Often, those things we love most, have to be destroyed. Not only was Frodo, the protagonist in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, to destroy the Ring, but he was shattered himself in the process, and in return, he and the rest of Middle Earth experienced deliverance. Sam Gamgee was prepared to give up the Shire and Rosie for the sake of saving those very things. Even Boromir repented of his own avarice and sacrificed himself for the sake of the Halflings. Many have pointed out that Sméagol is really the unsuspecting hero, as he is the one who actually destroys the Ring—and himself.
I think we might often forget another hero in Rings: Bilbo of the Shire. For it was Bilbo who, upon finding the Ring, did not destroy Sméagol when he had the chance. It was Bilbo who, though he had prodding from Gandalf, exercised his free will by relinquishing the Ring to Frodo. How long had the Ring been kept safe with him? How many riches and years of long life had it provided him? You could argue that, almost like Gethsemane, the battle of the Ring was fought and won in Bag End.
Lovers of Tolkien’s story will remember that years after his adventures, upon his eleventy-first birthday, Bilbo throws a party for both himself and his heir, Frodo. The plan is to leave all at Bag End with Frodo, who has just come of age, and embark on his last journey where he hopes to finally rest and finish his book. Gandalf, of course, is aware of the details, both for Bilbo’s own good and to his aggravation. When the old hobbit disappears at the end of his after-dinner speech, Gandalf, like any true friend, follows Bilbo back to the house to see if the Halfling will actually keep his word. The conversation escalates to an argument regarding the Ring Bilbo had planned to leave to Frodo.
“I think, Bilbo,” [Gandalf] said quietly, “I should leave it behind. Don’t you want to?”
“Well yes—and no. Now it comes to it, I don’t like parting with it at all, I may say. And I don’t really see why I should. Why do you want me to?” he asked, and a curious change came over his voice. It was sharp with suspicion and annoyance. “You are always badgering me about my ring; but you have never bothered me about the other things that I got on my journey.”
“No, but I had to badger you,” said Gandalf.” I wanted the truth. It was important…Also I think you have had it quite long enough. You won’t need it anymore, Bilbo, unless I am quite mistaken.”
Of course Gandalf isn’t mistaken. As a group of eighth graders observed when discussing this scene, there’s a lot Gandalf knows that Bilbo doesn’t, which requires a great deal of trust on Bilbo’s part. And it’s not easy, as he admits after his outburst:
“I am sorry…But I felt so queer. And yet it would be a relief in a way not to be bothered with it anymore. It has been so growing on my mind lately. Sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me. And I am always wanting to put it on and disappear, don’t you know; or wondering if it is safe, and pulling it out to make sure. I tried locking it up, but I found I couldn’t rest without it in my pocket. I don’t know why. And I don’t seem to be able to make up my mind.”
“Then trust mine,” said Gandalf. “It is quite made up.”
It is then that Bilbo performs one of his most heroic acts by placing, not without struggle, the Ring on the mantle:
A spasm of anger passed swiftly over the hobbit’s face again. Suddenly it gave way to a look of relief and a laugh.
Repeatedly in Rings, the thing that must die is some form of tormenting desire, entitlement, control, or identity, and that thing, if originally a good thing, is often resurrected in an incorruptible form. Frodo and the other hobbits give up the comforts and safety of home. Some yield their youth, and all lose their innocence. Bilbo had to give up these things along with his right for possession. But in return, each receives freedom to experience true enjoyment of those simple but beautiful things. Ultimately, they must die to self. Even Sméagol’s unpromising demise can be traced by his constant talking to himself, of losing his identity in his Precious with the resulting self-references in third person, and in his insistence that it is “Mine, my own.”
So, to talk of holy insignificance is to talk of a calling to humility and brokenness, of dying and relinquishing.
I’ve experienced the unhealthy insignificance of being used or forgotten by people I’ve trusted and loved deeply, of seeking approval from people who cannot be expected to give it, from feeling inhibited by the unsuspecting Gandalfs in my life (who in reality are only hobbits themselves or old, weathered men creating fireworks).
But I’ve also experienced the delightful insignificance of discovering that some people don’t feel the need to give their approval (or permission), of realizing that so-and-so isn’t thinking a thing about what I said or did or didn’t say or didn’t do, of noticing the indifference so common in small children who stare you down one minute and then turn away as if it wasn’t that impressive to begin with, of experiencing the playful rejection from a four-year-old who thinks its funnier not to give you a hug or kiss. Like Bilbo after he releases the Ring, the realization and struggle produce quite the relief.
My prayers, though often like Tolkien’s Niggle—filled with false guilt, complaints, pleas, and even a little swearing at times—have shifted to be just a little more like Flannery O’Connor’s. In her Prayer Journal, O’Connor writes:
Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing…
I’ve prayed similar thoughts like this (less eloquent of course) mostly for myself, but lately even for others in which I see beautiful gifts and loves that, to use Lewis’s words, upon becoming gods, quickly become demons. It feels uncertain and bold, but dying is the only possible avenue of grace in these situations. And if I’m wrong in my perceptions, I doubt that prayer would make them worse.
O’Connor, Flannery. A Prayer Journal. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1994.
Photo taken from TheOneRing.net