When given a choice between a hero who always defeats the enemy, saves the princess, and lives a life of pure heroism, and a person who wouldn't know heroism if it slapped them in the face, who sounds more interesting? Never, in the course of all the books read in class, has the main character been the classic hero. These extraordinary characters do share some traits with the traditional hero, but most of their stories focuses on aspects of them unlike any hero with whom the reader is familiar.
The definition of hero depends on the society in which these characters originate. These fantastic novels' social structures use an idealized medieval hierarchy to characterize their heroes; everybody holds a certain status and fulfills a certain role within the society. The individuals who have a top seat in the social hierarchy watch over those below, protecting them from evils against which they do not have the strength to defend themselves. During medieval times, knights ideally embodied the role of the traditional hero or protector of the lower class, and so the traditional hero of these fantasies based on medieval society became a knight. Qualities emphasized in knights within these fantastic novels can be assigned to disqualify characters from the title of Knight.
An ideal Knight possesses qualities such as bravery, strength, loyalty, and courage, commits selfless deeds, and defends the general public against terrible foes. Though these fantasies commonly contain an individual who fulfills the requirements of the traditional hero, usually the protagonist is an unlikely hero with either mental or physical limitations. Strangely enough, no matter how traditional the protagonists may seem, they commonly stray outside the definition of the Knight. This, whether it lessens the predictability or makes the success more magical, has become a common plot device in fantastic novels. Few fantastic tales read in this class have a traditional hero as the main character, because traditional heroes present no ambiguity: the good guy always defeats the evil.
The purely heroic character deemed the ideal champion rides through the forest of Phantastes. On him, our traditional heroes are modeled and to him our unexpected heroes compared: "He was a knight, armed from head to heel, mounted upon a strange-looking beast, whose form I could not understand" (MacDonald 167).The Knight's greatness reveals itself through his dress. His mighty deeds aside, the kindness and love he possesses permeate his very being. The "loving kindness" he possesses "beamed from every line of his face"(169). From this experience, Anodos understands the reasoning behind the white lady preferring the knight over him. He puts forward not only a brave front as demonstrated by the "great dragon" that he defeated with sheer strength and cunning (168), but our traditional hero is so unselfish that he allows Anodos to ride his steed: "knight and squire must share the labour"(170). The very acts of heroism the knight performs on a daily basis do not provide personal gain in the form of material objects. He fights for the good of the people; he is the defender for the lower class, their champion.
In Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, the world in shambles implies a previous time when the social order worked. Hagsgate lived under a medieval hierarchy; there exist knights, kings, queens. Prince Lir develops into a true knight. The means by which he chooses knighthood and heroism as his profession can be pinpointed — the moment he met Lady Amalthea. Lir's obsession with courting her brings out the traditional hero within him; yet his misguided reasoning behind becoming a knight, to impress the maiden, not for the good of the people, does not fulfill the role of the traditional hero:
I brought her the head . . . and lay it at her feet . . . it was a dragon's head, the proudest gift anyone can give anyone. But when she looked at it, suddenly it became a sad, battered mess of scales and horns, gristly tongue, bloody eyes. I felt like some country butcher who had brought his lass a nice chunk of fresh meat as a token of his love. [Beagle 128].
Prince Lir brings the heads of all five dragons he has slain to his love and, receiving no recognition, only partial disgust, journeys on to find a more deserving quest. Unlike the knight in Phantastes, Prince Lir's only joy comes from Lady Amalthea and pleasing her, not from saving common folk. Prince Lir fulfills every requirement of knighthood in that he protects others through his valiant quests, although he does not make that his goal.
When he decides that Lady Amalthea should rejoin the unicorns and be transformed from her human form, though he receives no personal gain and further denies himself Amalthea's love, he spouts lists and lists of definitions of heroic tales: "the true secret of being a hero lies in knowing the order of things"(180). His birth and growth having been prophesized make his statement that "prophecies may not be left to rot" that much more important (180). He becomes like a traditional hero when he sacrifices his own happiness for the good of others, in this case the unicorns and the world itself. Given his past, although he used impure reasoning in choosing knighthood, he becomes associated with the unexpected hero. He gives up all that he loves.
The world of The Lord of the Rings is dictated by the medieval hierarchy though it does not seem to fit. Those like Aragorn and others protect the hobbits, even without the latter's awareness, allowing them to continue their lives in peace and naivety. That the social structure of middle earth includes a king, expressed by the title of the last book, The Return of the King assimilates it to the medieval social structure like that of Phantastes and its Knight. The use of blood relations — "he is Aragorn, son of Arathorn" — and tracing Aragorn's bloodline places importance on the preservation of social hierarchy (Tolkien 240).
Aragorn's introduction in The Fellowship of the Ring is anything but grand or heroic. When Tolkien introduces Strider, he shows how others distrust him:
Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk . . . he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits .
The physical appearance of a character creates a preconceived notion of that individual. Aragorn clothes himself in a questionable fashion to hide his defining features and avoid being seen, but this tendency to hide himself does not present a traditionally heroic characteristic. The means by which Aragorn begins his association with the hobbits is through "[slipping] over the gate just after them," not demonstrating a trustworthy nature (161). That even slightly dimwitted characters such as Mr. Butterbur see Strider as dishonorable and recommends against "[taking] up with a ranger" does not bode well for Aragorn's reputation at the start of The Lord of the Rings (165).
Aragorn's noble bloodline and high social status liken him to knights. His protection of the hobbits further supports this, for he takes care of those below him, as a traditional hero should. His rejection of kinghood, until the termination of The Lord of the Rings, disassociates Aragorn from his assigned hierarchal identity. Instead of accepting his title, as a noble hero should, Aragorn dismisses it and continues life denying his heritage. Like the Knight in Phantastes, Aragorn takes the same care when tending to Frodo's poisoned stab wound that the knight takes when looking after the child. As the story progresses, Aragorn's valiant actions and heroic qualities emerge in his trust and care for the hobbits and the fellowship. He becomes a hero, but because of past mistrust this heroism comes as a surprise; the reader does not expect his grandeur, and yet through his trials he proves to be greater than anybody could have expected.
Frodo, as a classic unexpected hero, does not have the strength of arms to defend himself, let alone save the world. Whether he will succeed or fail can not be determined at any given point. A key in understanding the ways of hobbits resides in their stature and nature. Frodo sums up hobbits when describing his wish for the ring's destruction: "'I do really wish to destroy it!' cried Frodo. 'Or well, to have it destroyed. I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?'" (60). Hobbits are known for their small childlike size associated with a lack of physical strength. The fact that Frodo questions his destiny to hold and destroy the ring contrasts with the definition of the hero provided in The Last Unicorn: "prophecies may not be left to rot." Unlike the traditional hero, Frodo does not believe he can complete his task: "You are wise and powerful. Will you not take the Ring?"(60) When he attempts to pass his task to Gandalf, somebody more wise and powerful, an action uncharacteristic of champions, Frodo while remaining one moves out of the realm of traditional heroes.
One of many times Frodo submits to temptation and allows evil to get a stronger hold on him "he felt that he must take the Ring and put it on his finger . . . resistance became unbearable, and at last he slowly drew out the chain, and slipped the Ring on the forefinger of his left hand" (191). His lack of resistance to the evil forces of Middle Earth becomes more prominent as the tale unfolds and expresses his un-heroic side. He puts the fate of the entire world at risk every time the ring wanders carelessly onto his finger. The lives of hobbits separate from the rest of the world, allow them not to worry about those outside their community. Frodo does not completely lack all traditional heroic qualities. He accepts the mission explaining that "this would mean exile, a flight from danger into danger . . . I suppose I must go alone if I am to do that and save the shire. But I feel very small . . . The Enemy is so strong and terrible" (61). His quest begins with the purpose of saving the shire, knowing that he will most likely not come out of this adventure alive. Frodo likens himself to the traditional hero through an unselfish act, sacrificing his life for those around him.
Even when Frodo reaches his final destination, Mount Doom, the reader is unaware of what will occur. The act of saving the world, uncharacteristic of hobbits, likens Frodo to the traditional hero. That such a small and hopeless character saves Middle Earth makes the epic tale much more fantastic and magical. Frodo becomes an epic hero; he loses his ability to go home again through his contact with the evil world: "There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same" (967). Frodo has no place in the world anymore as a result of his unexpected heroism.
Thomas Covenant, "a gray, gaunt man" introduced in the typical world as a leper and transported to a fantastic world, becomes a heroic criminal (Donaldson 1). The world that Covenant lands in, works in that the bloodguards protect the lords and those important to the survival of the world, and therefore indirectly protect the common people who cannot protect themselves. This places Stephen R. Donaldson's world of Lord Foul's Bane within the medieval hierarchy.
Not only is Thomas Covenant physically impaired, but he does not believe in the world he finds himself in, giving himself the title of Unbeliever. His power comes from his white gold wedding band, "wild magic which preserves [his] life" (35). His travels lead him through many an adventure and yet he provides us with no evidence of his heroism except for the supposed wild magic he possesses. Covenant transforms himself into a criminal when he rapes Lena, a girl who has guided him and taught him the ways of the world:
A moment later he dropped the burden of his weight on her chest and her loins were stabbed with a wild, white fire that broke her silence, made her scream. But even as she cried out she knew that it was too late for her. Something that her people thought of as a gift had been torn from her. 
A criminal has no right to have a reputation associated with the traditional hero, who protects those below him, and yet Covenant takes on the heroic role in Lord Foul's Bane although he has physically brutalized one who aided him in his quest. The land seduces Covenant. One of such little resistance cannot be compared to knights.
Covenant provides no reason for the Council of Lords to trust him, and they do not until he exposes the white gold automatically providing him with the title of "ur-Lord Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever and white gold wielder" (257). That he saves the world makes Covenant a champion, an unconventional hero to say the least, but this unlikely savior, this leper and criminal, protects those below him. This, as in Frodo's case outcasts him from the world, directly sending him home, where children hide from him and people step out of his way on the street.
Like Donaldson's protagonist, Anodos presents himself repeatedly as a hopeless and selfish man, the perfect contrast to the model of the traditional hero MacDonald also presents. Time after time Anodos becomes "unable to restrain (himself)", consistently landing himself in difficulty that he alone can not fix (MacDonald 117). If he had heeded the "warning [he] had received from those who knew [his] danger," the problems would not have arisen (47). This lack of self control associates Anodos with Thomas Covenant and Frodo in that their desires affect their actions so dramatically that these can alter the course of history. The turning point in Phantastes occurs when Anodos admits that somebody may be better for the white lady than himself. After that moment, we meet the knight who has stolen her love and "a dim shadow of [Anodos]" could be seen "in the shining steel" (138). His life seems ambiguous, however. Even the knight discerns unexpected nobleness in him. Anodos demonstrates no moral or mental growth until the point at which he he decides to follow the path and become a knight. This knighthood leads to another pitfall where he "counted [himself] amongst the glorious knights of old" (159). His hubris leads to a point in which he "had no right to wear the golden spurs" and becomes the squire of the model for our traditional hero (165). His service and death turn Anodos into a heroic character, though his pitfalls along the way make him an unlikely candidate for the position. Anodos' development as a character throughout Phantastes transports him from hopeless to heroic in which he "set out to find [his] ideal, came back rejoicing that [he] had lost [his] shadow"(184). The path Anodos takes to heroism, through greed, lust, and temptation appoint him to the title of unusual hero.
Sam Gamgee, of all the characters represents one of the most traditionally heroic fronts his physical attributes not withstanding. The selfless love with which he attends to Frodo giving him anything he needs and taking little for himself makes his heroism traditional. The loyalty he shows toward the journey and his master can be overthrown by no one:
"If you don't come back, sir, I shan't, that's certain" said Sam. "Don't you leave him! They said to me. Leave him! I said. I never mean to. I am going with him, if he climbs to the Moon, and if any of those Black Riders try to stop him, they'll have Sam Gamgee to reckon with, I said. They laughed." [Tolkien 85]
Sam shows unfaltering love, bravery, loyalty and his purely selfless nature. He even offers to share the burden of the ring with his master: "If it's too hard a job, I could share it with you, maybe?" (891). If his size were not a factor, his nature would make Sam a traditional hero. Given his childlike stature and hobbit sized strength, he no longer fulfills the requirements of the traditional hero. His role must be of an unlikely hero.
Dragonsong presents Pern, a society much more restrictive than those in previous novels, and its social structure fulfills the requirements of a medieval hierarchy. Each person has a specific role to fulfill, though unlike in other tales, professions do not reflect the abilities of the individual. In contrast to Pern, Benden Weyr respects abilities of individuals and promotes their personal accomplishments. The dragonriders protect the world and land of Pern from the Thread, fulfilling the role of knights protecting those below them and allowing Dragonsong to become a medievally-structured fantasy.
In the society Menolly lives in, heroism does not fit her assigned role. Menolly, the protagonist of Dragonsong, possesses amazing musical abilities, and yet she is not allowed to partake in her craft because she "was only a girl: too tall and lanky to be a proper girl at that" (McCaffrey 1). Only when the Hold's Harper passes away does Menolly's role include playing music:
Her thoughts kept returning to the sin of having strummed a few bars of her own song. That, and being a girl and the only one who could teach or play in the absence of a real Harper . . . that was the reason for her universal disfavor. No one wanted the Harper to know that the youngsters had been schooled by a girl. [McCaffrey 42]
She does not follow traditional gender roles in this society, and so she assumes the role of Harper without holding the official title. Menolly acknowledges her abilities but questions herself because "she was a girl and there were mysteries that only the male mind could understand"(27).
To further Menolly's problems, when performing her assigned household duties she "gash[ed] her left palm wide open" leaving her with use enough of her hand for "all practical purposes"(43, 45). This injury, however, discouraged Menolly from playing music. When she acts according to her assigned gender role, she, "a mere girl" interacts with fire lizards whose eggs she has the privilege of handling (27). She risks her life to save them, an act of selfless bravery that can only be attributed to the traditional hero, her strength surprising for a "one-handed girl"(71). When she reaches Benden Weyr, she receives respect for her abilities as a musician and can perform once more. She moves to Harper Hall. Her accomplishments make her a hero, her sex and disability make her unlikely in this role.
Eowyn, being the only other girl presented as a hero, defeats that which no mortal man can kill in The Lord of the Rings: "no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him" (Tolkien 823). Menolly and Eowyn are the only cases in which their sex affects the trials of the story. Disobedience, sex, and disability attach the title of unexpected hero to Menolly's accomplishments. Eowyn's disobedience and her sex are her claims to the status of unlikely hero. These shared qualities do not correspond with the traditional hero though in the structure of these societies, these women's deeds are heroic and therefore they become heroes, unusual and unexpected, but heroes nevertheless.
Heroes in these quasi-medieval hierarchies can be defined by their bravery, strength, loyalty, courage, selfless deeds and defense of the common against a powerful enemy. Unlikely heroes lack one or more of these qualities, though they may possess just as much courage and selflessness. The majority of unexpected heroes can attribute their untraditional importance to the fact that they do not possess the physical qualifications. The success of an unlikely hero allows the fantasy to become more magical. A traditional hero has no growth left, while his unlikely counterpart allows the reader a chance to watch his development and question whether this strange and unexpected character will succeed or fail in his endeavors. In the real world, readers do not identify with traditional heroes, nobody is perfect, and therefore people associate with the unlikely champions. It gives those who are not strong or brave the hope that one day they themselves could be like Frodo, on a quest to save the world.
Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: Roc/New American Library, 1991.
Donaldson, Stephen R. Lord Foul's Bane. Part I of The Chronicles of Thomas Coveant the Unbeliever. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977.
MacDonald, George. Phantastes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.
McCaffrey, Anne. Dragonsong. New York: Simon Pulse, 1976.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin, Boston: 1966.
Last modified 18 May 2004