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Heroism in Lord of the Rings, its Character Structures, and Aragorn's Relationship to Strider

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Heroism in Lord of the Rings, its Character Structures, and Aragorn's Relationship to Strider

My response to a conversation on Twitter regarding heroism, its conceit, and Aragorn's relationship to Strider (see Stina Leicht's post.)

Heroism is one of the most unifying themes in fantasy literature.  Even those stories that reject it do so in recognition of it.  This tradition begins with Joseph W. Campbell's monomyth, a term borrowed from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, that he expanded on in his 1949 treatise The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  In this seminal text he sets out what the hero's journey is:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
If this is the accepted definition of The Hero, and I would argue that it is, who then is The Hero of J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings?  By my estimation there are four candidates -- Frodo, Samwise, Gollum, and Aragorn -- and only one answer.  Aragorn.

While Frodo and Samwise are heroic hobbits, neither are The Hero of the story.  In the end, Frodo yields to the ring, putting it on his finger in triumph instead of casting it into the pit.  Only through Gollum's intervention is the ring destroyed.  This failure doesn't diminish the trials Frodo suffered, but it invalidates him as The Hero.  Likewise, Samwise does not bear the burden that Frodo does, despite his attempts to share it.

Obviously, an argument exists that there are many types of heroes, both in literature and reality, beyond that proscribed by Campbell.  I would agree, and I think there's a case to be made that Frodo, Samwise, Gollum, even Arwen, are part of Tolkein's heroic conceit.  However, under Campbell's definition, The Hero is Aragorn.  He consciously chooses to set forth from a common world into a conflict with supernatural forces.  He wins a decisive victory and returns to his people with the power to set right the wrongs wrought by Sauron's influence on the world.

From a structural perspective, Tolkein wrote his series with two protagonists who operate independently of one another beginning mid-way through The Fellowship of the Ring until the series' conclusion.  Frodo and Aragorn drive the two pronged narrative.  Both suffer from the same antagonist, Sauron and his minions, and both have distinct foils that serve to couch all that they do.  In Frodo's case, the foils are obvious in Gollum and Samwise who both reveal Frodo's strength and weakness respectively.  Aragorn's is not so simple or perhaps too simple.

It's my contention that Aragorn's foil is himself, or rather his alter-ego Strider.  Aragorn is surrounded by other characters in the story, but none that challenge his value as The Hero.  Only he can do that as Strider.  His fears, his acceptance of the inevitable, and the loss of Arwen, are all tied to Strider.  Strider never manifests himself completely once Aragorn accepts his legacy, but the remembrance of him and what he represents never leave entirely.  My argument isn't that Aragorn has a second personality, or that Strider isn't part of who Aragorn is, but rather from a structural perspective Strider and Aragorn exist in the heroic conceit as separate and distinct characters.

Is the entire discussion semantics? Probably.  If I accept my argument is true though, I begin to look at things differently, specifically Gollum's relationship to his former self which is probably an actual multiple personality situation.  He too suffers from many of the same fears exhibited by Aragorn/Strider, but reacts quite differently.  I wonder now if there's a case to be made that Gollum is as much a foil to Aragorn as he is to Frodo.  Something to think about anyway.

Now, feel free to tell me I'm full of shit.

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At December 17, 2011 at 9:14 AM , Anonymous Jared said...

You're *not* full of shit, but you have hit upon one of my pet theories when it comes to Epic Fantasy - there's been a massive genre-cultural misinterpretation of Tolkien.

Aragorn is the Campbellian hero. And fantasy readers love him - rightfully so. Tolkien forged all his Anglo-Saxon tidbits into the perfect storybook hero. Lost prince. Alone in the wilderness. The man without a name. The rightful heir. The chosen one. Etc. Etc.

Except... in the context of The Lord of the Rings? Aragorn doesn't actually matter. Aragorn stomps around, fulfils a prophecy or two, reclaims a throne, reforges a sword, smootches an elf... all for naught. He even says as much (repeatedly). The life and death of the universe is with Frodo. An accidental hero, completely useless, heir to nothing and a more than a bit crap. It doesn't matter what this paragon does, it is ultimately meaningless in the face of the everyhobbit and HIS obligation. Heroes don't need to be heroic; normal people need to rise to the occasion.

(Of course, Frodo *doesn't* actually succeed in the single thing he needs to do, but that's a different issue. Tolkien - such a nihilist. Cough.)

Anyway, I think a huge chunk of the modern fantastic traditional is based on a fundamental misunderstanding (possibly a deliberate one) of Tolkien. Aragorn is definitely the Hero, but he's not the one that matters.

At December 17, 2011 at 12:13 PM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Nearly everything that Aragorn does, after Frodo and Sam leave his company, is pointless. None of it ultimately matters if Sauron gets the ring back, or if they fall and the ring is lost. Aragorn's actions are heroic...if not for him and his actions, Frodo might have succeeded all the same, but with a devastated and destroyed Gondor and Rohan.

At January 6, 2012 at 8:16 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not true. The common argument that Frodo is somehow that important rings false, considering what everyone has to do to help him accomplish - or more correctly not accomplish - his goal.
I think everyone in the story plays an equally integral part. Without Saruman's defeat, the west would have fallen, and Sauron would have been able to focus all of his might on finding the ring. As it was, they engaged in a two part war.

At May 22, 2012 at 7:34 PM , Anonymous Annabella said...

Well, this was a first for me. I never read this genre and picked it up because of the report on The Today Show. Call me a simpleton, but I was captivated by the first book. Yeah, there was a lot of repetition, but I was intrigued to read more. I bought the second one and mid-way through it really, really got annoying. It was boring and ridiculous. Ok, I'm a gluten for punishiment --- dare I roll my eyes --- I bought the third one. Honestly, I did enjoy the way the story turned in the third. I'm 90% through. Yeah, it was slow in places and boring in places. I think I'm hooked though. Any recommendations on others in this genre? I related to the passion these two felt for each other; I enjoyed the sex; I enjoyed the tenderness and love. I want to read more, but from a more skilled author.


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