What makes a hero a hero?
If The Lord of the Rings were a scholarly essay, written in order to posit a thesis, this would be the prompt it would be answering. Behind every act and character in the book is a common theme—the defining binary is not so much good vs. evil, but heroic vs. un-heroic. And it is this framework that determines the kind of story that The Lord of the Rings is: an epic, a fairy-tale, a romance…
To answer this question, we first must examine the question: Who is the hero of The Lord of the Rings? The obvious answer is Frodo or Aragorn, depending on your personal definition of a hero, but Tolkien’s answer is more than that. Tolkien rightly calls Sam the hero of his story, but so are Frodo and Aragorn and Merry and Pippin and Éowyn and even Gandalf—yes, he is the wise mentor-figure, but he also slays a monster as the epic hero always would. But why are all of these characters heroes? They are not all great warriors, nor do they all slay monsters. In fact, Tolkien’s hero, Sam, is the least obvious hero, if we are looking to find a Beowulf among these men. But Sam best represents the quality that Tolkien defines as heroic: not being a warrior, but being a gardener.
It is in this way that The Lord of the Rings becomes a love story. These heroes are not determined by their actions so much as by their motivations—to protect and serve the people or things that they love most. Frodo agrees to bear the ring in order to save the Shire, which he loves. Sam too wishes to protect his home and family and friends, but mostly he is fighting for Frodo, whom he loves more than anything. Merry and Pippin begin by fighting for their home and then gain new motivations on their journey—Merry fighting out of his love for Théoden and Pippin for the duty he feels for Boromir, who gave his life to protect the hobbits and thus inspired Pippin’s love. Aragorn fights partially for his love for Arwen, but more for his love for the world of men and the subsequent hope he feels that the glory of Gondor can be restored (hope that he loses but, ultimately, is able to maintain).
Love in this sense is the love Sam represents: the love of a gardener. The love these characters feel manifests in the desire to protect, and to foster growth. Sam supports Frodo as he would support a plant he was raising, insofar as he does everything he can to help him “grow” in his own quest. Everything Sam does is done so that Frodo may go further in his own quest, so Sam’s heroism is selfless and generous. He is able to slip into this role so easily because he is so accustomed to being Frodo’s gardener and is thus able to convert this role to that of Frodo’s protector—the hero’s gardener in the quest for the Ring.
Aragorn equally acts as a “gardener” for the realm of Gondor, both somewhat literally and completely metaphorically. When he returned to his realm victorious and was crowned as king, his legitimacy was enforced by his ceremonial acts of gardening. With the guidance of Gandalf, Aragorn finds a sapling of the White Tree of Gondor high above the city of Minas Tirith and plants it in the Court of the Fountain in the city. His gardening, however, is not merely literal but also figurative in his role as a healer to the men of the city and his “healing hands” defining him as king. A true king is a man who can allow his people to grow and flourish—a healer and a governor—rather than merely a warrior. He acts as a warrior only to protect his people, but his ultimate role is that of a gardener.
Éowyn, similarly, transforms from solely a warrior to a gardener throughout the course of her journey, and it is in this transformation that she is truly heroic. Yes, she slays the Witch-King’s fell-beast, the closest monster in The Lord of the Rings to the dragon that was Beowulf’s final opponent, but it is not this act alone which classifies her as heroic. Éowyn enters battle seeking death after being rejected by Aragorn, with whose nobility she has fallen in love. Faramir classifies the love that Éowyn feels for Aragorn as the love of a soldier for his—or, in this case, her—captain. However, her feelings toward him are more complicated than merely idolatry, I would posit. Aragorn’s nobility and courage are attractive to Éowyn as a shieldmaiden who wishes for glory, but there seems to be more to her feelings than those of Eomer or of Háma or Gamling or of any other member of the Rohirrim toward this newcomer—sheer physical attraction. This is an aspect entirely glossed over in most of the descriptions of romantic love in The Lord of the Rings. Sex is not present in Middle Earth as it is in our world, neither something that is mentioned nor something that is not mentioned in a significant way (i.e. its being called “you-know-what,” or with fictions such as the infamous stork to explain the presence of babies). Rather, it is simply not mentioned because, for the characters we follow at any rate, it is simply not an aspect of life with which they need be concerned. However, the lack of any acknowledgement of sexual feelings occurring in Middle Earth force Faramir to simplify Éowyn’s feelings for Aragorn to merely a soldier to captain. Yes, they are the feelings of a soldier to her captain, but those of a soldier with at least a bit of a crush as we would understand it today. Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal in the films aside, Aragorn of the books is extremely attractive in his Númenórean blood—he has a quality to him that identifies him as a ruler and Éowyn is taken by this. Therefore, the feelings of actual love that she feels for Aragorn (the feelings of a soldier to his or her captain, and the willingness to trust another even unto death) become mingled with her feelings of infatuation and leave her confused and desolate, prepared to ride into battle to seek her own death out of despair.
However, Éowyn becomes a hero during the battle of Pelennor Fields, not because of her muddled and misguided love for Aragorn, but because of her love for her kind and uncle, Théoden. Her actions in slaying the Witch-King are in retribution for Théoden’s fatal injuries and in order to prevent the king from dying before he could say his final farewells. It is not her role as a warrior which transform Éowyn into a hero, but her actions spurred by love. Therefore, her subsequent decision to marry Faramir and become a healer is merely an outgrowth of her heroism as she becomes what every true hero in The Lord of the Rings must be: a gardener like Sam.