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Who Is the Hero of The Lord of The Rings?

the-one-ring

The one ring! You can buy it through Skymall!

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.

Sam?

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.

Thoughts?

Josh

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Patrick M. Tracy September 19, 2011, 11:06 am

    I think that, in the end, it’s a team game. There is no one hero. If not for the efforts of all the different characters, the side of good fails. Aragorn and Gandalf needed to do what they could do, as did the hobbits, as did Gollum. I don’t think that it makes Frodo less a hero that, in the end, the ring overcomes him. We saw that Sam couldn’t carry the ring for any distance, and many other good people couldn’t even be around it for long. I think that, perhaps, the whole story illustrates that the most difficult thing in the world is to kill an idea, for that’s what the ring is–just a terrible idea that twists everyone it touches. I’m no Tolkien scholar, but that’s my take.

    • John Sifferman September 20, 2011, 8:30 am

      I’m with you on the team effort, but I’d give MVP to Samwise any day of the week.

      • Todd September 21, 2011, 7:20 am

        It was definitely the group as a whole that made it all happen, but if I had to give the nod to any one character, it would have to be Samwise Gamgee. He never left his wing-man, even when Frodo dropped the ball. Gollum was no better off than Frodo, as they were both intoxicated with the power of the ring. Yes, he led to the rings destruction, but it was not his intention.

        • Pieter Collier September 21, 2011, 7:27 am

          Frodo for sure is not the hero… he failed in the end! Not that any of us would do otherwhise…

          • Pieter Collier September 21, 2011, 8:07 am

            J.R.R. Tolkien – Letter 191 to Miss J. Burn (26 July 1956)

            “If you re-read all the passages dealing with Frodo and the Ring, I think you will see that not only was it quite impossible for him to surrender the Ring, in act or will, especially at its point of maximum power, but that this failure was adumbrated from far back. He was honoured because he had accepted the burden voluntarily, and had then done all that was within his utmost physical and mental strength to do. He (and the Cause) were saved – by Mercy: by the supreme value and efficacy of Pity and forgiveness of injury.”
            “No, Frodo ‘failed’. It is possible that once the ring was destroyed he had little recollection of the last scene. But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us.”

  • Heather September 19, 2011, 12:16 pm

    Ibid on the team effort. Also–I see Gollum as a kind of hero as well as Sam–I think, there in the end, Gollum is not only blinded by ring-lust, but also perhaps by the memories of what he WAS prior to his metamorphosis into Gollum as Gollum, rather than Gollum the Former Hobbit. Gollum does, after all, make a sacrifice of himself, not only over the ring, but perhaps by chomping off Frodo’s finger. I see Frodo as sort of like a war vet. . . . he’s seen and been through so much on the whole warped quest that he has difficulties re-entering typical Hobbit society, hence his whole going away. There are a lot of social constructs you can see in this that are universal. There’s more here than what the average critic cares to notice, IMHO.

  • Boris September 19, 2011, 12:51 pm

    Smeagol did eat his share of goblins and kept the ring safe from who knows whom and for who knows how long.

    Honestly, I’d never thought of Gollum as a hero, but I think there’s a lot to suggest that he might have been an unwilling one at the end.

  • Jim Janney September 19, 2011, 6:20 pm

    To me, Gollum is the character that makes the story interesting, that
    takes it out of category. Gandalf says it plainly at the very beginning:

    Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And
    some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be
    too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise
    cannot see all ends.

    Besides, most of the characters are, I’m sorry to say, predictable. With
    Gollum you never know which way he’ll jump.

    • Jim Janney September 19, 2011, 6:49 pm

      In a conventional fantasy the hero would be the long-lost heir with the
      magic sword, that is to say Aragorn. But Tolkien is more interested in
      the hobbits.

  • cinderkeys September 20, 2011, 12:40 am

    Team effort. I wouldn’t count Gollum among the heroes, but Sam, definitely. He’s the only one who gave up the ring completely willingly.

  • Jeanette September 20, 2011, 1:03 am

    Samwise Gamgee is my vote, although the other characters all are heroic in their own way. It’s really his story…Gandalf knew he would be outside Frodo’s window “trimming the verge”, and that he would go with him. Gandalf depended on that. He knew Frodo couldn’t do it alone. In a way LoTR is Sam’s ‘coming of age’ tale….much to think about here….

    • Heather September 20, 2011, 8:45 am

      Good call on the coming-of-age relationship with Sam there! That’s an angle I totally missed!

  • Pieter Collier September 21, 2011, 5:07 am

    I don’t know where but I’m certain the only real hero is SAM according to Tolkien himself… will have to search for a quote I suppose!

    • Pieter Collier September 21, 2011, 8:13 am

      OK found it… it is printed in the Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull:

      J.R.R. Tolkien – letter to Milton Waldman (dated 1951)
      “I think the simple ‘rustic’ love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero’s) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the ‘longing for Elves’, and sheer beauty.”

      So he does not use the word “true” but “chief hero” and so here is the proof Tolkien saw Sam as the main hero!

  • Sarah September 21, 2011, 7:53 am

    I think that Samwise is a great choice as the hero, because he really comes into his own in the role Gandalf gives him. But you can’t really deny Frodo the hero title, because he’s done more than anyone else:

    The hobbits in general are the “heroic race” to me, because the ring taints anyone that comes in contact with it almost immediately. The hobbits withstand it much much longer than anyone else. Isildur is tainted pretty much immediately; all he had to do was climb up the mountain after the battle. While Smeagol did murder his friend immediately after finding the ring, he never really used it for his own power like man would’ve done had they gotten a hold on it. Bilbo pretty much never succumbs to the power of the ring, until he gives it away and he misses it. However, the ring is “asleep” while it’s with Bilbo, and so we move on to Frodo.

    Frodo is the only one to bear the full brunt of the ring’s power. Not even Isildur did, because he had possession of it immediately after defeating Sauron. And Smeagol/Gollum and Bilbo both had the ring while it was “asleep.”

    It took the entire journey for Frodo to finally be tainted. Kind of like how it’s easy to get sick after you’ve been stressing about remaining healthy for a long time leading up to some special event, it’s almost as if he fought and fought to keep control and as soon as he was at the end, his body sort of let go and relaxed…just a little prematurely. So he “got sick.”

    Heroes are always flawed, tragic figures, and in that case Frodo really earns the title. Samwise, I think, is a veryclose second.

    • Pieter Collier September 21, 2011, 8:05 am

      J.R.R. Tolkien – Letter 192 to Amy Ronald (27 July 1956)

      “By chance, I have just had another letter regarding the failure of Frodo. Very few seem even to have observed it. But following the logic of the plot, it was clearly inevitable, as an event. And surely it is a more significant and real event than a mere ‘fairy-story’ ending in which the hero is indomitable? It is possible for the good, even the saintly, to be subjected to a power of evil which is too great for them to overcome – in themselves. In this case the cause (not the ‘hero’) was triumphant, because by the exercise of pity, mercy, and forgiveness of injury, a situation was produced in which all was redressed and disaster averted.”
      “Frodo deserved all honour because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further. Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far. The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named’* (as one critic has said).”