Mercy can be difficult to offer, no question about it. Because of that, characters who show mercy to those who oppose them are some of the most heroic (in my opinion). Jean Valjean refusing to shoot Javert (Les Misérables), Rey healing Kylo (Star Wars: The Return of Skywalker), and Bilbo deciding not to kill Gollum (The Hobbit)…these are all examples of grace extended where it wasn’t required.
In that vein, there is one fictional hero whose displays of mercy are extraordinary at times—and that hero, as you’ve probably guessed, is Frodo Baggins. There are three major characters in The Lord of the Rings to whom Frodo shows mercy, each in a different way.
First, and most famously, is Gollum. Like Bilbo, Frodo refrains from killing Gollum even when it seems quite foolish and dangerous to let him live. On first hearing Gollum is still alive, Frodo fiercely wishes Bilbo had ‘stab[bed] that vile creature, when he had a chance!’ It is only after meeting Gollum for himself (and heeding Gandalf’s warning to not be hasty in dealing out death) that Frodo finds himself moved with pity for Gollum. Although he never trusts Gollum wholly, Frodo extends mercy to him. Yes, this is partly out of Frodo and Sam’s need for a guide to bring them to Mordor. But Frodo’s mercy isn’t simply of the ‘tolerating’ kind. It’s not as though he thinks “there, I won’t kill him, but that’s all I’ll do for him.” Instead, he tries to bring Gollum back to some form of goodness and decency and wholeness, doing more for Gollum than he had to (and, most notably, against the opinion of his most faithful companion and friend, Sam).
The next person Frodo shows mercy is Boromir. In a poignant (if tense) moment, Frodo and Faramir have a conversation about Faramir’s older brother. When asked if he was a friend of Boromir, Frodo responds, “Yes, I was his friend, for my part”. And, when asked if he would grieve to learn Boromir is dead, he says he ‘would grieve indeed’. I believe Frodo has already forgiven Boromir at this point and displays mercy in that he doesn’t reveal Boromir’s rage and violence towards himself. Faramir figures out Boromir’s slip on his own, but (as far as I remember), Frodo doesn’t speak one bad word against Boromir even though the attack obviously hurt and shook him. This might not be as obvious a display of mercy as Frodo’s dealings with Gollum, but I still admire it.
Lastly, there’s Saruman. When Frodo and his friends return home, they find Saruman has taken over the Shire in their absence and has done many horrible things there (including ordering his henchman to murder at least one hobbit). When Saruman’s power is finally vanquished, Frodo allows him to leave unscathed. As Saruman is leaving, he attempts to stab and kill Frodo (only stopped by the mithril shirt Frodo wears). But even then, Frodo doesn’t allow Sam and the others to kill Saruman in return—not even when Saruman sneers at him and insults him for his mercy. It’s an astounding thing.
Frodo’s mercy fascinates me, partly because it’s an echo of the mercy God extends towards us every day. Like Gollum, we deserve death because of our sins. Like Boromir, we follow our own pride and self-will, giving into temptation. When we refuse to believe in Jesus and accept the sacrifice that He made for us on the cross, we reject His mercy just like Saruman rejected Frodo’s.
Near the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf had this to say: ‘Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.’
God can see ‘all ends’ and yet, like Frodo enduring Gollum’s nastiness or Saruman’s hatred, He still shows us mercy again and again.