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.
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?
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?
An Incomplete Christ Figure
At this point, it is essential to look at this climactic scene in full—first noting two things. First, the scene occurs after both Frodo and Sam, meeting with Gollum again after a long separation, have spared his life even though he had betrayed them and left them for dead. Second, it occurs after “long possession, months of increasing torment, and when [Frodo was] starved and exhausted,” as Tolkien would later put it (2000, 326). The scene unfolds as follows:
He was come to the heart of the realm of Sauron and the forges of his ancient might, greatest in Middle-Earth; all other powers were here subdued.
Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice . . . and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
“I have come,” he said. “But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!” And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight.
Something struck Sam violently in the back, his legs were knocked from under him and he was flung aside . . . as a dark shape sprang over him.
He groped forward, and then he saw a strange and terrible thing. Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe.
Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was made from living fire.
“Precious, precious, precious!” Gollum cried. “My Precious! O my Precious!” And with that even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail precious, and he was gone. (Return of the King 247–9)
Sam carries Frodo from the cave, and they see the land around them being destroyed by storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.
“Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee,” said a voice by his side. And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire. . . . His master had been saved; he was himself again, he was free. (249–50)
The critical consensus on this passage is that Frodo had finally lost control of himself when he claimed the Ring as his own. It is also the consensus of the characters in the story; when Frodo and Sam are rescued, both of them are honored, not blamed. Tolkien suggested later that Frodo blamed himself—that this was why he could find no real peace of mind until his departure from Middle-Earth at the end of the story—but if he did, he was the only one who did so (2002, 327–8).
Tolkien also stated that the climactic scene made him think of the Lord’s Prayer, particularly the lines “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6.19-13 and Luke 11.2-4). He added, “A petition against something that cannot happen is unmeaning. There exists the possibility of being placed in positions beyond one’s power” (2000, 252). Critic Colin Gunton sums up the consensus when he writes, “We find that Frodo has so long carried the hideous article that he has joined those in thrall to the ring and cannot voluntarily give it up” (131).
Another paradox central to Christianity makes itself evident here: that at the moment when we think we have become masters of ourselves, we have actually become slaves. In the words of critic George Clark, “Frodo recovers his strength and turns into a powerful figure as he loses the battle with the Ring” (47). Fellow critic Stratford Caldecott also stresses this point, comparing the Ring to “the Ego, the false self”: “Its renunciation is impossible, without help from ‘outside’, from beyond ourselves. (In theology this is called grace.) The self cannot unmake the self. ‘I can will what is right, but I cannot do it,’ as St. Paul says (Romans 7:18-19)” (31).
So Frodo willed what was right as long as he could, until, “under demonic pressure,” he came to the place “where all other powers [including his own will] were . . . subdued” (Tolkien 2000, 327). He could not then accomplish the task—because no one could. It was quite literally an impossible one.
Egan goes so far as to write,
This last theme culminates in ‘eucatastrophe,’ Tolkien’s word for the greatest of all Happy Endings, the good disaster, a concept which leads straight to Christian theology. It derives from a tradition going back to Augustine of Hippo, who exclaimed “O felix culpa”—“O happy guilt, that did deserve such and so great a Redeemer!” (47)
Yet although most critics understand this point, Frodo’s failure nonetheless has led many of them to pick another hero for the book. Aragorn and Gandalf have qualities that are both Christ-like and heroic. Gandalf is killed and resurrected; Aragorn is a healer and, as Nitzsche observes, shows many of the qualities of a Christian king.5 However, the fact that their actions for the most part serve only as “a diversion” from the central quest generally is considered to disqualify them from being seen as the heroes of the work.
Nevertheless, one other candidate exists. Several Tolkien critics, including Pearce, Birzer, Caldecott, Clark, and to some extent Lewis, have identified Sam as the primary heroic figure, based mainly on three criteria: his selflessness in aiding Frodo, the fact that he never failed as Frodo did, and what occurs at the end of the book.
As Frodo departs from Middle-earth, Sam, though mourning his loss, is nonetheless happily installed as mayor of the Shire, their homeland, and the father of a growing family. As Schlobin puts it, Sam “completes the monomyth” by returning to and settling down in his native land (75). Tolkien himself wrote to his son before finishing the work,
The Book will prob. end up with Sam. Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarified by the achievement of the great Quest, and will pass West with all the great figures; but S. will settle down to the Shire and gardens and inns. C[harles] Williams who is reading it all says the great thing is that its centre is not in strife and war and heroism (though they are understood and depicted) but in freedom, peace, ordinary life and good liking. (2000, 105)
But this does not necessarily imply that Sam was meant to be the book’s hero. The passage from The Return of the King where Sam and Frodo say goodbye throws light on this point:
“But,” said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, “I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you have done.”
“So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” (345)
The raising of Sam to the hero’s position may result from a misunderstanding of the role of a Christian hero. Peace and freedom and a happy family life may receive the highest value in Tolkien’s world, but if this is true, then who is the greater hero: the one who gives these things up so that others may have them, or the one who sustains them after they have been preserved? If the Christian myth is indeed central to the story, as has been demonstrated, the answer is clear.
It is true that Sam never failed in his own task, but Sam’s task was not the same—and not as difficult—as Frodo’s task. It is his willingness to sacrifice himself completely for the good of the world out of love that makes Frodo similar to Christ. Frodo knew taking the Ring to Mordor was almost certain to lead to his own death. As critic Sean McGrath writes, “The Quester for Life whose quest leads him to choose death is a distinctively Christian archetype” (182)—an echo of the words of Jesus in John 12.25, “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (New King James Bible). More than that, Frodo knew that the quest could very well lead to the destruction of his mind and soul—with the pathetic and repulsive figure of Gollum, hopelessly enslaved to the Ring, constantly before him, he could hardly help knowing it. When Sam offered to help him bear its growing weight, Frodo reacted with uncharacteristic anger: “But then quickly his voice changed. ‘No, no, Sam,’ he said sadly. ‘But you must understand. . . . I am almost in its power now. I could not give it up, and if you tried to take it I should go mad’” (Return 238).
Unlike Christ, Frodo fails, and yet the impossible task is accomplished, both in spite of him and because of him—because of the Christ-like love and pity he had shown toward others. His mercy toward Gollum, sparing his life on more than one occasion, ensured his own salvation and the success of his quest. “Tolkien chooses the kindlier virtues—forgiveness, mercy, pity” (and, of course, self-sacrifice) as the key to true heroism (Schlobin 78). It is significant that, although Sam also spares Gollum’s life, he is unable to treat him with the same kindness that Frodo shows him. Lewis notes, “What finally pushes [Gollum] over the brink is an unpremeditated speech by the most selfless character of all” (1982, 87). This is a reference to the scene in The Two Towers where Gollum, watching Frodo asleep, almost repents and changes until angered by some harsh words from Sam, who thinks Gollum is trying to hurt Frodo.
Looking beyond “the kindlier virtues,” we see it was the unseen power behind the scenes, the power that truly controlled the situation, that stepped in when all seemed lost. Gunton points out that under the conditions Tolkien had created here, in this monotheistic but pre-Christian world, there could be no real “Christ figure” because there was no visible Christ. This is where we see the problem of the will resolved. Frodo can come close to being a “Christ figure” but cannot actually become one, because the greatest tool he has been given is his own will, and that can take him far but never far enough.
Birzer, who compared Frodo’s burden to Christ’s, points out that “the experience of carrying the Ring, and ultimately succumbing to its temptation, transforms [Frodo] profoundly. He knows the experience of mortal sin firsthand, and he repents by embracing mercy” (Sanctifying Myth 70). It is noteworthy that after the Ring is destroyed, Frodo refuses to fight any more, even when fighting is called for. One might speculate that, having given in (however briefly) to the overwhelming temptation for power, he is afraid to trust himself with any kind of power from then on. Again, he has done Christ-like deeds but is not actually Christ, who fulfilled his quest and thus did not need to repent.
Christians believe, as mentioned earlier, that the will of the self must be subordinated to the will and direction of God for salvation of any kind to be achieved. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus tells his disciples (John 15.5, New King James Bible). As Gunton puts it, “At the heart of the matter is the incarnation. The cleansing and completion of the creation comes about when the eternal Word of God, through whom all things were made, took flesh so that he might himself, as true man, bring together God and the world which evil had sundered” (137).
As a Christian, Tolkien would argue that Frodo cannot do any such thing—that no mortal can. So even though Christ as God incarnate is not visible in the story, we may say that he is obvious by his absence—or, if we identify him (as Tolkien might have) with the unseen benevolent power at the heart of the story, by what he does without being recognized.
A Timeless Vision
Looking both at Tolkien’s expressed views about the role and power of myth and at the myth he created, we may speculate that he would have altered the question we asked at the beginning. His concern was not “How does one create a hero in the twentieth century,” but “How does one create a hero at any time?” He knew and loved the ancient Western myths and legends, but with what he called the “true myth” of Christianity he went a step further: He believed it. For him, even though other myths contained echoes of the truth, this was the one myth that was completely relevant to the world at all times, regardless of what kind of hero was in fashion.
And so it was this myth that informed his imagination and gave him his own vision of greatness: the hero who, in his own words, “had done what he could and spent himself completely,” and whose “exercise of patience and mercy . . . gained him Mercy” (2000, 326). He would have agreed with his contemporaries that heroism is not enough to save the world—but he would have added that nonetheless heroism must exist in order for the world to be saved, and that wherever a person is found who is willing to act like Frodo, it does exist.
This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.
1Shippey calls this a “distinctively modern” idea, but in fact Tolkien would have been able to trace it back to the Bible and its pattern of rulers who became too powerful, forgot God, and became corrupt. See 1 Kings 10 and 11, Daniel 4.28–37, and Acts 12.20–23 for examples.
2This is based on the traditional Christian analysis of Isaiah 53, among other biblical passages.
3Schlobin uses a different edition of Return of the King, but the same edition of the Letters as this author.
4See for example Matthew 5.5 and Luke 1.51-2.
5Of interest here is an analysis by academic Barry Gordon that portrays Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn in the biblical roles of priest, prophet, and king. “Tolkien admitted . . . that the Gordon thesis was true, but that such a scheme had been unconscious on Tolkien’s part” (Sanctifying Myth 69-70).
Works Cited and Consulted
Note: Tolkien envisioned The Lord of the Rings as six books, even though it was published in three volumes. Thus, each volume contains two books. To make the paper easier to follow, however, I have ignored the “books” and referred only to the three volumes.
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