Humble Heroism: Frodo Baggins as Christian Hero in The Lord of the Rings

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The Will of the Hero
Jane Chance Nitzsche, for one, believes that they make Frodo into a different kind of hero entirely. She looks at Frodo and other heroic figures in the book as representations of “Germanic kings and warriors,” and sees the entire work as a study in contrasts between Germanic and Christian values. After briefly describing an article Tolkien wrote examining a similar conflict of values in Beowulf, Chance writes (quoting Patricia Meyer Spacks):

Tolkien’s view of the ‘naked will and courage’ of man necessary to combat chaos and death in the context of northern mythology (as opposed to Christianity) resembles the similar epic weapons of the hobbit-heroes of his trilogy. . . . Aragorn may represent the Christian hero as Frodo and Sam represent the more Germanic hero of the subordinate warrior, yet all three remain epic heroes. (80–81)

This is an important point because of the emphasis that Tolkien places upon the importance of Frodo’s will throughout the story—easily as much emphasis as he places on Frodo’s weakness. This is where the story—Frodo’s part of the story, at least—comes closest to the traditional mythological pattern and seems to deviate most from the Christian pattern. Throughout Western literature, from the biblical story of Jesus himself through John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and beyond, the typical Christian hero is one who learns to rely not on himself but on God, and can only achieve greatness by subordinating his own will to God’s will. Yet as Nitzsche points out, Frodo’s “epic weapon” is his own strength of mind and purpose.

Bearing the Ring means that Frodo must fight constantly the temptation to claim it for his own and gain its power for himself. Two examples demonstrate this pattern. Near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, he barely avoids discovery by Sauron, who can see him when he puts it on:

He heard himself crying out: Never, never! Or was it: Verily I come, I come to you? He could not tell. Then as a flash from some other point of power there came to his mind another thought: Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the ring!
The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose, and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger. (472)

Something similar happens in The Two Towers, when one of Sauron’s servants senses the presence of Frodo and the Ring:

He felt, more urgent than ever before, the command that he should put on the Ring. . . . There was no longer any answer to that command in his own will, dismayed by terror though it was, and he felt only the beating upon him of a great power from outside. It took his hand, and as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing it but in suspense (as if he looked on some old story far away), it moved the hand inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck. Then his own will stirred; slowly it forced the hand back. (372)

Of course, as some of these quotations suggest, some sort of divine power operates in The Lord of the Rings, with a will that is being worked out through Frodo’s selfless actions, influencing him for good even as the supernatural powers of the Ring attempt to pull him toward evil. But again, as Tolkien mentioned in the letter quoted above, this power plays a strictly behind-the-scenes role in the story. Divine guidance as the Christian reader would understand it is in short supply. The characters can hope that “luck” will go their way (as Sam puts it more than once in The Return of the King), but they must depend on their own resources and strength of will—Frodo more than the rest, for the others have companions and armies on which to rely, while he has only the faithful Sam and the faithless Gollum, and his task is hardest of all. More than fighting the enemy, he is fighting himself.

This is another theme that critics have recognized as crucial. In tracing the development of Frodo as hero, Nitzsche marks the passage quoted earlier from Fellowship (472) as the point where she believes he truly becomes a hero: “His education complete, Frodo can now function as a hero for he understands he may, at any time, become a monster” (91). Sale makes the same basic point in examining another passage, one of Frodo and Gollum’s first conversations:

In his instinctive wish to save and tame Sméagol rather than destroy him, Frodo creates his heroism. . . . He Recovers [sic] himself by looking at Gollum at his feet and seeing ‘himself’ there, seeing his own struggle to stay alive against the force of insuperably great power and temptation. He . . . knows that in Sméagol he sees what he might become very easily if he does not struggle. (52)

Both critics realize that in Tolkien’s story, the greatest heroism is the victory over self for the sake of others—that, in fact, there can be no heroism where there is no possibility of succumbing to temptation.

If we accept this premise, it fits in with the idea of Frodo as Christian hero, but it still leaves us with the problem of the role of the will. More than that, we come right up against the problem that has faced so many Tolkien critics studying Christian elements in the story: What are we to understand from the climax of Frodo’s quest?

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