Sam and Frodo are discussing whether they might be characters in some story. Sam turns to Gollum and says:
Are you the hero or the villain?
I think the ideas surrounding the question, Who is the hero of The Lord of The Rings? are the most fascinating ideas in the book.
An unusual quest…
If you have not read the books or seen the movies, here is the briefest summary of the plot:
- The Bad Guy made a ring, lost it, and wants to get it back so he can control the world with it
- Frodo the Hobbit agrees to destroy the ring
- The ring can only be destroyed by tossing it into a volcano in the middle of Bad Guy Headquarters (Mount Doom!)
- Once Frodo gets to the edge of the volcano, he chooses not to throw it in
- Gollum–former-Hobbit-gone-mad-with-ring-lust–bites off Frodo’s ringfinger and then falls into the volcano, and hooray hooray, the ring is gone
So what’s unusual about this?
First off, most quests and epics involve a hero trying to find something, or win something…not to get rid of something.
Winning kingdoms, fair ladies, treasures, eternal life, etc. If the goal of a quest is to destroy something, it’s usually to destroy some monster or villain, so that the winning of the fair ladies etc can commence/resume.
But in LOTR, here’s the quest: get to the volcano and toss the ring in.
…requires an unusual hero?
Of course it’s not that simple, but the final scenes of the ring’s destruction make the issue of heroes a bit more tangled yet.
Frodo bears the ring for 99.9% of the trip. It crushes him with its influence and weight and nagging. Without getting too far into the addiction angle, I think it’s reasonable to say that its influence on Frodo is like that of a drug on a drug addict.
I do not choose now to do what I have come to do
At this point the reader has followed Frodo a long, long way. And then…what? What do you mean you “do not choose now to do what you came to do?” Tolkien chose his words very carefully, so I think this line is worth focusing on.
Is Frodo the hero?
From this sentence we can see that Frodo is aware that he is finally at the destination he set out for. He remembers why he came. But he can’t do it. Or he won’t. Or both. He is both in control, and has none.
Then Gollum bites his finger off and makes the choice for him. So can we make the case for Frodo being the hero? He bravely said “I’ll take the ring” back at Rivendell when everyone was getting all fussy and demanding about who should do what and how the ring should be used.
He kept at it after the fellowship broke and walked through a terrifying swamp and got caught by a spider and put up with Gollum’s nonsense.
He was brave. And when he gets so tired that he can’t even walk anymore at the base of Mount Doom, it’s hard to hold it against him when he allows Sam to pick him up and carry him.
Also, Frodo doesn’t really get a hero’s reward. When they finally get back to the Shire he’s so messed up from everything he has seen and been through that he can’t enjoy his life. He goes off The Blessed Lands to die in peace.
Still…it’s hard to imagine someone carrying Beowulf. By which I only mean that this is one more way that pinning down the hero becomes trickier here.
If Sam hadn’t picked him up and carried him, Frodo might not have gotten the chance to serendipitously have his finger chewed off by Gollum. If Sam hadn’t fought Shelob, who knows what would have happened to Frodo? If Sam hadn’t insisted on coming in the first place, we would have read a very different story.
Sam has my vote. There are others that are useful.
Gandalf and Aragorn play large parts, but there is never any doubt that everything hinges on Frodo and the ring. Unless someone can get rid of the ring, it’s all over.
When it comes down to it on the slopes of Mount Doom, Sam is the one who makes it possible for Frodo to get into the cave.
Of course, then Gollum bites Frodo’s finger off, so maybe he’s the hero.