides the foundation for their decision to accompany him on his journey, thus changing both of their fates forever. Compassion plays a huge role in the <em>Lord of the Rings</em> in determining what will happen to our protagonists – it's one of the main motivators of the novel.

"What in the name of wonder?" began Merry, feeling the golden circlet that had slipped over one eye. Then he stopped, and a shadow came over his face, and he closed his eyes. "Of course, I remember!" he said. "The men of Carn Dûm came on us at night, and we were worsted. Ah! The spear in my heart!" He clutched at his breast. "No! No!" he said, opening his eyes. "What am I saying? I have been dreaming." (1.8.46)

The ghosts of the Barrow-downs in the Old Forest seem to possess Merry, Pippin, and Sam – Merry at least can remember getting a spear to the heart. Merry literally feels the pain of this long-dead warrior. We can understand ghosts looking for sympathy or compassion from living people; but why then try to kill these living people with a buried sword? If you're dead, what's the point of trying to bring other people down with you? This is the one aspect of ghost stories that's tough to understand: why be cruel after you've died? What difference will it make to you?

"They come from Mordor," said Strider in a low voice. "From Mordor, Barliman, if that means anything to you."

"Save us!" cried Mr. Butterbur turning pale; the name evidently was known to him. "That is the worst news that has come to Bree in my time."

"It is," said Frodo. "Are you still willing to help me?"

"I am," said Mr. Butterbur. "More than ever. Though I don't know what the likes of me can do against, against –" he faltered. (1.10.57-62)

In the early days of <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em>, Frodo and the Hobbits are so new to adventuring that they have to rely almost entirely on the compassion of other people: Farmer Maggot steps up and helps them get out of the Shire. They are saved from certain death twice by Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest. And here, the innkeeper Butterbur is volunteering to help Frodo as best he can, even against "the Shadow in the East" (1.10.63). What would have happened to Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin if they hadn't been able to rely on the kindness of strangers? When do they each start to face their adventures on their own? What does it take for them to become more self-reliant?

With his last failing senses Frodo heard cries, and it seemed to him that he saw, beyond the Riders that hesitated on the shore, a shining figure of white light; and behind it ran small shadowy forms waving flames, that flared red in the grey mist that was falling over the world.

The black horses were filled with madness, and leaping forward in terror they bore their riders into the rushing flood. Their piercing cries were drowned in the roaring of the river as it carried them away. Then Frodo felt himself falling, and the roaring and confusion seemed to rise and engulf him together with his enemies. He heard and saw no more. (1.12.121)

Tolkien gives horses a lot of credit for self-consciousness. For example, Glorfindel's Asfaloth bears Frodo across the Ford of Bruinen even when Frodo doesn't really want to go; Asfaloth follows Glorfindel's orders, regardless of Frodo's feelings on the matter. And of course, let's not forget the Riders of Rohan and Gandalf's super-intelligent horse Shadowfax. These horses all appear capable of making their own decisions about who to follow and how far. So if these horses are good horses, surely the horses of the Ringwraiths are evil – evil, and apparently okay with that, since they willingly carry the Ringwraiths. At the same time, we can't help but feel that it's not the horses' fault they were raised by Sauron. How can horses be evil by nature? Why should they have to die in a flood, just because their passengers are wicked? How responsible are the horses of <em>Lord of the Rings</em> for the deeds of their owners?

"Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. 'Strider' I am to one fat man who lives within a day's march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown. (2.2.68)

Aragorn has been fighting evil with the Rangers for many long years in secret, with little credit or acknowledgment from the country folk he is protecting. He doesn't work against the agents of Mordor for the glory of it. He does it because he wants to protect the innocent people of Middle-earth. But what do you think of this notion that the knowledge of evil itself would be dangerous to the countrymen Aragorn is protecting? Would you rather know the worst or live in blissful ignorance? If these countrymen were aware of what was lurking on their borders, do you think they would help protect themselves? What are the potential dangers of keeping people unaware of their danger?

"I am sorry, Sam," said the Wizard. "But when the Door opens I do not think you will be able to drag your Bill inside, into the long dark of Moria. You will have to choose between Bill and your master." [...]

Sam stood sullenly by the pony and returned no answer. Bill, seeming to understand well what was going on, nuzzled up to him, putting his nose in Sam's ear. Sam burst into tears, and fumbled with the straps, unloading all the pony's packs and throwing them on the ground. (2.4.82, 85)

Tolkien seems to have a special liking for horses and ponies: he gives Bill the pony a proper send-off here, when poor Bill can't accompany his beloved Sam into Moria. But more important than Tolkien's representation of Bill the pony is what this scene shows us about Sam: Sam has an unusual way with animals, and he is so big-hearted that he bursts into tears at the thought of send his pony off (possibly) to die in the wilderness. Sam's compassion shines through in this scene. At the same time, Sam's sentimentality and impracticality make him seem rather child-like, in sharp contrast to sturdy men like Aragorn. This scene might make it harder for us to take Sam seriously as a character. Why should Sam's compassion make him seem less serious?

"Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-nâla, and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-dûm in Elder Days before the fall of mighty kings beneath the stone." She looked upon Gimli, who sat glowering and sad, and she smiled. And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seem to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face and then he smiled in answer.

He rose clumsily and bowed in Dwarf-fashion, saying: "Yet more fair is the living land of Lórien, and the Lady Galadriel is above all the jewels that lie beneath the earth!" (2.7.28-9)

Galadriel single-handedly overcomes the tension between Gimli and all Elves when she recites to him the words, "Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-nâla, and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-dûm." These are the same lines Gimli recites before he sees Moria (see 2.3.98). Gimli immediately realizes that Galadriel has compassion for his plight. His people have long been exiled from their ancestral home, and he was eager for a glimpse of Moria – and who wouldn't be? If your family had a castle they couldn't live in because of a "nameless fear" (2.2.14), wouldn't you jump at the chance to see it? There is an important moral lesson in Galadriel's compassion for Gimli: all it takes is a little unexpected sympathy for Gimli to (figuratively) fall at Galadriel's feet. Along with Bilbo's compassion for Gollum, this scene of understanding between Galadriel and Gimli reaffirms the importance of compassion to Tolkien's moral system.