Frodo as Hero, Revisited

by Rowan, with responses

Forgive me for riding in on the coattails of an earlier thread. I just joined today, and was planning to lurk quietly, but when I saw a discussion about a subject particularly near and dear, I had to jump in.

There are actually two different definitions of the word "hero", and I think that a lot of people confuse them. One is: "a character (or real-life person) who acts heroically; i.e., overcomes doubt, fear, and/or suffering to perform deeds that benefit others". The other is: "a character in a story on whose actions the main plot rests". In LOTR, many characters fit the first definition. Frodo, however, fits both.

So why is he so often dismissed or overlooked as the hero of LOTR? Mostly, I think, because he isn't what the majority of people picture when they think of a hero. He's not macho or rugged. He feels pain, fear, desperation, and hopelessness, and what's more, he doesn't mind admitting it (which many people interpret as "whining"). He needs help, from Sam, from Gollum, from the Fellowship and the armies of the West. And of course, there's that fact that he "fails" at the end: he gives in to the Ring, and it's only through "fate" that his mission is accomplished.

The movies don't help matters. While I do love them (even though they drive me crazy at times), and I love Elijah Wood's performance with what he was given -- in fact, oddly it was movie Frodo who finally made me a fan of book Frodo -- still the fact is that most of Frodo's "moments" from the book are either altered, given to other characters, or left out altogether. This, naturally, has had an unfortunate overall effect on his image: "Oh, yeah, the little dude with the big eyes who looks like a scared bunny all the time and is always falling down or getting toted about."

But nonetheless, Frodo is the hero, in my view -- as opposed to a hero, which is what Sam and the other main good guys are -- because everything hinges on him and his choices, and because those choices make him the one person most responsible for the Ring's destruction. He gives everything for his mission, even though he does not expect to succeed, or be rewarded, or even to survive. Unlike Sam, he does lose hope -- but he's not required to have hope; he's only required to get the Ring to Mount Doom, and to make the choices that will allow fate to take it from there.

In short, it's easy to be a hero when you have brawn and skill and (possibly) magic going for you. But it's more impressive (yet less easily recognized by most people) if you have none of these things, only an inner strength, will, courage, and moral compass that even you don't suspect you have until you're put to the test. That's why hobbits are by far my favorite race in LOTR, and why Frodo is my favorite character.

Response from Primula:

Excellent point, and well-written. Thank you so much for joining in, Rowan! I concur, it is the inner (and thus often unseen) strengths that pull him through - the fact that the greatest of heros will be unacknowledged was something that Tolkien recognized and demonstrated in the response of the folk of the Shire itself; that they lauded the flashy and brawny young Meriadoc and Peregrin, but had no honor to give to Frodo.

In many ways it is an extreme irony that so many "Tolkien scholars" would miss the fact they are doing the exact thing.

Reply from Rowan:

The different reactions of the Shirefolk to the four Travellers after the quest is one of the reasons LOTR is such a realistic work. (And I say that without irony, knowing that yes, it's a fantasy, but still the people in it behave as we would.)

Who do the hobbits see taking swords in hand and bravely driving off the ruffians? Merry and Pippin. Who do they see replanting the trees? Sam. Who, on the other hand, do they see holding back and pleading with the rest not to descend to the ruffians' level? Frodo. Never a popular stance to take, no matter how "right" it is. (Who's more admired in our culture, John Wayne or Gandhi?)

I think Tolkien's point was that Frodo was ascending to a more spiritual type of reward than the honor and love of his people at large, which, to Tolkien, was the highest reward any hero could receive.

Yet naturally most readers and viewers are going to be as drawn to the more obvious heroes as the hobbits were.

Response from Gamlefan:

As far as the books are concerned, I agree with you entirely. Frodo is definitely the hero, and I'm surprised there is much debate about this. Although a lot of things are done by a lot of other people, those people are either secondary characters, however important (eg, Elrond in book 1, Theoden in book 2, Faramir in books 2/3), or they are doing what they are doing for the purpose of assisting Frodo. Even the big diversion into saving Rohan is, in part, to reduce Saruman's ability to locate Frodo and the ring.

In the films, the matter is much more confused, which may be why the debate at ELF(?) took place. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh appear to have taken an early decision to make a lot more of Aragorn than there is in the book. (There, despite his importance in the fighting for middle-Earth, he becomes more and more shadowy as a person as the story progresses.) As an example of the way Aragorn's role is enhanced, take the scene at Weathertop. In the book, Frodo tries to attack the Ringwraith and fails, after which Strider drives him off. Why was this not done in the film? It would have been more exciting than making Frodo the frightened wimp we see, and more successful visually too. (That pause after Frodo has dropped his sword and fallen over always seems to me as if everyone has forgotten what to do next.) I think it is because PJ wanted to emphasise Strider's courage and strength of will, by suggesting that only he has the ability (until Eowyn) to face the terror of the Nazgul without flinching. We can see other examples of this 'no competition with Aragorn' at other points in the film, but I've run out of time for now. Suffice it to say that in the film, there is a much more even balance between Frodo and Aragorn than there is in the book.

Reply from Rowan:

I think that while PJ did an excellent job overall on the movie -- heavens know I couldn't have done what he did, nor could any other director on the planet, IMO -- still he did make mistakes.

Mistakes, of course, are inevitable in such a huge production. The one that I find hardest to swallow is not that he chose to build up other characters, but that he didn't find ways to do so without weakening Frodo.

Response from sarahstitcher:

Having studied classical mythology, I'm always on about "hero" in the Joseph Campbell sense, including the return to the community with the gifts earned or won on the journey. In the Scouring of the Shire, that's exactly what we see from each of the four hobbits. Each returned with something a little different, although Frodo's is a little more different from Sam, Merry and Pippin's. The three younger hobbits come home confident, decisive, with strong direction, organizational capacity, etc. and of course Sam comes home to Rosie no longer shy but sure he wants to marry her, and able to say so. Frodo's gift is on a whole different level, aptly compared to Gandhi vs. John Wayne (I must say in my house, Gandhi wins hands down!). It's not something everyone 'gets' right off. Still, I find it very powerful.

Response from Doctor Gamgee:

I must respectfully disagree with you. Well, not completely, Frodo is heroic and a hero. However your own second definition of Hero conflicts with your statement. You say that a hero is "a character in a story on whose actions the main plot rests." If Frodo were *THE* hero, then when he is captured after being stung by Shelob, then Sam's choices would be secondary (even though it is through him that Frodo escapes). Further, I am not sure that Frodo is the one on whom all the main plot rests. Frodo was not responsible for his own rescue.

This story, which ensnares the minds and hearts of so many readers is in fact a telling of "the war of the ring" and therefore, the Ring is the only character upon whom all of the main points of the plot rest. Gollum didn't know who Frodo was -- he was only after the Ring (and Bilbo, who stole it). Frodo was just the vehicle on which the Ring rode. Sauron and Saruman were looking for the Ring, not Frodo (though as he had posession of it, he therefore was sought after). The ents had no knowledge of Frodo at all, and yet they are part of the tale as well. They were only involved because of Saruman and his distruction of Fangorn during his quest for the Ring.

while you are surprised that others might be considered the hero, there are many reasons why the issue is not so clear cut. The book is great just because of these ambiguities. Tolkien answered this question once saying that it was Sam. Though I tend to agree on many levels, I cannot discount what Frodo did. But Sam is equal to the Hero status given to Frodo. Actually, in one way, he is even more so: Tolkien never says what the ring offered Frodo. Sam is the only person with whom the Author shares any perspective of how the Ring ensnares. And it is only Sam who shows the moral clarity to know what the Ring is (a source of evil) and stand his ground.

There are those that will say it is only because he had it for so short a time, but I cannot agree. Sam was in the presence of the Ring LONGER than Boromir, and yet he was ensnared, even though he never posessed it. So if posession were the rule, then one would have to surmise that Boromir was therefor nothing more than a bully and acting of his own free will -- and that is denied by both the book, the author, and Lindorie (who would give me a good thrashing if I were ever to suggest such at thing!). One cannot claim that the Ring NEAR Boromir for a few weeks could affect him, yet have no effect on Sam with the Months of exposure.

Reply from Rowan:

I'm afraid I was choosing to be a bit narrow in defining what I consider to be the "main plot" of LOTR, which to me is the destruction of the Ring, and the steps taken thereto.

I did not mean to disregard the important roles played by other characters. Naturally Frodo had to have a lot of help, both direct and indirect, in doing what he did. But still, I believe that without Frodo there wouldn't have been a quest, because no one else was suited for it or in a position to undertake it. That's what I mean by calling him *the* hero. It is his choices that lead most directly to the goal being accomplished.

Frodo basically has three main choices to make.

First is to accept the burden. He is the only one who can do it, because of his basic innocence, his inner strength, and the fact that he has already inherited the Ring and is its "rightful" owner, as much as anyone can be who is not Sauron.

Second is to leave the Fellowship. This frees the other members who don't go with him to fulfill their own roles. For instance, since Gandalf was gone, Aragorn was torn between going to Gondor and guiding Frodo. If Frodo had not relieved Aragorn of that choice by striking out on his own, then Aragorn would not have been there to help free Rohan, save Minas Tirith, and become king. Likewise, Merry and Pippin might not have roused the Ents, and the chain of events set in motion thereby would not have happened.

Third is to spare Gollum's life. Not only does Frodo gain a much-needed guide by doing so, but by showing mercy he earns the assistance of "fate", acting through Gollum, at Mount Doom, when he cannot destroy the Ring directly. Obviously Gollum couldn't have been there if he had been tied up and left to die in the Emyn Muil (as sweet, wonderful Sam suggested).

So yes, I do still see Frodo as the hero, albeit one who has a lot of assistance from other heroes.

All my opinion, of course.

Response from Frodosmiss:

Even frodosmiss needs to consider other hero options at times, especially when we don't go for what seems obvious! Bottom line for me is there is never a reason to leave Frodo, or any of the hobbits for that matter, out of a discussion regarding the hero(es) of LOTR. Obviously, it's a discussion that will continue to intrigue and engage fans for the ages. I, for one, enjoy the discussions because heroism, in its many facets and characters, is the lifeblood of the story for me.

Response from Carnen:

Of course there is the fact that LotR as a work sits within itself as being written by Frodo after the fact, and like many heroes he plays down or deprecates his role.

Can this be argued as having a bearing on the debate?

Response from sarahstitcher:

I thought PJ did a good job in the films, of making the Ring the main character as you describe. The prologues in FR and RK centered on it, he used sound, camera angles and every other trick in the cinematic book to make it large and center-stage. Every character that came into contact with it had to deal with his reaction to it.

So a side discussion might be on the "main character" issue versus the "hero" issue...

Response from Bonnie Half-Elven:

Excellent post. I take exception to only one thing:

He feels pain, fear, desperation, and hopelessness, and what's more, he doesn't mind admitting it (which many people interpret as "whining").

One thing that impressed me about Frodo, both in the book and the movie, is that, while he doesn't hide his weaknesses, he rarely complains or whines about them. Only when his pain is overwhelming does he cry out. He gives in to despair from time to time, but considering what he is dealing with, it's amazing how little he complains.

In the book, the best examples are when he was stabbed with the morgul knife, it was mentioned at one point that the pain was returning, but Frodo did not say anything for quite awhile. He also tried to hide his pain when it returned along the journey home, and only when Gandalf asked point blank did he admit it. He tried to hide it from Sam afterwards, too, sometimes successfully.

This characteristic impressed me greatly. We spend far too much time in this world complaining about meaningless things. I aspire to be more like Frodo in that regard (and in others).

Reply from Rowan:

Oh, I agree that Frodo does hide his pain for as long as he can, whenever it's an option for him. I speculate that it comes from his background as an orphan, and from being a quiet-natured personality living in the crowded environment of Brandy Hall. Anyone who grows up like that stands an excellent chance of becoming "not a very easy nut to crack", as Merry calls him.

But I guess I was mainly referring to those instances along the way where he does open up about his feelings. It's late, so I won't go counting every single one, but I do have this quote on hand:

"But Samwise Gamgee, my dear hobbit -- indeed, Sam my dearest hobbit, friend of friends -- I do not think we need give thought to what comes after that. To do the job as you put it -- what hope is there that we ever shall? And if we do, who knows what will come of that? If the One goes into the Fire, and we are at hand? I ask you, Sam, are we ever likely to need bread again? I think not. If we can nurse our limbs to bring us to Mount Doom, that is all we can do. More than I can, I begin to feel.'

Now, there are unfortunately those (not me) who do read such passages, along with lines where Frodo mentions how heavy the Ring is and how tired he is, as "whining". I myself see it as "telling it like it is". Anyway, can you picture Bruce Willis saying such things? Me neither. And it's part of what makes Frodo so "real" as a hero -- almost too real for some people, I think.

Response from Gamlefan:

I cannot discount what Frodo did. But Sam is equal to the Hero status given to Frodo. Actually, in one way, he is even more so: Tolkien never says what the ring offered Frodo. Sam is the only person with whom the Author shares any perspective of how the Ring ensnares. And it is only Sam who shows the moral clarity to know what the Ring is (a source of evil) and stand his ground (Dr. Gamgee)

Tolkien puts it a little differently: "Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, the Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land ... He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be. In that hour of trial, it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense. ... 'all these notions are only a trick,' he said to himself. 'He'd spot me and cow me before I could so much as shout out. ...'

Sam and Frodo are almost equal in claim to being the hero, in the sense of main protagonist, but this is partly because of the literary convention Tolkien uses of showing their part of the story mainly through Sam's eyes. However, this was almost certainly intended to emphasise Frodo's special status rather than to enhance Sam's. Compare 'Pride and Prejudice', where Mr Darcy is more fascinating for being seen only through Elizabeth Bennett's eyes than he would have been if Jane Austen had described his development from his own point of view. Elizabeth is, of course, the main character of P&P, and it might be argued by extension that seeing the Ring quest from his viewpoint makes Sam the main character of LOTR. But I'm with Rowan in this. Sam is extremely important as a character, but Frodo is the one who makes the decisions which have the most significant effect on the direction and outcome of the quest.

Sam regarded his master as the Hero of the story, as did the minstral of Gondor - 'Frodo of the Nine fingers and the Ring of Doom'.

Response from Overlithe:

Welcome Rowan....sorry I missed the beginning of this as I started the previous thread. I agree with almost every single word you said...Except this one..."Failed".

It is not that I believe that in order for Frodo to be a hero, "the hero", that he could not fail, for I do believe he would be a hero even if he had. The task he took on was insurmountable..Only in his own view and the view of the final goal is Frodo a failure. I do not believe it was his task to destroy the Ring but mearly to carry it. He carried it as far as mortally possible and then others played their part in the tale.

It is my belief that Frodo was indeed the only one who could have carried it, why? I don't know but even previous posts have eluded to it, even steadfast Sam was swayed very quickly by the ring...Could he have resisted it had he been required to?

Why was Frodo resistent to the Ring, more so than others? Bilbo held it long and was not swayed to evil deeds but the Ring was "sleeping" and by Tolkiens own accounts he chose to be merciful and have pity on Gollum thus altering how it affected him...Frodo was given the thing...did this make him less apt to be swayed towards evil?

So many questions, but the fact remains, the wise feared to do what Frodo did, to carry what he long held. Imagine how he felt when the most powerful being he knew of, recoiled from the trinket he already had held for long years. It gives me chills to imagine the blinding fear that must have passed through him...Then quite resolve and realization.

I know that there are some who will never be swayed as I am one of them. Frodo is the Hero and more importantly he was successful in his appointed task...To carry the ring even unto the brink of its destruction, And even unto the ruin of himself.