This is another reason The Lord of the Rings is so richly applicable to life: pity and mercy are held out, often in hope for redemption, for even some of the worst characters. This brilliant story richly and deeply brings this theme home through its complex drama. It breathes on your heart with the sweet and divine scent of committed mercy.
So, I want to look at the three characters through whom these themes of pity and mercy are most clearly illustrated: Gollum, Gríma Wormtongue, and Saruman.
This is the hope for redemption that the films most clearly portray, though it’s still not as strong as in the books.
Gollum is clearly wicked. The first time we meet him (in The Hobbit) he plans to deceive and kill Bilbo after losing a fair contest to him. We later learn that he murdered his best friend for the Ring. Finally, it’s because of Gollum that Frodo is in great danger, because it was through him that the Dark Lord learns the names Shire and Baggins. Frodo, hearing all this, says, ‘What a pity that Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!’ Yet Gandalf gently rebukes him in some of the greatest lines of the book (the bold is mine):
Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need…
Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it…
Frodo takes the lesson to heart. When he finally sees this wretched, malicious, skulking creature face-to-face, the sight moves him to pity. He gives Gollum a chance to redeem himself, saying, ‘if you really wish to be free of [Sauron] again, then you must help me’ (Towers, 247). And indeed, for a little while we hope that maybe, just maybe, he will be free.
Even Sam, on the slopes of Mount Doom, spares Gollum out of pity. He has him at his mercy, ready to kill, but “he could not strike the thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief in life again” (Return, 238).
The beauty is Sam’s mercy; the tragedy, that Gollum rejects is. Once Sam turns to go, Gollum does not retreat, but rather continues to pursue Frodo and Sam “with a wild light of madness glaring in his eyes.” In the end, his own lust and greed topple him into the fire. Had he chosen differently, he could have lived and been healed.
The king’s once-loyal counselor sells the kingdom to Saruman.
But once Gríma’s treason is exposed, his king still shows him mercy!
Gandalf’s advice to Théoden is to give Gríma two things: a horse and a choice where to go.
Théoden agrees and says to Gríma, ‘Do you hear this, Wormtongue? This is your choice: to ride with me to war, and let us see in battle whether you are true; or to go now, whither you will. But then, if ever we meet again, I shall not be merciful.’ That’s pretty generous for high treason. (Sidenote: in the book there’s none of this nonsense about Gríma knowing about the “one weakness” of Helm’s Deep and giving that crucial information to Saruman).
He follows his chosen master, apparently thinking it safer. He ends up a skulking slave, still following Saruman past the edge of ruin. When Gandalf, Frodo, and the rest of the company overtake Gríma and Saruman on the road back to Rivendell (#deletedscenes), the wretch is whimpering to himself, ‘Poor old Gríma! Always beaten and cursed. How I hate him! I wish I could leave him!’ Gandalf calls, ‘Then leave him!’
“But Wormtongue only shot a glance of his bleared eyes full of terror at Gandalf, and then shuffled quickly past behind Saruman” (284). He’s apparently followed the crooked old man for so long that he doesn’t know to do anything else, and in the end he dies a murderer far from home.
This wizard’s treachery leads to the deaths of thousands — yet even he is shown mercy! Gandalf says, ‘I gave him a last choice and a fair one: to renounce both Mordor and his private schemes, and make amends by helping us in our need… Great service he could have rendered’ — if it weren’t for his pride: ‘he will not serve, only command.’
Then Merry asks Gandalf what he’ll do to Saruman if they win this war. His reply: ‘I? Nothing! … I grieve that so much that was good now festers in the tower'” (Towers, 210). Rather than kill Saruman (and it seems he was the only one who rightfully could), he leaves him to his own devices. Gandalf is wise enough to know that he will either repent or destroy himself.
Much later, on the road to Rivendell, Gandalf again offers Saruman his help. Galadriel joins in, replying to Saruman’s scorn, ‘Say rather than you are overtaken by good fortune; for now you have a last chance’ (Return, 283).
Saruman only retorts: ‘If it be truly the last, I am glad, for I shall be spared the trouble of refusing it again.’ (283). And it is the last. He goes on devouring himself and his slave, Gríma, in his masterful pride, and he ends with Gríma’s knife in his back.
Why is this so important?
For the two of you who’ve stuck around out of unhealthy love for Tolkien, let me remind you: this is not just a story. Like all great tales, it’s a comment and a mirror on life. So why do Tolkien’s characters find pity and mercy so important?
They’re like us
One reason is that these villains are not wholly unlike our heroes. When Frodo and Gollum first meet, it says, “Yet the two were in some way akin and not alien: they could reach one another’s minds” (Towers, 250).
We all strongly tend to look at people who are not like us and find everything we can to distance ourselves from them. In very modern terms, this is called Othering. It’s one of the biggest ways we divide ourselves from each other.
But Tolkien knows better. There is no Other. There is only us.
No evil origins
Again, just as in reality, nothing is evil to begin with. As Elrond says in Fellowship, ‘For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so’ (300). And because of that…
Hope for redemption
…hope for redemption is always held out. That is a beautiful, life-changing thing.
The tragedy of these characters is that all their bitter ends could have been much different, had they only taken the outstretched hand of mercy. Instead, they chose their own greed or pride, and it killed them in the end.
Does that mean that Frodo, Théoden, Sam, Galadriel, and Gandalf wasted their pity and mercy? By no means! The choice to show mercy is something we do with our own souls. That’s all the power we have, and these people used it for good.