One of the most popular books of the 20th Century is The Lord of the Rings. This book is a source of delight, wonder, and inspiration for millions of people around the world. Author JRR Tolkien wrote a story that was both Catholic in its underlying themes and catholic (with a little “c,” meaning “universal”) so that all people could find truth in it.
In the modern era, there is a strong trend in storytelling to subvert expectations. Very often this is done poorly (as you can see Star Wars fans debate regarding The Last Jedi). But Tolkien constantly subverted the expected plot structure of The Lord of the Rings all the way to the final moment at Mount Doom. Frodo, the hero who was carrying the evil ring of power, finally makes it to his goal. The ring corrupts the hearts of anyone in its orbit, but Frodo resisted long enough to get to the place where he could destroy the ring forever. But after that epic journey, Tolkien does the most subversive thing imaginable:
At the very last moment, the One Ring corrupts him and Frodo seizes it for himself.
I cannot overstate how radical a move this is. This would be like Luke Skywalker turning to the Dark Side and joining the Empire in Return of the Jedi or Captain America helping Thanos during Avengers: Endgame.
But Tolkien shows incredible insight and wisdom in this decision.
For all intents and purposes, Frodo is a mere mortal contending with powers far beyond him. He is not a god or even a demigod. He is small, both in stature but also in lifestyle: he lives a quiet, simple life of friendship and fun. He is extraordinary in his ordinariness.
Frodo fails because he is not a perfect, idealized hero. He is just one of us. And therein lies Tolkien’s genius and his great Catholic insight.
We are all fallen men and women. We, like Frodo, are contending with powers way beyond us. St. Paul writes “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12). Every day we are at war with a culture of death and corruption that threatens to overwhelm us. On top of that, the evil spiritual forces are constantly making war on our souls.
How can we hope for victory against such odds?
Who would not feel like tiny Frodo asked to carry on an impossible task that feels surely doomed to fail?
Parents, doesn’t your task seem overwhelming sometimes? Besides the most basic task of making sure your children have the physical and material necessities of life, doesn’t raising your children in grace and virtue seem almost impossible? Look at the assault children have constantly from a culture that always seeking to corrupt them.
We don’t even have to look to difficulty in raising others in virtue. How difficult is it for us not to fall into the darkness of this world? Those who choose to live lives of holiness are deemed out-of-touch radicals. Those who are faithful to the Gospel teaching on marriage and sexuality are labeled bigots worthy of ridicule and contempt.
How easy it is to fail.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we don’t have to succeed.
When someone once asked Mother Teresa about how successful she was in her ministry, she responded (I am paraphrasing) “I don’t think God is calling me to be successful. He is calling me to be faithful. Success or failure is in His hands, not mine.”
This insight is what we see in Frodo’s failure. Even in his failure, Frodo did all that he could do. By doing so, he got the One Ring close enough to let Gollum steal it and fall into the fires of Mount Doom, destroying the Ring forever.
Success was not in Frodo’s hands, but God’s. This is an important reminder for all of us in the Christian life. Any success we achieve is not our own, but God’s success in us. We can only save ourselves and others by His Grace. We cooperate with that Grace, but the success is with him. All we can do is all we can do.
You see this in the story of the Multiplication of the Loaves. When the Disciples tell Jesus to send the crowds away to get food, we have this exchange:
“[Jesus] replied, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They answered, ‘We have only five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.’” (Luke 9:13)
Why does Jesus ask them to give if it is not enough?
Because all you can do is all you can do.