Who was the true hero of the Lord of the Rings?
This is adapted from an answer I gave on Stack Exchange in 2012.
Who was the hero of the Lord of the Rings? There are quite a lot characters who do heroic acts throughout the narrative: from obvious choices like Gandalf holding off the Balrog of Moria so that the Fellowship may escape or Éowyn and Merry defeating the Witch King to less recognized (but equally as important) events like Merry and Pippin convincing Treebeard and the other Ents to lay siege to Orthanc or Fatty Bolger staying behind to distract the Black Riders so Frodo and the others could flee Buckland.
But if you had to choose one person to be the true hero of the story, who would it be?
Frodo seems like an obvious choice: he begins the journey, most of the main characters act to protect and aid his quest, and it’s only by his actions with the destruction of the Ring at Mount Doom is Sauron finally defeated.
A decent choice is Aragorn: when the Fellowship disbands and Frodo goes east to Mordor, it’s Aragorn who holds the rest of the group together and marshals the forces of Gondor and Rohan to withstand Saruman and Sauron.
Gandalf is also an option: while he ultimately held an advisory role, it is unlikely any of the characters would’ve succeeded with their quests were it not for his help.
Or perhaps someone else? It’s a choice left up to the reader: if Gimli was the true hero in your mind, awesome.
Over the years, there’s been some question as to who J.R.R. Tolkien himself thought was the true hero of the story when writing the Lord of the Rings. The two main contenders generally tend to be Aragorn, an obvious choice for the reasons above, and… Sam Gamgee.
Yeah, that Sam. The gardener and faithful companion to Frodo. The one who got really excited to cook up some stewed rabbit at the doorstep of Sauron.
The case for Sam
I think Aragorn has a lot going for him without much effort, but with some thought, Sam is not a bad choice for hero. While Frodo is almost destined to take up the mantle of ringbearer, and Aragorn is already the rightful heir to the thrones of Arnor and Gondor, Sam is seemingly an ordinary hobbit who nevertheless willingly chooses to follow Frodo in his quest, even when Frodo gives him several outs along the way. Like Frodo, he is present for the entire journey of the Ring, but unlike Frodo, he never succumbs to its power.
And there’s quite a bit of evidence from Tolkien’s letters:
He also makes mention of Sam’s heroic nature in a reply to a real-life Sam Gamgee (so-called Letter 184):
It was very kind of you to write. You can imagine my astonishment, when I saw your signature! I can only say, for your comfort I hope, that the “Sam Gamgee” of my story is a most heroic character, now widely beloved by many readers, even though his origins are rustic.
Elsewhere, in a letter to his son Christopher (so-called Letter 91), he begins:
Here is a small consignment of “The Ring”: the last two chapters that have been written, and the end of the Fourth Book of that great Romance, in which you will see that, as is all too easy, I have got the hero into such a fix that not even an author will be able to extricate him without labour and difficulty. Lewis was moved almost to tears by the last chapter. All the same, I chiefly want to hear what you think, as for a long time now I have written with you most in mind.
The last two chapters of the “Fourth Book” refer to the end of The Two Towers:1 in the last two chapters—“Shelob’s Lair” and “The Choices of Master Samwise”—only two characters are present: Frodo and Sam. The latter chapter, aptly named, is told exclusively through the narrative of Sam.
But perhaps the clearest evidence in support of Sam being the true hero of the story comes from a letter to his publisher, Milton Waldman (so-called Letter 131):
I think the simple “rustic” love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero’s) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the “longing for Elves”, and sheer beauty.
What about Aragorn?
If you’re not sold on Sam, a lot of the above evidence seems like it might be circumstantial. Letter 184 merely refers to Sam as “a most heroic character”, not the hero. And Letter 91 doesn’t mention Sam by name.
But what of Letter 131? Surely that’s enough to seal the deal. The trouble is that the excerpted passage above is actually nestled within a very long paragraph:
Since we now try to deal with “ordinary life”, springing up ever unquenched under the trample of world policies and events, there are love-stories touched in, or love in different modes, wholly absent from The Hobbit. But the highest love-story, that of Aragorn and Arwen Elrond‘s daughter is only alluded to as a known thing. It is told elsewhere in a short tale. Of Aragorn and Arwen Undómiel. I think the simple “rustic” love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero’s) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the “longing for Elves”, and sheer beauty. But I will say no more, nor defend the theme of mistaken love seen in Éowyn and her first love for Aragorn. I do not feel much can now be done to heal the faults of this large and much-embracing tale – or to make it “publishable”, if it is not so now.
Notice something, or someone, who seems to be the focus of that paragraph? It’s not Sam: it’s Aragorn. Aragorn’s love for Arwen. Éowyn’s love for Aragorn.
If you’re convinced that Aragorn, not Sam, is the true hero of the Lord of the Rings, there’s a way to read the fourth sentence such that when Tolkien parathentically states “the chief hero” he’s not referring to Sam, but to Aragorn, and the sentence about Sam is merely a contrast to the love stories involving the chief hero (i.e. Aragorn).
However, I disagree with this reading of the “chief hero” phrase. In the passage, Tolkien enumerates three love stories:
- Aragorn and Arwen
- Sam and Rosie
- Éowyn’s unrequited love for Aragorn
The first story he points out is only mentioned and left alone for another story. The second he emphasizes as being important to understanding the chief hero’s story. The third he intentionally takes off the table for discussion.
Looking at the specific sentence mentioning Sam, there are two uses of the pronoun “his”: first to “his Rosie” and then, nine words later, to “his character”. Tolkien, being a scholar of the English language, would not first refer to Sam, then—in mid-sentence—change the referent to Aragorn for five words, then back to Sam to describe his qualities as exemplars of the “ordinary life”.
Additionally, if Aragorn were the chief hero, it seems reasonable he would’ve made one of the two love stories involving him essential to understanding his character, instead of brushing them aside in favor of Sam’s love story with Rosie.
Finally, Christopher Tolkien himself believed his father meant Sam was the chief hero, not Aragorn. Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull—creators of the index for the published Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien—addressed this concern2 on the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza, where they explained they wrote to Christopher Tolkien asking for clarification regarding the passage in Letter 131 (edited for formatting, emphasis mine):
We ourselves wouldn’t say that it’s “traditional wisdom” that the words “the chief hero’s” refer to Sam. Aragorn is much more the traditional hero -- Verlyn Flieger expands upon this in her essay “Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of the Hero” in the second Isaacs and Zimbardo collection. But the awkwardness of the use of the pronoun “his” in that late paragraph of Tolkien’s letter to Milton Waldman occurred to us in 1998 when we were producing the new index to Letters; and at that time we wrote to Christopher Tolkien:
To whom do you think the phrase “the chief hero’s” refers? Since Sam is the male mentioned immediately preceding, and “longing for elves” applies to him, he seems the most likely candidate; though one could argue that Aragorn is meant, contrasting the rustic love of Sam and Rosie with the highest love-story of Aragorn and Arwen.
And to point out that Tolkien made other references to heroes (of course there are many in The Lord of the Rings), we added:
On pp. 103 and 153 [of Letters] your father implies that Frodo is “the hero”, and on pp. 253 and 326 considers him a “failed hero”.
To this Christopher replied, very succinctly, that he was certain that “the chief hero” referred to Sam.
The Lord of the Rings was published in three volumes with two books each; The Two Towers contains books 3 and 4. Later in the same letter, Tolkien discusses how to get out of the hole he dug himself in books 5 and 6 (i.e., The Return of the King). ↩
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