The Lord of the Rings Honors Humble Heroism, Historian Says

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
December 5, 2003
Sometimes the greatest heroes are found in the most unlikely characters:
Consider Frodo Baggins, the diminutive hobbit and ring bearer in J.R.R.
Tolkien's majestic tale The Lord of the Rings.

Frodo is small, weak, and possesses no special abilities. His Shire folk are described as unnoticed and insignificant. Not exactly the kind of hero we might look for to save the world.

But that's exactly what makes him great, says Michael Stanton, the author of Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards: Exploring the Wonders and Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Frodo, an unlikely hero, rises to the occasion when necessary.

"This occurred to me most strongly after [the terrorist attacks of] 9/11," said Stanton. "Hobbits are like firemen, policemen, and rescue workers; they are ordinary people with extraordinary qualities and potentials that come out only under the most dire and urgent circumstances."

The enormous popularity of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy—the last film, The Return of the King, opens December 17—has spawned a spirited debate about who our greatest heroes are, and what it means to be a hero.

A documentary, Beyond the Movie: Lord of the Rings, which airs this Saturday, December 6, at 9:00 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel, uses characters, events, and themes in Tolkien's stories of Middle-earth to explore some of history's greatest heroes.

Heroes of Middle-Earth

In mythology and legend, heroes were often masculine, endowed with great courage and strength, and celebrated for their bold exploits. Born of one mortal and one divine parent, he is a man favored by the gods.

The Lord of the Rings follows the tradition of heroic fantasies like Homer's The Odyssey, in which every boy's life is a rocky journey from childhood to adulthood, littered with trials meant to enable him to ultimately care for and protect others.

But it also reflects Tolkien's beliefs as a devout Catholic and his experience as a soldier in the trenches of World War I, which had a profound impact on his life.

"The hero of the Christian story is not a warrior-lord, but a humble servant," said Sarah Arthur, author of Walking with Frodo: A Devotional Journey Through The Lord of the Rings. "Tolkien gives a starring role to a common, uneducated gardener from a small corner of the Shire, Sam. [This is] an echo of the ordinary Englishmen who served on the front lines in World War I and made its victory possible."

In addition to Frodo and Sam, the tale has some more conventional heroes in the king-to-be Aragorn and the brave warrior Faramir.

"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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