Thanks to Hollywood, the word “hero” conjures a definite image: a muscular, stern-faced man, who is taciturn, courageous, and determined. He faces impossible odds, risking what matters most to him, in order to save others. His most prominent characteristic is his strength — physical and mental. Without it, he cannot hope to succeed.

Most heroes look something like this...
Most heroes look something like this…

But not all heroes fit this model. The ultimate heroes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are two hobbits, smaller than the other races living in Middle Earth. Hobbits spend their time eating good food, smoking their pipes, and enjoying life in the rural Shire. Their strength is in their sense of humor and their gentle ways, but Frodo and Sam wind up journeying to a distant land to destroy a magic ring in order to save their world from enslavement.

Sam and Frodo, on their way to Mordor.
Sam and Frodo, on their way to Mordor.

Some say that Sam is the true hero of Lord of the Rings. He literally does the heavy lifting as they get closer and closer to Mount Doom, getting Frodo out of the tower after he’s been captured by orcs and carrying his master up the mountain when Frodo is exhausted by the weight of the ring. If you think a hero is all about action and strength, then Sam does look heroic. He also has many heroic qualities, including unswerving loyalty, a willingness to make personal sacrifices for the good of others, and the determination to keep going no matter how hopeless things get. Certainly, Frodo could never succeed without Sam’s help.

Frodo’s actions, on the other hand, suggest that he is not the hero. He has vowed to destroy the ring, but at the last moment, he fails to do as he promised. When he finally reaches Mount Doom, the ring overpowers him and he decides to keep it. The whole purpose of going to Mordor was to throw the ring into the fire. To not do so is to doom the world, because no matter who has the ring, it will eventually lead him to evil. Frodo and Sam’s quest, however, does not fail. Gollum, who carried the ring for years and has traveled with the hobbits, attacks Frodo and bites off his finger along with the ring. Gollum falls into a chasm of fire and the ring burns with him.

The untrustworthy but pathetic Gollum
The untrustworthy but pathetic Gollum

Despite all this, Frodo is the hero of the piece*. Gollum would not be there to take the ring if it weren’t for Frodo. When the hobbits catch Gollum following them to Mordor, they know he means them harm. Sam says they should tie him up or kill him outright, rather than let the creature follow them. But Frodo won’t let him.

Early in the story, Gandalf tells Frodo of all the evil Gollum has done and Frodo wishes his uncle Bilbo had killed the creature when he had the chance. However, when he sees the wretched Gollum for himself, Frodo is filled with compassion. He understands how the ring has twisted and hurt Gollum. Sam doesn’t trust Gollum, and neither does Frodo. But unlike Sam, Frodo is unwilling to kill him. He follows his compassionate impulse, and protects Gollum from Sam while they travel together.

Without Gollum, the quest would have failed. Sam could never have stopped Frodo once he decided to keep the ring and put it on. But because he showed compassion towards Gollum, Frodo ensured their ultimate success. His kindness saved them all.

Frodo and Sam return home dressed like the heroes they are.
Frodo and Sam return home dressed like the heroes they are.

One would expect a warrior like the one I described above to be a better choice to carry a ring into dangerous country. The hobbits prove more stout and determined than one might expect, but strength isn’t the reason they succeed. Compassion is.

Who do you think the true hero is? Frodo or Sam?

*Those who only know the movies, please note that Frodo is much stronger in the book. He is more successful at resisting the ring’s power throughout and more than once his ability to resist is commented on.

23 thoughts on “Who is the True Hero? Frodo or Sam?”

    1. I’d love to argue that Gollum is the hero, but I don’t think it will fly. Intentions are part of what makes a hero heroic. He saves the world by accident, so I’m afraid it doesn’t count.

      1. A friend on Facebook made the argument that Sauron’s the hero! That he’s trying to recover a stolen artwork he poured his soul into and despite the help of many friends fails, because his enemies are so mean that they destroy it instead of giving it back. I think he’s on to something. We could try the same with Gollum and it could be the next Wicked! 😉

      2. Oooh…I think you’re onto something there…as long as there’s a huge show-stopping musical number right before the intermission, I’m there.

  1. As soon as I saw the title of the article, I said to myself, “Sam, of course.” For all the reasons you describe.

    1. Funny. Everyone seems to think I’m arguing for Sam here, but I’m really arguing for Frodo. I think Tolkien was making two important points: that compassion is a strength, not a weakness, and that it takes a fellowship to defeat Sauron. While I’ve only focused on Sam and Frodo, you can argue that every member of the fellowship is required to destroy the ring and is therefore a hero of sorts. Tolkien has every member play a critical part in the journey. If you take any one of them away, the quest fails.

  2. I don’t doubt that Frodo is the intended and, perhaps more importantly, principal hero and I won’t deny him that status. After all, he carried the ring all the way to Mordor. The others in the fellowship are supporting players in that regard, though I see Sam as a unique case (I’ll get to that last). Each member of the fellowship is primarily heroic in that they must overcome some personal shortcoming (Gandalf and Aragorn: fear of power; Merry and Pippin, growing up: Legolis and Gimli, prejudice; Boromir, overconfidence; Sam, confidence). Frodo, ironically, is most content at the outset (no stealing from fields, no worrying over courtship). Thus, in a sense, Frodo, who has the least to gain, gives the most. The fellowship also speaks of the power of teamwork, that so many flawed individuals could ultimately work together for the greater good, though that realization doesn’t take hold amongst its members until the fellowship is broken. Each member gains what they most needed at the moment its most needed, including Sam at the end. He was Frodo’s insurance policy. Sam was also the only one to ever have possession of the ring, use it, and surrender it voluntarily!

    1. I agree that everyone in the Fellowship is a hero and has a key role to play in getting the ring to Mordor. But Sam isn’t the only one to give the ring up freely.
      Bilbo also gave up the ring voluntarily and after having it for a lot longer. Gandalf had to nag him a little, but in the end he handed it over of his own free will. Gandalf himself says that it is because of how Bilbo acquired the ring (treating Gollum with pity instead of killing him) and his willingness to give it up that keep the ring from doing lasting harm to him.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m so happy to find other people interested in this question!

      1. LotR is so huge, it’s easy to forget about things. I agree with you that Frodo loses the most. It’s one of the reasons I find it hard to think of Sam as the main hero: he gets to go home and have a normal life after everything’s said and done. He gets through the adventure without making the sacrifices or receiving the scars that Frodo does. I wonder if Tolkien wasn’t being a little unrealistic, assuming that Sam wasn’t as affected by the journey because he was “simpler” (i.e., lower class) than Frodo. There’s a definite master/servant vibe in the books that may be the reason he chose the ending that he did. But it could just be that Frodo bore the ring all that way and is naturally the one who comes out of it changed.

      2. Yes, it’s difficult to pinpoint much that Frodo gains after the war. His brief, 2-year! return home is marred by illness. After all, compared to Sam he passes over the Sea at a relatively young age (he was 12 years older than Sam, but Sam crossed 161 years later…yeah, I looked that up). Sam, who gains confidence during the war, returns home to marry Rose, have children, and later become mayor. Still, like you, I find Tolkien’s attitude towards Sam difficult to pin down. I TOTALLY agree about the master/servant relationship. In fact, as I’ve aged (and the book has aged) I’ve found the relationship makes me squirm at times because it feels like a master/servant relationship from the antebellum South. Tolkien only rescues it (to a degree) when Sam becomes a distinguished member of society, though his ascension from heroic servant to respected mayor happens in the appendix.

      3. I forgot about Sam becoming mayor (and didn’t know he lived so long!). I always felt like it was a bit odd that Sam got to sail to the West when he carried the ring for such a short time. But Tolkien was Catholic and may have been better at handling the “the last shall be first” parable. I never really understood that one.

      4. There probably as many unintended mysteries as intended ones in Tolkien’s tales, but that’s the added flavor each author provides. I was stunned, too, at Sam’s lifespan and if not for our conversation wouldn’t have glanced at appendices I haven’t checked in probably thirty years.

    1. It’s definitely a team effort, even if you look only at Frodo and Sam. They help each other a lot in order to get the job done. I’m sure there are other hero twosomes out there, I’m just not thinking of any at the moment.

  3. I was very surprised when I read the ending to the Lord of the Rings. How clever of Tolkien to weave Gollum into the undoing of the Ring! As you pointed out, compassion is a heroic trait that often goes unnoticed.

    1. I’ve been thinking all my favorite heroes show compassion. In fact, it tends to be the thing that differentiates the heroes from the villains.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and weighing in. I love it when people agree with me. 😉 Also: thanks for sharing your compassion post link. I’ll be sure to drop by.

  4. I’d honestly never given that question much thought before & it is kind of interesting. I think perhaps, though, that neither is really a hero on their own. They compliment each other – neither would have totally succeeded without the other. I think.

    1. It definitely takes both of them (and Gollum) to get the job done. Tolkien definitely promotes teamwork throughout LotR, but I haven’t found a word that describes a group that acts as a hero together. Maybe we should coin one?

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