J R R Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings

Heroism and Redemption in Middle-Earth

By Rahul Mitra

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.


Introduction: The world-order of Middle-Earth

After multiple readings of The Lord of the Rings, many aficionados of J R R Tolkien (1892-1973) will want to know the answer to the question: What is Tolkien's world based on? While we may not presume to draw sweeping conclusions as to what we think Tolkien saw in his mind, it is sufficient that we present our own observations on the epic. As any Romantic would claim most sincerely, the book is about Heroes - how they are come unto this earth, what propels them onto their great deeds, and what becomes of them eventually. In order to examine The Lord of the Rings and its particular brand of Heroism, then, we must delve into the world-order as envisioned by Tolkien.

There is the One God, Eru, and 'the offspring of his thought', the Ainur, who create the world out of a stream of melody. Those of the Ainur who decide to move on down to the world to aid in its structuring and subsequent beautification are called the Valar. There is one amongst the Valar named Melkor who was the greatest among them in terms of might, but who was besieged by thoughts of pride and envy and thus sought to battle with Eru. Having lost the battle, he departed with the Valar to the earth as well, but was separate from them, and strove ever to besmirch their works of beauty. The Children of Eru, the Firstborn and the Followers, are those in the creation of whom the Valar had no part to play. Tolkien's Elves are the Firstborn, and they are the most beloved of the Valar, and are hence relocated to their own holy kingdom of Valinor in the Undying Lands. Men are the Followers.

In the major works of Tolkien - The Silmarilion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - Eru plays no direct role, after creating the world. For the hosts of Middle-Earth then, the 'Gods' are the celestial creatures, the Valar. Their presence is again only slightly less marginal than that of Eru. Tolkien portrays them as invincible lords, invisible, and yet, detached and inaccessible. The Elves are the closest to the Valar, and yet, they are the ones who Fall first. In this, the Fall of first the Elves from Valinor, and then the Fall of the Men of Numenor is reminiscent of the Fall from Paradise of Adam and Eve. The serpent in this case was the Spirit of Evil - through the media of Melkor in the First Fall, and Sauron in the Second. Tolkien's God is hence very much like our own - all-pervasive and all-seeing, but He pretty much leaves His flock to tend to themselves, most of the time.


Sauron is indisputably The Lord of the Rings. The Ancient Lore of the Ring proclaims -

'One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.'

In this light, it would seem that the darker forces of the world have been given greater prominence by a pessimist Tolkien's naming his magnum opus after the title of the Dark Lord. But Tolkien is neither a pessimist, nor is this prominence undue. Throughout the lore of Middle-Earth that Tolkien weaves, Evil has but one place - always at the side of Good. They are two sides of the same coin, and Tolkien emphasizes that the one cannot exist without the other. It is to the philosophy of the yin and the yang that Tolkien refers here - each is incomplete without the presence of the other. Melkor is created at the very beginning, even as the rest of the Valar are - he springs from the hidden thoughts of Eru - and thus must signify the negativity of Eru. Hence, even the One God is not above Evil. In The Silmarilion, a tale of constant battle and intrigue between the Valar-sponsored Elves and Melkor is told. In The Hobbit, the chief representatives of Evil are the Orcs and the Dragon Smaug. who are merely servants of Melkor's successor, Sauron. Sauron occupies a dominant role in The Lord of the Rings hence not because of some defeatist notion of Tolkien, but rather because there was simply no other alternative.

Evil has also but one form - that of the perennially changing, molding and adapting virus. The seed of negativity within Eru gives birth to Melkor, who by his misdeeds becomes the hated Morgoth of the Iron Crown; but when Morgoth is vanquished his captain Sauron takes over from him. It is hence a continuous succession taking place - a kind of Evolution, if you will, that never is at odds with Tolkien's Balance of Good and Evil in the universe. Even when Morgoth and Sauron are felled, they may have had to forsake material form, but Tolkien makes it very clear they still exist in the realms of shadow - as spirits of malice, still capable of mischief.

The Heroes

It is hence apparent that Tolkien's True Hero would be the one who understands this Balance, and is true to the One Faith and to himself as he sets about the task of restoring this Balance.

The candidates for this badge may be studied under three distinctive heads. There are first those, who are designated Heroes by Exile, the Counselor Trio of Elrond Half-Elven, The Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien and Gandalf the Wizard.

The Elves

Though the elves occupy centre-stage in The Silmarilion, their function in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is merely to serve as anchors, - other than Legolas, almost as bystanders. Saruman the White tells Gandalf:

'The Elder Days are gone.The Time of the Elves is over.'

Despite the traitor Saruman's dubious credentials, this is a truth that cannot be denied. In The Lord of the Rings, the elves are a twilight race - they shall soon pass over the Sea back to Paradise in the Undying Lands, and away from the memories of living men. Elrond's haven in Rivendell, and Galadriel's magical kingdom in Lothlorien are stores of lore and wisdom. They are meant to serve as a kind of watering-hole for the great heroes on their way as they pass on towards their destiny. They offer advice, solace and enchantment - no arms, nor magic, nor battle. As the Lady Melian's enchanted girdle of Doriath was humbled at the last by a greater power in The Silmarilion, so too is it apparent that the refuges of Rivendell and Lothlorien are not to last forever. And yet, even for this, there is little need to mourn. The Passing of the Elf-Havens merely represents the Passage of Epochs - new centuries and new eras must come forth, and viewed in this light, the never-fading elf-havens represent an obstruction to the natural scheme of things. The Future, for better or for worse, cannot be denied, reaffirms Tolkien.


Gandalf plays a far more active role in the plot, than do his counselor-colleagues. He is still the Guide, but one who rides forth in the vanguard to battle -

'The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider. He has passed through the fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him.'

And again -

'The White rider was upon them, and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness. The wild men fell on their faces before him. The Orcs reeled and screamed and cast aside both sword and spear.'

As far as the existing world-order is concerned, Gandalf serves as a counterfoil to the treachery of Saruman the White. As he speaks for himself, in his renewed form, after emerging triumphant from the pits of Khazad-dum;

'Yes, I am white now - Indeed, I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been.'

It is he, then, who overthrows the traitorous Saruman, and brings help to the Rohirrim and the Men of Minas Tirith in their hour of utmost need. He is the spiritual advisor to Aragorn, a kind of foster father to Frodo (after Bilbo, of course), and above all, a symbol to the Allied Forces in their War against Sauron that the Gods have not completely forsaken them. But even in this, even as he is a special envoy from the Valar (as are indeed, all the other Wizards), he is no match for Sauron the Great or the Ring of Power;

'With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.'

This again is very much in line with Tolkien's formula of the Balance of Power. In the hierarchy, Sauron is Morgoth's captain, his power is above the Elves, the Men and the Wizards combined. He can only be vanquished in two ways: direct assault by the Valar - which of course, never happens in The Lord of the Rings - or by the destruction of the One Ring. This is in fact the outcome that Tolkien values more highly than any full-frontal armed battle - this is the War that signifies Redemption for all Middle-Earth.


The Heroes who are meant to seek out this Redemption are those designated by Blood-line: the ancient and strong line of Men who are descended from the Numenoreans - Boromir and Faramir of Minas Tirith, and Aragorn of the Dunedain. But Men have a curse upon them - the curse of Pride and Folly that captures them from the mouth of Victory. The Fall of Men from the island-realm of Numenor signifies this - as the great line of Kings fell under the wrath of the Valar as they made to disobey their ban and conquer for themselves the Undying Lands of Valinor. The Fall of Isildur signifies this as well - as he refused to destroy the One Ring after hewing it away from Sauron in battle.

It is this weakness hence that is the scourge of Men. It was the scourge of noble Boromir who tries to wrest the One Ring away from Frodo, - though in the end, he redeems himself by his valiant battle with the uruk-hai to save the hobbits. Nevertheless, it was Boromir's bane, even as Faramir and Aragorn feared it to be theirs. Thankfully, this never took place. Faramir, Boromir's brother and Captain of the Guard at Minas Tirith, is meant by Tolkien to serve as a contrast to Boromir. He is calm and collected, even as the other was impulsive, and he is quite capable of recognizing the bigger picture, even as Boromir was constrained to think only of the welfare of his city. Faramir is worthy because he recognizes the dangers posed by the One Ring at first glance, even though he had no benefit of the Rivendell Council to advise him. He resists the ring - something which even the great Boromir could not do. In this lies Faramir's chief badge of honor -

'We are truth-speakers, we men of Gondor. Not if I found it on the highway would I take it I said. Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them.'

The curse of Isildur lies heavy on Aragorn's shoulders. He is the direct descendant of the Numenorean Kings, the direct descendant of Isildur and is hence doubly cursed by his lineage. Viewing the history of the Kings of Men, one does not end up with a favorable impression about them. Apart from Elendil, Isildur's father, who recognized the folly of defying the Valar even as the other Numenoreans did not, and who was always aware of the trickery Sauron was capable of, the Kings of Men are revealed to be Weak. Valiant and proud and hardy they may be, but the curse on the Kings of Men is all too apparent - and Aragorn is crippled by this thought. Yet, Aragorn is the one who transcends the curse. Tolkien emphasizes individuality here - in his moment of doubt, Aragorn hears from Arwen Evenstar:

'Dark is the Shadow, and yet my heart rejoices; for you, Estel (Aragorn), shall be among the great whose valor will destroy it.'

Thus, while the same blood of Isildur flows through his veins, the same temperament is not in his mind. Aragorn is his own person, Tolkien seems to say, who has his own strengths - who, by virtue of these strengths, has been able to step out from beneath the shadow of the curse. Aragorn too recognizes the potency of the One Ring, like Faramir - and he swears to protect the Ring bearer Frodo with his life, till the last. The One Ring is but a thinly-veiled likeness to the Lust for Power - Aragorn, by denouncing his claim to it, is vindicated in his stand as the One King who unifies Middle-Earth at the end. It is this battle that Tolkien indeed deems more worthy than all the swashbuckling tales of adventure he conjures up.

The Hobbits

Redemption however is achieved by the Heroes designated by the Fates: the Hobbits. Tolkien's hobbits deserve a thesis all to themselves - for never have such amazing creatures been devised by human imagination. As Gandalf puts it:

'Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch.'

In his foreword to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien himself makes perfectly clear that hobbits are not the fabled magical people with pointy ears who can teleport, - they are not leprechauns, and neither are they dwarves -

'Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth.their elusiveness is due solely to a professional skill that heredity and practice, and a close friendship with the earth, have rendered inimitable by bigger and clumsier races. For they are a little people, smaller than dwarves; less stout and stocky.'

These little people are the ones Chance has chosen for the salvation of Middle-Earth. Completely ignored hitherto in the great machinations that have moved the fortunes of the world, they now play a pivotal part for the future to come to fruition. Even as Elrond Half-Elven declares -

'This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it?'

It is Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, and then his nephew Frodo, who are the chosen Ring bearers. Tolkien seems to assert time and time again that even the weakest link in the chain has hidden stores of vigor - help often comes from where it is unlooked-for, and this then is the Story of the Hobbits. For not all the huge armies of Men and Elves could prevail against the might of Sauron, had not two feeble hobbits gone climbing down into the ash-ridden hellhole of Mordor, and flung the Ring of Power into the fiery pits of Mount Doom, Orodruin. The feat that Elrond Half-Elven long feared would come to naught had been committed by the two most unlikely individuals. As Tolkien himself puts it in a letter to his friend, the editor Milton Waldman (1951);

'."The wheels of the world" are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak - owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One (Eru).'

But the hobbits serve a greater purpose than merely illustrating the folly of Darwinian Laws for Tolkien - in essence, they are Tolkien's 'ideal people', regardless of their diminutive size. For a Tolkien who laments the deplorable effect of industry on the environment, the hobbits represent 'good living' with their clean, no-nonsense ways that do not have any use for excessive wealth or material gains. The hobbits live in the comfort of knowing that they are secure, there is no meddling into how other people live, and there is a deep, unspoken sanctity for greenery. It is a gardener, Samwise Gamgee, who is Frodo Baggins' faithful retainer and friend, and makes sure that Frodo remains true to himself till the last, even though he is at odds with the lure of the Ring.

These then are the four hobbits - Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee (Sam), Meriadoc Brandybuck (Merry) and Peregrin Took (Pippin) - who seem to best uphold the meaning of Heroism in Tolkien's book -

'All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.'

The Hero is not a flash-in-the-pan, Tolkien argues, but a person who discovers himself in the course of life. We argued earlier that Tolkien's vision of Evil is almost an evolutionary and necessary process - keeping in synchronization with this theory then, Tolkien's heroes are also as continuous and as seamless. They surface almost all the time, within almost each of the characters that Tolkien introduces. The hero is present in each and every one of us, Tolkien avows. This is, in part, the magic of Middle-Earth.

There is the team of the younger hobbits - Merry and Pippin - to illustrate this point. From their humble beginnings as pranksters in the

'long-expected birthday party'

they graduate to

'.fearless hobbits with bright swords and grim faces.'

Returning to the Shire, each having seen his share of adventure, and each having displayed such courage as is often lacking in the hardiest of Men. There is Sam, the doughty gardener, who I personally feel is perhaps the greatest Hero of all. Sam is the strength behind Frodo, who leads him on ever in the dark of Mordor, who fights for his master in Shelob's lair, who braves the Tower of Cirith Ungol to save Frodo, and who rescues him at the last from Gollum at Mount Doom. Tolkien imbues Sam with a ready wit, and a refusal to be cowed down under any circumstances. He is the gregarious rebel then, the faithful servant who almost eclipses his master as far as deeds of great import are concerned. His greatest asset is his simple heart, - and once again, Tolkien imparts a moral lesson through the character of Samwise Gamgee.

Frodo represents the quintessential Tolkien-hero, who is made and not born, forged by the fires of experience. It is not in him to be the hero typically imagined by us - brave beyond belief in the face of adversity, firm beyond endurance in his decision. Frodo trembles, and is often doubtful of his own decisions. He regrets his lot, and wonders why he was ever given this enormous load to bear. But Frodo endures - and that is the principal quality within him that endears itself to Tolkien. Frodo may regret his fate, but he never does give up. He learns along the way - not just of the great deeds of great warriors, but also of simple qualities that are often overlooked in the bigger picture - qualities of pity and mercy and hope. Above all, hope. He strives to complete his mission for the hope of the world - out of no thought at all for gain to himself. He is on a mission to bring back Redemption for Middle-Earth, and he succeeds in his quest in great part due to the help afforded by Sam. Could there indeed have been a Frodo without a Sam, is a question that cannot be easily answered.

The Ring

What does the Ring represent, then? Tolkien's vast drama is largely about the conservation of the environment - and the Ring represents not industrial power per se, but rather, the craven lust for power. It corrupts all, says Gandalf; even the mightiest fall under the influence of the Ring. It projects an addiction too terrible to withstand, and it is indeed to Frodo's credit that he is able to do so for the most part. But even Frodo becomes susceptible to withdrawal symptoms - when Sam, seeing the dreadful state of his master because of the Ring of Power, offers to carry it for him, Frodo metamorphoses into a Dr. Jekyll -

'A wild light came into Frodo's eyes. "Stand away! Don't touch me! he cried. "It is mine, I say. Be off!" His hand strayed to his sword-hilt.'

Frodo recovers himself in time, though, and the hour of danger passes. But the terrible hour resurfaces once again on the verge of completing that great task for which the hobbits set out - on Mount Doom, Frodo recants again with a terrible oath,

'Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.

"I have come," he said. "But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!"'

It is here where the Fates step in once again. It is as Gandalf had predicted earlier, that the creature Gollum had some further part to play in the drama, and as it lunges on Frodo at this hour, it wrestles the Ring away from him, and in the intensity of his mirth, topples, Ring and all, into the pits of Orodruin. In the hour of his greatest need, Frodo has been granted both salvation from the Ring, and Redemption for the madness it evoked within him.

But Redemption does not come cheap, and Heroes are not easy to discover. When they are discovered, and they return from their quest successful, there is almost a void left over in the daily life that they must turn back to. Thus, even as there is a rejuvenation of peace and order throughout Middle-Earth at the last, there is also a languorous exhaustion over the principal characters of that demise. At the close of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo passes over the Sea into the uttermost West, along with his Counselors: Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel. Tolkien's message almost recalls to mind that famous Shakespearean line -

'All the world's a stage and we all have a part to play in it 'ere the end.'

When the lines are said, and the deeds are done, and the Hero takes his bow, - what else is there to do but lower the curtain?


The Silmarilion, by J R R Tolkien, compiled by Christopher Tolkien
The Hobbit, by J R R Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien, as composed of:

The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers
The Return of the King

© Rahul Mitra, October 2006
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