Friday, May 30, 2014

Modern Heroism

                Merry and Pippin are central points of view and are clearly main characters in the story, and yet they are an archetype apart from the epic hero Aragorn or the fairy hero Sam.  In fact, it is difficult to say exactly what archetype they fit into.  I would argue that they are not meant to fit into either hero archetype Flieger discusses, but something different altogether.
                Considering the various myths describing heroes, we can get a pretty accurate sense of how to identify a typical one.  Heroes go on quests.  They seek to rule a kingdom, or win the heart of a princess, or rescue a damsel, or find a holy grail.  They travel to far-off lands, often into Faerie, and come back changed.  Many of them are born into obscurity and rise to a challenge.  And, as we have discussed in class, heroes slay monsters and fight evil.
                Tolkien’s main characters fit these attributes in varying degrees.  Flieger draws a distinction between two kinds of heroes that can somewhat classify the Men and Hobbits we know.  The epic or romantic hero is a noble doer of great deeds, a person of almost superhuman ability and renown, who influences great events.  Aragorn, for example, as the heir of Elendil and leader of Men, sways the political landscape of Middle-Earth as he wanders back into the world.  “We admire him, but we do not identify with him.”  The fairy-tale hero is more a commoner, thrust into events beyond their control but with their own goal to accomplish.  Many are also elf-friends with access to Faerie.  Frodo is quite literally a small person in a big world.  Tasked with destroying a magical object of power, he ventures through Faerie and returns with more than a few scars.  (Flieger, “Frodo and Aragorn”, 124)
                But Merry and Pippin have no grand task on the scale of Aragorn or Frodo.   Their background isn’t mysterious or particularly obscure; in fact, it’s pretty average for two hobbits.  Neither of them possesses superhuman ability or commands political sway outside the Shire.  They would seem closest to a fairy-tale hero, but they aren’t elf-friends either; even though they are allowed into Lórien and Rivendell, they have no knowledge or much curiosity for the elves.
                Flieger speaks about the epic-romantic hero compared with the fairy-tale hero as a medieval-versus-modern relationship, which characterizes Tolkien’s story as well.  The epic-romantic hero is someone we as readers can’t identify with very well, and derives inspiration from mostly ancient stories like Homer’s epics and Norse myths.  The fairy-tale hero is much more identifiable and common in contemporary work, particularly the works of Brothers Grimm, but tales of the sort have existed as long as the epic has. (Flieger, 124-125)
                Still, the typical fairy-tale hero leaves something to be desired in terms of modernity.  They are common people, but still have ties to the ancient Faerie.  In the case of Frodo and Scyld Scefing, their mysterious qualities and knowledge of Faerie somewhat remove them from the reader.  This is not to say that we cannot identify with Frodo; Flieger describes accurately how Frodo’s emotions strike home much more than Aragorn’s. (Flieger, 125)
                Rather, Merry and Pippin exemplify an altogether different, more modern hero in The Lord of the Rings than either archetype discussed by Flieger.  Their story begins in the humble beginnings of the Shire, much like Frodo and Sam.  They both follow Frodo to Rivendell out of friendship, to protect him as well as to face his troubles beside him. (Book I, Chapter V)  This is markedly different from Frodo’s motives, which are more out of a sense of duty as well as a desire to protect the Shire.  In fact, these motives are quite similar to Sam’s, given that his goal throughout the narrative is to do his best to serve Frodo, as was discussed in class.  At the same time, the story lines of Merry and Pippin diverge away from their friends, at the sundering of the fellowship, such that this goal is no longer their focus.  Instead, these hobbits do their best to protect the Shire, however they can.
                But Merry and Pippin are also very different characters.  Merry is possibly the most reliable of all the fellowship, and certainly one of the most level-headed and practical characters despite his moments of hastiness.  Pippin, on the other hand, is quite the opposite.  He is brash, foolish (particularly according to Gandalf), and immensely curious, with a surprising sense of duty and guilt.  Their relationship is often one of an older and a younger brother, particularly if Merry has some measure of jealousy for the (albeit negative) attention Pippin receives, as was suggested in class.
                When they are separated, both take on similar roles under a lord with markedly different intentions.  Merry gives his loyalty to Théoden, who he sees as a father figure.  (Book V, Chapter II)  Pippin swears his sword to Denethor, out of a sense of obligation to Boromir.  (Book V, Chapter I)  But neither of them is able to carry out this pledge per se, as Merry’s service is ultimately rejected and Pippin defies Denethor in an effort to save Faramir.
                Perhaps it’s this rejection in both cases which causes their character development.  Merry is forced to ride without hope of recognition or friendship into battle and ends up finding both in Dernhelm.  Pippin is required both to make his own decision – between duty to Denethor and the life of Faramir –and to be relied upon by someone rather than the reverse.

                To return to the main inquiry, it’s clear that Merry and Pippin – and perhaps Sam under the right light – are an altogether different type of hero than Frodo and Aragorn, perhaps in the loosest sense.  Their goals are less clear-cut, and their paths more controlled by the forces around them rather than vice versa.  Their development as characters could be described as growing up, and it seems as if they follow the archetype of a modern fiction protagonist in a coming-of-age story.  The effect of this archetype seems almost to draw connection to the zeitgeist of war-bound youth in Tolkien’s time, though this is a discussion for another day.



  1. One of the things that I find interesting about Merry's and Pippin's respective lords is how the hobbits react so differently to each. Merry is filled with love for Théoden. If I recall correctly, this isn't often said about a hobbit. While they are very loyal, they tend to not be as demonstrative or verbal (very British, in this American's opinion).

    Pippin's reaction is very unusual for a hobbit. Denethor's scorn sparked Pippin's pride, which I find remarkable. Yes, Tolkien does make reference to Sam bristling at some "sass," but for a hobbit to react so strongly to scorn is interesting. I'm not sure what this signifies, though.

  2. Thanks, HC, for the post. You raise some interesting points, but I get a sense that in some ways, you may be downplaying Merry & Pippin’s heroism for the sake of your argument. In the first instance, the two of them do help contrive Saruman’s downfall at the hands (branches?) of the ents; in the second, Merry is Éowyn’s right hand at the defeat of the Witch-King of Angmar (perhaps like Iolaus helping Hercules slay the Lernean Hydra? Or Enkidu at Gilgamesh’s side?); third, Pippin almost single-handedly saves Faramir’s life.

    These guys don’t get a kingdom (like Sam arguably does), or win the girl, like Aragorn, or slay a monster, get the boy, and get a dominion, like Éowyn, but they do return to the Shire as fearsomely impressive, unusually tall (cf. the Númenoreans) mounted warrior generals who then lead the Scouring of the Shire. That looks pretty heroic to me. Maybe we should distinguish between capital-H Heroes and lower-case heroes. I think we can agree that at the very least, these hobbits are the latter.

    Thanks for the provocative post!

    Bill the Heliotrope

  3. I agree that Merry and Pippin deserve some recognition as heroes, but do not fit into the nicely outlined versions that were discussed in class. It is an interesting point that both attempt to follow a perhaps more traditional path to heroism by offering their services to great lords, however they both cannot fulfill their oaths, and it is exactly such an act that makes them heroes. After all, Merry gets to help take down the Witch-King after sneaking into the army and in doing so manages to avenge his fallen lord, at least to some degree. I could believe that to be part of an Epic hero. Pippin is a little harder to nail down, I think. When he breaks his Oath, admittedly it is the save the life of Faramir, which I will not deny is a good act, but is it a heroic one? As a reward for his act, Pippin gets another chance at heroism when, as a solider of Gondor, he must march with the army to the Black Gate and he is present at the very last battle in the “Epic” tale of Aragorn. I might suggest Pippin's moment of “Heroism” comes in that last battle, as he manages to protect his fallen comrade, Beregond (Book V, Chapter X) But his thoughts are somewhat similar to the folk hero, he has no time for any lordly thoughts as he fears all is lost but holds his ground against the rising enemy anyway. It seems that Tolkien again borrowed small pieces and created the subepic hero Merry and the subfolk hero Pippin. Of course this is oversimplifying the issue, but perhaps there is a scale between folk and epic and Merry and Pippin belong somewhere in the middle, each edged slightly out towards one end or the other?


  4. I have always been inclined to say that all of the Hobbits are a kind of Faerie tale Hero. They all enter the outside realm, and eventually return home, changed by their encounters and with new perspectives. I think the difficulty comes when we say that the type of encounters and changes that Frodo faces are the only ones that fit the mold, which is a false presumption. Each of the hobbits are Heroes of a Faerie tale, but of different kinds of Faerie tales perhaps.
    Think about it this way: Smith of Wootton Major is a very different hero from Farmer Giles of Ham. They share traits, such as their encounters with Faerie and the supernatural, and their returning to their own lands to great acclaim. But their stories have very different meanings, and their journeys change them in very different ways.
    Similarly, while all of the Hobbits go on (eventually) very different journeys, they all return to the Shire as different people not just from who they were before, but from each other. But they are all relatable changes in the same vein as the Faerie tale hero. We can feel Frodo's pain and failure just as well as we can feel Merry's love or Pippin's duty or Sam's loyalty; they are all a different class from Aragorn's epic hero qualities and leadership.

    -Josh Greenberg

  5. I have always thought of the entire Fellowship (we can argue about Boromir, I guess) as collective heroes. True, they are individually heroic in different ways, but in terms of the classic fairy story definition, they each lack something—they probably each lack enough that their singular efforts would not have made enough of a dent in the bad guys in order to pull through. However, each heroic action, though not enough on its own to win, makes up part of a heroic whole. Together, they all accomplish what needs be done in order to have the happy ending, and I think that’s an essential characteristic of a hero.

    Merry and Pippin are definitely part of this. Their contributions are valuable, yet I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that alone, Merry and Pippin would have saved the day. I think this is why we have trouble when comparing them against the classic fairy definition of a hero. They only make up part of one; it is the Fellowship on the whole that can adequately carry that distinction.

    -Daniel Lewis

  6. Building off of everyone else’s ideas, I want to look at this discussion in terms of Amoretta’s definition: a hero must (1) go on a quest, (2) oppose evil, and (3) be prepared to sacrifice for the good of the quest. Merry and Pippin both seem to qualify for the second and third attributes, but I find that they differ most from a Hero with an uppercase H in their fulfillment of the first item: going on a quest. Merry and Pippin seem to both go on quests which oppose their chosen lords (Theoden and Denethor), rather than noble quests with a clear moral side, such as the quest of the ring. They both betray their sworn (or promised) lords, which seems to be morally murky since loyalty is highly prized in Middle Earth (just look at Sam). Although their quests oppose evil, they are certainly not heroic in terms of clear-cut morality. I think that this makes them lowercase heroes, and therefore more relatable to daily life in the modern age. It is hard for me to imagine going on a Quest to destroy the ring, but I have experienced quests where a previously trusted authority figure must be disobeyed in order to follow my internal compass. Even more than Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin are everyday heroes who go on murky rather than Heroic quests although they still oppose evil and are prepared to sacrifice themselves.

  7. I think that a lot of the confusion around this definition of "hero" and discussion over who does or doesn't fall into said definition comes from our association of a "hero" as also being a "leader." In other words, heroic actions on an individual level are often only a half step. To use the epic and fairy hero dichotomy once again, we can easily look at the epic hero as a leader of men, one who must rally together people in order to defeat a threat. Aragorn must gather together armies, convince the forces of Rohan and the undead oath breakers to aid Gondor, then becomes the king of Gondor and leads the forces of men against Sauron. The fairy hero may not lead other men, but he shapes his own path, as Frodo does after departing from the fellowship on the way to Mordor. Merry and Pippen, contrarily, are frequently pushed and pulled around by the forces of chance. They do make meaningful choices, but it always seemed that their paths were determined mainly by volitions other than their own. I think it is unfair to use this argument to disqualify them from being "heroes" (their actions speak for themselves) but it may help us underscore how Flieger's definitions of "hero" may be too narrow.
    James Mackenzie

  8. I would agree that Merry and Pippin are heroes, but I would disagree that they are a new sort of modern hero. If anything, they seem to be Herculean heroes, reflecting heroism in the manner of the ancient Greek hero Heracles. You point out in your post how Merry and Pippin both pledge fealty to a lord (Merry to Theoden and Pippin to Denethor), but I disagree that they are unable to carry this out. Although they are initially rejected, what makes them heroes is how they deal with this challenge. They take as a trial (in the Greek heroic sense), and prove themselves worthy; Merry defies orders and not only goes into battle, but defies all odds, slaying the Witch-King of Angmar along with another unlikely hero, Éowyn, a woman warrior hero. Pippin is rejected likewise by Denethor, but he ultimately proves loyalty to Gondor (and possibly its Steward, if we recognize that Denethor forfeits his Stewardship by withdrawing from its duties, thus making Faramir the next Steward) by saving Faramir when Denethor goes mad. These are not obstacles to their heroism, but actually trials that make them heroes for that very fact. In a similar fashion, Heracles had to prove himself as a hero through 12 labors, or trials, pledging himself to King Eurystheus just as the two hobbits pledge themselves to their lords. Furthermore, Heracles does this as penance for grave sins, killing his family. While Merry and Pippin did nothing this terrible, they pledge themselves somewhat out of guilt, especially in the case of Pippin, who is in the process of repenting not just for his rash use of the Palantir, but also out of guilt for Boromir’s death, as Boromir gave his life defending them.

    SB Chhabra

  9. I enjoyed your post very much—if for no other reason than simply because I love any opportunity to talk about Merry and Pippin. I’m not entirely clear, however, on what exactly the distinction you are drawing between them and Sam is. It seems to me that most if not all of the description that you give them applies equally well to Sam, which is interesting then when you consider that Tolkien himself viewed Sam as the “chief hero” of the series. Would you consider Sam to be the same type of “modern hero” as Merry and Pippin? Similarly, there are many other characters whom we have discussed as “heroes” who do not seem to fit as neatly into one archetype or another as Frodo and Aragorn. For example, Gimli and Legolas are both less focused on and have less clearly defined character arcs than the types of heroes that Flieger discusses (which is of course not to say that they have no arcs or development at all). Must a character fit into a certain archetype of hero in order to be a hero? Are these archetypes mutually exclusive? While I agree that there is a real distinction between Merry and Pippin and Frodo and Aragorn as you have said, I think the abundance of heroes in the series is itself an argument that there is no limit to the number of tropes or categories which a character must be fit into, and perhaps no reason to stress these distinctions.