Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Degrees of Heroism the Failure of Heroes

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.


  1. I think the idea of a hero also commonly holds the idea of being thrust into a situation that requires a hero, and that individual rising to the occasion. Doing the right place at the right time-even if they are the wrong person.

    To use an overused quote by Shakespeare from Twelfth Night, "some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them".

    Aragon and Gandalf are born into greatness-as the heir to a throne and as an Istar. While their deeds are great, they are expected to do so-their very existence is predicated on being born to do great things.

    Some achieve greatness. Merry and Pippin fit that mold fairly well. They decide to tag along with Frodo and Sam, and sneak their way into the Council meeting, and go on to do great deeds among Men. They are heroes as well, but they sought out this adventure-they sort of knew what they were getting into.

    Frodo and Sam are another vein. Frodo is given this huge task to bear the ring, and he does so, even though he would probably rather not. He is put into a situation with events far outside his control, yet he still carries on. Sam is also thrust into this adventure, and bears the ring for Frodo when Frodo is not able to do so. Sam and Frodo were never born to go to the fires of Mordor, nor did they really want to do so. But they had this task set upon them, and they rose to the occasion. And hence, are seen as heroes.

  2. Thanks, Amoretta, for the post. It (intentionally) raises more questions than it answers, but it’s still a worthwhile excursion through the varieties of heroism we’re asked to consider in The Lord of the Rings. I think you’re basically correct in saying that ranking the heroes, like superheroes or the like, is folly. Still, we can say that some of them are, in the end, more consequential than the others, but you’re right, again, in pointing out that the collective heroism of the Fellowship entire turns out to be necessary to defeat Sauron. Even Boromir, who sets out very much as a politician and a general, meets a heroic doom—with Frodo and Gandalf, he ultimately sacrifices the most. —Bill the Heliotrope

  3. Your post is very well thought out and organized, and raies many interesting points of discussion. Interestingly enough, however, during class I did wonder much at the exact requirements for heroism that we came up with, especially with regards to questing and opposing evil. These two concepts bring up issues that we have spent some time grappling with in class, especially with regards to the nature of evil and what exactly constitutes a quest.
    Taking Saruman for an example, he is on a quest of sorts – to “protect” and “guide” the world as he sees fit, and he, for a while, does do so with the best of intentions, opposing the evil of Sauron, if you will. Even at his lowest, to some degree Saruman does appear to be only allies of convenience with Sauron, a fact reflected in the uneasy alliance between various groups of Orcs serving the White Hand and the Black Tower. I would posit that Saruman, even in his fallen state, does not wish for the entire world to fall like Sauron does, and merely wishes to be, shall we say, a more or perhaps less benevolent dictator. Now the thorny issues in this interpretation are the opposition of evil, and self-sacrifice. Saruman is generally depicted as the selfish foil to Gandalf who serves his own ends and power above all. But does Saruman not initially sacrifice much to gain the knowledge that he does, and for good reasons? In retrospect, I think, it is easy to characterize him as having sought power and secret knowledge all along, but one might also imagine that initially Saruman sacrificed much in order to advance the cause of the White Council – it is simply difficult to pin down if he fell because he stopped sacrificing or if he stopped sacrificing because he fell. Now, I certainly don’t aim to suggest that Saruman is truly a heroic figure – it just seemed an interesting exercise to see how easily any “standards” for heroism can be twisted to one’s whims. This is no failing of yours, I found your post quite excellent. Consider this a more self-indulgent self-exercise on my part, an eminently un-heroic and selfish one.


  4. While I was reading your post, a thought struck me about something I’ve discussed with a friend a number of times. You ask, “can a character who meets the criteria for heroism not be a hero” and I agree with what you say. In my mind, Frodo is absolutely a hero. I think it’s somewhat off to call anyone the hero, because it’d be hard to argue that LotR has just one. I mean, the first book is literally about a fellowship of heroes.

    But my real follow up a question based upon that one, namely “can a character who meets the criteria for villainy not be a villain?” I feel like your post hits on this topic, Lawrence. I think defining a villain can in some ways be harder than defining a hero, because I think the majority of the time you’ll run into people who are doing what they think is right rather than people who are composed of boundless malice and ill-will. Melkor and Sauron certainly walk that line, but reading more of Tolkien’s thoughts on them has convinced me that there’s more to them than seen in just the LotR books. I think defining a villain is a tricky thing though- and I think there are plenty of characters in literature and movies you’ll run into who will meet the criteria for villainy that aren’t villains. The actual discussion I've been having with my friend is about Ender’s Game. Ender walks such a thin line between Villain and hero. Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book—Ender unwittingly commits genocide on an entire race of alien creatures. I think he certainly meets some criteria for villain, but does that make him a villain? He does something awful, the same way Frodo does something incredible, but intent and purpose and definitions make things so slippery. I have a friend who firmly believes Ender is a villain, but I have trouble saying that about the poor kid. There’s some pushback against the idea that Frodo is a hero, but it feels wrong to say Frodo wasn’t a hero because he fell short of Godly perfection.

    This is a bit of a tangent, I just think intentions are so so important. Both villain and hero are just so dependent upon who is defining them, I just can’t entirely accept the idea that we can write people off easily as one or the other either way.


    1. This is a great corollary question you bring up! I've thought quite a lot about it as we've been reading through the Silmarillion, as it relates to Melkor, and as it relates to Lucifer in the Christian tradition, in addition to its place in the primary reality. If we consider villiany comparable to evil, we get ourselves into some sticky situations pretty quickly - how many 'evil' people really consider themselves evil? Al Qaeda certainly doesn't; rather than evil, I think it's fair to say they believe they are fighting the 'evil' that is American and Western thought. Is Lucifer, as portrayed in Paradise Lost evil? If he truly is, then we as readers have to grapple with the rather unpleasant reality that we (or at least I) seem to understand him and his motives. And what does that mean if we identify or sympathize with evil?
      With Melkor, we get to an even more interesting question. Is Melkor truly evil? Truly a villain? At least in the initial chapters of the Silmarillion, I have a difficult time condemning him. His 'evil' comes from his desire to fill the void, to create from his own mind rather than from Iluvatar's. Does that truly make him a villian? I have a hard time condemning him for that much. Later on, when we encounter him in LotR through Sauron, it seems much more clear cut: Sauron/Morgoth are obviously evil because of the destruction, corruption, and enslavement they wreak upon Middle Earth and its creatures. They destroy much of Fangorn; they corrupt elves to orcs; and they enslave those who they have not destroyed or corrupted. This is obvious grounds for evil and villainy. But, as you say, it's hard to draw the lines to define villainy. Where in Melkor's initial rebellion to his influence in the War of the Ring did he become a villain? I don't have an answer to this question, but I think it's an important one that you brought up.
      Murphy Spence

  5. This is fascinating. I think we can all agree that morality is never quite as clear-cut as it first seems (ie. LotR seems like a classic case of good vs evil on the large scale, but the individuals on either side refuse such easy classification). I would like to suggest, however, that perhaps intention alone is not sufficient in distinguishing between heroes and villains.

    Arguably, everyone can be a hero in their own right because everyone is to some degree convicted of their choices, and of the rightness of their causes. People we see as villains see themselves as heroes, even if only in their own minds.

    Likewise, intentions are not static. As you mentioned, Frodo's intention to destroy the Ring changed over time, as the quest progressed. His original intention, being the exact opposite of his final intention, should not be conflated with the latter. Frodo's corruption by the Ring can be understood, but not excused.

    Yet Frodo is obviously not a villain. It would be fairly preposterous to go so far as to make such an outlandish claim. But why is that? My current thought is that we measure heroes by the sum of the journey they have undertaken (not the outcome); also, we measure heroes by the greater causes they have pledged themselves to. The latter obviously assumes that an objective standard of morality exists-- for how else would we reliably judge a cause as good or bad? Indeed this debate would be too extensive for this comment, but for now, it is an acceptable preliminary claim, based on the fact that we (whether by social conditioned or by instinct-- it is impossible to tell, at this point) recognize and gravitate toward certain causes as right. I don't think anyone put down LotR wondering why the villains triumphed over the hero Sauron, after all.

    In fiction, we judge individuals not just by their intention, but also by what their intentions serve, and how they seek to fulfill their intentions. We embrace the protagonist/antagonist trope for that reason. It is not that we hope for morality to be conveniently black-and-white; it is that we need grounds, even if only in our own minds, to accept flawed individuals as something more than just that.

    Carol Ann Tan

  6. I think you really hit the nail on the head with the idea that each of these heroes is heroic in very different ways. The Fellowship itself is truly a band of heroes, not a party with a single hero. I love that the journey could not be accomplished only by a single hero, but a group of them, each with different heroic attributes but also their own failures, balanced by the rest of the group. This idea that a hero not only doesn’t need to be perfect, but also needs help sometimes from his or her loyal allies, is so important. In Beowulf or other hero stories, the hero, flawed or not, often has to achieve his/her monstrous task alone. Here, the journey could not be achieved without the help of this band of heroes. Rather than making one single, perfect protagonist, the Fellowship serves as a realistic, complex and more interesting “hero”. This couldn’t be done without each hero having different heroic characteristics, different degrees of heroism as you pointed out, and the balance these characters have in their party. If each were the same type of hero, that balance could not be as readily achieved. -S. Rajan

  7. I really enjoyed your post! And it has brought to mind something that I have been struggling with for awhile, the idea that Frodo failed. While yes, in the end his will against the Ring fails and he claims it as his own, the Ring is still destroyed. And importantly so by the actions of Gollum and Frodo. We have mentioned a few times in class that Gollum is a representation of what Frodo would become if he were to be dominated by the power of the Ring. And I think it is important that, even though they didn't intend to, they destroy it together. And as they were the characters most affected by the power of the Ring that are still alive during the time of the Quest, I think that this is the role that they had to play. And both of the them sacrifice themselves in its destruction. I can recognize where Frodo's "failure" lies, but I question whether the Ring could have been destroyed any other way, if we could have ever expected Frodo not to fail.

  8. Amoretta – I think that your post is very well articulated and thought out, especially in regards to the varying degrees of heroism, and how many of the cast of characters in Lord of the Rings can be thought of as being heroes. One usually doesn’t think of the requirements necessary to be thought of as a hero – usually it’s more of a binary, with one either being thought of as a hero or not.
    Something else that I found interesting about our heroes is the reluctance that some of our heroes exhibit – namely Frodo. At the council of Elrond, he very hesitantly agrees to carry the Ring to Mordor. He did not leave the Shire with the intention of becoming a hero. His hesitancy adds a pureness of motive to his actions, and in a way, this kind of purity adds to his heroicism. However, despite Frodo's pure intentions, he shouldn’t be viewed as more of a hero than anyone else, a point that you made clear. Each of the members of the fellowship should be viewed on equal ground as heroes.