On Mercy in Tolkien’s Works
The nature of mercy in Tolkien’s works is an altogether more demanding thing than we might expect. It takes two distinct forms, which can be broadly expressed as the mercy offered to those who are on the wrong path, and the mercy offered to those who have long endeavoured to take the right one.
The mercy offered to the former is not expressed in the sense of freedom from consequence, or even of freedom from punishment, though it contains the latter. It is primarily expressed as the principle that it is never too late to do the right thing. The opportunity to do what is right will continue to be extended, up until the very end - but that is no guarantee that it will be easy. This is the nature of the hope that Gandalf offers to Théoden in Meduseld: that the world is not wholly dark, Théoden is not wholly old, there is still a chance to act and Théoden needs to do so. This is the hope that Théoden embraces, and it leads him to victory at Helm’s Dedp, victory on the Pelennor, and to his death. But he dies achieving something great, and necessary, and far better than if he had remained withering in Meduseld while Saruman amd Sauron conquered Rohan and Gondor.
It is likewise seen in Gandalf’s final confrontation with Denethor, and this is one of the strongest illustrations of what I mean by Tolkien’s mercy being demanding. Denethor is wavering. He hears Faramir calling for him, and he weeps. And Gandalf does not say, “It’s okay, you can go with him to the Houses of Healing, and we’ll work this all out.” He says:
“He calls, but you cannot come to him yet. For he must seek healing on the threshold of death, and maybe find it not. Whereas your part is to go out to the battle of your city, where maybe death awaits you. This you know in your heart.”
This is an incredibly stark answer to give to a man standing on the brink, but it is in essence the same thing Gandalf said to Théoden: there is still hope, and a chance to do the right thing, if you are willing to reject despair, do your duty, and accept the possibility of death. Théoden accepts this chance. Denethor rejects it.
The same concept of mercy as the chance to do what is right, to change your path, is seen many time in Tolkien’s legendarium. It is what is continually offered to Saruman (much to his irritation) - not just that Gandalf, Galadriel, Frodo and others forbear to harm him, but that they do so out of the hope - and with the offer - that he could take a better path. It’s what Frodo offers to Gollum - or rather, Sméagol - at the foot of the Emyn Muil, and Sméagol finds it genuinely appealing for a time. It’s what the Fëanorians are offered in their very failure, time and again, to regain the Silmarils - you can recognize that this is wrong, you can reject your oath and renounce your claim on the jewels, you can stop, you have another chance to choose differently. In a sense, successfully regaining the Silmarils would deprive the Fëanorians of the chance to recognize that their oath is evil - and and of itself, over and above all the evil that they do in its name - and reject it.
This kind of mercy is rarely accepted, but it is always offered. And it is, I think, part of what Tolkien means when he says that true mercy is offered with the aim of benefitting the person being offered it, not just to keep the offerer clean of hatred and vengeance (though the latter is a worthy aim in itself). To take one example, Frodo doesn’t just refrain from harming Saruman out a principle that vengeance is wrong; he says “his cure is beyond us, but still I would spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”
The second type of mercy, that offered to people who are doing good and are at the end of their strength, is described by Tolkien is his letters:
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...and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed.
Mercy, in this sense, means that when a person has already done their utmost, and their utmost is not enough, that a way will be found. It also seems, commonly, to encompass a redress of suffering in these circumstances. This is what the Eagles frequently seems to represent, in their rescue of Beren and Lúthien and, many ages later, of Frodo and Sam. It is what Beren and Lúthien recieve in their second life together, and Elwing in her rescue from the sea by Ulmo, and Frodo in going to Valinor to be healed.
And I’m now realizing that there is a third type of mercy in Tolkien’s works, one that asks nothing of the recipient, but it is rarer; the two occasions I can think of are the rescue of Maedhros from Thangorodrim, and the Valarin intervention and pardon of the Noldor (including kinslayers) at the end if the First Age. And a crucial characteristic, in both of these cases, is that of intercession: mercy is sought by someone who has undergone extraordary trials on behalf of, and is asking mercy for, a person or persons who have severely harmed them. (If you see Gospel symbolism in this, I would say that I agree.) Fingon undertakes an effort that is both incredibly difficult and recklessly brave in trying to rescue Maedhros from Thangorodrim, and he does it despite the understanding that, insofar as he knows, Maedhros abandoned him after Fingon had pretty much damned himself for Maedhros’ sake. Abundant mercy is granted when it is asked by someone who has, themself, offered it. Likewise, Eärendil makes extraordinary efforts and takes extraordinary risks to reach Valinor, and asks pardon for the Noldor as a whole, including the people who have destroyed his home and friends and who have, as far as he knows, murdered his children. And again, his mercy is answered with mercy. This not just, as in the first type, mercy expressed in the form of forbearance (not harming someone, giving them another chance), but mercy expressed in the form of actively accepting suffering and danger with the goal of benefitting an enemy.
(This is what tears me up most about Maedhros. He is offered this kind of mercy twice and both times, sooner or later - later, in the first case, and sooner, in the second - he turns away from it.)
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