Pity and mercy in The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, Gríma, and Saruman

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.

What is it with evil viziers and their hijinks?

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.

God is Not Great: first impressions and thoughts on book and author

I’m three chapters into God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by the late, atheist debater and journalist Christopher Hitchens, and I’m getting a few distinct impressions of the author’s overall argument and personal qualities.

At the end of the first chapter of this book, I wrote, “So far, I’ve found this book alternatingly entertaining, saddening, thought-provoking, wise, foolish, absorbing, and irksome (sometimes several of these at once). I can’t wait to continue.” That remains true.

A few initial thoughts:

Who was Hitch really mad at?

It seems his original gripe was with 20th-century, British-American, pietistic, ideologically-driven, shallow, pseudo-Christian religion, of the kind that is commonly seen in the U.K. and U.S.A. today (and about which there’s certainly plenty to criticize). I sense his complaint started there (very legitimately) and grew with his experience to encompass all forms of legalistic, domineering religious belief and practice (of which there’s been no shortage in world history).

He accurately sees and rightly repudiates much that is vile, regressive, and unjust in many religious people, factions, and organizations across the world.

Are “religious” conflicts religious?

In any conflict in which the opposing sides have claimed different religious denominations, Hitch seems to automatically assume that religion must have been at the heart of the conflict (or at least an intensifying factor). I mean conflicts like the Roman Catholic Croats vs. the Orthodox Serbs, or the Northern Irish Protestants vs. the Southern Irish Catholics.

I have a problem with that automatic assumption: it seems plain to me that, in cases like these, religion has been completely assimilated into nationalism. As Hitchens says, “To be Croatian…is to be Roman Catholic.”

The transition from religion to religion-as-nationalism is easy, natural, and common, but I don’t think that’s because religion is predisposed to it: it’s because people are disposed to be nationalist and tribalist, and nationalists will seize on any difference at all to puff themselves up at the expense of the “others.” And once religion has become “baked into” a culture—once the form is everywhere and the substance is gone—then one of the most obvious differences between the nationalist’s culture and the “enemy’s” culture is their religion. So this too is chewed up by tribalists—and readily received by the outwardly religious who’ve lost any real substance of what their ancestors believed.

His doctrine

So far, he doesn’t strike me as having well understood the claims the Bible and Jesus Christ actually make about themselves and God. Then again, for all I know at this point, that could be because the people he most criticized didn’t well understand these things either.

His language

He was a commander of words, with a sharp and incisive mind—a true reporter’s eye and satirist’s wit. I’ve greatly enjoyed the quality of his writing.

His sweeping claims

So far, I’ve read at least one statement in this book that is plain bunk (there’s another possible one that I’m still holding in suspension of judgment).

The statement, from chapter 4, is, “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.”

Always? Necessarily? This was too much for me. Did Hitchens honestly not know of the faith of Galileo, Kepler, James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Copernicus, Mendel, or a host of other great figures in the history of modern science and medicine? Not even of very contemporary figures like Raymond Damadian, co-inventor of the MRI scan? What about Christian theologian and Oxford biophysicist Alister McGrath? Or even Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, whom Hitchens chose to supervise his medical care during his battle with esophageal cancer?

I mean no acrimony towards Hitchens in saying all this. The statement I’ve highlighted is simply exasperating. It puts me out of patience, as the old idiom goes.

I suppose the most charitable interpretation is that Hitchens grew up (as seems likely) in a pseudo-Christian community that discouraged and deplored science as a menace to faith; from there, perhaps he bought into the popular narrative that faith and science are inherently opposed. This blatantly false narrative is now so common that many people seem to think it self-obvious, and Hitchens may have been one of them.

Other impressions of Hitchens

In no particular order, it seems to me he:

  • had a fine aesthetic sensibility
  • was wise enough to wonder at the marvels of the universe
  • could be crude and vitriolic
  • was very well-read
  • was well-traveled and, if there’s anything to his brief sketches of his journalistic journeys (which I see no reason to doubt), physically courageous

Last words

Just to be clear, Hitchens and I would have disagreed on nearly every fundamental question of life, especially the question of who is Jesus of Nazareth.

All the same, had circumstances concurred, I think he and I could have been friends. At the very least, I would’ve enjoyed a chance to talk with him. I hope he had someone in his life to show him plainly, not in words and arguments but in deeds and manner, who Christ really is.

What Tolkien’s greatest tragedy teaches us about how to live

Though Túrin, a mighty warrior, was cursed by Morgoth (Sauron’s master, from way before the events of The Lord of the Rings), he had the opportunity to escape the curse—but he continually made terrible choices that brought pain on himself and ruin and death to everyone around him. He tried to do the right thing, but his pride continually prevented him from doing what was best.

Túrin had his excellent qualities: he was strong, skillful and brave in battle, and compassionate to the needy, and he had a strong sense of justice. But all of these could not overcome his pride, hotheadedness, desire for glory, and refusal to listen to wise counsel. In fact, his strength and charisma only made the effects of his pride and rashness even worse.

What Túrin teaches us is that a strong and compassionate person will still cause suffering and bring ruin if they allow themselves to be arrogant and foolhardy, ignoring good advice and seeking glory and revenge.

His story is told in a chapter of The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s great history of Middle-Earth from its beginning through millennia of the war of the elves with Morgoth, and in The Children of Húrin, a novel.

I graduated from an extraordinary place of learning, and now I get to encourage others to go!

Vision of Inner Thoughts 0007 by agsandrew

A couple weeks ago, I noticed a student in the Sunday school class that I help teach. She answered the questions in a weary tone, looking bored.

That sparked something in me. I guessed she was bored with the lesson because she was already far beyond it. She was ready to learn more sophisticated stuff than the basics being taught.

I remembered what it was like for me in public school — constantly frustrated that we couldn’t move ahead more quickly.

While keeping an eye on the class, I started writing on an index card. While the other teachers were cleaning up at the end of the lesson, I called her over.

“I noticed that the lesson seemed a little simple for you. You get easily bored in school, don’t you? You get frustrated because you could be learning much faster than the class?”

She confirmed exactly that.

I told her what I’d written, then handed the paper to her. Here it is:

Try to get your parents to send you to Trinity Classical Academy. There, you will learn much more and more deeply than at public school.

Whether or not you can go to Trinity, go to The Master’s College. There you will learn to divide and discern the truth, rightly handle the word of God, and know yourself aright. You will find true learning, guided by the light of God’s truth, administered by teachers and staff who really care about their students.

If you go to Master’s, work as hard as you can to get scholarships. I recommend the book How to Go To College Almost for Free, by Ben Kaplan.

Good luck, and God bless. Never stop learning.

-Nathan Paul, alumnus, The Master’s College

She glanced over the paper, looked up at me with a big smile, and left.

Book TunnelOnward and upward!

Image credits:
“Vision of Inner Thoughts 0007” by agsandrew [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 License] via DeviantART. No changes made from original.
“Knowledge tunnel” by PublicDomainPictures [CC0 Public Domain license] via Pixabay.

Won’t fascists just go away if we ignore them?

Image result for nazi rally

From Joe Messina, a local Republican Party chairman, in the Santa Clarita Signal:

“Chairman Messina argued that if counter protesters hadn’t shown up in the first place, nothing would have happened and the white supremacist message, which he and his fellow 38th District Republicans strongly oppose, would not have been broadcast on an international level . . . ‘You let those idiots over there go do their thing, leave them alone, don’t give them any attention and they burn themselves out,’ Messina said” (A5).

No, they don’t. They don’t stamp and scream for attention and tucker themselves out unheeded. They’re not toddlers. They’re ideologues. It’s ignorant and shortsighted to suggest that the best strategy is to simply ignore them until they go away.

White supremacists are dedicated to white power. Their “great cause” carries quasi-religious tones. They will no more starve from lack of attention than will ISIS. They imagine their culture, their way of life, and their very bodies are threatened. When you believe you’re threatened this way, do you just quiet down because no one’s paying attention? No: you yell louder.

Fascism will be a danger for as long as the United States exists. As long as there are people frustrated with the political process who are willing to justify violence to get their way, fascism will be a threat. Fascism will be a threat as long as anyone buys the myth of racial superiority.

Evil must be called out for what it is, because evil does not die in the dark. It festers.



Ender, G. and Monterrosa, C. (2017, August 15). SCV reacts to Charlottesville events. The Santa Clarita Valley Signal, pp. A3, A5.

I had a dream: I must master kung fu

Lightning Storm at Beach Over the Atlantic Ocean

I had a dream that said I’m destined to master kung fu. I’m doing it.

I was in a videogame, watching myself, not sure I was controlling my actions. The action climaxed on a tropical beach. The clouds turned crimson and thundered, and from the lightning over the water a giant rubber ducky appeared. This monstrosity shot lightning bolts at me; I found myself dodging at incredible speed with martial mastery. Then I woke up.

So kung fu? Essentially, it’s not a martial art, but “skill gained through long effort and application of prolonged practice” (according to Victor Mair of UPenn).

As a citizen, debater, employee, speaker, and soon-to-be teacher, the skill I’m destined to master is kung fu of the mind.

Here’s how I read the dream: whether real life is illusion (videogame or otherwise), whether I really have agency over my actions, whether this dream was a sign or subconscious gibberish, whatever horrors strange or mundane may come, I must do the best I can with my abilities and circumstances. So I’m learning to ground myself and discern and interpret all things nimbly and skillfully, whatever their source: to engage with information and argument, take it all in, take it apart, critique it, digest, and apply it, whether in the realm of literature, teaching, science, business, or anything — to see the lightning coming, dodge, and (eventually) learn to redirect it back.

I know kung fu. And it will empower everything I do in life, for building my students, others, and myself.


This short and somewhat silly (but mostly serious) submission was created for Unigo’s I Have a Dream scholarship.

[Photo cred Kim Seng via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Answering ancient questions: what is goodness?


People’ve been asking this question for a long, long, long time.

About 2,300 years ago, in ancient Greece, a very wise man named Plato recorded many of the words of his master, Socrates. Once, Socrates had a conversation with a priest of the gods, whose name was Euthyphro. Socrates loved to ask people questions about all sorts of things. In this case, he questions Euthyphro on the nature of “piety” or “piousness:” that is, following what the gods command.

The fundamental question becomes: is the pious pious because the gods ordain it, or is the pious some higher standard that the gods adhere to?

This question has come down through history to us like this: is goodness good because God commands it, or is God held by some higher standard of good? Both answers have problems. Continue reading “Answering ancient questions: what is goodness?”