This past semester, I listened to The Lord of the Rings in the car during my commutes to and from campus. Every time I read this book, something different about it stands out to me. This time, it was the question of which characters are the most important.
Note: The following explanation presumes that the reader has read the Lord of the Rings books, largely because it would take too long for me to summarize them. If you haven’t read them, GO! READ THEM NOW! The Internet will be here when you get back. (Not that I have strong feelings about this or anything.) If you’ve only seen the movies, you’ll probably understand this post, but I’d urge you to read the books anyway. They’re so much better.
Warning: This is a very geeky post, but it does have a point. Read at your own risk.
Who is The Lord of the Rings really about? Nine characters set out on the quest to destroy the ring, but only two actually make it to Mordor. Frodo is the one carrying the ring and thus the apparent hero of the story. But Frodo would never have made it without Sam, who keeps him focused, encourages him and dramatically rescues him when he gets captured by orcs. Sam is also one of only two characters in the history of Middle Earth who willingly give up the ring (the other being Bilbo). Go Sam! But if Frodo hadn’t gone on the quest, Sam wouldn’t have been there either, and even if he was, Gollum would have killed him during the first encounter. So both Frodo and Sam need to be present. But they don’t actually succeed in their mission. Gollum does, of all people. So maybe he’s the hero.
But the whole Frodo-Sam plotline only takes up half of the last two books, if that. Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mount Doom if Aragorn hadn’t marched out to attack Mordor, drawing away all the orcs that were patrolling it. No one else could have pulled that off. It only worked because Sauron was worried about Aragorn, who was king of Gondor and who Sauron thought had the ring. And Sauron only thought that because Aragorn had used the palantir, which he wouldn’t have done if Pippin hadn’t (accidentally) revealed what it was by looking into it. And the whole let’s-send-our-entire-army-out-as-a-diversion plan was thought of by Gandalf. So Aragorn, Gandalf, and Pippin are the heroes.
But Aragorn couldn’t march against Mordor without an army. And if the battle of Pelennor Fields had been lost, or even gone on much longer, there wouldn’t have been enough surviving troops for him to go to war. As it was, he barely found enough soldiers. And the first part of the battle went very, very badly. So what turned it around? Eowyn’s killing of the Witch King, who was the general of Sauron’s army and also its most powerful member. He kept Mordor’s troops organized, along with doing massive damage to Gondor’s army by himself. If he had not been killed (which, remember, could only be done by a woman), Aragorn would have had no army and Frodo wouldn’t have made it to Mt. Doom. So Eowyn is the hero. But the witch king would have killed Eowyn instead if Merry hadn’t stabbed him at just the right moment. So Merry is the hero.
One additional point appears at the very end, when the triumphant heroes visit Isengard. There they learn that Treebeard and the ents had been patrolling the area around Isengard and had destroyed several bands of orcs that had gone after the armies of Rohan. If the ents hadn’t been there, the orcs would have attacked the company that included Eowyn and Merry. The riders of Rohan would probably have defeated the orcs, but the fighting would have slowed them down. If it wasn’t for Treebeard, Eowyn, Merry and company would have arrived too late to win the battle, or if they did make it in time, Gondor’s troops would have been decimated. Aragorn would not have had an army to march against Mordor, the orcs would have stayed in place, and Frodo would never have reached Mt. Doom. Thus, Treebeard is the reason the ring was destroyed, which makes him the real hero.
Why am I writing this? Some would say it’s because I’m a geek who thinks too much. And I would not dispute that. But there’s also an encouraging point in here for people like me who are idealistic and want our lives to change the world.
Great things are done, not by isolated individuals, but by groups working for a common purpose. And the varied strands of individual lives are woven together in ways we could never predict. The heroes are not just the ones who do spectacular things and gain the applause and admiration of the crowds. Heroes are those who do their part, even when they aren’t on the front lines. Our job is simply to fulfill our callings. The Author of history will see to the rest.