'I do not choose...'




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'I do not choose...'

In the not too distant past, I had an email-based disagreement with someone over the probable "author's intent" in a section of JRRT-written text. Usually I don't concern  myself too much with author's intent when reading Tolkien, because I run on applicability - what a passage says to me isn't necessarily what Tolkien meant it to say, but as long as I'm clear about that, my interpretation is part of the "freedom of the reader." In fact, even in this case my disagreement was that I thought the other person was claiming to know the author's intent where there wasn't a strong enough case for it. The response that came in the return email was along the lines of, "Well, if you think you're qualified to disagree with Christopher..." Actually, after reading up on what Christopher said, and on what Verlyn Flieger said about what Christopher said, I don't think my argument disagreed with it. (Isn't being a Tolkien geek fun?!)

Anyway, that disagreement was strictly HoMe-related, about a piece of text that never became part of published Tolkien canon, and had nothing to do with LotR, so I won't go into it here. But my immediate thought on reading the "Well, if you think you're qualified to disagree with Christopher..." comment was completely Frodocentric, and very much belongs here: "Well, yes, there is one place where I very much disagree with Christopher..." and it involves Frodo at the Sammath Naur. When I first read Christopher's comments on Frodo's 'I do not choose now to do what I have come to do,' I was, frankly, shocked at how completely I disagreed with him. This past week I had his "Mount Doom" chapter open for another reason and had to read that part of it again just to make sure he'd said what I'd thought he had. He had, and here it is:

Frodo's words 'But I cannot do what I have come to do' were changed subsequently on the B-text to 'But I do not choose now to do what I have come to do.' I do not think that the difference is very significant, since it was already a central element in the outlines that Frodo would choose to keep the Ring himself; the change in his words does no more than emphasize that he fully willed his act.

Anyone who's come into the slightest contact with my own thoughts about that line of Frodo's (arrived at long before HoMe was published, and probably before I knew Christopher existed) can imagine my reaction the first time I read those comments on it:

Wha-a-a-a-t??!!

Even when all we had to go on was the line itself, I'd thought it was significant (well, maybe not the first time I read it, seeing that I was all of 14). It struck me as being very carefully and precisely worded, and when I'm reading Tolkien I take that as a signal to pay attention to exactly what's being said. And what Frodo's saying, exactly, is 'I do not choose now to do...' which is very different from saying, 'I choose now not to do...' It's the difference between "I do not choose" and "I choose" - which is a pretty strong difference. What it says to me is that Frodo isn't choosing anything at that moment; the Ring is in control. Frodo literally does not choose.

When JRRT's Letters were published, it seemed to me they supported this interpretation. While the specific line might not have been parsed, Tolkien is very clear that this is, indeed, Frodo's situation at the Sammath Naur. The power of the Ring is too great for him. Letter #246 compares Frodo at this point to someone who has been crushed by a boulder. Because he's incapable of making a free-will decision, Tolkien says that Frodo's failure to destroy the Ring 'was not a moral failure.' What Frodo does, or doesn't do, is not a choice. Literally, 'I do not choose now...'  

And, actually, the information Christopher gives us about the earlier draft of the scene seems - to me, at least - to underscore this even more. Not only did JRRT word the line very carefully, he rewrote it. If the change wasn't significant, why did he make it, especially in an episode that was produced in nearly final form the first time it was written?

Well, what about that earlier draft? Wouldn't "I cannot do" be a stronger, clearer indication that it was impossible for Frodo to destroy the Ring? That, after all, is in line with what Christopher says:  "...the change in his words does no more than emphasize that he fully willed his act."

To begin with, I have a lot of trouble with any statement saying that Frodo "fully willed his act," which seems to me to fly in the face of Letter #246 (and of everything I believe about Frodo - but that's not evidence of author intent, while the Letters are). The fine point of it, which I think is based on JRRT's profound understanding of human nature, is that at that point Frodo is so taken over by the Ring that he believes that he wills not to destroy It. Perhaps this is what Christopher means - that is, that Frodo believed he "fully willed his act." If so, I don't disagree with him as much as I think I do, but that doesn't seem to be what he's saying.

In another Letter (#181) JRRT compares Frodo at this point with someone whose will has been broken by brainwashing. If the tormenter does a "good" job, that person won't be aware that his own will is gone but will believe that his will is what the person doing the brainwashing tells him it is. That's the whole point of the process. What Frodo experienced at the Sammath Naur wasn't "temptation" (from the way I read it, the Ring hadn't been able to actually tempt him since Cirith Ungol); it was complete domination of his will by a stronger one (ultimately Sauron's, which the Ring carries). The battle of wills had been waged constantly throughout the entire trek across Mordor, and at the Sammath Naur the stronger will finally wins.

Even then, Tolkien speculates in Letter #246, if Gollum hadn't interfered it's possible that Frodo could have struggled back until his own will was enough in control to be able to cast himself - with the Ring - into the fire. (Tolkien writing as historian can't say this would have happened, of course, only that it might have.) This brings up a question where I have no evidence of author's intent: If Frodo believes he wills what the Ring does, why doesn't he say, 'I choose now not to do...'? He thinks he's choosing, doesn't he?  Is the phrase 'I do not now choose to do...' simply a clue for readers, or is it intrinsic to the story? In order for there to be even a slight possibility that Frodo might have regained control, would it have been necessary for him to have had, somewhere deep inside, a fragment of identity that was still Frodo? Not enough to keep the Ring from forcing its will on him, but enough that somewhere (possibly only subconsciously) he sensed that 'I choose..." would be an untruth?

I don't have answers for those questions, but I think that interpretation is consistent with the rest of the story and with the Letters, so is at least admissible as my interpretation even if it wasn't JRRT's (or Christopher's). The fact that Frodo is able to come back to himself at all after the Ring is destroyed speaks volumes about the resilience of hobbits, and of Frodo specifically. Both Gandalf ('...and that would break your mind') and Frodo himself ('...I should go mad') underestimate what he's able to endure without completely and permanently losing his sanity. It's not surprising that he has mental and emotional problems after this experience - It's surprising that he's able to recover any sense of identity at all. Was it the unconquered part of him, however small, that was able to sense the truth of 'I do not choose...', the same part of him that was able to keep a grasp, however precarious, on what it meant to be Frodo?

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Copyright 2007 by Trudy G. Shaw

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