or, the last gunfighter....
Reading Varda’s post below about the various literary and mythical heroes that Tolkien might have drawn upon to create Frodo, it struck me, as it did once before, that these heroes are all from what we North Americans call “the Old World”.
Now, it is true that for those of us who come from European stock, those myths are “our” myths too, our ancestors brought them here when they came. But we have our own myths and heroes, too, and I thought, “Does Frodo fit here?”
Well, this is a hard question. The archetypal American hero is the lone frontiersman. Not necessarily a gunfighter or cowboy, the lone stranger is America as it was dreamed, going Westward forever. He doesn’t go on a quest, except maybe the quest to see what lies over the next hill. He is not bound by vows or friendship, has no deed to perform. He is “free”, and he wanders free. No pilgrim, seeking neither enlightenment nor paradise, his heaven is motion, he rolls like a wheel through his life, gathering no moss.
From the earliest days of European settlements in the New World, there were men who went off into the wilderness, going North, going South, but always going West, going to where the sun set. Were they explorers? Of a kind, I suppose, but exploring in the sense of claiming territory was not their mission. They were not exploring to add to the sum of human knowledge, the only human knowledge they cared about was their own. Over the next hill, through the next valley, on and on until one day the Pacific lay before them, infinitely vast to a lone man, rolling away to the blue horizon. No ring to throw in, just the sad realization that the wandering had come to an end, and what was a man to do next?
Is Gary Cooper’s “Will Kane” in High Noon a Frodo? Is his last gunfight at all like Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring and bring down the Dark Lord Sauron? Kane is fighting for his own life and honour, and even before the last shot rings out, he has made up his mind that he’s moving on, that this town is no longer the place for him. Though he is willing to die, he is not dying for anyone else.
Shane? I don’t think Shane is a Frodo either. He does a “good deed”, but he has not set out to save the world. He fights the forces of Evil, all right, but for the sake of his friends, and at the end he simply rides away.
Books and movies galore are full of men like Will Kane or Alan Ladd’s Shane. The quiet stranger, the man with no name, who rides into town and “cleans up”, then moves on to nowhere. Not bad men, but not good men either for they have blood on their hands. Sometimes one of them will say, “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it,” and so he straps on his gunbelt and goes out into the dusty street. I don’t see Frodo anywhere here, except maybe lying frightened behind the water tank with me and everyone else in town.
Is this why we love Frodo so much? Is it because Frodo isn’t just a lone gunman riding through the West saving the odd girl from a runaway horse, shootin’ up a nest of bandits down in the arroyo? Is it because our mythical cowboy hero isn’t really much of a hero?
I’ve loved these frontiersmen all my life, I cut my reading teeth on silly old Zane Grey, and Owen Wister. I read “The Last of the Mohicans” a dozen times one summer, the summer we built the fort down by the creek and acted out the story over and over. I fell in love with Sheriff Matt Dillon and guess what, I’m still in love with him, riding that big buckskin horse. Move over, Miss Kitty.
I’m not in love with Frodo. But I love Frodo. Frodo is a better hero, to me, than all those cowboys and deerskin clad types like Jim Bridger and Kit Carson. He might be part Odysseus, part Aeneas, part Christian from “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, part Beowulf, but he is wholly Frodo, wholly heroic, in my eyes. Wherever he came from, it was a good place. There should be more of him around. We need guys like him these days.