On July 29, 1954, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring was published, just shy of 20 years after the The Hobbit’s debut. Despite the lack of a market for fantasy literature, Tolkien tapped into the hearts and imaginations of the world drawing from his own struggles to make sense of two horrific world wars. This powerful series at once introduced a new type of hero, the overlooked and humble hero, and helped a grieving world to hope again. Joseph Loconte, author and professor of history at The Kings’s College in New York, states, “Part of the achievement of Tolkien and Lewis was to reintroduce into the popular imagination a Christian view of hope in a world tortured by doubt and disillusionment.” The people of this time had seen the evils to which man could descend, and they could no longer believe that humankind was moving forward and improving. Tolkien’s novel spoke to this pain and offered a hope of mercy, even when it did not seem to accomplish what we thought it should.
Just over 60 years later, Tolkien’s work still captures the imagination and speaks to a deep need in our hearts. At a time when terrorism stalks our streets and the idea of ultimate truth is elusive, the voices of his characters still encourage us.
This is nowhere more poignantly observed than in the interaction between Frodo and Gollum. When Gandalf at last understands the identity of the ring in Frodo’s possession, he explains how Frodo is in great danger. Gollum, the creature from whom Bilbo (Frodo’s uncle) got this ring, was captured and gave up the name by which Frodo may be found. With this revelation, Frodo now understands how precarious a position he and the Shire are in. Frodo exclaims:
“But this is terrible! Far worse than the worst that I imagined from your hints and warnings, O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do? For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had the chance!”
Frodo’s reaction is reasonable. Gollum is, by all accounts, a loathsome creature who, after long years holding on to the ring has turned into a creature that looks nothing like his original form. Turned inwards, the only thing that Gollum lives for is his precious ring and himself. This deformity of heart is reflected in his hideous outward appearance. He is not a creature to evoke sympathy. However, Gandalf rebukes Frodo’s rash statement:
“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he [meaning Bilbo] 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.”
The fate of many
Gandalf explains that it is only because Bilbo had such a merciful heart that he could resist the power of the ring to corrupt him. But Frodo is not convinced and cannot understand why they had allowed Gollum to live so long after all the heinous things he had done. He states firmly that Gollum “deserves death.”
Gandalf responds in what is a moment of sublime wisdom:
“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 [sic]. 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 least.”
Of course, Gandalf’s prediction is correct. It is in Frodo’s weakest moment that Gollum, intending to steal the ring for himself, causes the ring, and himself, to be destroyed. However, it is important to note that Frodo learns from this earlier encounter with Gandalf. In The Two Towers, Samwise and Frodo surprise Gollum who is following them in hopes of retrieving the ring. In this tense scene, Frodo is poised to kill Gollum who has overpowered Samwise but then recalls this conversation. The recollection causes him to show unexpected mercy.
It is Frodo’s unexpected mercy that saves the day – not because Gollum is transformed, but because Frodo’s mercy was needed.
Called to offer mercy
This theme of mercy when wrath is expected is specifically a Christian theme. Tolkien, a believer, re-introduces us to the idea that it is not for us to decide the fate of man. Instead, we are called to be a part of the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). Like Gandalf suggests, we cannot foretell who will respond to the invitation. We are only called to offer mercy in those moments when we can.
In the tiny book of Philemon, we get to see this lived out most beautifully in an extremely difficult scenario. According to this letter penned by Paul, Philemon’s slave Onesimus has run away, most likely depriving him of a substantial amount of money. However, Onesimus encounters Paul and accepts the invitation of reconciliation. Now a believer, an opportunity has arisen for the church to demonstrate in action what has been claimed in word. How will Philemon respond to this former slave who is now his brother in Christ? Will he forgive the debt or will he exact the judgment that the law and, probably his conscience, demand?
Paul pleads on behalf of Onesimus, asking Philemon to forgive him and to release him for service to the Lord. This request is in direct contradiction of the cultural values of this time, both regarding the master-slave relationship and the laws of justice. The answer of Philemon is not recorded but history (and Paul’s brief reference to him in Col. 4:9) tells us that Philemon does indeed release him, and Onesimus goes on to serve as possibly the Bishop of Ephesus and future martyr.
Paul truly understands the need for unexpected mercy, having been the recipient of it himself. In the book of Acts his dramatic transformation is also recorded. A persecutor of the church, he encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus and is struck blind. Coming into the city, he is instructed to find Ananias who will heal him. Ananias is told in a vision to go to Saul (later renamed Paul), and Ananias is at first incredulous, reminding God of Saul’s plan of persecution. However, God responds with the imperative, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Ananias is obedient, and the world is impacted because of the contribution of Paul.
Offering what we ourselves receive
We too have an opportunity to proclaim this truth, and we do it best in how we interact with those we think most difficult to pity – the criminal, the brother or sister in Christ who has wronged us, the world that stands in judgment of us and our beliefs. The church’s response to the un-pitiable is perhaps our greatest witness.
However, this is not the only impact that pity makes in our lives. Just as Bilbo’s, and Frodo’s, mercy enables them to resist the corrupting power of the ring, the act of giving mercy is a protection for our own souls. Living as one who remembers he is forgiven enables us to offer what we ourselves receive, allowing us to act as a conduit of God’s grace. We offer it not to control the outcome of transformed lives but simply as an overflow of what we have received.
We can be encouraged that, as Bilbo, Frodo, Paul and Philemon came to understand, unexpected acts of mercy can have an impact beyond what we can foresee, both for the world and for ourselves.