by Alex Taylor
‘“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.”’
(Gandalf to Frodo, The Fellowship of the Ring)1
Thus Gandalf the Grey voices the concept of redemption, one of the most powerful themes in JRR Tolkien’s epic novel The Lord of the Rings. The legendary story of Middle Earth has become one of the most respected and enduring books in our literature. Although often criticised for a black-and-white depiction of the battle between good and evil, Tolkien’s fantasy saga is at its most compelling when it deals with characters and situations who are confronted with a moral choice. The very real nature of sin and evil – represented in the text by the One Ring, an ancient artefact that possesses the power to corrupt and subdue others to its will – is matched by the very real capacity to turn away from evil. For Tolkien, questions of moral agency and free will are at the forefront of his work, and this is often presented through the question of redemption.
Throughout The Lord of the Rings, there are multiple instances where redemption is either offered, sought or found. Quite apart from the overarching redemption of Middle Earth from the tyranny of the Dark Lord Sauron, one may think of occurrences such as Aragorn granting freedom to the Dead Men of Dunharrow, or Gandalf rousing King Théoden from his stupor to lead the people of Rohan to victory, or even the ‘redemption’ of the corrupted or industrialised lands (they are often the same thing to Tolkien) by the natural world, as shown in the Ents’ restoration of Isengard. However, there are three very specific figures who are characterised by the theme of redemption, and they will be focused on here. They are Boromir, a member of the Fellowship of the Ring; Gollum, a former Ring bearer with an obsessive desire to regain ‘his precious’; and Saruman, the fallen wizard who seeks to use the Ring to rule over Middle Earth. These three characters, more than any others, walk the close line between sin and redemption. They are presented as fundamentally complex human characters, battling to different degrees between their better and worse instincts. We shall dwell on each of them individually and examine how redemption is portrayed through their characterisation, and how it is developed as a theme throughout the entire novel.
The first of these three characters who are portrayed through the lens of redemption is Boromir. Boromir is introduced in the Council of Elrond as the eldest son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, and as a proud and noble warrior. He is deeply loyal to his father and to his homeland, and initially believes that the One Ring should be claimed by Gondor to be used as a weapon against Sauron himself. As the Council declares that the Ring cannot be used as a means to defeat evil, Boromir agrees to join the Fellowship of the Ring to protect Frodo Baggins, the Ring bearer. However, Boromir’s discontent about the fate of the Ring is a recurring theme throughout the rest of the novel. When the Fellowship arrive in Lothlórien and encounter the Lady Galadriel, Boromir is clearly disturbed by her presence and her apparent powers of mind-reading, an indication that he already feels the temptation to take the Ring for his own purposes. Later, when the Fellowship make camp above the Falls of Rauros, Boromir confronts Frodo and openly declared his belief that the Ring must be used by Gondor to turn the tide of the war against Sauron.
‘“It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory … the Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!”’2
In his passion, Boromir attempts to take the Ring from Frodo by force. This is Tolkien’s way of showing us that the Ring – which can be read here as the use of power – can corrupt even the purest of motives (in Boromir’s case, the defence and salvation of his people). After he fails to steal the Ring, Boromir is immediately remorseful and begs Frodo to forgive him for his moment of weakness. However, the damage has already been done; and the Fellowship is sundered as Frodo, fearing the influence that the Ring has on his companions, decides to travel on to Mordor alone. Shortly afterwards, the company are attacked by Saruman’s orcs, who kidnap Merry and Pippin and fatally wound Boromir. As Aragorn attends to his dying friend, Boromir confesses that he tried to take the Ring from Frodo, and seems to accept that his death is the price he has paid for his temptation. Aragorn assures him that his regret and his defence of Merry and Pippin have made him a conqueror. Boromir passes away in peace, redeemed from his sins by remorse and by death. Out of the three characters, Boromir is the most positive recipient of redemption. He is a fundamentally good, brave, yet flawed man, whose moment of temptation was immediately regretted. He later sacrifices his life to save the innocent hobbits, which from a narrative perspective is his way of being redeemed from his sins. Tolkien uses the character of Boromir to demonstrate that, whilst sin is a reality, so too is the choice we can make to make amends for our mistakes. It is never too late to be redeemed, whatever the consequences for it may be.
The second figure who is characterised by the question of redemption is Gollum. Gollum, originally known as Sméagol, originates in Tolkien’s earlier work, The Hobbit, as the former possessor of the One Ring. His origin is described at length by Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. He was originally a river-dwelling hobbit who came upon the One Ring in the Great River Anduin whilst fishing with his friend Déagol. He killed Déagol in order to take full possession of the Ring himself, and retreated into the tunnels of the Misty Mountains where he was consumed and twisted by ‘his precious’ into the creature called Gollum. The Ring extended his life for many centuries before being taken by Bilbo during his journey to the Lonely Mountain. Motivated by the desire to reclaim his life’s obsession, Gollum left his cave and sought after Frodo, Bilbo’s nephew and the new Ring bearer. In The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam confront Gollum and convince him to show them the way into Mordor so that they can destroy the Ring. Gollum is portrayed as a deeply conflicted character, torn between his desire for possession of the Ring and his more humane instincts, the latter of which Frodo draws out with kindness and mercy towards the poor creature under his protection. Gollum eventually decides to betray the hobbits by leading them into the lair of the monstrous spider Shelob, and thereafter reclaim ‘his precious’ for himself. However, the night before they arrive at Shelob’s home, Gollum returns to see the two hobbits sleeping peacefully together. In one of the most powerful moments in the novel, Gollum momentarily considers repenting what he is about to do.
‘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.’3
Ultimately, Gollum does not repent and goes ahead with his plan to abandon Frodo and Sam to Shelob. When the two hobbits manage to escape and head for their destination of Mount Doom, Gollum follows them across the plains of Mordor. He confronts them once again at the very Cracks of Doom where the Ring must be destroyed. Frodo is overcome with the Ring’s temptation and puts it on, but Gollum attacks his master and bites it off his finger. In a frenzy of delight at finally regaining ‘his precious’, he falls to his death in the fires and destroys the Ring along with him. Frodo declares that Gollum did indeed play his part at the very end, and chooses to forgive him for his betrayal; without which, Frodo would not have been able to fulfil his quest. Unlike Boromir, Gollum ultimately chooses to follow his worst instincts, as represented by his slavish devotion to the Ring. He too could have chosen to repent of his evil and make amends but drew back when he had the chance. Tolkien uses Gollum to show the audience how far sin can corrupt human thought. Interestingly, it is strongly implied that it is simply kindness – towards each other and especially towards those most enslaved to sin – that has the most potential to enable redemption, as it is Frodo’s mercy and compassion towards Gollum that draw out his better side, that causes his near-repentance moment in The Two Towers, and that offers him forgiveness even after his betrayal and death. Tolkien seems to suggests here that redemption is not only about an individual seeking mercy; it is about others offering it to them as well. Gollum perhaps more than any other character secretly desires redemption, but cannot truly bring himself to accept it.
The final figure for whom the possibility of redemption is a key characteristic is the wizard Saruman. Saruman is introduced as Saruman the White; initially the head of both the Istari Order and the White Council, and as Gandalf’s superior. Tolkien’s later writings indicate that the five Istari wizards are in fact angelic entities called Maiar, who were sent in human form to aid the free peoples of Middle Earth against the resurging power of Sauron. However, Saruman’s arrogance and pride grew over the years, and he began to fancy himself as a ruler in his own right. By the events of The Lord of the Rings, Saruman has allied himself with Sauron with the secret ambition of gaining the Ring for himself and using it to overthrow his new master. From his stronghold of Isengard, he initiates a process of mass industrialisation and wages war against the neighbouring kingdom of Rohan. Saruman suffers a defeat when his army is destroyed and when the forces of nature he tried to suppress, in the form of the Ents, capture Isengard and imprison him. Gandalf, now reborn as Gandalf the White to replace Saruman as head of the Istari Order, visits his former friend and offers him a chance to repent from his evil ways. In one of the most evocative chapters in the entire trilogy, Saruman is confronted with the full consequences of what he has done and considers the possibility of redemption.
‘A shadow passed over Saruman’s face; then it went deathly white. Before he could conceal it, they saw through the mask the anguish of a mind in doubt, loathing to stay and dreading to leave its refuge.’4
However, he ultimately refuses to repent, and so Gandalf casts him out of the Order and destroys his staff, which seemingly strips him of most of his powers. After his disgrace, Saruman appears twice more in the novel. The first occasion is following the downfall of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring. Saruman and his servant Gríma Wormtongue escape from Isengard and are overtaken by the victorious Fellowship on the road to Rivendell. Despite being reduced to poverty, Saruman is still unrepentant and rejects offers of mercy from both Gandalf and Galadriel. His final appearance is in the penultimate chapter, ‘The Scouring of the Shire’. The hobbits return home to find that Saruman has taken over the Shire and corrupted it with a miserable and oppressive regime. They confront the fallen wizard and, despite his attempt to murder Frodo, the hobbit refuses to let his friends do harm to Saruman.
‘“Do not kill him even now … he was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”’5
Frodo’s offer of mercy is quite extraordinary – reflecting perhaps the mercy that he wished he could have ultimately offered to Gollum. Saruman’s fury at being placed in Frodo’s debt demonstrates the arrogance and bitterness that has completely eaten away his heart. His much-abused servant Wormtongue finally snaps and kills Saruman at the very door of Bag End; on death, his soul rises and is blown away by the wind, whilst his corpse instantly decays into a skeleton. That such an ignominious end should await once so great and good a wizard is one of Tolkien’s many depictions of the final fate of evil simply being nothingness. Saruman is in many ways the least sympathetic of the complex human characters, and yet his characterisation deeply touches many readers. He has often been compared to the tragic figure of Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, who like Saruman is a ‘fallen angel’ too eaten up by pride to take redemption when it is offered to him. The fall of Saruman is the greatest out of these three characters, and as such redemption for him is the hardest of all. He cannot bring himself to repent and accept pardon because he is too used to looking down at others to ever have the humility to look upwards to them for mercy. Saruman’s final end – literally withering away into dust – demonstrates how the refusal to accept redemption is ultimately its own punishment.
In The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien presents redemption as a key aspect of his moral worldview. Deeply influenced by his Roman Catholic faith, Tolkien demonstrates his belief that human beings have free will to choose between good and bad, between sin and grace. All his wavering characters – Boromir, Gollum, Saruman, and indeed many others – are offered and are able to consider the possibility of redemption, whatever the evil they may have committed. It is central to Tolkien’s understanding of humanity that one is never truly cut off from the path of repentance. Boromir gives in to temptation but is able to redeem himself with his life, and dies at peace. Gollum, enslaved by the Ring, is nonetheless torn between his selfish addiction and his innate kindness, which Frodo elicits with compassion. Saruman is offered and considers seeking redemption for his treachery, but ultimately it too proud to do so, and fades away (metaphorically and literally) into nothing. Redemption is so important for Tolkien because he sees sin as a reality – a reality that all three characters are forced to face to greater or lesser degrees. The power of redemption in The Lord of the Rings demonstrates that the battle between good and evil is not merely about cosmic wars, but about the battle that goes on in every human heart – between selfishness and selflessness, pride and humility, hate and love. It is used by Tolkien to show how important it is for human beings to take our moral decisions seriously and ultimately to see that the chance of salvation is possible for all.
1 JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1979), pg. 89.
2 Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, pg. 517.
3 JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1979), pg. 406.
4 Tolkien, The Two Towers, pg. 234.
5 JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1979), pg. 364.
Image credits: New Line Cinema