The Lord of the Rings Honors Humble Heroism, Historian Says

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"The characters in The Lord of the Rings that best exemplify the idea of a hero are those who are capable of self-doubt and self-belief at the same time," said Stanton. "They're capable of facing stunning odds against them, and they are, above all, persistent in taking a course of action."

There may also be parallels between the fictional characters and specific literary or historical figures.

"Aragorn is clearly a type of King Arthur," said Stanton. "The theme is Arthurian; it's about coming to the throne and assuming rightful leadership."

Defining Heroes and Heroism

Like beauty, heroism is frequently in the eye of the beholder. In his book, The 100 Greatest Heroes, H. Paul Jeffers ranks the first U.S. president, George Washington, as the world's greatest hero.

"He won the Revolutionary War and created the Presidency," said Jeffers. "If it weren't for George Washington, there would be no United States of America."

Indeed four of Jeffers' top five heroes are former American presidents; Ronald Reagan is number five on the list. The list also includes such controversial figures as Christopher Columbus (number seven), and Alexander the Great (number six), who may have been a military genius, but was also driven by violence and an unquenchable thirst for power.

People more widely acknowledged as heroes represent a broad range of acts considered heroic. Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, an Albanian nun better known as Mother Teresa, spent a lifetime fighting for the dignity of the destitute. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a master statesman who stood against fascism.

A living figure whom many consider a hero is Nelson Mandela. As an activist against South Africa's racist Apartheid regime, he was imprisoned under horrendous conditions for 27 years. Once released, he went on to become South Africa's first democratically elected president, and preached a message of reconciliation.

"I can't think of a more inspirational figure during my lifetime," said William H. Worger, a history professor at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Still, as Frodo Baggins demonstrates, the greatest heroes may be the most unlikely people.

"It's the ordinary, hardworking, blue-collar folks of any era, most of whom will never be remembered in any history books, who are Tolkien's real heroes," said Arthur.

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