Just doing my bit to keep well he’s back, Malacandra, and the rest of my fellow Tolkienites happy.
For purposes of this discussion, let’s treat this as part of the Great Game. That is, assume that the events of The Lord of the Rings actually happened substantially as related, that the worldview presented there and in The Silmarillion is the correct one; in short, that Professor Tolkien truly was the translator, not the author, of the Red Book. Kay?
As we all know, nothing happens in Arda without the ultimate sanction of Eru Ilúvatar. As is written
The free wills of his Children are the nearest thing there is to an exception, but even though the All-Father permits Elves*, Men†, & Dwarves‡ freedom from his direct control, he nevertheless remains sovereign: acting usually through agents, occasionally directly and subtly, and once or an age in incontrovertible, dramatic, world-rending fashion. In the long run, all conflicts end so that good win and evil is hosed.
But that’s the long run. Being eternal, the All-High has a somewhat different view of what “long run” means than Men, Elves, or even Ainur. Sauron and Melkor were both permitted to be free and malevolent for hundreds if not thousands of years. Eru was always going to smack them down, ultimately, but not necessarily in what we’d call a timely fashion.
With all that in mind … how would the War of the Ring have turned out if Frodo had died before completing his mission? Consider any or all of these three crucial points:
The broken bit of Morgul blade travels a bit more quickly through Frodo’s veins. Glorfindel still manages to get the younger Mr. Underhill to Rivendell, but he dies despite Elrond’s best efforts. Thus a different Bearer must be found.
A certain cave-troll chances to aim a little higher in Moria, missing Frodo’s mithril-shielded midriff and skewering him through the throat. Gandalf falls in battle with the Balrog soon thereafter, leaving Aragorn in command of a quest with neither a quester nor a plan for succession.
Having never seen a halfling before, Shelob misjudges how much poison is needed to keep on alive but immobile. Sam takes the ring as in the “true” history, but is never given fresh hope by overhearing the Orcs’ conversation; he is only reinforced in his belief that his master is dead.
So there are your scenarios; feel free to add your own. How could providence have recovered from these three cataclysms.
*Assumed here to include Orcs. Though I still don’t agree to the consensus from last week’s thread.
†Including Hobbits. And girls. Who cares what Glorfindel thinks “Man” means?
‡So they’re *adopted *children. Big woof. Eru still leaves room for them at the table at Thanksgiving. “He’s a very nice prince.”