Is Frodo Baggins A Hero?

Over the last few nights I re-watched the Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson's now-classic films of Tolkien's famous trilogy are always a delight to sit through. Fair warning, though: I've not read the books upon which the movies are based. Or rather, I've not read all of them.

The first in the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, took a year for me to get through. If allowed a brief moment of literary blasphemy, the reason for this is I found Tolkien's style not to my liking and the story altogether long-winded. To add to his verbosity Tolkien quite unnecessarily included a good many songs that particularly grated upon my patience. I hardly need say, then, I did not attempt reading the other two volumes. Therefore, these comments of mine are based upon the Peter Jackson films alone.

It may elude one's notice upon the first viewing (or even the fourth) that Frodo Baggins contributes little to the fellowship of nine. If pressed, I would have to concede that Frodo's solving the riddle above the door to the Mines of Moria, thus granting his friends access, is the only moment in which he does anything helpful.

Apart from this singular instance Frodo is essentially a glorified strong box which must be carried—and upon one occasion this was literally the case—from point A to point B. But he's not very good in this capacity either, for Boromir at one stage, due to Frodo's carelessness, lays his own hands upon the ring, and in another our would-be hero freely offers the ring to Galadriel. However, those around Frodo—Gandalf, Samwise, Boromir, Aragorn, and others—act with all the valor and heroism a lover of heroic fantasy could hope for. But Frodo himself seems little more than a blundering tourist on this harrowing adventure across Middle Earth, a tourist who must be saved at nearly every turn.

Perhaps the most stinging slap to the face of his comrades is the fact that once he and Sam reach Mount Doom, and after everyone's sacrifice, Frodo succumbs to the wiles of the ring. Poised above the fiery depths below he impishly declares, “The ring is mine!” And although the ring is ultimately destroyed, its destruction came about only by accident, when Gollum leapt upon the invisible Frodo, tussled over the ring of power, and the pair of them tumbled off the ledge. Ring in hand, Gollum plummets toward the molten lake, but is so enamored of the artifact that he's completely oblivious that he falls to his death.

One has to wonder, too, at the cold, shameful reality of this final act of weakness. Frodo must surely have felt a keen sense of fraudulence while receiving a hero's welcome by the remaining members of the fellowship, and others. Knowing all the while that Sam bore witness to the entire episode and knew the truth only too well. We cannot blame Frodo, then, for departing with the elves for an unknown land; a place where he would not be confronted by his crushing failures mirrored daily in the face of Samwise, a perpetual reminder that when it mattered most Frodo fell short. This is hardly a hero's answer, though, is it?—running away. For Frodo knows in his heart that he was tested and found wanting, that in the end he failed to rise to the occasion.

There is no escaping that very personal truth.

Which leads me back to my original question: is Frodo a hero? He is a protagonist, certainly. But a hero? If we answer yes, then let me ask this: in light of this admittedly unconventional perspective wherein Frodo does nothing heroic, how then do we justify labeling him a hero?

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Cass's picture
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It’s been decades since I read the book, but perhaps the answer to your question depends upon one’s definition of heroic. In my mind, Frodo stays true to himself as far as he is able in the face of some very difficult situations & grave opposition and in this way inspires others around him to do so. Perhaps Tolkien portrays in him all the (albeit sometimes reluctant) resilience, and all the strengths and weaknesses that might be borne of naivety and inexperience. The wisdom he gains from his journey is illustrated by the fact that he turns away from further adventure. Having discovered his limitations, and recognising his own needs, he departs. In this manner, despite the depth of his pains, he is still living true to his inner being - which is to do right. There is, if I remember correctly, much soul-searching within the literature that does not make it onto the big screen.

Do I personally perceive Frodo as a hero-figure? Yes, in as much as he does overcome the bulk of his base instincts along with the fact that his immense compassion and empathy ultimately saves him from total defeat at the very last moment.

P.S. I don’t have time to revise the literature in order to expand upon my extremely simplistic remarks above, but you may find the following comments of interest :

After destroying the ring, why does Frodo leave Middle Earth?

Lorenzo Baehne's picture
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I don’t think your remarks simplistic, Cass. Well said, in fact.

A few days ago I was having this very conversation with a friend of mine and he agrees with you on most counts. It was Frodo’s willingness, according to him, to sacrifice his own life in pursuit of the greater good that made him heroic. Frodo brought to the equation all the human—Hobbit, in this case—frailties and short comings with which we’re all of us so familiar, and he chose this path of near-certain death despite them. But when we give this point of view a bit of consideration it becomes clear that the other members of the fellowship took the same risks, made the same decisions to place their lives on the line for the sake of destroying the ring. Yet of all of them it is Frodo alone who engages in no overt feats of heroism. So I’m not sure this line will suffice. You ask, then, a question I myself was pondering: how do we define heroism? Naturally, Joseph Campbell sprang to mind.

In the hero’s journey as identified by Campbell, Frodo hits practically every point of the monomyth. But where he falls short is the stage where he actually becomes heroic; the final challenge where the hero overcomes both his self-imposed limitations AND conquers the minotaur/the self/the villain/the mountain. Frodo stumbles when he encounters the last hurdle. It seems to me that in stories of this kind heroism is not the lot of those who try and fail.

Greg's picture
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Frodo becomes a hero when he takes on the quest - after discussion of how the quest to Mordor likely means encountering evil and being killed, Frodo steps forward to do it anyhow.

Being a hero isn't about winning a battle single-handedly, it's about being willing to sacrifice yourself for the good of others.

Kind regards,
Greg
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You monkeys only think you're running things
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Lorenzo Baehne's picture
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What you’re describing, Greg, is courage. The willingness, in the face of grave danger, to place one’s life in the balance. The common soldier does this every day. But courage should not be equated to heroism. Heroism is when the common soldier becomes uncommon by leaping upon a grenade to save his squad mates. There can be no doubt about Frodo’s courage. It’s his perceived heroism I question.

Lorenzo Baehne's picture
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The purpose of this piece was to start a conversation. I think what this back-and-forth has uncovered, is that at some level we’re aware Frodo does not succeed in his heroic transformation. But our fondness for Frodo and for his tale of high adventure makes us want to lend him attainments of which he may be unworthy. That is our love of Frodo speaking. And love, as we know, can at times be myopic.

We began with the presumption of Frodo's heroism. To account for this my theory is, he’s the protagonist of this story and travels in the company of heroes, so we apply the designation to him by default. But during the course of this discussion we’ve backtracked to change the definition of heroism to mean courageous. Why? Because Frodo obviously doesn’t meet the standard of heroes. “Hero” now means a willingness to face danger and sacrifice one’s life if necessary. The truth is we’ve lowered the bar for him. And although those traits are aspects of heroism—for there can be no heroism without courage—heroism requires something more, an additional facet. Something Frodo did NOT give or achieve to earn the heroic status he’s been granted by the viewing audience. Bear in mind, too, the above piece is about the films, rather than the books. I have to concede Frodo may have come across as more heroic where the novels are concerned. Unfortunately, though, I can’t speak intelligently about Tolkien’s trilogy when I’ve read only 1/3 of it.

Thank you, Cass and Greg, for offering your views on the subject. And perhaps a double thanks is due to Cass for providing that wonderful link. It proved helpful.

Greg's picture
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Lorenzo Baehne wrote:

The purpose of this piece was to start a conversation. I think what this back-and-forth has uncovered, is that at some level we’re aware Frodo does not succeed in his heroic transformation. But our fondness for Frodo and for his tale of high adventure makes us want to lend him attainments of which he may be unworthy. That is our love of Frodo speaking. And love, as we know, can at times be myopic.

I think you're overlaying your own idea of what ''being heroic' should entail (as did I in my own earlier response). But if you want to cut straight to definition, a hero is basically defined (as per the dictionary) as someone who shows courage and selflessness. Which Frodo certainly did.

You're also apparently seeing 'heroic' as something that is a transformation, or a journey, and that the film should show that. Whereas Frodo's heroic act is very much near the beginning of the story, which then lays out what happens from that point onwards.

Kind regards,
Greg
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You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

Lorenzo Baehne's picture
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You’re right, of course, Greg. I bring my own definitions to the story under consideration. I don’t think your having done likewise is a bad thing or wrong in any way. It’s what people do, after all. We apply to the world our personal conception of things that we may bring order to chaos.

In my case—I can’t speak for you or Cass—my expectations of heroes stem from a life-long romance with fiction and cinema. So my personal bias leans in the favor of traditional literary heroism. My understanding of this brand of heroism is fortified, at least to some degree, by the work of the late mythologist Joseph Campbell, who penned a seminal text on the subject (The Hero with a Thousand Faces). He’s widely regarded as an authority on the matter, and in a previous post I deferred to his model. For easier consumption Campbell also made a series of videos called The Power of Myth, wherein he discusses much of the same material. If you prefer videos to reading dry academic tomes you might find them of interest.

Where Frodo is concerned, however, I am comparing him and his journey to those of other heroes, like Odysseus, Theseus, Conan, and John McClane to name but a few, and this is why the heroism of Frodo strikes me as an anomaly. Or, in my opinion, his seeming lack of heroism. It caught my attention, because in literature it’s not the usual thing for the hero to stumble before reaching the precipice, so to speak, to fail to master himself. Self-mastery is among the defining hallmarks of literary heroism.

It was a deliberate decision on the part of Tolkien to craft Frodo in this way.

Tolkien knew well what he was doing. He was steeped in hero traditions. So maybe what we should ask ourselves is why he chose to describe Frodo in these unconventional terms. What was he telling us here? Perhaps that the corrupting influence of power strikes down even the most pure of heart? This might be one interpretation. But as this conversation has made clear, there are as many interpretations of heroic literature and film as there are bibliophiles and lovers of cinema.

Cass's picture
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I’ve taken the last few evenings out in order to watch the LOTR movies. My mind says that there is much to be desired when compared to (my recollection) of the literature. For instance, ‘The Return of the King’ ends all too abruptly and does not portray the journey back to the Shires...

I was struck overall by the depth of commitment shown by the Hobbits to the quest. The film also illustrates the unshakable strength of an absolutely sincere and genuine bond of friendship - one that operates unconditionally - making a stand for another, regardless, when the other is at their lowest ebb…Such exchanges of energies are all part of the ways in which good and evil function throughout the tale.

It’s a story of overcoming an evil of an otherworldly kind that can, perhaps, only ever be truly experienced first-hand. I would not say that Frodo departs with a guilty conscience, but rather, with a spirit that is no longer of the world and therefore can never again be a part of it. He is also entirely battle-weary. It is true that some wounds do not heal with time…but as the LOTR is also a story built upon a foundation of hope, then perhaps there is hope that Frodo will yet find some solace in the place to which he departs - certainly, his parting smile conveys that possibility.

I’m not at all sure that Frodo’s journey does pass through each of Campbell’s stages, but I would have to revise those in order to be sure. I would stand by my initial opinion, that the very act of Frodo’s accepting the task assigned to him, regardless of the consequences to his own being, make him the hero at the outset and that the compassion and empathy he shows throughout the journey - particularly where Smeagol/Gollum is concerned - serves to ensure the destruction of the ring at the end. If Frodo had taken his chance to put an end to Gollum or had allowed the bowmen or Sam to end his days, then Gollum would not have been there in Frodo’s moment of need. There’s a link between Frodo and Gollum that was always going to serve some ultimate purpose - but only if Frodo stayed true to himself and was not corrupted by evil along the way.

I can’t agree that; ‘power strikes down even the most pure of heart’ - as it is the strength of Frodo’s ‘heart’ that allowed the evil to finally destroy itself in the end…

I’ve now downloaded the literature and intend to read through it once more when time allows. Maybe you’ll make the decision to revisit the literature also, and (hopefully) in the process will find the answers to those questions you pose, to your own satisfaction.

Lorenzo Baehne's picture
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You know, Cass—well, actually you don’t know—I’ve seen these films at least eight or nine times. I love the story. I love the characters. And this means Frodo, too. Which is why I was taken aback by Frodo’s lack of heroism when finally I noticed it on the ninth viewing. One question I asked myself is, how could I possibly not have seen this? It was in front of me eight times before. Which, needless to say, does not speak well of my powers of observation.

Since first posting this bit of commentary at my Facebook page more than a week ago, I’ve given the subject a great deal of thought. Others have, too, no doubt. Certainly some have gone back to watch the movies again, either to confirm their own perceptions about Frodo and prove me in error, or to check the accuracy of these observations. This raises other questions, of course, about our expectations versus the reality before our eyes. That we often see what we expect to see instead of what's present. But I’ll save that for different conversation. Where this dialogue is concerned, I am beginning to suspect I’ve got the wrong end of the stick.

The heroism of Frodo does not seem to be the point of the films. This is borne out by Frodo’s very distinct lack of it throughout all three pictures. Yes, he embarks upon a hero’s journey and meets many of the steps of Campbell’s monomyth (the call to adventure, having a mentor giving wise counsel, receiving a special weapon). But for reasons already explained he does not rise to the level of Campbellian heroism. After all, had he done so those examples would have been slapped on the table at the outset. “Well what about this?” someone would have said. Or “What about some other thing over there when Frodo did A, B, and C?” But none of that has been argued, because there are no such examples to plead. Instead--and this seems to be the case across the board and not just at TDG--in lieu of heroic feats people feel impelled to equate courage to heroism, arguing that they’re one and the same. In point of fact, they are not the same. But here’s the thing—I may be viewing the entire issue through the wrong lens. That is, through the lens of heroism. I say this because what there ARE endless examples of is friendship. And THIS appears to be the whole point of the narrative—friendship and the unbreakable bonds thereof. Time and again it is friendship that leads these characters to charge to the rescue, to risk life and limb for the sake of their companions. So bearing in mind this new possibility, I may wish to consider setting aside one set of spectacles for a set more appropriate to the occasion.

Cass's picture
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Although I think we will have to agree to disagree upon the definition of the word ‘hero’, Lorenzo, I can appreciate your points of view, throughout.

I fully agree that though LOTR may be viewed as an heroic tale, it is not a tale about a hero, per se. I would also agree upon the friendship theme - this is a very deep aspect and one I find most remarkable. LOTR is also built upon a foundation of hope, alongside a river of fate/destiny that stems from the existence of a higher power at work throughout. Therefore, everything that happened was meant to happen and there is wisdom to be learned in every twist and turn along the way.

I’ve not read the following yet, but thought perhaps you might find it of interest, also:

J. Campbell’s Monomyth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Lorenzo Baehne's picture
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Thanks for the link, Cass. I’ll definitely check it out. At first glance I see it’s a long read, so it may take a while to get through it. One thing that's become clear during this discussion is I need to read novels upon which the films are based. Having read the first one alone is obviously not good enough.

Also, funny post titles are always appreciated. So, thanks for that. ;)