In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas distinguishes the four cardinal moral virtues of fortitude, temperance, wisdom, and justice from the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (charity). He maintains that the moral virtues of fortitude, temperance, wisdom, and justice are virtues only in “a restricted sense”: they bring only a “natural happiness.” But the very same moral virtues can be a part of a “supernatural happiness” if the practice of them is supported by the theological virtues. So a person may possess the moral virtues of fortitude, temperance, wisdom, and justice without possessing the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, but that person’s moral virtue will be imperfect. In practical terms, this means that under certain conditions such a person will be unable to continue acting in accordance with those moral virtues. And it will be under those conditions that the absence (or the presence) of the theological virtues in the soul of a person will be made apparent.
Under what conditions? As Aquinas implies, under conditions where evil forces are at work that are disproportionate to human nature, forces which man cannot resist by means of his natural principles: when the forces of evil are so great that doubt, despair and bitterness are the natural reaction even of the morally virtuous man, and the temptations to escape, to surrender and join the enemy, or to exercise one’s own powers of destruction are all but unconquerable: it is under such conditions that faith, hope, and charity are most clearly revealed to be either present or absent in a person’s soul. For in order to overcome such superhuman forces of evil, only supernatural virtues will suffice.
What does all of this have to do with The Lord of the Rings? Tolkien was clear as day about his sub-creation being a pre-Christian one, so his characters by definition cannot possess these virtues in relation to their proper ends (i.e. the truths of faith, Heaven, God rightly known and cherished, and one’s neighbor cherished for God’s sake) simply because, in their world, such things were not yet revealed. Even so, I propose that this understanding of the theological virtues and their relationship to the moral virtues is implicit in the characters of Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo: in Aragorn faith is prominent, in Gandalf hope is prominent, and, since charity is necessarily demonstrated in personal relationships, this virtue is prominent in Frodo: both in his love for Sam and in his pity for Gollum. Despite the fact that these characters cannot, by definition, be infused with these theological virtues, Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo each typify and represent these moral virtues and are each able to survive in the face of overwhelming opposition only through–only in virtue of–the faith, hope, and charity that they possess.
(Footnote: It is important to note as well that each of these characters also have their tragic counterparts–characters who initially possess moral virtue, but this virtue fails in the face of such powerful opposition because they lack the needed theological virtue. Thus, in contrast to Aragorn’s faith we have Denethor’s self-destructive despair; in contrast to Gandalf’s hope, we have Saruman’s cynical ambition; in contrast to the mutual charity between Frodo and Sam and the mutual sympathy between Frodo and Gollum, we see the mutual hatred and distrust between Sam and Gollum.)
Let’s look first at Aragorn. There can be no doubt that Aragorn possesses, to some degree, all of the cardinal virtues–wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice. He is certainly learned in lore and is second only to Gandalf in the fellowship with regard to wisdom: he leads the company after the fall of Gandalf in Moria. His temperance is also evident: in his intervention between Gimli and the elves of Lorien when they insist on blindfolding the dwarf, in his restraint at Helm’s Deep when the orcs challenge him to come down from the walls and fight them, in his gentle way with Eowyn when he knows of her love for him, and in his not insisting on recognition as the heir of Isildur until the time is right and the evidences of his kingship have been given. His justice is most clearly revealed in his dealings with the people of Gondor after he has become king. But perhaps his most evident moral virtue is fortitude. This virtue is especially highlighted in the relentless chase he and Legolas and Gimli give to the orcs who have hobbitnapped Merry and Pippin. But his fortitude extends far beyond this. It is evident in his long wait for the events to fall into place to claim his rightful place on the throne, and in his equally long wait to wed Arwen. Those years of waiting were spent in the thankless tasks of protecting the inhabitants of the Shire and other free places (including Gondor and Rohan, where he lived incognito for a time), and in even more troublesome tasks like hunting and capturing Gollum. The height of this virtue is seen, however, in his journey on the Paths of the Dead: “Such was the strength of his will in that hour that all the Dunedain and their horses followed him.” Gimli “was held to the road only by the will of Aragorn.”
Note, first of all, that this event involved a confrontation with demon-like forces–the dead spirits of oathbreaking men. Others who had attempted the Paths died of terror. Next, note that Aragorn was advised to take the Paths of the Dead, and was certain that he should and could do it, because of the prophecy that “the heir of Isildur” would one day pass through, calling the oathbreakers to his aid when darkness lay over the land and doom approached Minas Tirith. As Aragorn tells Legolas, “in this dark hour the heir of Isildur may use [the Paths], if he dare. Listen! This is the word that the sons of Elrond bring to me from their father in Rivendell, wisest in lore: Bid Aragorn remember the words of the seer, and the Paths of the Dead.” Malbeth the seer had prophesied:
From the North he shall come, need shall drive him:
He shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.
Aragorn is sure that this prophecy refers to him, and it is his certainty about this that strengthens his will. He understands the prophecy as a call to action and as an assurance of granted victory. Thus, we can see that Aragorn’s moral virtue of fortitude, when up against evil forces disproportionate to human nature, is active only because it is supported and maintained by his faith in something beyond himself, some cosmic authority. Without this faith, Aragorn would surely have failed.
Furthermore, it is clear that the faith of Aragorn is active even in his trials against more natural enemies: he is patient in claiming his kingship, because he believes the prophecies and trusts the source of those prophecies to bring the time to pass. “Faith,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the certainty of things unseen.” In addition to the crucial example above, recall that Aragorn acknowledges, not with pride but certainly with assurance, that the voice in the vision of Boromir and Faramir that said to “seek for the Sword that was broken” was referring to his sword and that he would be the one to wield it. Aragorn also fully acknowledges that the prophetic verses of Bilbo–From the ashes a fire shall be woken/
A light from the shadows shall spring/Renewed shall be blade that was broken/The crownless again shall be king–refer to him. He clearly sees himself as being in the same position as Beren, the greatest hero of old: he has a seemingly impossible task to accomplish, by which he must prove his love for Arwen, who is, like Luthien, an elvish princess.
All of these cases illustrate the extraordinary faith of Aragorn: faith that the prophecies are not only true but true of him. Just as Aquinas sees faith as adherence to Divine principles revealed in the Scriptures, Aragorn lives his own life in adherence to the prophecies of old, firmly believing them to have application to himself.
Next, let’s look at Gandalf. After Gandalf falls into the abyss in Moria, Aragorn cries, “Farewell Gandalf! Did I not say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware? Alas that I spoke true! What hope have we without you?” He then turns to the Company and says, “We must do without hope.” When Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli meet Gandalf again, now in shining white and returned from near death, Aragorn says, “Gandalf! Beyond all hope you return to us in our need!” And Gandalf gives this advice to Legolas, “Have patience. Go where you must go, and hope.” Indeed, Gandalf not only gives this advice, he is the manifestation of it. He brings hope wherever he goes, and even more so after he is transfigured into the White Rider. It is Gandalf who speaks words of hope into Theoden’s ears, transforming the King of Rohan from a withered old man to a hale and hearty warrior and leader. It is Gandalf who arrives at Helm’s Deep with the rising of the sun, bringing hope for victory in a battle that seemed lost. It is Gandalf who rides through the streets of Minas Tirith during the siege of the city, lightening and encouraging the hearts of the people. It is Gandalf who assures the company that they can successfully pass through Moria. Indeed, it is primarily Gandalf who urges that the Ring be taken to the Fire. This “hopeless journey,” as Frodo calls it, would never have happened without the hope of Gandalf. Denethor calls it “madness,” “a fool’s hope.” At the same time, among the cardinal virtues there is no doubt that wisdom is the one Gandalf chiefly possesses. Even before his transformation he is considered high among the wise, but the significance of his becoming Gandalf the White–replacing Saruman, who was previously the head of the Council of the Wise–is clearly that his wisdom extends beyond that of all the others. So how can his “madness,” his “fool’s hope,” be wisdom?
As in Aragorn’s case, the clearest indicator of Gandalf’s defining virtue is when he faces the evil power of the balrog–a malicious being as old and perhaps as powerful as Sauron himself: an evil force clearly beyond the power of human nature to contend with. Gandalf faces the balrog alone on the bridge of Khazad-dum when his strength appears almost spent. By the time he comes face to face with the balrog he is badly fatigued. There seems little hope for him stopping the enemy, and even less hope of his survival when the balrog’s whip catches him around his feet and he is dragged into the abyss. After the ensuing battle, which began in the nearly frozen lake at the “uttermost foundation of stone” and ended on the high peak of Celebdil (reminiscent of Dante’s allusions to Christ’s ascent through hell), Gandalf says, “Then darkness took me and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. Naked I was sent back–for a brief time, until my task is done.” Wherever it was that he wandered, and whoever it was that sent him back, we know that Gandalf, like all the Istari, was an emissary sent by the Valar to help combat the powers of Sauron in Middle Earth. As such, his sight and insight is informed by the knowledge and the glory of Valinor, and by the task given him there. His hope for victory over the balrog is founded on his vision of the Valar and on the task they have given to him.
Indeed, it is Gandalf who reminds Frodo that “there was more than one power at work” when Bilbo found the Ring:
“Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”
This hope lies behind Gandalf’s wisdom, which, to those without that hope, is foolishness, but which is grounded in the reality of a benevolence greater than Sauron’s malice. Thus, we can see that Gandalf’s moral virtue of wisdom, when exercised in the presence of superhuman forces of evil, is not foolishness only because it is supported and maintained by his hope in something beyond himself, some ultimate goodness. Without this hope, Gandalf would surely have failed in his task.
The device Tolkien uses to indicate the virtue of hope in Gandalf is his far sight and his “striving in thought” against Sauron. When he meets Aragorn and the others in Fangorn he has an immense knowledge of what has been happening all over the land. He seems to “see” the scattered men of the Westfold before the battle of Helm’s Deep and goes to gather them up; several times he gazes towards Mordor, as if he could actually see Frodo and Sam on their journey; his voice comes into Frodo’s mind at crucial moments of trial; and he is the one to go with the eagles to spot the falling bodies of Frodo and Sam–all of these are representative of Gandalf’s extraordinary vision. And what he has “seen”–the glory of Valinor–is his hope . . . and his joy. For Joy is the other child of Hope, the sister of Wisdom.
In one of my favorite passages, Pippin describes what he sees when he looks closely at Gandalf’s face: “In the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.”
Finally, let’s look at Frodo and the virtue of charity. At the conclusion of the Council of Elrond, after Bilbo asks who will be given the task of taking the Ring to Mount Doom, Tolkien writes:
No one answered. The noon bell rang. Still no one spoke. Frodo glanced at all the faces, but they were not turned to him. All the Council sat with downcast eyes, as if deep in thought. A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some great doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. “I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”
“If I understand aright all that I have heard, I think this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will. . . .But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right . . .”
The crucial aspect of this scene is the absence of any external compulsion for Frodo’s decision. His motivation was, as it were, “pure”: disinterested. In fact, his decision is contrary to his own longing. But no other personal longing overcomes it; he wonders at his own words. The point is crucial because a sacrificial act, taken under freedom–under no outward compulsion–and with complete humility, is a hallmark of the kind of love we call charity.
Thus, Tolkien clearly shows us that Frodo’s decision and subsequent journey is an act of charity. As Tolkien writes in a letter to a reader, “Frodo undertook his quest out of love–to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task.” It was because he first undertook the quest out of love that he was able to resist the almost constant temptation to use the Ring; it is also the reason he was able to endure the burden even to the very Cracks of Mount Doom. Tolkien says, “Frodo was given ‘grace’: first to answer the call (at the end of the Council) after long resisting a complete surrender; and later in his resistance to the temptation of the Ring (at times when to claim and so reveal it would have been fatal), and in his endurance of fear and suffering.”
Again in Frodo’s case, we see that his moral virtues–chiefly temperance and fortitude, but also wisdom–are maintained in the face of the evil forces (surpassing man’s nature) of the Ring and its Lord only because they are sustained by his charity. Elrond affirms Frodo’s ‘appointment’ to the task precisely because he takes it upon himself freely and humbly, out of love even for those whom he does not know and has no cause to love: for all the inhabitants of Middle Earth will be affected by his success or failure.
And which is it? Success or failure? Here is Tolkien’s answer: “Frodo indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted.” But the simple-minded “do not perceive the complexity of any given situation in Time, in which an absolute ideal is enmeshed. They tend to forget that strange element in the World that we call Pity or Mercy, which is also an absolute requirement in moral judgment (since it is present in the Divine nature). In its highest exercise it belongs to God.”
Pity, then, is another essential aspect of charity, and it is Frodo’s pity for Gollum that ultimately results in the success of the quest. Furthermore, Tolkien writes,
I do not think that Frodo’s was a moral failure. At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum–impossible, I should have said, for anyone to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted. Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed.
It is important to see that this pity does not stem from any sort of assurance on Frodo’s part that Gollum cannot really do any harm. Sometimes we mistake such confidence for pity. But Frodo knows quite well that Gollum could, at any moment, betray him to the Enemy and all would be lost. After he recalls the conversation he had with Gandalf about how Bilbo acted with pity for Gollum in not killing him when the opportunity was there, Frodo says, “Very well, but I am still afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.” Sam, who most definitely does not share Frodo’s pity for Gollum, mistakes Frodo’s mercy for a kind of injustice: “It had always been a notion of his that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness.” Sam’s sense of justice would have Gollum killed, just as Frodo had earlier wished to do. But Sam is mistaken: in the end, the mercy of Frodo (and of Bilbo) leads to a more perfect justice than that of the unmerciful servant.
In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis draws this simile of the three natural loves–affection, friendship and eros–and their relationship to the divine love of charity: The natural loves are like the glorious flowers of a garden, but charity is like the gardener with his tools. The flowers are beautiful, appealing, marvelous in their glory; but the gardener with his tools is homely, dirty, hardly noticeable in light of the flowers. And yet, without the gardener and his tools, the flowers would die and lose their natural beauty and glory: they cannot be what they were meant to be apart from the gardener’s practical, yet (in a sense) ‘supernatural’ work. It lies outside the normal working of nature. I mention this here in connection with the charity of Frodo for two reasons. First, as many commentators and readers have noted, Frodo is not really a very colorful character. Compared to Sam (a favorite of many), Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Merry, Pippin, Gimli, Eowyn, Treebeard, or even Tom Bombadil, Frodo’s character, though wholesome, seems a bit plain. He is not naturally the most interesting character. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that his charity has a salutary effect upon the other kinds of loving relationships in the story.
The chief example of this is how Frodo’s charitable love for Sam purifies and glorifies Sam’s devoted affection for Frodo. As Tolkien notes, even though Sam “was meant to be lovable and laughable,” he was also “cocksure, and deep down a little conceited; but his conceit had been transformed by his devotion to Frodo.” Indeed, Sam’s loving affection for Frodo is manifested in ways that indicate a transformation from mere affection to charity itself: he sacrifices his own ration of food and water for Frodo; he carries Frodo up Mount Doom on his back; and in the end, he too pities and forgives Gollum. The charity of Frodo both transcends and allows for the perfection of the affection Sam has for Frodo.
That charity also sustains the friendship of Frodo and Bilbo, and is the spark and catalyst for the friendships between Merry and Pippin and between Legolas and Gimli. Without charity (probably from both sides), the friendship between Frodo and Bilbo would have been destroyed by a rivalry between them over possession of the Ring. Only the divine virtue of charity could overcome the malevolent effect of the Ring. Merry and Pippin, though friends before the quest began, would never have formed the inseparable bond between them if it were not for their mutual love for Frodo, which was, in turn, fed and fueled by Frodo’s deep love for each of them. Likewise, the bond of friendship brought an elf (Legolas) and a dwarf (Gimli)–traditional enemies–together. Without the quest, which was undertaken as an act of love, this friendship would never have come to pass.
And finally, we can see that that same act of love allowed for the glorious fulfillment of at least three romances: Aragorn and Arwen, Faramir and Eowyn, and Sam and Rosie. What is left implicit is that these romances must also be sustained by charity as well. As Lewis reminds us, the lofty promises and ideals of eros can only be fulfilled and kept by charity.