The Exaltation of the Humble
A constant theme in world mythology, as Joseph Campbell and others have explained at length, is the hero who goes on a quest—usually to some dark and dangerous place—to win freedom for others, and who gains self-knowledge in the process. The journey of the hobbit Frodo Baggins to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings follows this pattern, yet also departs from it in several important ways.
To begin, as Campbell has pointed out in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it is not unusual for a hero to come from humble origins. But even such a hero is usually marked out as someone special very early in life: “The tendency has always been to endow the hero with extraordinary powers from the moment of birth, or even the moment of conception. The whole hero-life is shown to have been a pageant of marvels with the great central adventure as its culmination” (319). By contrast, Frodo Baggins, Tolkien’s heroic hobbit, is good-hearted and brave but not at all strong or powerful. As Roger Sale writes, “He has no credentials as a hero whatsoever”; he is merely a “bemused troubled innocent” (Sale 35).
And yet, Frodo is assigned the most important task in the story. Purely by chance or luck (although Tolkien uses the words differently from other authors), he inherits a ring that turns out to be an indescribably powerful weapon. It cannot be used for good purposes, being inherently evil; it has to be destroyed where it was created, in the heart of the most dangerous land on earth. And Frodo, the small and weak, is chosen to take it there. That is, he makes the choice himself, as this passage from the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, shows:
A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.
“I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.” (324)
Yet the passage also implies that it was not Frodo’s own choice that brought the Ring to him in the first place and gave him his continuing sense of responsibility for it. The wizard Gandalf emphasized this fact earlier when explaining how Frodo’s uncle Bilbo found the Ring:
“There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master. . . . Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”
“It is not,” said Frodo. (Fellowship 81)
Moreover, when Frodo Baggins takes the burden of the Ring upon himself, it is after others have refused it. Gandalf, Frodo’s friend and advisor and one of the most powerful figures in the book, will not take it. Neither will Elrond, one of the greatest leaders in Tolkien’s imaginary country of Middle-Earth, or Galadriel, the mighty queen to whom Frodo offers it. This is not out of cowardice but out of wisdom. As Gandalf says,
With that power I should have power too great and terrible. . . . I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. (Fellowship 87–88)
As Tom Shippey puts it, “It is a dull mind which does not reflect [after reading this], ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’” (Shippey 1992, 104).1 Galadriel echoes this sentiment when Frodo’s servant, Sam, urges her to accept Frodo’s offer of the Ring, saying, “You’d put things to rights. . . . You’d make some folk pay for their dirty work.” Galadriel answers, “I would. . . . That is how it would begin. But it would not stop with that, alas!” (Fellowship 432).
The Ring therefore must be carried by someone who is not powerful. This is not to say that the Ring will not influence him—it influences anyone who keeps it and even many of those who simply come near it. Yet paradoxically, as the quotations above show, the humbler and less powerful the Ring-bearer is, the less influence it will have over him. The Ring is a constant temptation to power, playing on the desire for greatness of those who carry it. In this story, those who already possess power are more vulnerable to it—more likely to think that they deserve it and will use it wisely—than someone like Frodo, who has never known what it is like to have power or envisioned himself as a great leader. Critic Jane Chance Nitzsche writes, “The humblest member of the Council—the insignificant hobbit Frodo—is ultimately chosen to pursue the mission of the Ring because he is insignificant” (Nitzsche 86).
Critics Joseph Pearce and Bradley J. Birzer take the analysis a step further: They identify Frodo as a “suffering servant,” a term often used for Christ.2 They both compare Frodo’s burden with the cross that Christ carried, and also with the sins of the world that Christ bore (2 Corinthians 5:21 and 1 Peter 2:24). Birzer writes, “Fulfilling the role of priest, he carries the Ring—the cross of Christ, the sins of the world—into the heart of hell (Mordor). Frodo does this out of profound love for his friends and for life itself” (Sanctifying Myth 70; see also Pearce 112).
Although Tolkien always insisted that his work was no allegory, it makes sense that, with the Christian myth at the center of his thinking, he would have chosen a task for his hero that paralleled the task given to the hero of the gospel story. Also, the portrayal of the Ring as a burden that grows physically heavier, until Frodo can only crawl, and an increasing mental and spiritual torture gives backing to Pearce’s and Birzer’s analyses. So does Frodo’s motivation, which others besides these two have noted. Critic Roger Schlobin, comparing The Lord of the Rings with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, writes,
Like Gawain, Frodo is bound by the same geas that compels Gawain and all the virtuous and inescapable promises that even affect Gollum . . . and ultimately extend to Samwise. . . . However, on one hand, Gawain’s motivations are honor (or the avoidance of shame) and his fear for Arthur’s safety, while, on the other hand, Frodo’s is love.
(RK 225; Letters 327)3
Similarly, Randel Helms, examining Tolkien’s view of Beowulf, writes, “Beowulf’s responsibility is clear; he must seek not his own glory but the welfare of his people, and in this he fails” (42). Contrast this with Frodo’s actions at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. A group has been chosen to go with Frodo, but he slips away from them and goes off accompanied only by Sam, for fear of endangering the rest of the company or seeing them corrupted by the Ring, as one of them already has been.
After this happens, it becomes clearer than ever that the group’s humblest member (with the exception of Sam) is also its most heroic. The first half of The Two Towers follows the other members of the group as they prepare for war against the enemy, while the second half is devoted to the journey of Frodo, Sam, and their deceitful guide, Gollum. Much the same thing happens in The Return of the King, the final book, except that there the two groups come together again in the end. Tolkien uses this structure to communicate a major point: While the first half of each book is full of mighty deeds performed by kings, knights, and wizards, we know all along that at best they can only distract the enemy from interfering with the essential task: Frodo’s task. If he should fail and Sauron recover the Ring, all they have done is for nothing. As C. S. Lewis writes:
On the one hand, the whole world is going to the war; the story rings with galloping hoofs, trumpets, steel on steel. On the other, very far away, miserable figures creep (like mice on a slag heap) through the twilight of Mordor. And all the time we know the fate of the world depends far more on the small movement than on the great. (Lewis 1982, 88)
Roger Schlobin puts it even more strongly: “Traditional heroes, in the Campbell monomyth mode, are relegated to being the diversion” (77).
Several critics have picked up on this theme and its connection to the Christian teaching of the exaltation of the humble.4 One of these, John Cox, notes that this was an example of St. Augustine’s influence on Tolkien:
The high-mindedness of classical platonism was anathema to Augustine: it emphasizes perfectibility through moral wisdom, necessarily limited to a fortunate few. He, on the other hand, took the suffering Christ as a model for true wisdom. . . . This emphasis on the wisdom of suffering and humility is reflected in the kind of hero Tolkien chose in The Lord of the Rings—not one of the highest creatures in his imagined world . . . but one of the least pretentious and most obscure. . . . This point was made by Tolkien himself, before The Lord of the Rings was published: this work, he said, exemplifies “most clearly a recurrent theme: the place in ‘world politics’ of the unforeseen and unforeseeable acts of will, and deeds of virtue of the apparently small, ungreat, forgotten in the places of the Wise and Great (good as well as evil).” (53–4)
John Cox argues that when Tolkien posits that the weak and humble are paradoxically the least likely to grasp after selfish power, the likeliest to learn “the wisdom of suffering and humility,” and therefore the most heroic, he is reflecting the Christian view of reality. However, one remark of Tolkien’s that he quoted almost in passing deserves further examination. This is the statement about “the place in ‘world politics’ of . . . acts of will.” What are we to make of the importance of such acts of will if Tolkien is really casting his hero in a Christian mold?