Heroism Redifined: Lord of the Rings
Heroism redefined Lord of the Rings J. R. R.
Tolkien Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, offers the reader a truly compelling picture of the world of Middle-earth. The author, in great detail, depicts a complex reality which abounds in a whole variety of creatures, cultures, languages and histories. If we take a closer look on Tolkien’s masterpiece we will easily notice a complexity of themes, motifs, symbols which add to the semantic richness of the text. It is necessary to mention that Tolkien was considerably influenced by the literary tradition.
Fascinated by literary genres such as a heroic epic, a chivalric romance or a fairy tale Tolkien skillfully weaved many characteristic conventions of these genres in Lord of the Rings. Among many other features drawn from the literary tradition the theme of heroism occupies a prominent position in Tolkien’s trilogy. On the one hand Tolkien follows a well known model of a courageous epic hero, but on the other hand he operates with the theme in an innovative way.
Apart from a careful depiction of a well known image of noble heroism typical of great figures of historical significance such as Aragorn, the novel surprisingly offers a completely new image of heroism which is represented by small hobbits. Providing at the same time two parallel faces of the concept, Tolkien significantly changes and challenges the traditional meaning of heroism and, as a consequence, significantly enriches the literary tradition. A significant part of the trilogy is devoted to the deeds of great Men such as Aragorn.
Drawing extensively on the tradition of heroic epic and chivalric romance Tolkien presents a powerful image of a knightly hero full of noble virtues. Aragorn is a “born hero” – a true heir to the throne of Gondor, “born to achieve great deeds in his time” (Zimmer Bradley 83). He is a courageous man of action, endowed with physical strength, who combats evil, brings order and restores peace. Respected and admired by other characters, Aragorn is a hero of indomitable spirit who never commits mistakes and always serves as an epitome of bravery and virtue.
Although Aragorn is one of the most prominent characters in the trilogy, the most important mission, to destroy the malevolent Ring, falls upon a completely different figure. The future of the whole Middle-earth does not depend on noble Elves or brave Men or even strong Dwarves but lies in the hands of the seemingly weak and insignificant hobbits (Gulisano 131). Tolkien’s surprising choice falls upon small and rather funny creatures which, in fact, do not really have any particular achievements. Though small and weak, it is Frodo and his faithful servant Sam who are burdened with an extremely difficult task.
Contrary to all expectations Frodo is chosen to carry the ring: “You may be nobody in particular in yourself, yet for some inexplicable reasons, through no choice of your own, the Ring has come into your keeping, so that it is on you and not on Gandalf or Aragorn that the task falls of destroying it” (LotR, I, 284) At first the small hobbit is full of doubts. He is neither a great wizard like Gandalf to plan the strategy of war against Sauron, nor Aragorn, an outstanding warrior who is destined to be the leader of the army of Gondor. Yet, the Ring has clearly chosen the hobbit.
Unlike other significant figures of the trilogy Frodo has “heroism thrust upon him” (Zimmer Bradley 84). In contrast with Aragorn, Frodo is not born to gain glory, yet through experience and ability to endure hardships he finally rises to heroism. Though hesitantly, Frodo humbly accepts the task: “’I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way. ”(LotR, I, 284) Even though Frodo would rather “stay at home than risk my life on the very slight chance of winning glory” (LotR, I, 284) eventually he resigns from his own comfort and safety and full of hope takes up a dangerous journey to save the world of Middle-earth.
During the journey he often trembles, regrets his lot and wonders why he was burdened with such an enormous load, still he manages to remain faithful to the mission till the very end. Deciding to carry the Ring Frodo starts to follow a path full of sacrifices and pain. As the Ring bearer he is forced to put up a constant resistance to his own ambitions and desire for power (Bramlett 70). Frodo undeniably becomes a hero of the story. Though he actually fails at the very last moment of his mission – he yields to the temptation and wants to posses the Ring for his own- the quest is still completed and Frodo returns covered in glory.
However, as Frodo rather reluctantly accepts the heavy burden of the unusual quest there is another character who follows the same path on his own free will and without complain. Sam, Frodo’s devoted servant, becomes an unrecognized hero of the story, who bravely accompanies and supports Frodo till the very last stage of their journey. He is the one who cares even less for glory and heroic deeds. His only wish is to protect his master and follow Frodo even if it means death. (Zimmer Bradley 84) Throughout the story Sam undergoes perhaps the most significant development.
He starts out as a minor character. Even Sam describes himself as a “luggage in a boat”. He is a rather comic and childish character hardly adequate for such a grand enterprise (Purtill 89). Although at first he displays a sort of a limited perception, which is not unusual for a hobbit – he can be very practical at times – “his mind was slow but shrewd” (LotR, II, 625). In the course of the novel Sam gradually takes more and more responsibility and acquires such importance that without him the quest would be unfulfilled.
Sam seems to be a typical hobbit servant, yet Tolkien endows him with certain features which differentiate him from the traditional literary servants. This peculiar hobbit is endowed with a sort of curiosity which is quite unique for a hobbit. He is fascinated with Elves and dreams about an opportunity to meet them one day. He is much more open to the new ideas and experiences than a typical hobbit (Purtill 90-91). What is more, Sam is also aware of his own limitations. He usually depends on the opinion of others, as he is not able to decide on grand matters: “ I hope that the master will think it out carefully.
He’s as wise as any, but he’s soft-hearted, that’s what he is. It’s beyond any Gamgee to guess what he’ll do next” (LotR, II, 625). Moreover, Sam is also endowed with a significantly greater independence than a typical servant (Purtill 90-91). When Frodo decides to abandon Shire alone, without any support of his friends, Sam reveals Frodo’s plan to Pippin and Merry in order to protect his master. On another occasion he disobeys Aragorn and secretly follows Frodo on the further journey without informing the rest of the fellowship. When his master comes at stake
Sam is able to do absolutely anything. Above all else, Sam characterizes an enormous devotion, selflessness and love for Frodo. His care for his master is truly incomparable: “It is hardly possible to separate you form him [Frodo], even when he is summoned to a secret council and you are not” (LotR, I, 284). Throughout the story signs of Sam’s love for Frodo can be frequently encountered: “Sam came in. He ran to Frodo and took his left hand, awkwardly and shyly. He stroked it gently and then he blushed and turned hastily away. ” (LotR, I, 237) His love for Frodo is immense.
He is totally selfless and ready for sacrifices for his master. His devotion is best portrayed in the last stage of the quest, when the fellowship is broken and the two hobbits continue their dark journey to Mordor all by themselves. As Frodo, due to the malevolent power of the Ring, gradually becomes both physically and mentally weaker, Sam becomes an actual guide and protector. He deals with the practical aspects of the journey and combats various obstacles throughout the way. Gradually Sam becomes less comic and much more doughty.
Along with their approaching the gates of Mordor Sam is significantly gaining importance and becoming a truly mature character. When the two hobbits are just one step form completing their mission of destroying the Ring everything is almost ruined due to Gollum’s betrayal. Sam and Frodo are attacked by a giant spider Shelob. Frodo is wounded in the combat and Sam is convinced that his beloved master is dead. Though terrified and totally miserable he does not turn back. He feels an obligation to continue the quest. As soon as he realizes that his master is still alive he rushes to rescue Frodo.
As for the time being he carries the Ring, and just like Frodo and others he is subject to the great temptation. On this stage of the journey ominous power of the Ring is the most dangerous and the temptation is respectively stronger. The Ring plants in Sam visions of himself as a great warrior: Samwise the Strong. Hero of the Age, striding with flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of tress and brought forth fruit.
He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own and all this could be. In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own lands to use, not the lands of others to command. And anyway, all those notions are only a trick,” he said to himself. (LotR, III, 880-881) Sam is saved by his great love for his master and his extraordinary common sense combined with modesty and humility. Deep down he realizes that the vision of himself as a great warrior is ridiculous. The illusion, in fact, does not even constitute a dream that he aspires to. Sam is aware that he is not meant to be a grand hero. He knows perfectly well that his true vocation is to be a humble servant and this is exactly what makes him happy.
The great trial Sam is subject to requires from the little hobbit a great deal of common wisdom and strength. Sam who at first seems to be a rather weak and at times an irritating character demonstrates strength which can be compared to the one of Galadriel or Gandalf. He is not only able to resist the temptation, but also to return the Ring to Frodo without hesitation. Sam displays enormous grandeur. At this point he presents more heroism than for instance one of Tolkien’s classic heroes Bromir for whom temptation turned out too great to resist.
As one of the critics rightly suggests: “He [Sam] exhibits concrete wisdom rather than abstract reasoning, finds relationship more important than objects, is supportive, nurturing, and self-sacrificing. ” (Purtill 95) Tolkien seems to suggest that these are the features that account for true heroism. Thanks to Sam the quest can be completed. He supports Frodo emotionally till the very end and even literally carries him to the Mount Doom when the latter is physically unable to reach the destination.
At the last stage of their journey Frodo is so debilitated by the power of the Ring that he is practically unable to think clearly. All his powers are focused on resisting the temptation of putting the Ring on the finger. Form now on the success of the mission depends on Sam. At this point, the development of Sam is clearly visible. He realizes that the mission has to be completed, that they must do everything in their power to end the task. He knows that they have reached a point from which there is no return.
Though, he is convinced that there is no hope for them and they are doomed to death, he still manages to follow once entrusted mission. Sam becomes an undeniable hero of the story. Though he does not acquire a sort of glory that Pippin and Merry achieve on a battlefield, still he does acquire the necessary virtue and wisdom to eventually become the leader and the ruler of the hobbits – the Mayor of the Shire. Lord of the Rings, among many other beautiful and complex images, provides one of the most extraordinary and memorable depictions of heroism.
Greatly influenced by the literary tradition, Tolkien both follows and modifies the concept of heroism and consequently provides the reader with two faces of this traditional notion. Tolkien emphasizes a number of features characteristic for a heroic epic and a chivalric romance. Features such as courage, fortitude, nobleness and honour can be found in several prominent figures in the novel. One of the most distinct examples, personifying all these virtues, is to be found in Aragorn. He is a classic hero, descendant of the line of kings, great warrior, the one who restores peace and brings back justice.
Aragorn is the rightful heir to the throne who bravely struggles with the forces of evil and at the end triumphantly comes back to his kingdom and marries Arwena – Elf princess. Aragorn embodies all features typical of a truly heroic character in the traditional sense of the concept. However, the author does not only provide the reader with a well known model of heroism based on strength and courage. The novel presents a new surprising aspect of this concept and at the same time establishes a modern, innovative definition of the notion.
In the course of the novel the reader is exposed to a very peculiar juxtaposition of characters. Next to such heroic figures as Aragorn Tolkien places queer, little, funny hobbits. It is Frodo and his devoted servant Sam who become true heroes of the story. If it had not been for their simplicity, ordinariness, lack of violence and ability to self-sacrifice the whole Middle-earth would be seized by the forces of evil. Frodo and Sam represent ordinary, insignificant figures who through their selflessness, loyalty and love for friends are brought to the heroic glory.
Realization of their own limitations, common sense and modesty prevents them form mistakes that other characters are prone to commit. Hobbits represent the kind of courage exhibited by an ordinary person, who rises to heroism in the face of challenge (Purtill 77). Their courage is moral as well as physical. On their quest they have to face both mental torments, such as resisting the power of the ring and fear of enemies, and physical hardships, like lack of food and water, exhaustion due to the strenuous journey and wounds they receive during combats.
Tolkien presents the reader a new definition of heroism which is based on love and humility and can be achieved not exclusively by the chosen, great figures but by everybody. Heroism that Tolkien offers in Lord of the Rings is within everybody’s reach, no matter how small and weak and ordinary they would be (Gulisano 132). Juxtaposing the two kinds of heroism Tolkien stresses the fact that both can harmoniously coexist and are complementary: “without the high and noble the simple and vulgar is utterly mean; and without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless” (Tolkien in: Purtill 60).