Friday, May 30, 2014

A starting definition for hero in the Lord of the Rings

What is the definition of a hero in the Lord of the Rings? For those present in class on May 28th, this was one of the unresolved questions we were left pondering.  Building off of Verlyn Flieger’s Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of a Hero, I will attempt to establish a broad definition of a hero in the Lord of the Rings.  My current definition is as follows: Heroes in the Lord of the Rings are unequal, role-playing actors who can share characteristics and who participate in the War of the Ring as loyal defenders of the cause of opposition to evil.  This blog will attempt to describe this definition in closer detail. 

Heroes are unequal, role-playing actors who can share characteristics. These characteristics are of different degrees and in different senses.

Flieger argues that “the conventional medieval story, whether epic, romance, fairy-tale, or some combination of these, most often focuses on one figure –the hero of the tale…[but] in the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has written a medieval story and given it both kinds of a hero”, that is, one who represents the “extraordinary man” and one who can identify with the “common man” (p.124.).  According to Flieger, these two characters are Aragorn and Frodo respectively as she claims Aragorn is the traditional epic/romance hero, larger than life, a leader, fighter, lover, healer” in contrast with Frodo who “on the other hand is a fairy-tale hero (p. 124)” with the “mythic significance of a bringer of peace, prosperity, and fruitfulness (p. 136).”
Armed with Sting, however, does Frodo not fight throughout the Lord of the Rings?  Flieger notes, Frodo is “no warrior (p. 134)” but I would argue that though he may not have been one from the beginning, he certainly transforms into one.  We must keep in mind, however, that defining Frodo as a warrior is not identical to the definition of a warrior relative to Aragorn.  In other words, Frodo and Aragorn are both warriors but their position as warrior in the War of the Ring is unequal.  Furthermore, is Frodo not a leader in the sense that he bears the burden of the ring and ultimately brings it to Mount Doom?  Flieger would claim that Frodo “accepts an intolerable burden not from a sense that he is the proper one to bear it but because no one else volunteers (p. 134).”  While Aragorn was more assertive with his mission and Frodo more hesitant and less inclined to lead an army of men with a charge into a group of orcs, they both ultimately exert their moments of leadership throughout the epic and Frodo does such in his offering to bear the ring and ultimate completion of his mission with Sam.   It would also be difficult to say that Aragorn fails to display the characteristics of peace, prosperity, and fruitfulness.  While not to the same extent as Frodo perhaps, he still has his moments with these qualities. 
Furthermore, Tolkien explicitly notes that Samwise Gamgee is the “chief hero” of the Lord of the Rings (Letter 131 p. 161).  What this implies is that defining a hero does not necessarily have to do with his or her social status or qualities and/or skills that may be of a heavy attraction to readers.  In other words, Aragorn who is a King, an assertive leader, and “larger than life” is not the highest ranked hero in the Lord of the Rings even though it seems as thought he very well might likely appear to be as such.  Thus, what we have seen so far is that heroes are unequal.  They can share the same characteristics, but just in a different sense and to different degrees, which reveals the importance of relative role-playing in heroism. 

Heroes participate in the War of the Ring as loyal defenders of the cause of opposition to evil.  Heroes fight monsters in this defense, but they do not necessarily have to slay the monsters in order to be classified as a hero.

Flieger notes that “Gandalf fights the Barlog, Sam fights Shelob, Aragorn fights orcs (p. 141)” and states “the function of the monster in medieval narrative is to oppose the hero, to body forth tangibly the evil to be overcome, to be the force against which the hero’s strength and courage are tested (p. 142).”  All of these enemies here can fit this definition.  A monster is not necessarily meant to be evil in its completeness.   Sauron, “the greatest enemy” does not meet the criteria for a monster according to Flieger because monsters “must be denizens of the material world, in it and of it (p. 141).”  Thus, as all of the heroes are opposing the ultimate evil in the Lord of the Rings, the monsters are its representatives who the heroes must fight as a test and as an obstacle to overcome. 
 The heroes, however, do not have to slay the monsters they encounter in order to be classified as heroes but rather they just must simply fight in opposition.  Sam, the “chief hero," for instance, does not slay Shelob, as her fate is uncertain.  Gollum, a monster according to Flieger, is not slain by Frodo or Sam either.  In the end, it is the fight and the opposition that defines the hero because  “man always loses…but in losing he wins a greater victory" and ultimately “evil destroys itself (p.144)." Therefore we can see that it is the loyalty and defense of the cause that makes one a hero, not whether or not the person slays a monster.  

In conclusion, we have seen a closer examination of this definition of a hero and what remains complicated and unaddressed as a result of space is the concept of love (ex: what kind of love is necessary to be a hero?) within this definition.  Comments welcome.

- AM


  1. "Armed with Sting, Frodo fights..."

    Where? I think that what's missing from your argument is an example from LotR of Frodo wielding Sting. Off of the top of my head, I can't recall anything except a couple of defensive and ineffectual thrusting episodes; the closest he comes to actual violence (that I recall; I could be wrong) is when he mirrors Bilbo's actions by cowing Gollum with the threat of Sting. I think that Flieger's argument is based in large part on the actual occurrences in the books... as you point out, “Gandalf fights the Barlog, Sam fights Shelob, Aragorn fights orcs (p. 141)." Who does Frodo fight?

    As for being a leader--isn't a leader one who leads? Frodo leads Sam, perhaps, and he leads (or, I think more accurately, "masters" or "dominates") Gollum, but he's not a shot-caller in the context of the fellowship; yes, he plays a part in the decision about Moria, but he's being consulted, he's not leading. He's a tiebreaker or a vice president or whatever you want to call it, and I think there's a very real difference between that and leadership.

    Basically, my point is that I think Flieger's delineations are valid if textual evidence is considered thoroughly.

    --Charlie Bullock

  2. I think you're right to suggest that there's no one hero in Tolkien, no character who embodies the full host of heroic qualities, and also correct in signalling the role of love in all of this, but I think you give up too quickly on exploring how it functions within your definition. The answer, I'd argue, lies in the preceding sentence, for how can we defend and ultimately sacrifice for a cause that we do not love? We might call to mind the famous Biblical passage "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." Certainly this idea was central to Tolkien's thought, and I wonder if we can view it more broadly than heroes, even applying it to villains. Is there a sense in which it is misguided love that Denethor (not truly a villain, but still) dies for? How about Saruman? Perhaps then, saying that love is key is not enough, but love of the light, whether represented by the Shire, by Frodo, or by an elf-queen.

  3. I'd just like to point out that it isn't Flieger who says that monsters “must be denizens of the material world, in it and of it'; but rather Tolkien, in his essay 'The Monsters and the Critics'.