The heroes of The Lord of the Rings

Every year around christmas, I read Tolkiens “canon”, that is The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. As earlier years, I’ve also this time tried to find a new angle or figure to watch closer. This year, let’s talk about heroes.

Who is the true hero of The Lord of the Rings. Frodo everybody yells at once, of course. Or Gandalf! Gandalf for president! – an american slogan from the sixties. Or even Aragorn, the high king returned.

I tend to disagree.

Of course, Frodo is the main character, the Ringbearer, our beloved protagonist, and the hero of the story, as he goes forward, constantly dodging dangers and all the time trying to avoid the lure of the Ring itself. But what does he do? He fullfills his journey. He trots forward, tired, his head hanging, driven on by this strange urge, coming from he knows not where. There is a greater force putting him forward. This is clearly seen at the Council of Elrond: At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. ‘I will take the Ring,’ he said. So Frodo is fulfilling his purpose, put forward by some divine will, and it seems Gandalf knew it already; the only real eye-openers (…) were you and Frodo; and I was the only one that was not surprised. (Gandalf to Bilbo after the council). I could say just fulfill, but that would be to diminish Frodo’s efforts. Frodo comes to the end his divine-given quest, and Middle-earth is saved. No small deed. Yet the story holds more heroism than he achieves while fullfilling his quest.

So, what about Gandalf. No, Gandalf is no hero. He is a divine creature, a spirit of Eru Ilúvatar, an incarnated maia of Valinor. While being a driver for good, heartening the downcast, giving hope to the dejected, and finally acting the captain of the West against the Shadow of the East, he still does no more than being true to his mission, and doing the task he has been given. Now is Gandalf aware of this? Yes and no. This is discussed, actually, Gandalf discusses it himself, in The Quest for Erebor (Unfinished Tales): I do not know the answer. For I have changed since those days, and I am no longer trammelled by the burden of Middle-earth as I was then. In those days I should have answered you with words like those I used to Frodo (…): Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker, and you therefore were meant to bear it. And I might have added: and I was meant guide you both to those points.

So Gandalf was just true to his task. There are still other heroes in this story.

Aragorn, then. He must obviously be a great hero, mustn’t he? Well, Aragorn is … too much. He is the Heir of Kings, the last of the Numenorians, betrothed to Arwen Elrond’s daughter, chieftain of the Rangers of the North, great warrior of Gondor and Rohan, raider of Harad, the greatest hunter of the age, etc, etc, and when all is over, mighty King of both Gondor and Arnor, with Queen Evenstar by his side. Should we not expect valor and great deeds from him. Of course we should. So is he a hero? Sure, a hundred-fold hero! But that is still just what one would expect from him. He is also fulfilling the task set for him. If Darth Vader was his father, he would say It’s your destiny! What I am looking for is a hero of another kind.

A little sidenote here: In the (Peter Jackson) movie version, Aragorn himself is doubting this whole heir of king thing. He seems unsure if he is fit for the job. When Gandalf suggests him as one that could lead men against Sauron, Elrond says that he left that path long ago. Tolkien’s Aragorn is not like that at all! When Boromir partly mocks Aragorn during the Council, saying Mayhap the Sword that was broken may still stem the tide – if the hand that wields it has inherited not an heirloom only, but the sinews of the Kings of Men, Aragorn replies, and one can almost see a little smile lingering by his cheeks, Who can tell. But we will put it to the test one day. Saying that to the face of the heir of the Steward of Gondor, the matter of fact coming regent of the greatest kingdom of the west, Aragorn does not show much uncertainty of himself.

So, back to the heroness. If none of these fits, what kind of hero am I looking for? I could mention Boromir, that when he fails his task to help Frodo, overcomes the lure of the Ring, and protects Merry and Pippin with his life, to his death. I could name Fatty Bolger, described at the start of the book as a fat coward, but at the Scouring of the Shire, the hobbits find him imprisoned for leading a band of rebels who fought against Sharkey’s men. But there are two characters that are more prominent in the story.

There is Eowyn. Still a member of a royal house. But when her love to Aragorn is rejected, all she wants is to serve her king, and die in battle. And when her king dies in splendor, she denies the monsters the defilement of his body, lets her helm fall, and her long blond hair shines in the sunrise, as she slays the enemy that no man could kill for thousands of years. Now that’s girl power! But still, when all is over, what does she do? Does she remain the warrior princess? No, she bows her proud head, enjoying the humble work in the houses of healing. And granted from both her kings, her brother and her healer, she takes love, and builds a garden with Faramir in Ithilien.

A side note on the building of gardens as a token of peace and happiness: While this may seem strange to some, those that know Tolkien’s love for plants and especially trees, and has fine-read the descriptions of The Shire and of Ithilien, know that this is a great compliment. Building a garden in peace and prosperity is really the best life can offer – and this also says a lot about Tolkien’s views of what a good life is too. When Faramir wonders of the tales of the Shire on the way to Henneth Annûn, he actually emphasizes this: Your land must be a realm of peace and content, and there must gardeners be in high honour.

And speaking of garderners, let’s finish with my favourite hero of the story. It’s Sam Gamgee, of course.

Sam isn’t the brightest. In some parts he’s depicted as slow or even a bit stupid, as his father, old Ham The Gaffer Gamgee has told him more than once. But when heavy thinking doesn’t help out, he listens to his heart, and makes his decisions based on down-to-earth reasoning and his experience as a gardener. His mission is to humbly serve the master that he loves, and when trotting on with Frodo, he doesn’t only serve. Time after time, he actually saves Frodo’s life. He brings the rope that saves Frodo from the cliff of Emyn Muil. He discovers Gollum’s evil side, hindering him from killing Frodo in his sleep. Keeping the hope in the hopelesness, he makes sure the food lasts, and actually finds water in the desert of Gorgoroth. Three times. He remembers the glass of light when the blackness of eternal night surrounds them. When the terror strikes, he doesn’t hesitate a moment, but attacks his enemies with a fierceness that surprises them (and the reader as well). And when all hope finally leaves him, he carries his master and his burden on his very back, offering his life for the quest of his master.

When the Ring tries to lure Sam to put it on, promising him armies to command, and making the desert realm of Mordor a lush garden of light and water, what keeps him back? His down to earth personality. He doesn’t need a realm. He only wants his bit of garden, and caring for mister Frodo at Bag End. And when they finally return to the Shire and rebuild it, he uses his gift from Galadriel, not to build his own garden, but to the good of the whole Shire. Now, isn’t that a bit too much? Is he not too humble? Look at how Tolkien rewards Sam for his deeds. Not only does he get the family he secretly has longed for, and his descendants for generations are known as the fairbairns. But he actually gets his garden realm to govern, as he does his beloved forestry work and becoming the Mayor of the Shire for years upon years.

So these are my greatest heroes of The Lord of the Rings: Valor in the face of despair. Willing to sacrifice, to the death if necessary. Raising their head when death looks them in the eye. But most important, humble in the pride of their task. Eowyn and Sam.

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