Although we might have trouble defining The Lord of the Rings in such narrow terms as ‘fantasy’ ‘romance’ ‘epic’ or ‘fairy tale’, what is clear is that Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, as marred as it may be by evil and obsessive possession, is peopled with heroes, big and small. However, although Tolkien’s heroes occupy a medieval world in which the members of the Fellowship must still contend with trolls and talking trees, they are anything but conventional in their heroism. What, then, are the defining traits of heroes in Tolkien’s legendarium?
It is easier to answer this question by first thinking about what conventional metrics do not apply.
Certainly, the mark of heroism is not stature or strength (or power for that matter). For all his brawn, Boromir fails to be heroic; whereas the smallest of Hobbits, most of whom are “half the height of normal men,” are given access to heroism Gondor’s best is denied (Tolkien, Letter 316). Yes, Boromir does have his praise-worthy moment; his efforts on their attempted passage through Caradhras where he shoulders the hobbits who cannot make it through the heavy snow and his timely defense of Merry and Pippin against the Uruk-hai do make him admirable, often as a result of his strength. But his role in questioning Aragorn’s leadership, pressing Frodo to turn over the Ring and thus speeding the dissolution of the Fellowship earns him approbation. It is Boromir’s brother, loyal and true Faramir, who later wins our praise and approval. Clearly, strength and stature are not enough to earn heroic status in Tolkien’s world and are often antithetical to it given the temptations they bring.
Neither is charisma or leadership the mark of a true hero. The most ‘charismatic’ and persuasive leader, Saruman the White, is hardly heroic despite his ability to sway and persuade. In fact, leadership of this variety is patently un-heroic given Saruman’s perverse aims. Conversely, Samwise Gamgee, despite his lack of any such charisma or leadership potential, is elevated to the position of highest heroism for his stalwart dedication to his master, Frodo. He leads no armies and fulfills no epic quest; his glory and heroism is of a quieter variety and derives from something altogether different. Nor does the corresponding virtue of wisdom mark a hero in Tolkien’s legendarium. Neither, Gandalf, Galadriel or Elrond are given heroic status despite their power and wisdom. They guide the actions of the heroes, yes, but they are hardly heroes in their own right.
Finally, gender and nobility are also poor predictors of heroism in Tolkien’s legendarium. Eowyn is given heroic status despite being a young woman, while respected and conventionally heroic men like Boromir are denied it. Eowyn is initially given little credence as a warrior in Rohan and has her ambitions as a shield-maiden ridiculed. However, she achieves glory on Pellenor Fields when she kills the Witch-king of Angmar. Ansectry is also unimportant for achieving heroism. Sam, Merry and Pippin certainly don’t have noble forefathers; though Aragorn does, his immortal ancestry is underplayed throughout (Flieger 129). Clearly the only thing we can establish about heroism in Tolkien’s world is that everything we might conventionally associate with heroes does not apply. Tolkien’s real heroes don’t necessarily wear armor or lead and inspire men; indeed, some of them aren’t men at all.
I propose that what Tolkien did demand from his heroes is two-fold: firstly that they ennoble themselves by striving and transforming themselves to meet challenges for which they are initially unequipped; secondly that they concern themselves with stewardship and the good of the realm, subordinating their own desires to their responsibility to Middle-Earth. Flieger makes distinctions between the “epic / romance hero” like Aragorn and the “fairy-tale hero” like Frodo and their journeys, but they both fall under these two more capacious criteria for heroism (Flieger 124).
Firstly, no real hero in Tolkien’s world is initially equipped to meet the challenges he (or she!) is presented with. Frodo embarks on an epic quest, for which Elrond, Gandalf and Aragorn deem themselves unworthy, though he does not “know the way” and is severely underequipped (LOTR 270). As a woman, Eowyn hardly meets the social standards for a warrior as a young maiden but overcomes them through duplicity and is rewarded handsomely for her transgression. Merry and Pippin even literally grow to meet their magnitude of their task as a result of the Ent draught Treebeard gives to them. Most clearly, Aragorn, initially unequipped for the journey in front of him, with only the shards of Narsil to wield, has the blade forged again and sheds the mask of Strider to ennoble himself and meet the tasks set before him.
However, even more important than striving and ennoblement is the principle of stewardship to which all of Tolkien’s best heroes abide. This means subordinating one’s own desires (not even necessarily selfish ones!) for the greater good of one’s home on Middle-Earth. Aragorn is willing to delay his courtship of Arwen and even his journey to Gondor when he offers unconditionally to accompany Frodo to the top of Mount Doom. Importantly, both Aragorn and Eowyn are also associated with healing powers, a clear application of stewardship at its most personal level. Eowyn resigns her desire for glory on the battlefield for life as a healer: “I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren," (LOTR 965). Aragorn is made kingly not by feats of arms or through his leadership of men but because he possesses the powers of healing associated with the royal Numenorian race. Eowyn, after her triumphs on the field, is elevated even further by dedicating her life to healing. Indeed, a perversion of stewardship and the responsibility it confers earns Lord Denethor one of the most scathing critiques in LOTR. Stewardship is a fundamental component of heroism and shirking it is a damning quality.
And Sam is the truest hero of all by these standards. Not only is Sam comically attached to his idyllic life in the Shire so that he must steel himself from turning back at every step of the way; Sam is the ultimate ‘gardener’, in more than just the professional sense. He takes care of the Frodo and the company, he repopulates the Shire after its fields are decimated by Saruman’s duplicity and most importantly, he recognizes the principles of stewardship at the heart of their entire endeavor most clearly. He articulates these feelings on the steps of Cirith Ungol where he expresses uncanny understanding of the nature of quests generally and the unlikelihood of safe return for theirs. And despite this knowledge and an acute love for home, Sam makes all his sacrifices voluntarily and this only further ennobles the gardener-hobbit and elevates his stewardship of the Shire, Frodo and Middle-Earth even further. As Bradley points out, it is to Sam that Aragorn says: “yours has been the darkest road,” (Bradley 90).
Heroes in Tolkien’s world are not made by stature, sex, nobility, wisdom or charisma; they are made by the doing of selfless and humble deeds for the good of many despite overwhelming odds.
- Prasan Srinivasan