How does one create a hero at a time when heroes have fallen out of favor? Much of the literature of the twentieth century shows an ambivalence about this question. During the bloodiest century the world had ever known, a time of ever increasing disillusionment, the conventional hero became an increasingly rare figure in literature and the “anti-hero” increasingly popular. Against this background, J. R. R. Tolkien envisioned a character who embodied an old-fashioned ideal of heroism—but not at all in a conventional way.
As critic Roger Sale writes,
This much is true about the heroism of our century, and it is probably truer of our century than of some earlier ones: it is rare, and it is not easy to recognize. . . . If readers of Tolkien in the fifties and sixties could not see how he and Frodo [his fictional hero] are modern heroes, let us add right away that no one seems to know, as yet, what postmodern or contemporary heroism is. (62)
In his work, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien created a saga in the tradition of the ancient northern European myths and legends that he had studied for much of his life. Yet there is an anomaly at the very heart of the story. The role of hero is given, not to any of the bold warriors or mighty wizards that inhabit the pages, but to “a three-foot high bundle of timidity with furry feet” (Helms 40)—one of a race of little creatures Tolkien invented and called “hobbits.”
Tolkien built extensively on existing traditions and could point to established literary antecedents for almost everything in his tale. But the hobbits—rustic, pragmatic, usually stay-at-home folk—were something apart. They were in many respects his own special creation (Shippey 2002, xv, 1–7, and 45–47).
Tolkien biographer Tom Shippey convincingly argues that hobbits, with their plain speaking and “bourgeois” ways, are the anachronism in The Lord of the Rings that anchors the story to the present day and helps more than anything else to make it relevant to modern readers (2002, 37–49). But there is a stronger influence than modernity at work, since, as mentioned earlier, the modern “hero” is in many cases anything but a hero. Tolkien had to go beyond both traditional mythical influences and modern ones to create the kind of hero he needed. It was another factor altogether, the strongest influence on Tolkien’s own thinking, that helped him to shape his hero: his devout Catholic faith. It gave him a vision of a different kind of hero, one whose unusual qualities made him great even though his greatness was not enough by itself to complete his task.
‘A True Myth’
To begin, it is helpful to understand something about Tolkien’s view of myth. Many of his contemporaries agreed with anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, who expressed in his seminal work on mythology, The Golden Bough (1922), his view that myths were simply stories that the ancients had made up to understand themselves and the world around them better. When writing of Christianity, Frazer made the point that many civilizations, both pre- and post-Christian, had myths about a god who dies and comes back to life, and about a king who must be killed for the good of everyone else (308-30, 680-6). Frazer’s contemporary Robert Graves restates Frazer’s view thus: “What [Frazer] was saying-not-saying was that Christian legend, dogma, and ritual are the refinement of a great body of primitive and barbarous beliefs” (Graves 242; see also Hooper, 184-185, and Lewis 1994, 122-3).
Tolkien’s view was just the opposite. Beginning with the presumption that God was more than a figment of the imagination, he saw myth as one of God’s most profound ways of communicating with human beings. In an article tracing the connections between Tolkien and his fellow Catholic G. K. Chesterton, who wrote at about the same time as Frazer, Thomas M. Egan observes,
Medieval philosophers accepted the unity of all aspects of Truth, assuming a hierarchy of pre-Christian values which implicitly embodied Christian beliefs. Pagan philosophies were seen as prefigurements of teachings of the Church. . . . Chesterton’s views anticipate those of Tolkien, particularly in The Everlasting Man [published in 1925]. Here he explores the universal nature of myth and notes how the major threads of pagan mythology finally come true in the Christian story: the stories of virgin births of gods come true in the Virgin Mary and the Incarnation; the death-and-rebirth fertility cults come true in the Resurrection of Christ; human sacrifice becomes Christ’s sacrifice. (46-48; see also Zimbardo 134 and Pearce 161-2)
In a 1931 letter, Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis (not a Christian at the time) describes a conversation with Tolkien and their friend Hugo Dyson about the significance of myths, in which the two men explained their belief that
The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened. . . . The Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’ (Lewis 1988, 288-289, emphasis in original)
So Tolkien saw a clear connection between the Christian faith he believed and the mythology that had long fascinated him. Everything was part of the same universal pattern, the pagan myths a precursor of the “true myth,” preparing human minds for the advent of Christ.
Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter, recounting the same conversation, further explores Tolkien’s point of view and its effect on Tolkien’s writing.
No, said Tolkien. [Myths] are not lies. . . .
Man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert his thought into lies, but he comes from God, and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideals . . . Not merely the abstract thoughts of man but also his imaginative inventions must originate with God, and in consequence reflect something of eternal truth. In making a myth, in practicing ‘mythopeia’ and peopling the world with elves and dragons and goblins, a story-teller . . . is actually fulfilling God’s purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of the true light. (Quoted in Gunton 130)
According to these sources, in writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien saw himself doing more than just telling a fairy tale or building on an ancient legend—in his own view, he was communicating fundamental truths. Although his story was set in a “world of virtuous pre-Christian monotheism” (O’Hehir part 2, par. 9), he would later write to a friend,
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously of course, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. (2000, 172)
It makes sense, then, to study Tolkien’s unlikely hero as a Christian hero. Yet many critics—both those who have studied the Christian elements of the tale and those who have concentrated on other aspects—have been struck by the dissimilarities between Frodo and the traditional Christian hero. They have often gone so far as to set up another character as the hero. Yet in doing so, they are overlooking other key elements in the character and in the story, leading to an incomplete understanding of Frodo and a failure to realize the extent of the influence of his creator’s Christian ideals on his characterization. Among these elements are his humility, the nature of his quest, the mercy he shows to others, his fight against temptation—and, paradoxically, even his failure at the climax of the story.