The Lord of the Rings is a story of
The Unexpected Hero
Every great story needs a Hero.
The Lord of The Rings by J R R Tolkein, is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of Fantasy Literature ever written; and for good reason. It spans a rich and expansive world, and offers a story that is altogether epic in scope but deeply personal in its telling. Within this world, there are many characters explored, each championing the cause of their side; and as with all great stories, there is a hero to be found.
Who is the Hero in The Lord of the Rings?
A traditional hero in our mind is the one who fights grand battles and achieves great glory. But J R R Tolkien chooses to present us with a different idea for a hero.
“All that is gold does not glitter”
A character like Aragorn certainly seems primed to be the ultimate vehicle of heroism. But even he is not introduced as a confident and established hero, but as a grimy and weatherworn Ranger. Beneath the mud and grime however, is a leader of men and the heir to the throne of Gondor. Aragorn struggles with self-doubt, but eventually overcomes his insecurities to claim his destiny as a great warrior, leading a great host against the enemy, and finally being crowned as king. By all means, this is the Hero's journey that we have come to expect.
But anyone who has delved into the Lord of the Rings, would probably not point to Aragorn as the primary Hero of the tale. He certainly is one of the many heroes in the series, yet somehow, despite being the quintessential personification of heroism, it is the characters that surprise us that seem to have the greater impact in the course of the story.
The Unexpected Hero is a recurring theme in The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien begins this with Frodo Baggins. Much is made of a simple hobbit being chosen as the Ring Bearer, amidst the presence of warriors, wizards and wise men. Frodo never sees himself playing a large or even significant role, merely a temporary steward of the Ring until stronger and wiser folk can take over. And yet it is he that becomes the bearer of the greatest burden, precisely because of his humility and unassuming nature. It harkens to the famous adage that perhaps the greatest Heroes are the ones that do not pursue its glories.
“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future”
Once Frodo becomes the Ring Bearer, we settle in for a charming story of how our brave little Hobbit will overcome his trials to defeat the evil forces that surround him and triumph as the ultimate Hero. We are now one step into the Unexpected Hero theme. But as the plot progresses, events do not unfold the way we expect. Despite being pure-hearted and good-intentioned, Frodo progressively crumbles under the burden of being the Ring Bearer. Despite being essentially our main protagonist, by the latter-end of the tale, he makes unwise decisions, treats Sam unfairly, is undiscerning of Gollum's treachery, and finally is unable to resist the temptation of the One Ring, succumbing to his desire and deciding to hold on to it instead of destroying it. That, is certainly not heroic. Now we are pulled in one step deeper into the twist of the Unexpected Hero. As Frodo steadily shrinks in heroism, Tolkien introduces to us another.
Another, who begins his journey as an insignificant gardener, and is pulled into the story by mere happen-chance and dropping of eaves, if you will.
Gandalf: Confound it all, Samwise Gamgee. Have you been eavesdropping?
Sam: I ain't been droppin' no eaves sir, honest.”
Samwise Gamgee is presented to us as the "stupid, fat hobbit". The sidekick to the story. At least, an insignificant companion to the Fellowship, and at best, a support system for our main protagonist. He certainly doesn't fit the bill of a Hero, and we never expect him to be one. But by the end of the story, it is indeed Sam who emerges as the Hero. It is Sam who wades into the river to follow his master into Mordor, refusing to let him go alone. Sam, who sacrifices his rations for Frodo's sake, going hungry at times during their difficult journey. Sam, who remains loyal to their friendship despite the seeds of discord sown by Gollum. Sam, who faces his fears and risks everything to fight the monstrous spider, Shelob, and confronts a band of Orcs to rescue Frodo. And in perhaps one of the most powerful scenes of the tale, it is Sam who carries his friend up the side of Mount Doom, when Frodo has lost all will.
I can't carry it for you,
but I can carry you.
Other characters hold true to this theme as well. Merry and Pippin are introduced as mischief-makers, and the comic relief of the series. However, by the end, Merry has ridden into battle with the army of Rohan, and bravely stabs the Lord of the Nazgûl, thus enabling Eowyn to vanquish him. And Pippin has gone from being an incessant annoyance, and the thorn in Gandalf's side, to being a Guard of the Citadel of Gondor, helping Gandalf to save Faramir's life from the insanity of his father and even fighting in the army during the final assault on the Gates of Mordor. Eowyn is presented as a shieldmaiden of Rohan, constantly left behind as the men of her kingdom ride to battle, and seemingly relegated to being an unfortunate and rejected love-interest for Aragorn. But she rises above these circumstances to fight in the battle of the Pelennor Fields, and finally defeat the Witch King of Angmar, doing what even Aragorn and Gandalf could not do.
Tolkien births an important idea in our minds; that a Hero does not always begin his journey as one. It teaches us to remember that even if our own story thus far has seemed insignificant and disappointing, there is coming a time when we may rise above it. Some may walk the path of heroism their whole life, and be exactly what we expect.
But the thing is, Heroes can also be unexpected, both to those around them,
as well as to themselves.
Frodo: I wish it need not have happened in my time
Gandalf: So do I, and so do all who live to see such times.
But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.