27 January 2019
When I was in high school, I walked around wearing a badge that said, “Frodo Lives.” Yes, I was a big nerd who had read The Lord of the Rings more than twice.
But what made me like Tolkien’s Frodo (and to be clear I have little affection for the movie version of him) is the idea of a single moral, principled, idealistic young man standing in the face of a massive world that could care little for him, that someone so small could make an enormous difference.
It’s true that he was given gifts beyond what any ordinary person could expect (swords, rings, chain mail, lights of Galadriel), but in the end it was his sheer act of will that gets him to the chasms of Mount Doom. And there he fails.
Yes, the more I think about it, what draws me to Frodo is both his strength and his failure. Little people get stomped on. The will is, in the end, not enough. The average dude gets eaten by spiders, devoured by dark forests of evil trees, slashed apart by orcs, drowned in armies before the gates of Gondor, or dissolves into a raving shadow of his former self, fed by the egotistical idea that he can make a difference.
And so Frodo is not so much a hero by his success but by his capacity to look forward, to see a different future from the one he lives, and to do so by stepping into the chaos of the world, flaws and all.
“Frodo is not so much a hero by his success but by his capacity to look forward, to see a different future from the one he lives, and to do so by stepping into the chaos of the world.”
The sophomore me had not yet met other heroes of this flavor. I knew the traditional DC heroes ironically unapologetic about their flat armor of virtue, and I knew the Disney binaries which starkly drew each animation with thick borders of singular ambition: Cruella deVille consumed luxuries and killed puppies for them; Robin Hood was an idealistic fox who skewered the self-absorbed and greedy Prince John; the Love Bug Herbie’s loyalty to Dean Jones was mechanically inviolate. Their flaws were forgivable and always external to their character, a kryptonite which they could not resist.
Even Achilles, read this way, was a victim to this outside fate. One of the earliest versions of his “heel,” however, tells of his immortal mother Thetis each night burning away the parts of the baby Achilles which are mortal, his weakness. Read as metaphor, the part that remains as classical flaw is not Styx-dipping sloppiness but the complex human part of him which remains. Achilles is a great hero who fails not because of a twist of fate but because of his own pride which wreaks an undignified vengeance on the dead Hector. I don’t care if you look like Brad Pitt, dragging a body around a city is a bad choice.
Frodo is much the same as Achilles physically. Dressed in magicks which render him mostly mithril, Frodo turns away from his friend Sam (seduced by the scheming of Gollum), jealously guards the Ring as his own by the end, and whines far more than necessary. And still he holds the title of hero.
Other protagonists of literature also fail for reasons of human flaws, yet we do not revere them but rather condemn, marking them with tragic scorn. Lear is a doddering fool who cannot see his own daughters clearly and so sinks to madness. Oedipus allows hubris to deny fate and so seeks to madness (and blindness). Cain’s jealousy turns him to the madness of murder. And of course, Hamlet’s psychological paralysis leaves us another bloody stage.
In all cases, once we leave the classically stagnant Hercules-Hero behind, all protagonists may succeed or fail on their quests, have some self-inflicted wound which must be redeemed, but are not heroes until we judge their capacity to look futureward or to turn inward. They must step out into the chaos of the world or be that chaos; they must hope to create or choose to destroy; they must believe in change and growth or submit to despair. It may be this distinction which marks them hero.
The tragic victims and villains of our world are too easy to identify: they build arsenals in isolation against some apocalyptic siege or they unleash their anger upon the world they do not believe may heal. They turn inward to protect their own hoards rather than gift themselves to discourse or look to risk new relationships. They disown their own poor choices and responsibilities rather than call for healing, seek forgiveness, embrace the Other. They are the Ted Bundys and the Cliven Bundys, the Michael Cohens and the Michael Dowds. They are, according to Alexander Blum, the incels and the NEETs (Not in Employment, Education, or Training) who honor Pepe the Frog not as a symbol who moves against the chaos but who represents it.
“They must step out into the chaos of the world or be that chaos; they must hope to create or choose to destroy; they must believe in change and growth or submit to despair. us.”
But what of the heroes? My sophomore self–button and all–was just meeting the characters who would shape my understanding of this complexity. Ender at the end of the Bugger War, Thomas Covenant who enters The Land in denial, The Stand’s Nick Andros and Tom Cullen, Paul Muad’dib, and the fallen Arthur–Jimmy Carter, Cher, George Lucas, Steve McQueen. Each had a fair dab of blessings and magicks, each discovered embarrassment, scandal, or tragedy, and yet I knew to admire each.
Each looked forward to see a potential for change. All exercised a genuinely human will. And even after their successes, each sought a redemption for their shortcomings and failures.
I wonder if perhaps we still ask too much of the humans around us to behave as a 1960s Batman or a memorial coin icon. We do seem eager to tear down any whose flaws are revealed while on their quest. What, if because he showed genuine fear, Frodo had been left by Aragorn at Weathertop or Glorfindel at the Ford of Bruinen? What, if after the whining, Elrond had decided he could not bear the Ring farther? What, if having been psychologically lost to the addictive Ring or the manipulative Gollum, Sam had returned to a quiet garden in Hobbiton instead of entering the Tower of Cirith Ungol?
It is not Frodo’s humanity that marks him a failure; it is his optimism to grow through it which signals his mythic state and leaves characters like Martin Shkreli, Charles Ponzi, and Sam Pepper little more than literary Nazgul or goblins (semblances of human). And I have little doubt which of those names will live longest for us.