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.
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.
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.
Despite all this, I am positive Tolkien considers Frodo 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.
Gandalf has told him 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 impulses, 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.
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.