Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Year of Mercy: Lessons from LOTR

Pope Francis declares a Year of Mercy
You may know that Pope Francis declared last November a special Jubilee Year with an emphasis on mercy.  No matter if you are a Roman Catholic or not, it is always good to have a reminder of the important role mercy plays in all of our lives.  After all, where would be without mercy?

This was something Professor Tolkien also recognized and there are several references to the importance of mercy, or pity, in The Lord of the Rings...
A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart.  
"A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror..."
After Gollum has behaved viciously and tried to attack Bilbo, the hobbit resists taking the easy way and stabbing Gollum when he is unaware and vulnerable.  Bilbo instead leaps over the creature and spares him his life.

What is that "sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror" that Bilbo experienced?  The first thing to recognize is that Bilbo would have been perfectly within his rights to kill Gollum.  After all, Gollum was assaulting him and preventing him from escaping even when he had won the riddle game.  But Bilbo doesn't choose to do that.  I think he realizes in that moment that Gollum was desperate for his "precious" and he was probably a bit afraid.  I think he felt bad for this creature that had lived in pain and loneliness for who knows how long in the darkness of that cave and wanted to spare his life.  Bilbo acknowledges that no one is perfect and even in this instance Gollum could be able to reform (as he does briefly in LOTR, you will recall).
". . . What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!"
"Pity? It was pity that stayed his 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."
Gandalf spells it out well here.  Bilbo was able to escape without harming Gollum and therefore that is what he chose to do.  Rather than inflict needless pain, or "strike without need", Bilbo showed mercy and empathy towards Gollum and let him go.  In ways that Bilbo never could have never foreseen, he was rewarded for this act.  He never would have known that being compassionate would benefit him in the long run, and yet he chose to act that way anyway.

[Frodo speaking] “I am sorry. But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum. . . . he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death."  [Gandalf speaking] "Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not the least.”  
Not only did Bilbo's mercy towards Gollum originally prevent him from succumbing to the Ring so quickly, but of course Gollum turns out to be very important later on in the story--without Gollum, the Quest of the Ring would never have been achieved since Frodo could not give up the Ring on his own.

Gandalf reiterates here that "even the very wise cannot see all ends."  This again points out that it is important to be compassionate and merciful even when there is no obvious benefit to yourself.  Again, Bilbo never could have seen this one act of mercy paying off so well.
[Faramir speaking] “What have you to say now, Frodo? Why should we spare [Gollum]?”  [Frodo speaking] “The creature is wretched and hungry, and unaware of his danger. And Gandalf, your Mithrandir, he would have bidden you not to slay him for that reason, and for others.” 
Here, Frodo passes down his new found pity for Gollum to Faramir and bids him to spare the poor creature because he still has hope that he can change.

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee—but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.  But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum—‘pawing at master,’ as he thought. "Hey you!" he said roughly. "What are you up to?" "Nothing, nothing," said Gollum softly. "Nice master!" "I daresay," said Sam. ‘"But where have you been to—sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain?" Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spiderlike he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes. The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall...” 
Now I think we all like Sam and understand he was acting in the best interest of Frodo in this instance.  However, we can see that Gollum was just on the verge of repenting.  But when Sam wakes up, he does not show Gollum mercy and accuses him unrelentingly which stirs up Gollum's hatred and seals his anger.  Tolkien has mentioned that this is one of the most frustrating and ultimately tragic moments for him, "For me perhaps the most tragic moment in the Tale comes...when Sam fails to note the complete change in Gollum’s tone and aspect."  Of course hope is not lost for the Quest (because without Gollum's recurring anger, again, the Ring would not be destroyed) but hope is lost for Gollum.  It is at that point that his doom is written.
Sam’s hand wavered. His mind was hot with wrath and the memory of evil. It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s twisted mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief in life ever again...
"...forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched...only dimly guessed the agony of Gollum's twisted mind and body..."
Here Sam actually does have pity for Gollum and thinks about how terrible it must be to be completely trapped by the Ring.  He must (at least subconsciously) connect his own Ringbearing experience and think of himself in Gollum's position.  It is that thought I think that ultimately causes him to spare the creature.

I think what we can ultimately surmise from this information is extremely important.  Sparing those that are worse off than you and understanding their plight can lead to good things that you could never have foreseen.  No one (save God of course) can see all ends and therefore no one can make the judgement that someone's time is over.

I think we can learn a few things from Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, and Sam and try and put them into practice for the remainder of this year of mercy.

All quotes are from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, both by J.R.R. Tolkien.


  1. I actually wrote a paper on this topic and used THE EXACT SAME QUOTES from LOTR! How cool is that?! Well you know what they say, "Great minds think alike" ;)