Some Thoughts on Frodo as a Tragic Hero

by elenna
As the time gets closer to the unveiling of ROTK, I cannot help but think of one of my favorite literary characters who has become very real to me and I know a lot of you, my friends, as well. A couple weeks ago in a discussion I referred to FRodo in the light of a 'tragic hero'. Some of you readily agreed; some of you said he did not fit the bill. I am not trying to be argumentative. We each have our own opinions. I have written mine and would welcome yours. Please forgive me if this seems redundant or to ramble. Some portions may seem dramatic. As I await the opening of ROTK with a bit of fear and trepidation for a wonderful character, I needed to express my thoughts and feelings with those who would listen and share their thoughts and feelings in return without laughing in my face. Tahnk you for listening.

I have previously stated that I consider Frodo to be a ‘tragic hero’. There seemed to be some dissention with this notion. I do hold to my opinion after reviewing the definition of the ‘tragic hero’ as seen in literature. I have in the course of my meanderings enlisted the aid of not one, but three high school English teachers.

A succinct definition of the ‘tragic hero’ contains the following criteria: 1. Noble and admirable character; 2. Falls from a position of prominence to disaster or death; 3. Is over come by evil; 4. Gains self-knowledge and wisdom from the experience; 5. Is an example of the best one is capable of in the face of overwhelming adversity; 6. Often displays a ‘tragic flaw’ which leads to his/her downfall, but; 7. The downfall may result form forces beyond his/her control. The question remains: Is Frodo Baggins truly a ‘tragic hero’?

Frodo definitely is possessed of a noble and admirable character. We can look at the various words used in this criterion by definition: Noble – lofty and exalted character – showing greatness and magnanimity; Magnanimous – noble of mind and heart; generous in forgiving, above revenge or resentment; unselfish; gracious; Admirable – admire – to have a high opinion of; to esteem or respect. Do these qualities by definition fit Frodo? Sam would certainly agree. Frodo had every reason to kill Gollum but spared his life and tried to reform him by showing him compassion. Gaffer describes Frodo in being very much like Bilbo in more than looks. The Baggins’ were viewed as generous, decent and respectable. Bilbo and Gandalf “thought him (Frodo) the best hobbit in the Shire.” (FOTR, p. 178)

The second criterion is that the character fall from a position of prominence to disaster or death. As previously stated the Baggins’ were a prominent family and one of the wealthiest in the Shire – or so it was thought. They were respected and looked up to. Frodo followed in Bilbo’s footsteps by showing kindness and generosity towards others. By selling Bag End to the Sackville-Baggins’ to “return to Buckland”, Frodo could be seen to fall a notch or two in the eyes of others as the Sackville-Baggins’ were not the most respected people in the Shire and Buckland was viewed as being “where folks are so queer.”

I know it has been stated by others that the task Frodo undertook was that of ‘ring bearer’ and not ‘ring destroyer’ and yet, what do we think the outcome should have been? The destruction of the Ring was openly discussed at the Council of Elrond. The wise cannot say what the outcome will be. They only know the task must be attempted. The Ring has passed from Bilbo to Frodo. Elrond, at least, understands the task was appointed for Frodo. He tells Frodo, “If you do not find a way, no one will.” (FOTR, p.324) The intent surely was not to make it all the way to the Fires of Orodruin only to let the Dark Lord have the Ring because the ‘appointed’ task was only to take the Ring that far, but not to cast it into the fire. It follows, then, that the task was not only to bear the Ring, but also to cast it into the Fire. Because this task was a virtually impossible task, due to the power of the Ring, it was a set-up for disaster. There was little hope for its success. There was no possible way Frodo could carry out the task unscathed.

The concept of disaster leads us in to the next criterion in which the hero is overcome by evil. Frodo was in possession of the Ring and the task was appointed to him. There was no one else who could have taken the Ring to Mount Doom. He has the necessary disposition to bear the Ring on this quest because of his hobbit nature: he is peace-loving with no desire for wealth or power. The hope that existed for the success of the quest was due in part to this Hobbit disposition which would stave off the affects of the Ring as long as possible. Frodo freely offered the Ring to both Gandalf and Galadriel. He did not appear to struggle with this offer which speaks to the strength of his character. It seemed inevitable that Frodo should fall under the power of the Ring. Frodo succeeded in making the journey only because of Sam’s constant and vigilant care. Sam struggled selflessly to keep Frodo going until the end by taking care of his everyday bodily needs and keeping him rooted in the Shire. This is the self-knowledge or wisdom that Frodo gains from the experience. Prior to leaving the Shire, Frodo has begun to long for news of the world outside the Shire and had a desire to leave the Shire seeing its inhabitants as ‘dull and stupid’. The knowledge that it was necessary to leave the Shire to save it was a noble gesture, to say the least. It was also painful. As the quest moved on, the importance of life in the Shire and its inhabitants grew. When the burden of the Ring became too heavy, Sam served to constantly remind him of the Shire and why he had undertaken the quest.

Frodo’s actions in taking on the quest are an example of the best he was capable of. He undertook the quest of his own free will both in leaving the Shire to take the Ring to Rivendell and in undertaking the quest from Rivendell to Mount Doom. He went selflessly not asking any to undertake this quest with him even trying to go it alone to protect those he cared about; but grateful for the company of Sam when the Fellowship was broken. As the Ring weighed more and more heavily upon him, Frodo struggled not only with the affects of the Ring; but also with Gollum. Gollum provided Frodo with a foretaste of his own fate should he give in to the Ring. He knew it was inevitable.

The difficulty that I see in the ‘tragic hero’ definition is in the notion of a ‘tragic flaw’. It is difficult to see a flaw or blemish in a character that is self-sacrificing. The ‘tragic flaw’ is often one of pride. I have a difficult time with seeing Frodo as overly proud. True, there is an element of pride, but it is more with his aristocratic station in life. It is true the Ring was his by right of inheritance (I am aware of the fact that Frodo tries to give the ring to Aragorn upon discovering Aragorn’s true identity) and the quest was his. The Ring was ‘meant’ to come to Frodo just as the task was ‘appointed’ for Frodo. Once again we think of Elrond’s words ‘if you do not find a way, no one will.’ Frodo took these words to heart. It was his task and his alone to the extent that not even Sam could help him even for a short while without being accused of thievery (we know this was the influence of the Ring talking). He quickly follows his accusation with an apology and the reasoning that the quest was his and he does not want to see Sam burdened with bearing the Ring. This doesn’t really seem like a ‘tragic flaw’ to me.

We know that Frodo is more moody and sensitive than the average Hobbit. Being more sensitive, he would be more attuned to the feelings and needs of others as well as himself. He felt the weight of the Ring’s burden very acutely. He did not wish to see the Shire and those he cared about harmed by the power of the Ring which is why he knew he had to take it from the Shire. Seeing how the power of the Ring could affect Boromir, he decided he should leave the rest of the Fellowship and undertake the quest on his own. Frodo was keenly aware of the Ring and the hopelessness of his quest. He became despondent. The power of the Ring grew with each step towards their goal as they moved closer to Barad-dûr and the watchful Eye of the Dark Lord. As the power of the Ring grew in him, the greater was Frodo’s despair. It gnawed at him to the extent that there was nothing left but a shell: a shell that knew it had a quest to fulfill. He was an empty hull that succeeded in reaching its destination because of Sam whose love for Frodo kept him going towards the goal and certain death while at the same time giving Frodo a sense of something to cling to in the earthiness and nature rooted in the Shire symbolized by Sam’s love for growing things and his work as a gardener. Nevertheless, as they neared the Fire, Frodo’s despondency grew with the reality that this would be the end of all things. They would die. There was no hope left. Frodo even lost all sense of memory of events and happiness in the Shire when Sam spoke to him of the Shire trying to keep him rooted. All Frodo had left was hopelessness and the need to make it to the Cracks of Doom. The Ring was claiming him. He had no will to resist. In the end, in my humble opinion, he claims the Ring and uses it to his downfall with his salvation being the almost immediate destruction of the Ring thanks to Gollum who had this final part to play. According to the list of criteria for the ‘tragic hero’, the word ‘often’ is used to qualify the statement concerning the ‘tragic flaw’ meaning the ‘tragic flaw’ may not occur. If the ‘tragic flaw’ does occur in Frodo’s character, I am inclined to believe it is his despondency.

To a great extent, the real tragedy comes from forces beyond Frodo’s control. He never asked for the Ring and was surprised that Bilbo left it for him. Knowing that the Ring was his, he did not immediately rush to put it on or even to look at it, but let it remain in the packet of documents from Bilbo. We see that the Ring begins to work on him as soon as it is out of the packet by virtue of the fact that Frodo is fidgeting with something in his pocket while speaking to Otho and Lobelia. Gandalf warns Frodo not to use the Ring. We know he does, in fact, use it by his lack of aging over the next seventeen years. I believe he uses it sparingly or he would have succumbed more readily to the Ring while on the quest. No one knew originally that this was the One Ring. Following their discovery, Gandalf tells Frodo that he was “meant to have it.” Elrond tells Frodo the task was “appointed for you, Frodo…” implying there is some outside force affecting the players in this drama.

We cannot negate the power of the Ring itself and the affect on anyone who touches it. Those who had attended the Council of Elrond, at least, were all aware of the fact that to wield the Ring would mean to fall under its power. Frodo was certainly aware of this but, as Hobbits were a more innocent type of being, I am not so certain that Sam, Merry or Pippin had this same awareness. Frodo freely offers the Ring to both Gandalf and Galadriel who both decline without touching the Ring. The members of the Fellowship do not touch the Ring either and it stays in Frodo’s possession making him ultimately the only one accountable for the Ring and its riddance – even though Sam bore it for a short while when he thought Frodo was dead.

The closer the Ring got to Mordor and its maker, the greater was its power. Frodo had been chosen or appointed by an outside power (Ilúvatar, it would seem) for this task in part because he is a Hobbit with their sense of innocence and lack of ambition for wealth or power, as well as, their small size which makes them easy to overlook. I think Frodo’s personality and sensitive nature also were important in him being ‘chosen’ as he would see the greater need of the whole of Middle-Earth as opposed to his individual needs. Those ‘in the know’ would realize the task was impossible with their only hope being that Frodo could somehow stay alive long enough to get the Ring to Mount Doom. If they were really lucky, he would be able to withstand its power and cast the Ring into the Fire.

The Council of Elrond was held to expressly discuss what to do with the Ring. In the course of the discussion the reader is given an accounting of the history of the Ring and the necessity of removing it from Middle-Earth one way or another. It is decided that the only hope is to destroy the Ring. A volunteer is needed. We see that nobody comes forward except Bilbo and as he is turned down we wait some more until Frodo finally speaks up. Elrond nicely points out to Frodo: “If I understand aright all that I have heard,”… “I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and if you do not find a way, no one will. This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck? But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right…” What is our Hobbit supposed to say at this juncture? He has just been given the complete history of the Ring, told it must be destroyed, volunteered to do the job, told that the task was meant to be his and, by the way, he is the only hope that the world has. Then he is asked if he does so of his own free will. The point I am trying to make here is that Frodo is an exceptionally sensitive Hobbit who has this major Middle-Earth-shattering task ‘appointed’ for him and has the One Ring working against him. These factors reveal that Frodo is dealing with forces beyond his control. He becomes an expendable pawn in the grand game being played out. In no way do I mean the others do not care about him; more rather, that it is a task that must be undertaken and Frodo is the only one who can do it as he is best suited to withstand the power of the Ring for the longest time. All of this seems immensely unfair to such a gentle natured being and the consequences are tragic. Frodo rises to the occasion and even though we do not read his response to Elrond’s desire that the quest should be undertaken freely and without any coercion, for that would be the right choice, we know Frodo’s decision was made freely if a bit nervously. Frodo steps forward as a hero using all the strength and courage he possesses to undertake his quest and fulfills it to the best of his capabilities. All of this defines Frodo as a ‘tragic hero’ in my way of thinking.