We just finished rewatching DVDs of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and once more the story and characters riveted me. Warning: I will be giving spoilers, so if you’ve not seen the movies and don’t want to know what happens, stop right here!
I was startled to realize that it’s been a dozen years since the first movie came out, ten years since the last. But a great story doesn’t age, and Tolkien understood the power of epic tales of danger, destruction, and heroism. I read the trilogy long ago in college, and while I never became a fanatic or reread the books, the story was powerful enough that I never forgot the plot or the main characters.
Because it’s the movies that have imprinted most forcibly on my mind, I’m going to be musing about the characters as they appear in the movies, not the books, because the depictions aren’t not always the same. (A friend of mine who is deep into the Tolkien fan community tells me not everyone approves of the changes made in the movies, but I liked them because they work, and also because print and film have different necessities.).
Epic fantasy is about the struggle between good and evil, which is why watching the LOTR trilogy got me to thinking about the many kinds of heroism. Oxford professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is considered the father of the modern genre of epic fantasy, and as a WWI officer who served in the Battle of the Somme, he knew something about war firsthand, That knowledge, and his ability to create heroic characters, informs the Lord of the Rings.
A common trope in high fantasy is a quest by a disparate group of characters, and the Fellowship of the Ring is an archetype of that. The Fellowship consists of nine representatives of the free people of Middle Earth, and they take a joint oath to protect and defend the ring bearer on his quest to destroy the great, evil ring of power.
GANDALF the wizard is the guiding genius of the quest. He is the only one who knows the full history of the ring and understands its disastrous potential. He is both leader and master strategist, who spends decades studying the threat and making friends who become allies. He fights the greatest inhuman evils, like the demonic Balrog, and is a mighty warrior in the many battles of the epic. But for all his strength and wisdom, he dare not carry the ring for fear of succumbing to its evil. Only Frodo has the potential to succeed.
So the quest belongs to FRODO. A hobbit, he comes from a race of easygoing small people who live in the Shire, a land that is based on an idealized Merrie Olde England.
But Frodo inherits the great ring of power that had been found by his Uncle Bilbo, and the Dark Lord Sauron, who created the ring, wants it back so that he can conquer all of Middle Earth. The ring is seductive and corrupting and leads to obsession and madness. ("My precioussss…..") It can only be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, which is a long and hideously dangerous trek away.
One of the ways characters in LOTR are weighed in the balance is whether or not they succumb to the evil, tempting lure of the ring. The hobbits, who are lovers, not fighters, and tend not to be taken very seriously by the other races of Middle Earth, are not warriors, but they are resilient and more immune to the corrupting effects of the ring than most other beings.
Hence, Frodo reluctantly accepts the mission to destroy the ring, which will also destroy the Dark Lord Sauron, who has bound much of his power into the ring. Frodo has the quiet, steely courage of commitment, and he continues on his mission even though the ring is draining his energy and strength and soul. Even when it seems that he’ll die on his quest and never return to his beloved Shire, he carries on.
Three other hobbits accompany Frodo. Samwise, Frodo’s gardener, becomes his master’s servant, guardian, and best friend. He has the heroism of unwavering strength and loyalty, and without him, Frodo could not have succeeded. When Frodo can go no farther, it is Sam who literally carries him for the last hellish ascent.
The other two hobbits, Merry and Pippin, are Frodo’s cousins and a source of mischief, mistakes, and comic relief. The Mayhem Consultant thought they were vastly irritating, but over time, they grow in strength and wisdom and fighting skills. When Frodo is attacked, they unhesitatingly draw their swords and charge into danger. They may be flighty, but they are willing to sacrifice their lives to defend their friend and his great mission. (By the end of LOTR, the peace loving hobbits have all become very good with weapons in order to survive. They use their new skills to drive thugs out of the Shire when they return home.)
ARAGORN is the most traditional hero, the true heir to the ancient kingdom of Gondor and a fearless and skilled warrior. In the film trilogy, he is haunted by the sins of his ancestor, Isildur, whose failure to destroy the ring in the past has caused all the destruction that occurs now. The arc of his hero’s journey includes accepting his destiny as the king and war leader of the forces of good, and he proves his mettle by refusing the seductive power of the ring. He's a great tortured hero, my favorite kind.
There are three other members of the Fellowship—Legolas the elf (be still, my heart!), Gimli the dwarf, and Boromir, the human son of the steward of Gondor. There is no love lost between elves and dwarves, but Legolas and Gimli are both fearless warriors, and they stay loyal to the quest and Aragorn. By the end, they are friends willing to die beside each other.
Boromir is the example of the good man gone wrong. He succumbs to the lure of the ring, thinking to use it to protect Gondor without realizing that he’s been corrupted by its power. In the end, he comes to his senses and dies defending the hobbits, but not before his actions shatter the Fellowship.
Another notable hero is Faramir, younger brother of Boromir. More reserved than his older brother, Faramir shows his strength by resisting the evil lure of the ring and sending Frodo and Sam along on their quest. There is a heartbreaking sequence when Faramir’s father sends his son and members of the guard on a suicidal mission against the orcs. It’s Pickett’s Charge and the Charge of the Light Brigade—insane courage in the face of death. It’s what soldiers under orders have done since time immemorial.
And men are not the only heroes of LOTR. Arwen Evenstar is the most beautiful elf of her generation and the beloved of Aragorn. In the film, she shows personal courage in saving the wounded Frodo and fighting off the evil Nazgul.
Her grandmother, Lady Galadriel, is the greatest elven female of her age, and she shows her strength by refusing the ring when an awed Frodo offers it. She realizes that she would become “great and terrible,” and must resist the temptation.
Eowyn of the horse people of Rohun is a warrior heroine, a shield maiden trained in arms and with a warrior spirit. She rides into the great battle against evil dressed as a man, and makes a vital contribution to the victory by slaying the witch-king, who could be killed by no man. (It’s a great moment in the movie!) Badly wounded, she meets the wounded Faramir in the Houses of Healing, and they fall in love and marry.
In one final act of heroism, Aragorn, now fully inhabiting the role of king that he was born for, leads the warriors of the free people of Middle Earth into one last impossible battle in order to distract the Dark Lord Sauron away from Frodo, who is staggering toward the completion of his mission. Aragorn's battle cry is “For Frodo!,” because completion of the mission to defeat evil is the great cause, and the great triumph, of epic fantasy.
I often think that there is a strong parallel between fantasy and romance. Heroism is thrilling and inspiring, and it’s vital in romance. Not for nothing do we call our lovers heroes and heroines. We expect them to behave like the best part of us. To be willing to sacrifice, to persevere in the face of danger and despair. As modern romance readers, we talk about Alpha and Beta and Warrior Poet heroes—and we have our favorites!
In movies as in books, I like my endings to satisfying and preferably happy as well. (One thing I like about the LOTR is that most of the good guys survive. <G>) I love larger than life characters to root for, and a movie full of great heroes inspires me to make my characters the best they can be. One reason I’ve done a lot of military heroes is because they’ve already been forged by fire.
So what kinds of heroes and heroines do you love? What characteristics do you most want to see? And who are some of the great heroes and heroines you’ve read?
Mary Jo, who loves Lord of the Rings and its great, heroic characters