The Cult of Heroism: Tolkien’s Mistakes

Hello, readers mine! My work this week has again fallen out such that I am blessed with the chance for a bit of writing here on the blog.

The Lord of the Rings! You know I love it if you’ve been around long enough. I still believe it’s one of the most cohesive, satisfying fantasy stories ever told, a timeless classic with lessons to teach all of us for many years to come. In the past I’ve opined that Tolkien often showcases a deeper understanding of the fantasy genre than those who came after him, and lamented that later writers lost track of his themes about the importance of ordinary people in extraordinary times.

I maintain that The Lord of the Rings has those themes, and that Tolkien intended them. That said, it’s perhaps a little unfair of me to wonder why they don’t receive more press when Grandfather Tolkien–bless him–presented those themes via a story about a magic ring able to control every other magic ring, whose destruction would be that of its master, opposed by the returned king of a race of superhumans, an elven prince, a dwarven berserker, and a literal angel.

“Now, North,” you may be saying–and if you’re not, humor me–“That’s not fair, you’re ignoring the hobbits!” I’m coming to that, my dear readers. So, concerning hobbits: they are the ordinary people in extraordinary times, and also the reason I’m not impressed when people say “Oh, well, the Wheel of Time is about what would really happen if a bunch of farmers were thrown into a high fantasy adventure!” You mean them dying in horrible, embarrassing ways?

Matrim doesn’t count, he only got into that one mess with the dagger through abnormal stupidity.

We will discuss The Wheel of Time’s part in the Cult of Heroism later on, rest assured. It is not fated that we discuss it yet. We will do so somewhere after my persistent use of fate to justify every decision I make, instead of selling it as a good decision through proper storytelling, has become so draining that you simply tolerate it in hopes this will be over soon.

So, back to Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, four hobbits who are strong in character and precious little else. I believe Tolkien did intend that, among their many other narrative purposes, they should seem to us to be aggressively normal people hurled by circumstance into events (literally!) far larger than themselves. It’s a sound setup; I believe it starts going awry somewhere around the point that they reach Lothlorien and a divinely-beautiful elven seeress tells them about their great purpose before bestowing fancy gifts upon them.

Thus their transition into heroes is earned less by their own actions–which up to this point have always been hugely overshadowed by the living legends around them–and more because they are recognized and instructed to act by existing heroes. They don’t start doing truly extraordinary things until they’re granted the plot’s blessing for it, and there are no other ordinary figures central enough to the narrative to keep the theme alive.

Frodo’s heroification comes somewhat earlier, of course, at Rivendell: he becomes the Ringbearer, receives a mystical elven sword and mithril vest, and is otherwise set apart from the other characters. These points could be negotiated, but here’s the vital bit: Frodo is, again, set apart by preexisting godlike heroes such as Elrond and Gandalf. Let’s not forget that this is the same process of validation which Bilbo went through in the proceeding books.

Tolkien himself viewed Sam as the protagonist of The Lord of the Rings, and I like the spirit of that intention, but it’s not salient in the books. What is salient is Sam’s decision, reached by internal dialogue with himself while bearing the ring, to stick to his role as a bodyguard and enabler for Frodo.

I don’t think there was a good way for Tolkien to avoid these story beats with the elements he had in play: the Ring’s astounding corruptive influence is a known point, the ageless heroic-style characters such as Gandalf and Elrond have so much knowledge about the world that the Fellowship needs in order to make any headway. Much of this stems from Tolkien’s conscious decision to adapt older mythologies, especially from the British Isles, as the foundations of his Arda.

It’s worth remembering that Arda, the world of The Lord of the Rings, is canonically our own Earth during a fictive point before our own written history. I mention this because I believe it says a great deal about the context of the heroes, magic, and other mythic elements in Middle Earth. The books present these things in their waning days. The countless gods and demigods, demons and dragons of the First Age have by the time of the books given way to a few wispy vestiges.

Matthew Colville, a highly-skilled DM and writer as well as overall fun person, has gone into depth on his Youtube channel of the same name about why Tolkien used this fallen, fading age as the books’ setting; I’ll let you look his videos on that subject up on your own if you’re interested, since it mostly falls outside this article’s scope. Having said that, I’d like to draw attention to the themes presented in the tail end of The Lord of the Rings.

Between the Scouring of the Shire and some lines about Middle Earth’s progress into the Fourth Age, Tolkien does try to send us off with an important message. The four hobbits who entered this story as ordinary people have become heroic figures in their own right; Merry and Pippin are forced to rally their fellow Shirefolk against one last, malicious plot by Saruman. It’s a far smaller-scale, yet also more personal battle than the climactic struggle against the Armies of Mordor and the dread Dark Lord in his colossal tower.

It’s probably a little trite for me to write, “that’s the point;” well, anyway, that’s the point. Sauron’s destruction was not the end of all evil in Middle Earth, for again, Middle Earth is our Earth at an earlier point. Look at the world we live in–supposing Morgoth and Sauron truly existed, would you say that evil is gone as they are, or simply that it’s become pettier and more insidious?

More, perhaps, like a shriveled old man obsessed with industry though even he can no longer hope to profit by it, spitefully trying to destroy one of the last pure places in the world. The Scouring of the Shire is usually presented as an attempt on Tolkien’s part to show the price of final victory, and I believe that is part of it, but it serves a broader purpose.

For the longest time the Shire had been shielded by mythical outside powers which, whether by chance or design, ring it on many sides: the westernmost of the elves, the mighty dwarven bastions of Moria, by Arnor, Gondor, and Rohan, by the Ents and indeed by Tom Bombadil. By the time the War of the Ring arrives, most of these powers have either fallen or become so weakened they no longer offer enough protection on their own: the Ents are all but gone.

Bombadil’s time in this part of the world will sooner or later end, and in any case he never leaves his valley. Arnor was long since destroyed by the Witch-King of Angmar just as Moria was overcome by goblins with the balrog now commanding its utmost depths. Gondor and Rohan are besieged, and amidst all this the elves have decided now is their time to leave Middle Earth. The elves are among the last legacies of the First Age, semi-divine beings themselves. Even more than the prior points, their departure sends the message:

The gods have moved on. If ordinary folk still need heroes, then they can no longer wait upon elves and wizards to rally them. They must rise to the challenge of their own volition. That’s what the Scouring of the Shire is truly about.

“Huh. You know, North, when you put it that way, it doesn’t sound like Tolkien messed up all that much,” some among you might say. Oh, certainly! When I completely ignore the sprawling main story with its huge battles, great fortresses, arcane forces, and literal prophecies to focus on minutiae Tolkien threw out at the end of the book when he no longer had any time to examine them or work them into the narrative, The Lord of the Rings can totally be about the importance of becoming our own heroes!

At this point, I believe I should clarify what I mean by “Tolkien’s Mistakes”: I don’t believe the themes I refer to were a primary goal for him. I stand by my assertion that he saw an opportunity to work them into the narrative he’d built and ran with it, but if this had been his goal from the start he’d have gone about it differently. You might expect I would suggest a setting with less emphasis on the climactic events and more that of the characters within them; I would not.

This would not be in the spirit of Tolkien’s intentions for The Lord of the Rings; he wanted a swan-song for a passing, glorious era and the heroic send-off it deserved. The departure of its old, mythic powers is intended to clear the way for ordinary people, but that was always the outcome of the story rather than the story itself. If it were to be the whole story, he would’ve placed more emphasis on those characters in the narrative who inherited little or nothing from the ages before.

They would have been defined in contrast to the mythic characters around them, used to make us question whether we really needed such beings to fight our battles for us. We would be pushed to wonder whether the presence of such figures merely tempts us to wait on their actions, letting problems which we could have solved fester until we could no longer mend the broken world by our own abilities. These ideas do appear here and there throughout the books as they are, don’t misunderstand me.

Yet, when The Lord of the Rings only touches on them in passing before moving back to its focus on the last spectacular battles of a dying Third Age, how can the story really be about them? If it never truly explores the question of whether we would be ready to act for ourselves if the final hour came, all other hope was lost, and there was no gleaming champion to promise us victory, of whether we could come together and fight without a returned hero-king to lead us.

Faramir would be one possibility, and a strong one at that; through his brother Boromir he knows of the pitfalls inherent in trying to dominate and wield the powers of prior ages. Unlike Aragorn, whose blood still retains some of old Númenor’s grace and power, Faramir is an ordinary man. We might have seen a story with more focus on himself and the men of Gondor as they fought to hold back the Dark Lord’s armies.

In the end, no amount of shift in focus would get around the fact that this is a story where mortal agency is always defined through external supernatural powers. There’s usually one solution to any given problem, and it’s a single decisive solution so it doesn’t call for any sort of long-term collective action. The problem of Sauron, and of Mordor, is one which always highlights the utility of lonely heroic figures; more people carrying the Ring into Mordor would only have created more liabilities. A larger army might have held Sauron’s forces bottled up at the Black Gate for a longer period, but to what end?

No number of ordinary folk working together could have solved this problem; while the narrative does close with the last ages of myth passing that our own time might come, the irony is that this passing of the torch must be legitimized by the last of those mythic heroes. We do not have agency until they allow us to have it.

These points of The Lord of the Rings are much more visible than all that heartening “take responsibility for your own future” material I mentioned at the start, and because they’re more prominent in the narrative, they’re the parts which Tolkien highlighted as most explosive and exciting. So, in truth, while I do think The Lord of the Rings was more about laying the Cult of Heroism to rest–as with the last, legendary ruler of a storied bloodline–than it was about celebrating it, I’m not surprised fantasy as a genre went the other direction.

Due to my work schedule, I’m not sure when next I’ll write an article or if it’ll be in this series. When I get back to this topic, however, I think it might just be time to tackle The Wheel of Time. I’ve certainly avoided that long enough.

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