Frodo has come a long way in his regard for Gollum. Where once he regretted that Bilbo had not killed Gollum, now he is ready to beg Faramir for Gollum’s life. You’ll recall the scene: Gollum is hunting for fish in a forbidden pool where even the unbidden look carries the penalty of death, whilst Faramir’s men stand ready with bow and arrow poised. And Frodo comes to his rescue.
It is one thing, and perhaps not all that surprising, to pity Gollum for obliviously ending up in this predicament. As Frodo points out to Faramir, Gollum is merely operating on his base appetites, responding to the allurement of his “mastering desire.” It is quite another thing, however, for Frodo to tie his lot with Gollum’s, to be willing to answer for him when he is offered the chance to be rid of Gollum at no hurt to the brutish creature. But it is perhaps most stunning of all for Frodo to be willing to part with his own life if his efforts to help Gollum prove unsuccessful.
It is easy for me to appreciate the intercession of Beatrice and the Virgin Mary for Dante in The Inferno. After all, though Dante had wandered from the path, he did indeed desire to find his way back to the light. Not so with Gollum. There is hardly any recognizable good in him. Calvin would note that he is totally depraved. Luther would say his will is in total bondage. In my first reading of the trilogy, I picked up the foreshadowing that Gollum would be necessary for the destruction of the ring, but these characters surely must have doubted the wisdom in Gandalf’s advice to pity the creature? Indeed, Frodo himself admits that he doesn’t clearly know why Gandalf forbade the elves from killing Gollum.
What is it, one wonders, that affects such a change in Frodo as pertains to his view of Gollum? It seems that as Frodo himself experiences the capricious and malevolent effects of the ring, he begins to understand and empathize with Gollum. Whereas once Gollum is to Frodo only the embodiment of otherness that is both dangerous and revolting, now Frodo is able to see the commonness they share in their ontological being. Frodo thus understands that though Gollum, in nature and state of character, is far more corrupted than himself, it’s a separation of degrees not kind.
To read Dante’s trilogy well one must place himself always in the humbling position of Dante the traveler. We know that but for the intercession of Beatrice, but for the guidance of Virgil, but for the sight of the damned in hell, Dante would himself have been damned and so we ourselves are made conscious of our own need for salvific intervention. So also here, it is instructive to read this particular episode of the trilogy seeing ourselves first and foremost as Gollum: the oblivious fool, will bound in the evil desires that have gained mastery, incapable even of recognizing the danger we are in let alone rescuing ourselves from it. In such a reading, Faramir’s question to Gollum “have you never done anything worthy of binding or of worse punishment” becomes a pointed reminder of our own willful transgressions and the punishment we deserve.
But I think it is also instructive to read this with the aspiration to grow in virtue, to emulate Frodo. Given our understanding of the commonness of our human nature and the plight of the human condition to always reside in this discord of contesting wills and conflicting desires, should we not be the first to seek to intercede for those whose wills are in worse bondage then our own? And how could we possibly be able or even willing to intercede for others if we are not ourselves growing in virtue?
Yet Frodo is hardly a saint. Indeed, carrying the ring is slowly corrupting the moral fiber of his very being. How then is Frodo able to be intercessor? It must be grace, it can only be grace, received in humility and perhaps also in the lembas wafers that so readily signify Eucharist, overcoming the impulses of the ring. The intercession of Frodo cannot be called perfect but it is nonetheless effectual (recall Faramir’s words to Gollum: “I have spared you so far at the prayer of Frodo here”) and it attests to Frodo’s righteousness (James 5:16).
Perhaps through grace, we ought to hope for opportunities to offer the degree of intercession that Frodo does, despite, or perhaps even because of, our own failures and frailty. Frodo shows us that we need not be a saint to intercede: we need only the willingness to offer ourselves in love on behalf of our neighbor in accordance with the measure of grace given us.