Friday, May 30, 2014

Interpreting the Modes of Hero

            In class we spent much of the time discussing what constitutes a hero in the world of Tolkien and what characteristics marked the heroes as heroes. While looking at the list of characteristics on the board, I started thinking about the hero arcs of Frodo and Aragorn and why they echoed each other the way they do. As we discussed in class, they do echo each other by having mysterious beginnings etc., but what really caught my attention wasn’t how they mirrored each other, but instead how they differed and why their stories are different in contrast to their similar beginnings.

They are undoubtedly different. As Verlyn Flieger explains, they represent the two kinds of heroes “the extraordinary man whose mighty deeds give epic sweep to great events (Aragorn) and the common man whose trials lend to his actions a poignancy that draws the reader into the text to experience events with him (Frodo),” (Verlyn, 122).   In simpler terms, Aragorn is a romantic epic hero and Frodo is a folk tale hero. He is Jack who sold his cow for magic beans. He is not on his own extraordinary. He is an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. Yet Tolkien goes through so much trouble in making both of these characters as similar as possible in their origins by giving them both the beginning of the classic hero. Both have a mysterious beginning, are raised in a home that is not of their immediate family, and neither is young when the story begins. There is however one major difference in their beginning, outside of their personality, that I found very interesting. Frodo is not of divine or magical ancestry whereas Aragorn is.

In class, I know there was a discussion trying to turn Frodo into one of divine or magical ancestry, but I personally disagree with that. Yes he comes from a well-educated, rich family, but his family is not magical or divine. The only possible divine or magical figure in his family would be Bilbo, and Bilbo achieved what he did not through birth but experience. Thus I don’t see that as an indicator of divine or magical blood. So, if you approach the origins of these two characters from this lens what appears is a romantic epic hero the form of Aragorn and an ordinary man in the trappings of a romantic epic hero in the form of Frodo.

The next important heroic origin moment for both of these characters surrounds the swords. Aragorn presents the sword that has been forged anew at the council, which as Verlyn points out resembles the weapons of the dragon slayers rather than those of the king. It is instead Frodo’s sword, which is drawn from a wooden beam that imitates the swords of kings such as King Arthur. So at this point they both continue within the romantic epic hero version of a hero, except for Frodo’s grumblings of the every day man.

            This changes when the group separates and Frodo heads out alone with Sam. Verlyn aptly describes this turn of the story and where it leads the characters as “Aragorn’s is a journey from darkness into light, while Frodo’s is a journey from light into darkness – and out again,” (Verlyn,125). Aragorn rises from the general obscurity of a normal individual into that of the heroic, romantic king in the eyes of the world. Yes he reveals himself with the sword, but only those on the council, many of which already knew who he was are party to this information. Once Aragorn leaves Frodo he tells everyone he comes into contact with and the word spreads. His legend as a hero begins. His fights are with orcs and Sauron, the most recognizable of monsters, the ones that are powerful enough to threaten all of mankind. Frodo on the other hand falls. He wanders into the wilderness and fights himself. That is the moment that Frodo is no longer the epic hero. He becomes the folk hero. He is not fighting with power against power. His monster is Gollum, who as Verlyn explains, is what Frodo could become, his darker self under the influence of the ring. His monster is not a threat to society in so far as its independent power, but Gollum is a threat to Frodo’s self, and Frodo loses.

Now this part right here is what really confuses me about the nature of the hero in Aragorn and Frodo. The epic hero almost always falls in the end, yet it is not Aragorn who falls but Frodo. So Frodo begins as an ordinary man dressed as an epic hero, turns into the folk hero we usually associate him with, but he becomes the epic hero in the end. He came by water and so he leaves by water in the tradition of the epic hero. Aragorn on the other hand begins in the world as relatively obscure, even though he seems super human in his leadership, fighting, and healing abilities. From this obscurity as Strider he turns into the King and wins the girl. He lives a happily ever after. That is much more the folk tale ending than Frodo has. Thus I would like to suggest a way of understanding these changing modes of hero, which I fully admit I may have over thought or am just blatantly wrong about. If so, please tell me!

I saw these changing modes of hero as the rise of the humble and the humbling of the great. The humble Strider becomes a king, but in doing so he changes from a king of epics to a folk hero who happens to come in the body of an epic king. Frodo on the other hand, is the epic hero in the body of the ordinary man. He has all the prerequisites for the epic hero except the divine or magical ancestry, in other words, the blood. Frodo thus rises from the folk hero to the epic hero in his ending. This interpretation also helped me come to terms with the roles of several of the other heroes named in class. This would explain the glorification of Eowin’s fall from power. She becomes great in her humility. Sam is also the main hero of the story because he is the humblest of them all. He comes as a servant and as a friend, not as a king or a hero, folk or epic. Sam is precisely the hero because the humblest is the highest and he is the humblest of them all. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite sure how to fit Merry and Pippin in this, so maybe they aren’t heroes? I am not fully comfortable with that idea, but it was the only way I could understand the modes of hero in such a way that included the majority of the heroes we talked about in class.



  1. Thanks, MEC, I think the source of your confusion is that Tolkien, mostly gives elements the epic Norse-style hero and the Romantic Arthurian hero to Aragorn and Frodo respectively, but does then switch their “dooms.” Frodo sees Ragnarök and loses, like the Æsir. Aragorn becomes the Once and Future King. I think the interesting question is why he does this. Is he merely countering expectation? Or is he making a statement about the relation of these two types of hero? Are they opposite sides of a coin? Are the happy ending and the mortal doom actually yoked? Or is Aragorn rewarded because he never failed, and Frodo fated to brokenness because he failed? Or he fails because he breaks and may never be fixed, this side of Valinor?

    You’ve put your finger on something significant—rather than assuming that you’re confused, look at it as a puzzle to work out! : )