Much of our discussion on Wednesday was devoted to classifying characters as heroes: in particular, the parallels between Aragorn and Frodo. Over the course of our discussion, however, I began to find the idea of a clinical, objective definition of heroism to be problematic, if not impossible, to reach. If we are to reduce the conditions of possibility for heroism to their barest qualifiers, we might arrive at the following list:
- A hero must go on a quest
- A hero must oppose evil
- A hero must be prepared to sacrifice for the good of the quest
It is important to note that all of these criteria must be met willingly, if not with gusto; again, the selfless, sacrificing nature of the hero is important. It is not that he wishes to do so, but puts the journey over his own wellbeing; he stands in opposition to evil out of moral obligation, not by accident or self-preservation. Merely slaying a creature of evil – it can be imagined that Orc infighting was not unheard of – does not recreate an opposition to evil. The opposition must be moral, and only physical where the quest necessitates it.
We talked in class about slaying monsters in relation to heroism; slaying a beast out of desire to be a hero is not, in my opinion, heroic in the sense that Tolkien’s heroes are meant to be, but rather is reminiscent of heroes of the Beowulf mold. Acts of valour may be considered a factor in increasing the degree of heroism, which certainly needs to be addressed, but are not in themselves a qualifier for heroism. Rather, the hero’s main preoccupation should not be self-serving, but should be centered on his quest, be it a literal or metaphysical one. The opposition of evil will necessarily serve his quest, and speak to his moral stamina; he opposes evil at his own expense, not because he is not afraid, but out of obligation to his task. This lends him appearances of valour, and indeed does allow him to perform acts of bravery, but it must be in the name of his quest.
The questions we are left with, then, by the contents of the Tale itself are these: Can one who meets the above criteria be nonetheless, non-heroic, owing to some other factor? What precludes one from heroism? And finally, what determines degrees of heroism, i.e. how can we consider one character more of a ‘real hero’ than another, as Tolkien does in declaring Samwise the true hero of the Tale?
Can a character who meets criteria for heroism not be a hero?
The first question is inspired by Frodo himself – Frodo, who squarely meets the basic criteria for heroism listed above, but ultimately fails in his quest. The question is less, ‘can a self-sacrificing person on a quest, who stands willfully in opposition to evil, be a non-hero?’ due to some personal moral defect – this could be explored, and certainly we could argue examples, but such a blemish of character would likely lead either to an unwillingness to oppose evil, or self-interest that would subvert the importance of the quest. In Frodo’s case, it was neither of these things that led to his failure. Frodo unarguably meets the criteria outlined above – he offers himself for the journey, in spite of dangers both known and unknowable, with no expectations but that he would carry the Ring as far as the body and mind of a Hobbit newly thrown into a world of darkness could do. His inability, at the end, to let go of the Ring, did not result from a lack of desire to oppose the forces of evil, nor from his own personal interest or desires. Rather, it was the Ring’s power, at the cracks of Mount Doom, the strongest it had ever been, that halted him. Tolkien himself, in Letter 246, acknowledges that it was a physical and mental impossibility for Frodo to relinquish the Ring at this point – indeed, that none could have done so, even Gandalf. Frodo’s intent to see the journey through was evident from the beginning – “I will take the Ring,” he said, “Though I do not know the way.” His inability to destroy it, I think, cannot rob him of the title of hero – else, we are left with a world entirely devoid of them.
That said, it can hardly be thought that Frodo is the only hero of this tale. Tolkien calls Sam the “chief” hero of the story; This is perhaps a lofty claim, and one that cannot be applied to one character alone, which brings us to the second question, the answering of which may prove impossible at the end, and indeed a moot point. For the sake of exploration, however, we shall continue, in brief.
What actions or attributes influence one’s degree of heroism?
The Fellowship was necessary because the quest could not be undertaken by one hero alone. All those involved in the destruction of the Ring, in fact, meet the essential criteria for heroism. If we are to declare one a ‘truer’ hero than the others, what factors are we to use? Royal or divine birth? A tragic past? An ordinary man with greatness thrust upon him? Acts of valour, possession of great wisdom or bravery, or admiration of a people? The list is inexhaustible, and all of these factors have been used at one time or another to define a ‘hero.’
We spent a lot of time comparing Aragorn and Frodo, in terms of what makes them heroic and who is the ‘real’ hero of Lord of the Rings. Eventually we came around to Sam, as Tolkien did. Of less import to our conversation were Merry and Pippin, and we did not, as they were not relevant to the topic of the day, even consider Legolas or Gimli or Gandalf. Their roles as heroes, however, cannot be ignored. They cannot be classified as “mentors” or “companions” or otherwise instruments of the struggle, while ignoring the things that make them heroic. Yes, they are all of these things, but they are also heroes in their own right. It could never be said that any of them failed to oppose evil, or did not sacrifice their own interests in the name of the journey the Fellowship was bound for. Nor, I think, should we attempt to ‘rank’ them as heroes; Éowyn’s slaying of the Witch King, Legolas’s diplomacy at Lothlórien, and Sam’s constant fidelity are vastly different attestations to their status as heroes, but none should be considered worthier than the others. Rather, they are different kinds of heroes, all of whom play a necessary and irreplaceable part in the service of the quest.
Looking forward to your thoughts.