As an avid fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I shared the enthusiasm of many when the large-scale movies began appearing during my college and graduate school days. One particular fear many devoted readers shared back in those days was concerned with how faithful the films would be to the books. Bitter complaints soon lit up the internet about the absence of Tom Bombadil, about the inclusion of Arwen as Frodo’s rescuer on horseback after he is fatally stabbed by the ring wraith, and about a host of other minor revisions to the original. To my mind, none of these are all that significant and easily justified given the contraints of the genre. However, one drastic change to the literary narrative seemed to escape much public notice, though I myself view it as a tragic departure from the heartbeat of Tolkien’s worldview.
The crucial change is located at the end of The Return of the King, when the one ring is finally destroyed on Mount Doom. In the movie, Frodo momentarily succumbs to the corrupting influence of his deadly possession and decides to keep it for himself. However, once Gollum’s violent theft of the ring is complete, Frodo apparently regains his senses and lunges back into the fray to redeem himself. Thrusting Gollum–along with the ring–off the side of the cliff, Frodo comes to play the part of the hero as Sauron is defeated and the ring finally consumed. Though constituting a classic Hollywood ending, it is far removed from Tolkien’s Christian genius. Here is Tolkien’s own version of the ring’s downfall:
“The light sprang up again, and there on the brink of the chasm, at the very Crack of Doom, stood Frodo, black against the glare, tense, erect, but still as if he had been turned to stone. ‘Master!’ cried Sam. 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 wll not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’…
…Sam got up. He was dazed, and blood streaming from his head dripped in his eyes. He groped forward, and then he saw a strange and terrible thing. Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe. To and fro he swayed, now so near the brink that almost he tumbled in, now dragging back, falling to the ground, rising, and falling again. And all the while he hissed but spoke no words. The fires below awoke in anger, the red light blazed, and all the cavern was filled with a great glare and heat. Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was wrought of living fire. ‘Precious, precious, precious!’ Gollum cried. ‘My Precious! O my Precious!’ And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone.
There was a roar and a great confusion of noise. Fires leaped up and licked the roof. The throbbing grew up to a great tumult, and the Mountain shook. Sam ran to Frodo and picked him up and carried him out to the door…’Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee,’ said a voice by his side. And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire. ‘Master!’ cried Sam, and fell upon his knees. In all that ruin of the world for the moment he felt only joy, great joy. The burden was gone. And then Sam caught sight of the maimed and bleeding hand. ‘Your poor hand!’ he said. ‘And I have nothing to bind it with, or comfort it. I would have spared him a whole hand of mine rather. But he’s gone now beyond recall, gone for ever.’ ‘Yes,’ said Frodo. ‘But do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end.'”
Years later, responding to disappointed fans who could not grasp the logic of Frodo’s untimely defeat and the apparently anticlimactic role of the villainous Gollum in the finale, Tolkien defended his strategy in a personal letter:
“No–Frodo ‘failed’. It is possible that once the ring was destroyed he had little recollection of the last scene. But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us.” (J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter #191 in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien)
Two deeply Christian themes are evident in Tolkien’s conclusion that the movie wrongly does away with. First, Tolkien is convinced that mere mortals, decisively fallen in their moral capacities, cannot achieve their deliverance or rescue through their own efforts or achievements. Frodo is of course a hero in the book, but not the hero that the film so ambitiously tries to make him out to be. Such may be our own preferred version of the story, but in stark contrast to that interpretation the Story of the gospel tells us of a conquering hero who turns out to be neither you nor me, but rather Him.
Second, Tolkien recognizes that evil is, by its very nature, bent inevitably upon its own destruction. Given a lengthy span of time and opportunity enough, the trajectory of moral darkness is to eventually turn in upon itself and commit (unintentional) suicide. Its overthrow is, ironically, entirely from within. Throughout the novels, this theme is hinted at and portrayed frequently. And in the end, while no person in Middle Earth can be found with the virtue neccesary to withstand the temptation of the ring and to finally disown it willingly, Sauron’s dark masterpiece is condemned by the very evil it earlier produced: Gollum, who decades earlier was transformed into something evil himself on account of the ring’s influence. The evil of the ring has in the last returned upon its own head; Sauron has fallen into the very pit that he dug. In depicting this reality in the shape of a narrative, Tolkien was giving voice to a distinctly biblical idea.
In Psalm 7:11-16, the wrath of God is indeed active in the world in response to human wickedness, but its expression is surprising–to say the least:
“God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels wrath every day. If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts. Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.”
As the commentators tend to recognize, the varous strands of thought at play here in Psalm 7 are not disconnected, as they may seem upon first glance, but rather profoundly intertwined:
“Verses 14-16 then view retribution from another perspective: it is self-retribution. The birth and hunting images illustrate that the wicked will become their own victims. This standpoint emphasizes that justice is just—the punishment is in like measure to the crime. Together these two perspectives give us insight not only into retribution but also into the mystery of divine intervention. Reading verses 15-16 in isolation might lead us to believe retribution is automatic, but in the larger context it is an expression of a God who expresses his wrath every day. Divine intervention need not be cataclysmic to be divine—in fact, a divine act may appear to have happened by the normal course of events. Divine judgment takes place every day, not merely in historic judgments.” (Craig C. Broyles, Psalms, p. 69)
God’s judgment of evil in this world tends to take the form of allowing it to run out its own suicidal course in our lives, not by intervening directly to stunt its growth or influence. God’s moral governance of the universe is effected in such a way that when we turn away from Him, we are handed over to the deadly, dehumanizing consequences of our own sin, and in this way His wrath comes to fruition in our increasingely miserable existence (cf. the flow of thought in Romans 1:18-32). In the world God rule, evil functions as its own just reward upon our increasingly shriveled souls.
As Augustine once observed: “Sin becomes the punishment of sin.” Or as Doug Moo insightfully remarks, “Like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned, God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin” (Romans, p. 111). The man who turns habitually to pornography at 19 in the lonely confines of his dorm room to satisfy his sexual urges by those same actions seals the doom of his marriage (and perhaps his career and health, too) 30 years later. The woman who incessantly lies and cheats to get ahead in various forums by those same actions guarantees that all her most beloved friendships will be slowly eroded and her reputation permanently soiled. And these tragedies–apart from repentance and grace–will be entirely self-caused in their origins, as the black hole of evil once more collapses in upon its own futile ambitions.
Coming back to Augustine, his autobiographical Confessions demonstrates that Tolkien is not the only Christian author to have seen this truth. Yet instead of depicting the suicidal nature of sin in a story, Augustine recognizes the deadly principle at work in his own life as he narrates it in hindsight for us as an old man. Ponder these claims:
“You gave me my just deserts by means of my sin itself. Matters are so arranged at Your command that every disordered soul is its own punishment.” (Confessions, 1.12)
“I will try now to give a coherent account of my disintegrated self, for when I turned away from you, the one God, and pursued a multitude of things, I went to pieces.” (Confessions, 2.1)
“[You] leave the wicked to be hounded by their own sins.” (Confessions, 2.6)
Finally, in another work expounding upon Psalm 7 itself, Augustine writes:
“God so orders sins, that those that were a delight to man as he sins are instruments for the Lord as he punishes.” (Ennar. in Ps. 7)
In a universe in which God still sits enthroned as King in spite of the twisted rebellion that has arisen against Him, evil has no future. Nor do those who practice it. And evil’s ultimate comeuppance will, at last, be self-inflicted. Let us then, in the fear of the Lord, hate evil (Proverbs 8:13).