Wednesday, March 09, 2005

What Almost Happened at the Cracks of Doom

I've been reading, when I have time, the volume Sauron Defeated, volume 9 in Christopher Tolkien's edition of his father's rough drafts and papers relating to the composition of Lord of the Rings. Since March 25 is fast approaching — the day on which the Ring of Power was destroyed at the Cracks of Doom (as well as the Feast of the Annunciation and, this year, Good Friday [and Purim]) — it is interesting to read about Tolkien's initial conceptions of the event.

By now, most of Tolkien's rejected first-draft ideas are well-known (e.g. Frodo was originally called Bingo, Strider was Trotter), but he seems to have had many thoughts about what happened at Mount Doom. His first conception is not unlike the final publication:
At that moment Gollum ... comes up and treacherously tries to take Ring. They wrestle and Gollum takes Ring and falls into the Crack.
But a later outline has this:
At that moment Gollum comes up and wrestles with him and takes Ring. Frodo falls flat. Here perhaps Sam comes up, beats off a vulture and hurls himself and Gollum into the gulf?
If that happened, LOTR would be a very different story; and Tolkien must soon have realized that Sam could not be lost in this way. Another outline follows:
... Gollum arrives, panting, and grabs Frodo and the Ring. They fight fiercely on the very brink of the chasm. Gollum breaks Frodo's finger and gets Ring. Frodo falls in a swoon. Sam crawls in while Gollum is dancing with glee and suddenly pushes Gollum into the crack.
This is immediately followed by this note:
Perhaps better would be to make Gollum repent in a way. He is utterly wretched, and commits suicide. Gollum has it, he cried. No one else shall have it. I will destroy you all. He leaps into crack.
This is rejected, and Tolkien returns to a previous conception:
Sam who has now arrived rushes in suddenly and pushes Gollum over the brink. Gollum and Ring go into the Fire together.
But eventually the scene becomes the one we all know, in which Gollum, dancing with glee, stumbles on the edge of the precipice and falls in "accidentally". Obviously the scene works best that way, but why? I think it's because Tolkien's ultimate scheme was to show the outworkings of Providence at this very central scene. No one's free will is operative at this point; both Frodo and Gollum have been overwhelmed by the Ring's power, and are unable to cast away the ring. But when Frodo (and Sam) were in a position to choose, they chose mercy — because the vital choice of this story is not only the choice to cast away the ring, but the choice not to kill Gollum. It's because Frodo refused to judge Gollum (whom he had a kind of fellow-feeling for) that he is the hero of the story, not just because he was the Ringbearer (a quest at which, technically, he failed). If Sam kills Gollum at Mt. Doom, this whole underlying conception of the story comes to nought. (Also Sam acts heroically in a way that Frodo didn't, and this throws the whole story out of alignment.)

But Gollum also cannot jump — that would imply that he still had some kind of free will, but his mind and freedom are almost completely gone at this point; he has finally chosen his "dark side." All must now happen (as it seems) by accident, but really, as Tolkien was later to say, by the workings of Providence. Tolkien's really profound point, I think, is that the heroic choices of life are made, so to speak, when no one is looking; when the crisis comes, your fate may depend not so much on what you choose to do then (you may not be in a position to choose), but on all the choices you have made previously.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Christopher Tolkien, ed. Sauron Defeated: The History of Middle-Earth, Volume IX. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.


Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


As usual – an unstintingly well done piece. Beginning every March I read The Hobbit; Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers; and Return of the King. I often try to make it through the Silmarillion – have done so three or four times. This reading schedule has been my respite since I was fourteen years old.

Charlie Brumbaugh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Charlie Brumbaugh said...

Dear Ed,

I agree -- this is a superb piece of theological writing! I too read THE HOBBIT and the trilogy when I was a teen, and then again as a young adult. The recent movies were fun to watch, but they cannot begin to compete with the books, which stir and unleash the imagination!


Jay McHue said...

Kind of plays into Proverbs 16:9.