Frodo and Thérèse: The Little Way Through Middle Earth

(photo: Wikipedia)

How does Frodo Baggins connect with St. Thérèse of Lisieux? They both followed the Little Way.

Making the hero of his story little was an inspired stroke of genius on the part of J.R.R. Tolkien. The idea of little people who turn out to be the greatest comes from the deep roots of Tolkien’s Catholic faith. Not only does the Gospel say that we have to be as little children to get into the Kingdom (Matthew 18:4), but Tolkien would also have been aware that one of the Catholic saints most in the ascendant during his lifetime was the apostle of the "Little Way," Thérèse of Lisieux, who writes, "To be little means recognizing one’s nothingness, expecting everything from the good God, as a little child expects everything from its Father."

While The Lord of the Rings is not an explicitly Christian work, Tolkien was clear that his faith provided the underlying matrix for the story. In 1953, he wrote that The Lord of the Rings "is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision."

The work is Catholic in its underlying worldview, and a crucial part of this is the theme of "littleness" — or humility.

Frodo’s reluctance to play the hero is not cowardice. It is the mark of his humility, for humility is a simple, realistic assessment of oneself.

In contrast, both pride and false humility are unrealistic about the self. In The Lord of the Rings, warrior Boromir is the best example of pride. He really does believe that he would be able to use the Ring for a good purpose: "The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!"

False humility also has an unrealistic assessment of the self. Gollum exhibits the groveling subservience of false humility, while all the time he is using his subservience as a tool to manipulate others and regain the Ring. Gandalf and Galadriel are tempted by the Ring, and even Sam, for the short time that he holds the Ring, is tempted by the vision of "Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age."

Frodo alone, while weighed down by the burden of the Ring, is not tempted to use it for his own long-term glory, until at the last moment he weakens, and the Ring’s power infests his heart.

Frodo is humble, but he is not weak, and what keeps him from being weak is his obedience. Frodo listens to the call of what can only be called Providence at the crucial stages of his journey. That he obeys the call is the mark of Frodo’s true strength.

Obedience is also linked with faith — not religious faith per se, but faith as a quality of positive trust in Providence. For Frodo, these traits of obedience, courage and faith come to a climax at the Council of Elrond. After the council decided that the Ring must be taken to the Cracks of Doom, "a great dread fell upon him [Frodo], as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after never be spoken. … At last, with a great effort, he spoke and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. ‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.’"

So Frodo steps out — even though he does not know the way — and his journey takes him on the longest, darkest path imaginable.

Compare Frodo’s journey through uncertainty and doubt to Thérèse of Lisieux, who wrote, "Jesus took me by the hand and brought me into a subterranean way, where it was neither hot nor cold, where the sun does not shine, and rain and wind do not come; a tunnel where I see nothing but a brightness half-veiled. … I do not see that we are advancing towards the mountain that is our goal, because our journey is under the earth; yet I have a feeling that we are approaching it, without knowing why." 

The path of the humble soul is always uncertain. What seems to be progress may only be the advance of pride. Until the very last moment, Frodo is unsure whether he is making progress and doubts whether he will succeed. Again, Thérèse says, "I learned very quickly that the farther one advances along this road, the farther from the goal one believes oneself to be."

Even Frodo’s failure at the Cracks of Doom is a paradoxical sign of his saint-like calling. He has advanced in genuine humility and sheer dogged obedience; then, when the final test comes, Frodo seems to fail. He stares into the dark fires, and they overwhelm him. 

Similarly, Thérèse faced the worst kind of desolation and trial during her final illness. "Look!" she cries to her sisters on her deathbed. "Do you see the black hole where we can see nothing? It’s in a similar hole that I am, as far as body and soul are concerned. Ah! What darkness!"

She was tempted to despair. Yet it was her earlier unceasing habits of faith, obedience and courage that enabled her to say in her final, terrible days, "What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not had any faith, I would have committed suicide without a moment’s hesitation."

Tolkien presents us with a Christian hero and type of a Christian saint because Frodo, in his faithful obedience and humility, lives out the way of sacrificial love.

Redemptive suffering lies at the heart of the Christian way, and like the saint who emulates the Master by taking up his cross, Frodo is the wounded hero. Although he has saved the Shire, he cannot stay and enjoy it. As he departs for the Grey Havens, he explains to a tearful Sam why he can’t stay in the Shire. "I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger. Someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them."

In giving us a humble hero, Tolkien reminds us that it is the foolish things of God that overturn the wisdom of the world. Things are not what they seem.

The small ones turn out to be mighty, while the mighty are fallen. It is the secret agents of the world who hold the key to final victory. The hidden soul who overturns the power of evil is the essential theme of The Lord of the Rings, and this theme is echoed in the Gospel and in the little saint of Lisieux, who writes, "To find a thing hidden, we must be hidden ourselves; so our life must be a mystery."

The triumph of the halfling Frodo is an inspiration to every soul who attempts his little way. Each one who does can be encouraged by the words of Elrond: "The road must be trod, but it will be very hard, and neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world. Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.

Father Dwight Longenecker’s latest book,

The Romance of Religion, will be published in February 2014

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