The New Hero: Tolkien and Subversion


When I was little, I played with this giant plastic Robin Hood fort.  This thing had a cannon that shot man-trapping nets, had secret passages up and down the various tree trunks, even had camouflage for when the sheriff showed up.  Did I mention Robin had Kevin Costner’s face?

We have this innate hunger for heroes.  Every culture has them, and every hero has a sort of journey.  Joseph Campbell made this concept famous with his “Hero with 1,000 Faces“.  In fact, being friends with George Lucas, he inspired Lucas to create Star Wars.  Along this line of thought, meditating the various heroes of culture, I started thinking through Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, for this is my first full-time through the Middle Earth books I heard that the old wizard wanted to subvert classic ideas of Heroes, but I never realized how deep such thinking permeated the original nine travelers who set out from Rivendell.  I will take them on one by one, leading toward a new kind of hero, and starting with everyone’s favorite ranger.

Aragorn

Aragorn, one of the Dunadein (the men of Power) starts out in our story as a ranger from the north.  He carries with him a famed sword, and leads our four weary travelers under the alias of “Strider” from Bree to the House of Elrond.  His ranger garb we’ve seen before, only replace the earthy browns with natural greens.  Aragorn represents the Anglo-Hero, combines both Robin Hood and King Arthur.  Certainly Aragorn is no robber, but he is a man of the woods who holds the fate of the realm in his hands.

This is the classic tale of a rogue (Robin of Loxley), or a boy (Wart) who receives a calling to defend the people, and stand up as the rightful king/steward of the land.  The Robin Hood source most often attributed to his “good outlaw” status is A Gest of Robyn Hode, where the man commits actual crimes favored by the people for his moral integrity.  Though the oppressors never technically break the law (like Denethor), their insides are rotting.  Robin Hood’s Tale resurfaced most recently by Stephen Lawhead in Hood, where Bran ap Brychan, heir to the throne, rallies his people in the woods.  This story is significant because it relies on the historicity of the classic tale, and Bran, though far more arrogant than Aragorn, takes to the woods to bring justice to the realm.  This is the heart of the English hero – the rightful heir to the throne taking charge.  Some might argue more for Legolas when it comes to the bowstring end of things, but I don’t think Robin Hood was accurate enough of a marksman to be compared to Legolas.  More on that later.

The Sword in the Stone (45th Anniversary Special  Edition)

Arthur’s tale is easier to argue, since everyone knows the story of the small boy pulling the sword from the stone.  The best Arthur depiction  arguably comes from T.H. White’s Once and Future King.  Instead of going into a long-winded discourse about the seven volumes of this great work, I’ll highlight the title.  Arthur was not “once upon a time” the king, and is now again (though this could be argued based on what happens later).  More importantly he is “at once” the king, and will be in the future.  From the moment that boy pulls the sword from the stone (from the moment of the reforging of the shards of Narcil), he is at once the king. Even still, he is not yet the king, so he will be in the future.

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In summary, the Once and Future King is a perfect title for the English longing for a hero to arise, one who is worthy to take over the throne.  Though there are huge Christological implications within that thought (genealogies anyone?), I’m more interested in the fact that Aragorn is truly an English hero.

(more on this from Richard J. Finn’s paper Arthur and Aragorn presented @ the 2003 Medieval Studies)

Gimli

If I were to tell you my favorite hero was the one with the long beard, portly figure, who drank lots of mead, swung a heavy hammer-shaped weapon, and braided his long hair beneath a crude helmet, who do you think I mean?

Beowulf.  Or Thor.  Or Eric the Red for that matter.  Look at the cover of Rebsamen’s version:

Beowulf: An Updated Verse Translation (Perennial Classics)

Last time I heard in LOTR of a hammered helm with a bridge for a nose was either the riders of Rohan or the dwarves.  But let’s assume that Beowulf’s battle with Grendel in the caves looks nothing like Gimli’s ancestral plunge into the darkness of Moria, where have I seen that axe before?  Probably at the end of Iron Man 2, in preparation for the Avergers movie.  That axe is the traditional world-axis symbol, of the transcendent meeting the immanent, and now falls in the hands of the dwarf.  Still don’t think it’s symbolic?  Consider the scene where we read:
“You can have my sword.”
“And my bow…”
“And MY axe.”

(for more, see the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia entry on “Gimli”)

Legolas

“I am the god of song and the lyre.  My arrows fly true to the mark; but alas! an arrow more fatal than mine has pierced my heart!  I am the god of medicine, and know the virtues of all healing plants.  Alas!  I suffer a malady that no balm can cure!”

Sure this sounds like something a wood-elf might say – although the “god” line might give it away.  It’s actually something Apollo says, as recorded in Bulfinch’s Mythology – a collection of the great myths of our world.  Legolas is so Greek, it drips off him.  This is a guy who doesn’t even sleep, which means he never has a bad night’s rest.  His hair’s perfect, his countenance always rises, he’s wise like (I almost said Edward Cullins, but I’d get stoned for making that comparison) Gandalf, though he knows not nearly enough spells.  He shoot’s a bow, knows prophecy, sings well, and, we can assume, is quite adept with “elvish medicine.”  Lord of song, arrow, prophecy and the virtues of plants?  Oh yeah, he’s a Grecian Hero.

Boromir

If it wears it’s armor in front, charges first – asks questions later, carries a horn, a short broadsword, and is all about “the glory of his people,” what is it?  A roman.  Front armor to prevent retreat?  Check.  First people group to run into battle?  Check.  Horn as imagery of power and dominance?  Check.  Short, stocky sword?  Check.  Glory of Rome…ahem…Minas Tirith?  Check.  This one’s easy people.  Boromir = Maximus Decimus Meridus.  Not tit for tat, of course, but the culture surrounding roman heroes makes an obvious connection.

Merry

I know a young man who left my home town to become an actor.  He took several modeling gigs, ended up fairly successful, and got to escort people on and off the stage at the Academy Awards.  This was the biggest thing for Salem, Illinois (pop. 8,000 or lower) in several decades.  Our town, our town, could vicariously live through this one young man.  In some small way Salem, not just the model, escorted the Academy on and off stage.

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This is the way of the small-town hero, and this is the way of Merry.  He is, for all intents and purposes, the true representative of the shire on the fellowship.  He solves the riddles, plays the hero to the best of his ability, and gets complimented often for being a Shireling.  Peregrin’s still a fool, Sam’s focused on his writing, Frodo goes crazy (by Shire-reckoning) – but Merry?  Merry was there as a hero, representing the Shire.  Because of Merry, the Shire believes they had a hand in the victory (at least in part).

Pippin

For all of us who love comedy, we love Pippin.  Every major event in history had either a poet, satirist, or comedian talking behind the scenes.  Without them, we have no room to laugh at the inconsistencies within our culture.  Pippin is the Conan O’Brian, the Stephen Colbert, the Kurt Vonnegut of the team – though seldom as witty.  Pippin represents the comedic critique and prophetic rebuke of the poets.

Samwise

Sam would be the greatest hero were he not so violent, at least by Tolkien’s reckoning.  Because of his name, his wordplay, his companionship, his faithfulness, and his journey to Mount Doom’s edge, he is thoroughly Maccabean (or Jewish).  The main hero of the Jewish history is the violent revolutionary – the brigand – who takes back the land from the empire by force.  We’re getting close to a new hero, but not quite.  If Sam were the end of the line, he’d be the best.

Frodo – The New Hero

But Frodo acts differently.  Frodo gives of himself when everyone argues at the council.  He ventures out alone to remove temptation from the fellowship.  He, as the heart, mediates between the mind (sam) and the flesh (Golum) on the way to the fires of Mount Doom.  Here’s where I landed:

Frodo continually gives of himself, rather than stealing or sneaking (Aragorn).  He uses gentle words, rather than harsh.  His wisdom is not of the world (legolas & sam) but of the heavenlies (Gandalf).  He does not worry so much about his people (Boromir) but about all of Middle Earth.  He leaves behind the Shire (Merry) for the sake of the Shire.  He does not critique like a fool (Pippin) before first acting out on his belief.

Last, and most important, he does not make victory by force (Sam & the rest of the fellowship) but by yielding.  It is in throwing away, that he gains back; in dropping the ring that he picks up his calling; in setting down the sword – “He never picked [Sting] up again” that he can finally pick up his cross and die, for it is in dying (Mount Doom) that he is born to eternal life (the Ship).

Is he crazy?  The Shire would think so, but if we listened to the Shire, the world would be fire and ash by now.  But then again, Gandalf would be crazy too for asking him to release the weight, to go to the mountain, and to die.

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There’s power in letting go.

— Lancelot

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