Over the holiday weekend I watched the final Lord of the Rings movie with my kids (who I made have to listen to me read the book to them last year before I’d let them watch the movies). After listening to a recent discussion of Frodo as an anti-hero (bottom line, it’s defined several ways, and in this case because he failed), the movie took a different turn for me. I’ve always let the ending slide. It was okay that Frodo failed because Gollem still fell in with the ring, and everything was all right.
The movie tries to redeem Frodo some by having him wrestle with Gollem and knock him (and almost himself) into the lava, but the book was much more clear: Frodo failed. Knowing that makes his continual melancholy at the end a bit more understandable. I’d always accepted it before, since he had been through quite a lot; stabbed, poisoned, nearly dehydrated and starved, touched by evil, had a finger bitten off–not trivial things. He had earned his right to be moody.
But somehow I always thought he should have been happier with things, since he helped destroy the ring. But no, he didn’t. Frodo failed. Had it just been him and Sam at the Crack of Doom then Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, Pippin, and Eomer would all have died before the Black Gate. Sauron would probably have retrieved the ring from Frodo, and gone on to conquer Middle Earth. And it’s not that Gollem’s being there was intended to be a good thing, either. The Ring was destroyed not because the good guys were good, but be cause the bad guy …tripped.
It seems like the wrong lesson for Tolkien to try to teach: No matter how good you are, some things are just beyond your ability, and you’re going to fail. If that were the lesson, though, why would he have written predominantly about heroes struggling forward against all odds and wisdom? Because that was not the lesson he intended for us to learn.
Yes, Frodo failed. But he failed a mere fraction of an inch from succeeding. Had he failed at nearly any other point in his quest it would have been over. It would have mattered if Gollem were the clumsiest ox ever to walk the planet. He couldn’t have fallen into the lava all the way from Shelob’s Lair. He couldn’t even have fallen in on the outside slope of Mt. Doom. Frodo failed, but paved the way for a mere footstep of fate to decide the fate of Middle Earth.
Likewise we shouldn’t necessarily judge ourselves by our shortcomings. It’s easy to focus on the fact that we failed and forget the journey that we undertook to get there. Like Frodo, we often overcome tremendous adversity just to get into a position where we can fail. Like Frodo we fail. But unlike Frodo we often have the chance to try again. And perhaps, like Inigo Montoya, this time we will not fail.
Yes, sometimes in life we do only get one chance at something. Many atheletes work years and years for one shot at the Olympics. Win or lose, they may be past their prime next time. And most of them will fail–there can be only one winner.
But so many other opportunities in life are not all-or-nothing. Failing once may not put success forever out of reach. And even if we fail we may still gain valuable experience, insight, abilities, or discipline that will help us succeed somewhere else.
Similarly, failure sometimes still can mean more than success. Look at Aragorn. He succeeded in just about everything he undertook. He handed Sauron defeat after defeat. But in the end it was not within his power to destroy the Ring, no matter what he did. He was able to help provide opportunities for Frodo to succeed, but it was out of his power and control. Aragorn’s victories did not destroy the Ring. Frodo’s failure did. Gandalf’s greatest victory was not in anything he did in 90% of the trilogy, but in a single decision he made within the first few chapters when he entrusted the ring to Frodo.
Always be slow to beat yourself up for your failures. You never know when they may prove more important than your successes. And the lesson that Tolkien wanted us to learn is that the only failure is to not try, to give up before you’ve done everything you can. Don’t give up on one another. Don’t give up on yourself.