You might say that it all started not with:
“He only needs the One; for he made that Ring himself, it is his, and he let a great part of his former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2 “The Shadow of the Past”)
but really with:
“His head was swimming, and he was far from certain even of the direction they had been going in when he had his fall. He guessed as well as he could, and crawled along a good way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark”)
The author goes on to add, “It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it…” but, in fact, this—although the author himself didn’t know it in 1937—was a tremendous understatement, that finding being a turning point in more than the career of one small Hobbit. Suppose, however, that, in the dark and in his confusion—he had just recently “bumped his head on hard rock, and remembered nothing more” after all—the “he” in that passage had missed that “tiny ring of cold metal”?
Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
In my last posting, I began to play a kind of game, enjoyed both by historians and by science fiction/fantasy writers, called “What If?”, using that tiny ring as the focus.
Such a game produces books like the well-known If the South Had Won the Civil War, by MacKinlay Kantor (1904-1977),
first published in Look Magazine in November, 1960,
and then released as a short novel in 1961.
The possible fantasy/science fiction titles we might cite are probably endless, as “What If” now forms the basis of whole series. In the last posting, I mentioned as a good example the classic short story by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)
“A Sound of Thunder”, originally published in Collier’s magazine in 1952,
in which the death of a butterfly in the prehistoric past will change history in the 20th century.
In that previous posting, I discussed What If’s centered upon Isildur, Gollum, and Bilbo, and now I want to do what Bilbo did and pass the Ring to his heir, Frodo.
In that previous posting, I began with Faramir’s total rejection of the Ring:
“I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory…” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 5, “The Window on the West”)
Initially, Frodo seems to have a similar reaction, saying to Gandalf:
“All the same…even if Bilbo could not kill Gollum, I wish that he had not kept the Ring. I wish he had never found it, and that I had not got it! Why did you let me keep it? Why didn’t you make me throw it away, or, or destroy it?” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)
And yet, there is something terribly attractive about the thing:
“Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it. It now appeared plain and smooth, without mark or device that he could see. The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious. When he took it out, he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire. But now he found that he could not do so, not without a great struggle. He weighed the Ring in his hand, hesitating, and forcing himself to remember all that Gandalf had told him; and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away, but he found that he had put it back in his pocket.”
Gollum had had the Ring for nearly 500 years, and Bilbo had had it for about 60 years. When Gandalf arrives at Frodo’s house, it’s been only 9 years since Bilbo left the Ring behind and Frodo’s behavior can only cause Gandalf great concern, as he says when Frodo is unable to part with it: “You see? Already you too, Frodo, cannot easily let it go, nor will to damage it.”
This possessiveness will only grow in time, making Frodo’s beloved kinsman, Bilbo, when he asks only to see the Ring in Rivendell, seem a monster:
“Slowly he drew it out. Bilbo put out his hand. But Frodo quickly drew back the Ring. To his distress and amazement he found that he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them, and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands. He felt a desire to strike him.” (The Fellowhip of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 1, “Many Meetings”)
Now that Frodo has found the Ring “altogether precious”, his judgment is already so distorted that he can only see Bilbo as another Gollum, “a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands”.
With such reactions at the beginning of Frodo’s quest, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that, at the end of that terrible journey, standing at the very edge of the Ring’s destruction, we see this:
“Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 3, “Mount Doom”)
And this brings us to the What If.
It’s clear from what Gandalf has told Frodo long before that, even he had wanted to, Frodo would be unable to reject the task of holding the Ring:
“I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)
Frodo has been chosen, then, by whom and for what ultimate purpose is not clear—or Gandalf, at least, isn’t about to divulge it. For a mysterious reason, Frodo is bound to go. It would appear, then, that there can be no What If of “What if Frodo refused to leave the Shire?”
Instead, we have: “What if Gollum hadn’t bitten the Ring from Frodo’s hand?”
This new imperious attitude of Frodo’s—the voice, the very formal language—seem to come from nowhere, although I would suggest that they are the ghostly echo of Isildur’s rejection of his comrades’ urging that he throw the Ring into the fire, nearly 3000 years earlier. And, for all the tone, Frodo was only a Hobbit from the Shire, and, as Gandalf says of Gollum, “The Ring had given him power according to his stature” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”): he could never have been a great power in Middle-earth and, would probably, like Gollum, have been ruined in time by the Ring, which then would have slipped from him, as it did Gollum. As Elrond says to Boromir:
“We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)
Had Frodo worn the Ring for no more than a day, however, it would have spelled ultimate disaster for the West. Even as he totters on the edge both of the Cracks of Doom and his refusal to destroy it, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the meager forces of Gondor and Rohan are surrounded and about to be destroyed by the far superior numbers of Sauron just outside the Morannon.
The destruction of the Ring means the destruction of Sauron and the panicked flight of his armies.
Without that destruction at that very moment in the story, Sauron will overwhelm the forces of the West and what happens next to Frodo and the Ring will become nothing more than a footnote in Sauron’s history of his triumph. This is a terrible “What If” and it makes me even more thankful for Gandalf’s remark about Gollum back at the story’s beginning:
“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 least.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)
But, as this is just that, a “What If”, we can breathe a sigh of relief and, in the third and final part of this set of postings, we’ll consider a few more possibilities, when those with the great power Elrond describes as necessary to wield the Ring are offered the opportunity—or try to make it—to possess the Ring.
Thanks, as always, for reading,
Always choose wisely,
And know that, as ever, there’s