It is this very reluctance to be a hero that seals Frodo’s status as the most excellent modern hero. His greatness is one that is filled with existential self-doubt and a despair which is only punctuated from time to time with glimmers of hope. The Lord of the Rings is no easy fantasy with a sentimental, happy ending and Frodo is no bluff super-hero who sets off on an easy quest to defeat the bad guys. Frodo struggles with his inner doubts and fears as much as he does with the dreadful burden of the Ring and the dark power of Sauron.
Frodo’s reluctance to play the hero is not cowardice. It is the mark of his humility, for humility is a simple realistic assessment of oneself. In contrast, both pride and false humility are unrealistic about the self. In The Lord of the Rings Boromir is the best example of pride. He really does believe that the he would be able to use the Ring for a good purpose, ‘the Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!’
False humility also has an unrealistic assessment of the self. Gollum exhibits the grovelling subservience of false humility while all the time he is using his subservience as a tool to manipulate others and regain the Ring. Gandalf and Galadriel also have the necessary self-knowledge to be humble. Like Boromir, they are both tempted, to take the Ring and use it for good, but both of them know they are not innocent enough to bear the Ring without it corrupting them. Even Sam, for the short time that he holds the Ring is tempted by the vision of ‘Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age.’
Frodo alone, while weighed down by the burden of the Ring, is not tempted to use it for his own long term glory, until at the last moment he weakens and the Ring’s power infests his heart.
The humility of Frodo can be contrasted with the hubris of the classical hero. Hubris is that overweening self-confidence which eventually provides for the hero’s potential downfall. This hubris is linked with the tragic flaw in the classic hero. In a tragedy the hero’s flaw combined with hubris brings about the hero’s defeat or even death. Hubris is linked with the tragic flaw because it does not allow the hero to see his tragic flaw and change it. This means the classic hero lacks that realistic self-assessment on which real humility depends. Frodo is totally lacking in hubris. Instead, throughout The Lord of the Rings he is full of fear, dread, confusion and self-doubt.
What keeps Frodo from being a weak character is his obedience. The word obey has its roots in the verb ‘to listen’ and Frodo listens to the call of what can only be called Providence at the crucial stages of his journey. That he obeys the call is the mark of Frodo’s true strength. True obedience is always linked with courage, and Frodo constantly moves forward in obedience despite his fear. Finally obedience is linked with faith—not religious faith per se, but faith as a quality of positive trust in Providence. For Frodo these traits of obedience, courage and faith come to a climax at the Council of Elrond. There he hears the voice of Providence, and then he hears the real Frodo—almost like a disembodied voice—respond in positive courageous obedience to the call. After the Council had decided that the Ring must be taken to the Cracks of Doom, ‘a great dread fell upon him [Frodo] as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after never be spoken….At last with a great effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words as if some other will was using his small voice. “I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”’
In creating a character who responds to the voice of providence with genuine humility and obedience Tolkien has created a new kind of mythic hero. Many writers have created Christ-figures and The Lord of the Rings is not without its own (Aragorn the triumphant returning King, Gandalf who returns from the dead) but Frodo’s heroism is compelling not because it typifies Christ, but because it exemplifies the heroism of the Christian saint. Frodo steps out even though he does not know the way and the saint also, like Frodo, walks by faith not by sight. (2Cor. 5:7) Frodo goes through the utter darkness driven only by his obedience and courage.
Compare Frodo’s journey through uncertainty and doubt to Thérèse of Lisieux who wrote, ‘Jesus took me by the hand and brought me into a subterranean way, where it was neither hot nor cold, where the sun does not shine, and rain and wind do not come; a tunnel where I see nothing but a brightness half-veiled…I do not see that we are advancing towards the mountain that is our goal, because our journey is under the earth; yet I have a feeling that we are approaching it, without knowing why.’
The path of the humble soul is always uncertain. What seems to be progress may only be the advance of pride. Up until the very last moment Frodo is unsure whether he is making progress and doubts whether he will succeed. Again Thérèse says, ‘I learned very quickly that the farther one advances along this road, the farther from the goal one believes oneself to be.’
Even Frodo’s failure at the Cracks of Doom is a paradoxical sign of his saint-like calling. He has advanced in genuine humility and sheer dogged obedience, then when the final test comes Frodo seems to fail. He who has never yielded to the temptation to use the Ring for his own ends rises up and says, ‘I have come, but I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’
He puts on the ring and disappears, only to have Gollum leap for the ring, bite off his finger and plunge with the Ring into the pit. It has often been remarked how the turn of the plot at this stage is a sign of the strange workings of Providence. Frodo seems to fail the test in the last moment, but Frodo (and before him Bilbo) had spared the life of Gollum, and this act of humble mercy redounds for his salvation at the crucial point.
Similarly, Thérèse faced the worst kind of desolation and trial during her final illness. Read More