Letter 181 is a draft letter to Michael Straight, who was the editor of the New Republic and was going to write a review of Lord of the Rings. In doing so he wrote Tolkien to inquire about several items.
First, was there 'meaning' in Gollum's role in the story and in Frodo's moral failure at the climax.
Second, whether the Scourging of the Shire chapter was directed especially to contemporary England.
Third, why the other voyagers should depart the Grey Havens with Frodo at the end of the book - - "Is it for the same reason that there are those who gain in the victory but cannot enjoy it?"
So that is the purpose of the letter.
Tolkien in replying to the first questions says:
There is a lot here. Frodo was placed in what Tolkien would call a "Sacrificial' situation and as such he was doomed to failure. Did Frodo know that at Bag End? Did Gandalf? Frodo I am sure did not, but surely Gandalf did, as did Elrond at the Council. So why send Frodo to his death? It is evident that after Gandalf's fall in Moria, and his meeting with Galadriel, that Frodo felt that the quest had very little if any hope/chance to succeed. Yet Frodo went on to face inevitable failure. Frodo did fail in the end as we all know, and though I hadn't considered it, he did apotatized from his mission and his trust. Was he a traitor then? No, though I am of the opinion that Frodo's failure is one of the things he struggled inwardly to comes to terms with. I think he probably felt he had reached the end destination and then failed, and regardless of his honors, he never felt he quite deserved them.'Lead us not into temptation &c' is the harder and the less often considered petition. The view, in the terms of my story, is that though every event or situation has (at least) two aspects: the history and development of the individual (it is something out of which he can get good, ultimate good, for himself, or fail to do so), and the history of the world (which depends on the behavior of an individual in circumstances which demand of him suffering and endurance far beyond the normal -- even, it may happen (or seem, humanly speaking), demand a strength of body and mind which he does not possess: he is in a sensed doomed to failure, doomed to fall to temptation or be broken by pressure against his 'will': that is against any choice he could make or would make unfettered, not under duress.
Frodo was in such a position: an apparently complete trap: a person of greater native power could probably never have resisted the Ring's lure to power so long; a person of less power could not hope to resist it in the final decision. (Already Frodo had been unwilling to hard the Ring before he set out, and was incapable of surrendering it to Sam.)
The Quest . . . was bound to fail as a piece of world-plan, and also was bound to end in disaster as the sotry of humble Frodo's development to the 'noble', his sanctification. Fail it would and did as far as Frodo considered alone was concerned. He 'apostatized' -- and I have had one savage letter, crying out that he shd. have been executed as a traitor, not honoured. . . .
But at this point the 'salvation' of the world and Frodo's own 'salvation' is achieved by his previous pity and forgiveness of injury. At any point any prudent person would have told Frodo that Gollum would certainly* (*Not quite 'certainly'. The clumsiness in fidelity of Sam was what finally pushed Gollum over the brink, when about to repent) betray him, and could rob him in the end. To 'pity' him, to forbear to kill him, was a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value -- in -- itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time. he did rob him and injure him in the end -- but by a 'grace', that last betrayal was at a precise juncture when the final evil deed was the most beneficial thing any one cd. have done for Frodo! By a situation created by his forgiveness, he was saved himself, and relieved of his burden. He was very justly accorded the highest honors -- since it is clear that he & Sam never concealed the precise course of events. Into the ultimate judgement upon Gollum I would not care to enquire. This would be to investigate "Goddes privitee", as the Medievals said. Gollum was pitiable, but he ended in persistent wickedness, and the fact that this worked good was no credit to him. His marvellous courage and endurance, as great as Frodo and Sam's or greater, being devoted to evil was portentous, but not honourable. I am afraid whatever our beliefs, we have to face the fact that there are persons who yield to temptation, reject their chances of nobility or salvation, and appear to be 'damnable'. . . . The domination of the Ring was much too strong for the mean soul of Sméagol. But he would have never had to endure it if he had not become a mean sort of thief before it crossed his path."
Tolkien also answers the question on Sam, whether he could destroy the ring, and it is a definite no, because no one of lesser power would resist the Ring at the end. Tolkien brought up a point here I had not considered. He states "The clumsiness in fidelity of Sam" when it comes to pushing Gollum over the edge prior to Shelob's Lair. I found this statement interesting so I explored it.
I looked up the meaning of these words (and yes, I know their meaning, but I wanted the actual definition) and found that clumsiness means awkwardly done or ill-contrived; fidelity is defined as strict observance of promises and of course loyalty. I looked more into the ill-contrived by focusing on contrived which of course means planned or to form designs or plans. One meaning then of this statement can be made that Sam, taking the promises he made to others to Frodo created a blinding loyalty. If we take the notion that Sam had planned or designed to act against Gollum if Gollum offered him the chance, then Sam's reaction to seeing Gollum touching Frodo's knee can be seen as an ill planned event to get Frodo to see what Gollum was doing. Then again, as I thought about it, it could simply mean that Sam's loyalty to Frodo was just simply awkwardly displayed when he woke up and found Gollum touching Frodo. Either way, it sealed their fate in Shelob's tunnels.
I find it interesting also that here Tolkien lets us know that Frodo and Sam never revealed the concise details of what happen at Mt. Doom (except in the Red Book). Does this surprise anyone else? Why wouldn't they reveal at least to Aragorn and to Gandalf the concise sequence of events? Frodo receives the high honors that were due to him, but I just have this sinking feeling that Frodo still felt guilty inside about not completing the quest by himself, and returning as the hero who did not fail. Sometimes those mental torments are the hardest to bear, even more than any physical scar. As stated earlier, I don't think Frodo was healed of this until he left Middle Earth. Any other ideas?
The last part has to do with Gollum. Tolkien says in another letter that if Sam had shown him compassion, pity on the stairs, that Gollum would have repented. Sam didn't show the pity at this time, and Gollum betrayed Frodo and Sam. In this letter I think Tolkien makes it very clear that it is Gollum's mean nature that led him to obtain the ring and become corrupted by it. If Gollum had not developed his mean nature, he would not have fallen to the domination of the Ring. I also after reading up on this am convinced that Gollum had to play a role in the destruction of the Ring. It had to be Gollum that destroyed the Ring. If Gollum had repented, his love for Frodo's mercy would have moved him to destroy the ring after seizing it. Since that did not happen, Gollum had to seize and take the ring from Frodo and then die by chance or divine will. If Gollum then had to be the one to destroy the Ring, does he still have free will or has that will been consumed totally by the One Ring? Has Gollum's choices led him to where he no longer has the freedom to choose? Evidence would suggest yes, his tracking of Bilbo, his turning towards Mordor, his capture and release, his following of the Fellowship and then leading Frodo and Sam; his decision to lead them to Shelob and his pursuit of them afterwards until his attack on both Sam then Frodo. Do we ever lose the opportunity to choose by becoming so enslaved to something that we lose our ability to chose and to be flexible, caring, showing pity and forgiveness?
There is a LOT more in the letter I would like to discuss and will hopefully respond as others post. I find it interesting that Tolkien agreed that "Yes, I think that 'victors' never can enjoy 'victory' -- not in the terms that they envisaged; and in so far as they fought for something to be enjoyed by themselves (whether acquisition or more preservation) the less satisfactory will 'victory' seem." This is a fascinating statement to me that reveals much not only about the story, but also about the author.
Tolkien then describes the departure of the three ring bearers and how the elves themselves have some wonderful characteristics, yet also some serious flaws in their nature as shown in the Three Elven Rings.
To conclude Tolkien discusses Gandalf, Saruman, death and mortality and expresses that the story of Aragorn and Arwen is the most important in the Appendixes since it relates to that theme. So lots more to discuss if someone wants to go there.