The Unlikely Hero Bandwagon

Sarah McIntire '07, English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

Fantasies typically revolve around the trials of a protagonist, who often qualifies as a hero. In The Lord of the Rings, many of J. R. R. Tolkien's characters take on hero-like qualities, or become heroes in their own right, yet a large number of them come from circumstances that would suggest otherwise. Aragorn first appears to the hobbits as Strider, a disreputable-looking Ranger who poses more as a threat to them than a guide. Similarly, no one would expect Eowyn, a woman, to pick up a sword and slay the great Nazgul Lord that darkens the skies over Gondor. Neither Faramir nor the hobbits originally appear able to fulfill their duties in this battle against the evil power of Mordor. All of these characters bear one similarity: the seeming unlikelihood that they could ever become heroes. Within this group of characters, Tolkien distinguishes between two types of unlikely heroes: the outcast hero and the unqualified hero. The outcast hero appears unlikely because of his isolation from society, whereas the unqualified hero just does not seem to satisfy the standards of a traditional, Achilles-like hero. Aragorn and Faramir fall into the former category, while the Eowyn and the hobbits occupy the latter. Since The Lord of the Rings, many fantasy writers have created their own version of the unlikely hero, modeled to a certain extent on one of Tolkien's own surprising heroes, and for good reason. An unlikely hero lends himself to a stronger personal identification with the reader, who can appreciate the hardships and challenges that the character experiences. Additionally, such a hero adds to the climatic buildup, as some of it must necessarily involve overcoming the limits originally placed upon him. While all of the unlikely fantasy heroes that have appeared after The Lord of the Rings have their differences, many modern fantasy protagonists emulate Tolkien's unlikely heroes in some form.

Aragorn's multifaceted character displays many heroic qualities throughout The Lord of the Rings. However, when he first joins the hobbits, he looks more like a dangerous ruffian than a long-lost king. "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" (153). When he asks the landlord, Frodo learns that no one really knows anything about this man, only that he goes by the mysterious name of Strider. Disguised as a Ranger, Aragorn lives on the fringes of society, and his unsavory appearance leads the people of Bree to distrust and fear him. Yet he has great power in another role as Isildur's heir, the lost king of Gondor and its savior from the dark forces of Mordor. Only he can wield the sword that was broken, a weapon lost to the myths of time.

A similar use of the outcast hero appears in Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane. Like Aragorn, people loath and fear Thomas Covenant, and at the sight of him "stepped aside, gave him plenty of room. Some of them looked as if they were holding their breath" (Donaldson 1). His leprosy, though it does not disfigure his features other than two fingers, makes him a pariah among his old friends and neighbors, who pay his phone bills to avoid seeing him in town. However, when Lord Foul summons Covenant to a completely new world, he finds himself a hero, the reincarnation of Berek Halfhand, the greatest legend of the land. Atiaran tells him "some say that Berek Earthfriend, Heartthrew, and Lord Fatherer, will return to the Land when there is need" (69). Armed with the mystical and powerful white gold, just as fabled a weapon of power as the sword of Elendil, he saves the Land from imminent destruction at the hands of its greatest enemy, the Despiser.

While Covenant bears many similarities to Aragorn, Donaldson molds his character in a very different fashion, and Covenant's unwillingness to acknowledge his role contrasts with Aragorn's unswerving acceptance of his fate. Much of this difference lies in that Covenant suddenly discovers himself in a new world, whereas Aragon has always known of his heritage. However, Covenant carries his disbelief to a new level, titling himself "the Unbeliever" and protesting at every step that he cannot be the hero the Land was searching for: "Look -- look at me! I'm no Berek! No hero. I'm too sick for that" (169). Additionally, Covenant believes himself unworthy of the task set upon him, not only because of his disease, but also because of his rape of Lena, an abuse of very the people looking to him for salvation. As he sets off with the Lords from Revelstone amid cheers, Covenant responds to the celebrations by "clench[ing] his teeth against a sudden thickening in his throat. He felt unworthy" (281). In this way, Donaldson sets his hero apart from the more traditional virtues of courage and self-sacrifice, creating a selfish hero that in many respects appears more human in his response to his environment. While Covenant carries his bitterness with his situation in life to the extreme, it seems sensible to assume that any person who finds himself an outcast of society and then suddenly in a foreign world would carry substantially resentful emotional baggage.

Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn includes the story of Schmendrick, a pathetic excuse for a magician, as all of his acts of magic have a tendency to go wrong. Because of his incompetence, those who see his small tricks usually end up ridiculing him. Mocked even by Cully's band of outlaws and called "Nikos's Folly" by Mabruk, King Haggard's old magician, Schmendrick finds himself an outcast in every place he travels. He reveals to Molly Grue that he, like Aragorn, will one day become a legend, one of the greatest magicians the world would ever see. Yet this power comes with a price: immortality until "at last you come to yourself and know what you are," in the words of his teacher Nikos (108). As Aragorn's Dunedain ancestry allows him to live an extended life, so does Schmendrick appear much younger than his true age. "I am Schmendrick the magician, the last of the red-hot swamis, and I am older than I look" he tells the unicorn at the beginning of their companionship (33).

While Beagle follows Tolkien's style in creating a man outcast by society but destined to become one of the great heroes of the land, he diverges from the seriousness of The Lord of the Rings. Schmendrick's ineptitude lends a comic air to the book, and mocks the traditional concept of the heroic fantasy. Instead of a strong and capable guide, the unicorn must rely on a bumbling magician who cannot keep his spells straight, much less control them. Beagle's lighthearted address of fantasy in The Last Unicorn serves as a reaction against the serious tone characteristic of fantasy since The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien utilizes another form of the outcast hero in The Lord of the Rings. Faramir, though beloved by his men, can never live up to Boromir in the eyes of his father. When Faramir asks if he has his father's approval for releasing Frodo, Denethor responds "Your bearing is lowly in my presence, yet it is long now since you turned from your own way at my counsel . . . . Alas, alas for Boromir!" (794). He goes on to tell Faramir that he wishes he had died in place of Boromir, for his elder son "would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift" (795). Though Faramir's actions in reality aid the battle against Sauron, Denethor only believes otherwise. He denigrates Faramir's actions as destructive to the power of Gondor, and blames him for the problems that plague Minas Tirith. Despised by his father, and forever compared to the much more able Boromir who held Osgiliath against the enemy, Faramir commits himself to a doomed battle, telling Denethor "'But if I should return, think better of me!'" only to have him coldly reply in parting "'That depends on the manner of your return'" (798). No matter what he does or how hard he tries, Faramir cannot win his father's love, and becomes distanced from others due to Denethor's lack of approval. Out of all the members of the council, only Gandalf gives Faramir a few words of hope as he sets out on his ill-fated mission, telling him not to rashly throw away his life, for "you will be needed here, for other things than war" (799). Isolated from his family, and lifted above his peers by his status, Faramir finds himself an outcast in his own home. This causes much of his suffering to become internalized, and he bitterly rides off to face the enemy that would nearly take his life.

Similarly, in Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey Menolly also suffers from her family's disapproval. According to her sister Sella, Menolly "can't do anything right," from keeping Old Uncle quiet to correctly gutting a packtail (40). Her parents treat her even worse: Yanus doesn't approve of her tuning as it deviates from the norm, and Mavi often seconds her husband's irritation with their youngest daughter's habits. Both adhere to the rigid structure of Half-Circle Sea Hold, and believe that Menolly's childish tendency threatens not only to bring embarrassment upon them when the new Harper arrives, but also to disrupt the pattern of life in the Hold. Yanus worries "How were the young to know that hers weren't the proper songs for their learning?" (11). When he discovers Menolly's accidental tuning and beats her, no one in the Hold shows her any sign of love or support. Even Mavi supports her husband's actions -- upon her discovery, "An expression of anger and disgust crossed her face. 'So you've been the fool after all?'" is all that she can ask her daughter. Menolly's punishment only serves to further isolate her from those in Half-Circle, causing her to retreat inwardly to nurse her wounded spirit. Already considered abnormal for a girl, she has no interest in boys as do her sister and all the other girls who swoon over the new young Harper, nor does she have any close friends, save for Petiron, the late Harper. Additionally, her preoccupation with music elevates her above the rest of the people in the Hold who have little ability with a guitar or flute. Like Faramir, Menolly's internal suffering because of her family's disapproval becomes so acute that it causes her to somewhat rashly leave the protection of the Hold.

No one was likely to notice that she was gone until there was some unpleasant of tedious job for a one-handed girl to do . . . Then someone might just wonder where Menolly was.

That was when she realized that she didn't plan to return to the Hold. [71]

McCaffrey uses the same method that Tolkien employs for Faramir -- she creates a hero isolated and outcast from the world primarily because she cannot live up to her family's expectations. Denethor desires that Faramir would grow more courageous and loyal to him like Boromir, whereas Menolly's parents both wish she would mature and give up her childish habits of playing and tuning. Both characters suffer internally from this parental ingratitude, causing them to act hastily and with little consideration for consequences.

McCaffrey's hero, however, differs from Faramir in one undeniable aspect -- Menolly represents a very feminist aspect in her heroism. This adds a layer of complexity to Menolly's character -- not only can she be categorized as an outcast hero, she also plays the role of an unqualified hero. Menolly quite clearly demonstrates McCaffrey's feminist views. As a female, her duties in the Sea Hold involve menial household tasks such as cooking, gathering, and net mending, and specifically exclude playing music. The fact that Menolly had taught the children their lessons seems somewhat of an embarrassment to the people of the Hold. "The children had been told by the Sea Holder that the Harper would not like to know that they'd been drilled by a girl, so they were not to bring disgrace on the Hold by telling him" (51). According to the society of Half-Circle, Menolly's gender disqualifies her from playing music, despite her obvious talent. Even in her thoughts to herself, she bemoans her accident of birth: "If only she had been a boy. . . Then it wouldn't have mattered if Petiron had died and left them Harperless. Nor would Yanus have beaten a boy for being brave enough to sing his own songs" (24).

Though disliked and distrusted, Menolly distinguishes herself as a young woman more than capable of male tasks. She "could run as well as any boy of the Hold and outdistance the half of them on a long race" (23). And the Masterharper of Pern assures her that she can sing and play just as well as any boy in Harper Hall. While Menolly at first might appear unqualified for such tasks, her ability demonstrates that heroes cannot be fully distinguished simply by gender.

The concept of a hero deemed unqualified on the basis of gender can also be seen in Tolkien's unlikely female hero, Eowyn. Left behind in Edoras ostensibly to govern the people of Rohan in Theoden's stead, she instead bids her uncle goodbye, then dons her armor and joins the Rohirrim. When Merry sees her, he notices only a rider who appeared "A young man . . . less in height and girth than most" (785). Later, when he joins the rider, who goes by the name Dernhelm, he observes that "Dernhelm was less in weight than many men, though lithe and well-knit in frame" (787). Eowyn's uncle underestimates her abilities in battle when he deems her only able to do little more than maintain the household. Women of Rohan obviously do not become trained warriors and only men ride into battle. Yet when she comes to Theoden's defense, Tolkien describes Eowyn in typical epic masculine fashion as she faces down the Nazgul Lord.

But the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy's eyes. [823]

Only once in this description, where "tears were on her cheek," does Eowyn betray any sign of weakness or emotion. In every other aspect, she becomes elevated to the status of a hero, a "maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel-blade, fair yet terrible" (823). Despite her gender, Eowyn plays a role usually filled by men, killing the worst that the power of Mordor can offer. In doing so, she surpasses even the heroism that a man would have exhibited in her position, for she destroys the beast that "no living man may hinder" (823). This unlikely, feminist twist to The Lord of the Rings provides a clear basis for McCaffrey's inspiration for her female hero, although a clear difference exists between Tolkien's epic hero, Eowyn, and Menolly's inward courage and heroism.

In addition to Eowyn, many of Tolkien's heroes appear unqualified at first glance, and none more so than the hobbits. Most noticeably, they have a very childlike demeanor, delighting in surprises and celebrations. They consider birthdays the perfect occasion for parties and excessive gift giving on the part of the honoree, illustrating their childish nature -- a puerile dream that one would be invited to a celebration only to receive presents. Hobbits often disregard manners, and consider the timing of the next meal as their greatest concern in life. In addition, hobbits' notoriously small stature lends an air of childishness to their appearance, and a very slow period of maturity only adds to that effect. The community does not consider a hobbit an adult until he or she reaches 33 years of age. Bilbo's grand old age of "eleventy-one," while unusual, does not merit any excessive worry -- only his lack of gray hairs appears to disturb the hobbits. Such childlike characters seem unfit to participate, let alone share the lead in adventures as equals of famously heroic figures like elves, dwarves, and wizards. The small portions that they have to eat on the journey to Rivendell seem "shorter at any rate than what in the Shire they would have thought barely enough to keep then on their legs," and this was only the start of their long journey (180).

In addition to their unsophisticated natures, the provincial outlook of hobbits adds to the challenge for the reader to view them as heroes. Completely disconnected to the greater world around them, the sole hint of adventures outside the Shire comes from Bilbo's mysterious disappearance and accumulation of wealth and Gandalf's infrequent and unannounced visits. Only Sam has the desire to explore the world outside Hobbiton, but his Old Gaffer sensibly warns him "'Elves and Dragons! Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don't go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you'll be in trouble too big for you'" (24). However, even Sam admits that he learned none of the songs concerning Mordor, for "I never thought I should be going that way myself!" (182). Hobbits' lack of interest and experience in the world extending beyond the borders of the Shire initially make Frodo and his companions appear bumbling heroes at best, prepared neither in knowledge or strength for the task that awaits them. Their near disasters on the journey to Bree demonstrate their inability to act in the courageous and skilled fashion of traditional heroes.

In the beginning, hobbits don't appear to have the mental strength required to complete such a lengthy and arduous task. Tenderhearted and loving, they do not have the mindset necessary for battle, as evident in the ambush at Weathertop. "Terror overcame Pippin and Merry, and they threw themselves flat on the ground. Sam shrank to Frodo's side. Frodo was hardly less terrified than his companions; he was quaking as if he was bitter cold" (191). Driven to courage only to protect others, they become ferocious fighters if an enemy attacks one they love, as Merry leaps to Eowyn's aid after the Nazgul king mortally wounded Theoden. Despite Sam's mental strength, his love and care for Frodo often led him to tears on their emotionally trying road to Mordor. While weeping by any other hero would be considered poor fashion, Sam weeps at his most heroic moments. "Tears almost blind[ed] him" when he finds Frodo in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and he "wept in his heart, but no tears can to his dry and stinging eyes" when he offers to carry his master the last steps up Mount Doom (889, 919). The mental strength of the hobbits comes from a rather unexpected source. Not naturally brave or death-defying in their actions, only emotions and love for their companions spurs them to on to battle -- an unlikely source of courage for such great heroic figures.

In spite of this unlikelihood, The Lord of the Rings centers on the adventures of the four hobbits of The Fellowship and their development as heroes from such unlikely origins. However, when Frodo and Sam separate from their companions along the banks of the Anduin and begin the long journey into Mordor, their growth into heroism develops in a fashion very different from Merry and Pippin. Although they destroy the heart of evil in Middle Earth, neither Frodo nor Sam fight any epic battles. Their particular part of the saga consists mainly of internal battles hard fought against the corrupting power of the ring, requiring non-traditional heroes strong in resolve and not ambition. Frodo's pure heart and Sam's total desire to serve succeed where Boromir, the ideal epic hero, had failed. Frodo's reluctance to accept the ring and its consequences demonstrates his purity of heart and lack of desire for power. Examples of this occur multiple times in The Lord of the Rings, first with Gandalf in Hobbiton. He responds "'I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it have to come to me? Why was I chosen?'" (60). With Gandalf's encouragement and offer of support, Frodo agrees to bring the Ring as far as Rivendell, yet once he arrives in Rivendell, he realizes that he must carry the burden of the Ring the entire way to Mount Doom. In a small voice, he tells the assembled council of elves, men and dwarves "'I will take the ring . . . though I do not know the way'" (264). Elrond can only acknowledge the sense of this venture, that only the hobbits of the Shire "when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great" will have the ability to succeed in the face of such a tremendous evil (264). Frodo's lack of desire for the Ring leads him to offer it first to Gandalf and then to Galadriel; it makes him nearly invincible to the corrupting power it has over men's greedy hearts.

Similarly, Sam's selfless and unwavering love for his master inspires his acts of heroism not characteristic of the traditional hero. He never seeks to steal the ring for himself, and humbly returns it to Frodo in the Tower of Cirith Ungol. He defended his master against the spider Shelob and protects him thanklessly from the conniving Gollum, and gives Frodo extra rations of food and water whenever he requested it. "At their last halt [Frodo] sank down and said: 'I'm thirsty, Sam,' and did not speak again. Sam gave him a mouthful of water; only one more mouthful remained" (917) When his master can no longer put one foot in front of the other, Sam lifts him onto his back and carries him the final leg of the journey.

Both Sam and Frodo play the part of suffering heroes, who carry the fate of the world on their shoulders, and fight highly internalized battles. One could consider them "Christian heroes," who suffer and endure almost unbearable conditions to ensure the destruction of evil. Merry and Pippin, the other two key hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, in contrast to their fellow hobbits, act as "epic heroes" who grow in courage and valor via external means -- during times of battle. For Merry, this occurred in the battle of the Pelennor Fields, where he aids Eowyn in killing the king of the Nazgul upon the death of her father Theoden. Pippin who pledges himself into the service of Gondor under Denethor heroically defies his mad liege in the midst of battle to save the helpless Faramir from burning to death. Their love for others, not selfish motives, spurs both hobbits to action.

Like the hobbits of The Lord of the Rings, the main character in Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy, Ged, originally appears unqualified as a hero. He comes from a very small village on the island of Gont that has no real outside contacts except marauding Kargs from across the sea, and an old magician who wanders across the isle. No one expects much of him -- the youngest of all his siblings, he herds goats and becomes apprenticed to his father, a bronze smith. Even when he moves in with his tutor Ogion, Ged still remains isolated from the world outside of Gont. Only by traveling to the isle of Roke to become educated in magic at the School does Ged truly commence on the path to heroism.

Like Merry and Pippin, Ged comes to glory by way of his emotions. Yet unlike the tenderhearted hobbits, his derives his inspiration from anger, and later from guilt. The bitter rivalry between him and Jasper fuels Ged's ambition to outmatch his enemy. Jasper's dare to bring a spirit back from the dead pushes Ged into a questionable realm of magic, one that almost had disastrous consequences for him already. "He did not even listen for Jasper's reply, if he made one. He no longer cared about Jasper. Now that they stood on Roke Knoll, hate and rage were gone, replaced by utter certainty" (Wizard 59). Later, the guilt that Ged feels for loosing his shadow on the world leads him to leave his post as a wizard. To justify this, he cuts a bargain with the greatly feared dragon of Pendor, Yevaud and saves the villages of the Ninety Isles from almost certain destruction. As he attempts to outrun his shadow, the fear that Ged has for this nameless enemy becomes dwarfed by his fear for the evil that it could unleash in the world. In debating his course of action with Ogion, Ged argues "It threatens only me, now. But if it enters into me and possesses me, it will work great evil through me" (Wizard 129). Prompted by his guilt, Ged searches for his shadow, to do battle with the great magical evil that he released into the world through his anger and lust for supremacy.

By the final book in the trilogy, The Farthest Shore, Ged resembles Frodo to a much stronger degree. Like Frodo, he must deal with a great evil that permeates the world and threatens to destroy everything good in it. Although Ged remains the greatest wizard in the world, his struggle becomes highly internalized. Mentally, he suffers as a man who has grown old in a world that has changed greatly. He has difficulty defending himself with his magic, and when a spear thrown off the of island of Obehol wounds him, LeGuin describes Ged not as a wizard, but a weakened old man. "His face was lined and old in the cold, shadowless light. Arren looked at him and saw a man with no power left in him, no wizardry, no strength, not even youth, nothing" (Book Three 142).

As Ged's body, like Frodo's, weakens as he nears the final destination of his quests, Arren fills the role played by Sam, a hero in his selfless servant to his master. Even as Sam does, he saves the short supply of water in the Lookfar for Ged. "There were only two or three pints of water left in their cask; these were, in Arren's mind, for Sparrowhawk, not for himself; it never occurred to him to drink from that water" (Farthest 145). Even at the very end, when toiling up the seemingly endless black mountain to cross back into the realm of life, Arren has to assist Ged in those final steps. When his master can no longer walk, Arren, like Sam, "lifted him in his arms and carried him up that high slope" (Farthest 245).

While LeGuin clearly bases many of Ged and Arren's characteristics on those of Tolkien's hobbits, some key differences also exist. Merry and Pippin's tenderheartedness does not extend to Ged -- in A Wizard of Earthsea, his motivation stems from selfish sources, first to elevate himself among his peers, and then to save himself from his shadow. Ged, unlike Frodo, retreats to his old home in the Gontish mountains -- his experiences with evil do not change him so much that he has to leave the world of Earthsea. Similarly, Arren's life substantially diverges from Sam's after his adventure with the great wizard. Instead of returning to a quiet life at home, he becomes king of All the Isles in Havnor.

Despite these differences, strong similarities exist between Ged and Tolkien's hobbits. Like many other modern fantasy authors, LeGuin appears to model her heroes after those found in The Lord of the Rings, changing certain aspects, but retaining some general concepts, namely the use of unlikely and unqualified heroes. Tolkien's use of the unlikely hero has many variations among his characters, ranging from the unqualified to the outcast, and involves both epic and internal heroes. The wide span of heroism covered in The Lord of the Rings makes it difficult for modern writers to completely avoid using some of Tolkien's material as a basis for their own characters. As a result, many modern fantasy characters in numerous ways emulate the unlikely and unqualified heroes of The Lord of the Rings.

Works Cited

Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: Penguin Group, 1968.

Donaldson, Stephen R. Lord Foul's Bane. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 1977.

LeGuin, Ursula K. The Farthest Shore. New York: Simon Pulse, 1972.

LeGuin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam Books, 1968.

McCaffrey, Anne. Dragonsong. New York: Simon Pulse, 1976.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966.


Victorian Web Overview J. R. R. Tolkien Victorian courses

Last modified 15 May 2004