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Frodo, of Gollum: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance.

Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.

I’ve always liked this line from Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings—very similar to the original in Tolkien’s novel, but slightly more economical. I’m not sure I would agree now that “many that live deserve death”—that seems overharsh—and I’m not sure that the reason we should be slow to deal out death is because of a certain near-sightedness; as if someone with farther and keener vision might be so entitled to deal out death.

Indeed, I would probably want to switch the two quantities Gandalf uses here: perhaps it is the case that some that live deserve death; it is certainly the case that many that die deserve life. That alone—that a great many people are dealt death rather than life when they are born into poverty, when they are denied necessary medical care, when they are incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their crime, when they are killed by the state, when they are victims of violence, etc., etc.—that alone should give us pause before further perpetuating death. Death, once dealt, cannot be withdrawn; not by us.

I like, too, how Gandalf recommends pity as a sort of default disposition toward those we encounter; not pity in a patronizing or paternalistic sense, but rather pity as a fellow-feeling of compassion for the sufferings or distresses of others.