“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
This exchange occurs in Book I, Chapter 2, as Gandalf explains the history of the Ring to Frodo. The “it” to which Frodo refers is the finding of the Ring by Gollum, as well as the return of Sauron. Gandalf’s response to Frodo’s lament is at once heroic and fatalistic. The wizard’s words are heroic because they insist that one must rise to the challenge offered by one’s time. At the same time, however, there is also the suggestion that one is born at a particular time and in a particular place for a certain preordained purpose. The decision is, of course, not one’s own to make; however, Gandalf does imply that it is a decision that is made somewhere—that Gandalf and Frodo’s “time” has been “given” to them. This sense of purpose, of fate assigning roles to certain people, surfaces in many other such passages in The Lord of the Rings, in which ancient prophecies assign characters to certain tasks. Indeed, as Aragorn says, the War of the Ring is fated to be Gandalf’s greatest battle. These pervasive references to preordainment and prophecy link Tolkien’s novel to earlier epics and mythologies, most notably those of ancient Greece. Like many of the characters in The Lord of the Rings, the Greek gods and mortals are at the mercy of fate, often in the form of prophecies made long before the characters were even alive. Despite this emphasis on fate, however, free will does play a significant part in Tolkien’s novel. Frodo is perhaps the ideal Ring-bearer, as his strength of character enables him to accept his fated role, yet also to retain a sense of free will in the face of the powerful, corrupting influence of the Ring.