One Step More: The Heroism of Frodo Baggins - An Essay
**The Trouble With Action Heroes**
Indiana Jones. Captain Kirk. Han Solo. The Road Warrior. Conan the Barbarian. These are the heroes who populated the silver screen for much of my youth. I loved them all. I still do.
But they are no comfort to me now.
They are all "action" heroes, you see. They are unremittingly masculine, in the shallowest sense of the word. They are physically strong, brimming with confidence and swagger. Their challenges are near impossible, their courage unfailing...and one never doubts they'll win in the end. How could they not, with their self-assurance, athletic prowess and quick-wittedness?
They rarely suffer although they may indulge in some hard liquor if their nemesis murders their lady-love or buddy-partner.
...Indiana Jones sits in a bar in Cairo, whiskey bottle and glass before him. Marion, he believes, has just been blown to smithereens. In a few minutes he'll engage in cutting repartee with his arch-enemy and then get back to the business of finding the Lost Ark...
Often, the true love or partner's death is just an excuse for the hero's righteous vengeance.
...Conan leaves Valeria's funeral pyre and goes to demolish Thulsa Doom. He has not wept over his warrior-love. Indeed, their friend Subatai does so, saying, "He is Conan. He cannot cry. So I cry for him." But Conan can get mighty violent when he's torn up inside. That he can do...
Sometimes, the loved one's demise does leave the hero suffering, but in an emotionally cut-off sense that makes of him a wounded, seething, trigger-happy loner.
Remember "Mad Max"?
Women, on the other hand, are rarely portrayed as heroes unless they take on "masculine" attributes. Xena, the gorgeous and indomitable Warrior Princess, comes to mind. How about Sarah Connor of The Terminator? Once she understands what the future will bring, she transforms herself from "nice girl who waits tables" to "muscle-bound, weapon toting, grim-hearted fighter". And I love watching her do it. But...
I am female. I am forty-three. I am struggling with heavy sorrows, and so are many of those around me. One friend suffers horrific, waking PTSD flashbacks after two brutal rapes; another has just discovered his little daughter has inherited the genetic disorder he carries; and another has had to learn to walk again after a devastating leg injury that will impair her for life. As for me, I have been told my young son is on "the autism spectrum" -high-functioning but permanently affected.
Even if we did learn kung-fu fighting, it would avail us little.
Many of us are parents of young children. All of us have to hold it together through some of the deepest anguish we've ever experienced.
In truth, this is the nature of most human suffering.
Caring for a parent with Alzheimer's, trying to cope with the loss of a loved one, living with an abusive partner, surviving in a war zone or in poverty, even getting up every day and going to a job you hate so your kids can eat... Though they may have a clear beginning, these experiences have no clear end. So much must be borne over months and years while we get on with the business of living, our experience bleached of drama but not of pain. Furthermore, our "enemies" are often impossible to confront. Like geo-political conflicts or the global economy, they are too big. Like cancer cells, faulty genetic code or neurotransmitters run amuck, they are too small.
So few of our human struggles are like what we see in the movies. The Big Crisis. The Tangible Enemy. The Final Battle. The Hero Wins or Dies Gloriously. Tie it up with a ribbon. Fade to black. The end.
Which brings us back to action heroes. Schwarzeneggar. Willis. Segal.
When I feel inadequate, heartbroken and hopeless, I find no inspiration in the exploits of these macho know-it-alls, for so much of my energy is spent on just getting through the day. Neither can I relate to sappy "Movie of the Week" type stories about people who overcome the disease, disaster or crime du jour. These are too maudlin, too boring, and too unattached from larger systems of meaning.
There is only one hero who inspires me now. His name is Frodo Baggins.
*Gentle Heroism: Frodo's Quest*
At first glance, you'd think that bachelor hobbits and run-of-the-mill 21st century mothers would have very little in common. But in my darker moments -the darkest, most despairing moments I experience as a human being-there is no one I relate to more than Frodo. No one.
You know about Frodo, don't you? From J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings"?
Frodo is a hobbit, a member of a small, hairy-footed race that inhabits one idyllic corner of Middle Earth. His task is to destroy the One Ring. The Ring is an object reeking of pure evil that will work its corruption upon him as he struggles to physically, mentally, and spiritually hold himself together long enough to bear It to the Cracks of Doom, the one place It can be annihilated. In a sense, it's a race. Will he make it to Mount Doom before he is soul-destroyed?
Bearing the Ring is a horrific Fate, a destiny Frodo feels too small and afraid to embrace. Yet there is no one else. He must embrace it...or turn from it and let Middle Earth fall into Shadow.
He does not turn from this Fate. He weeps with dread, he staggers with exhaustion, but he never gives up. The vile Ring tears at his soul, but he does not flee in terror nor lay down and die. Even knowing the cursed object is ripping him apart, he forces himself to take one step more...and then another. By the end he is literally crawling. His beloved friend, Sam, must pick him up and carry him.
Frodo is anything but macho. He is male, but he is a hobbit, and they are open with their feelings, wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Good friends unselfconsciously touch one another, freely hug one another, smile and shed tears with equal ease. They may sometimes be provincial and ignorant, but there is no arrogant swagger to our hero and his closest friends -Sam, Merry, and Pippin. They are genuine. They represent a nurturing masculinity that expresses traits more usually thought of as "feminine". When Frodo is exhausted, starving, in terror -it shows.
Maybe that's why some people can't stand him.
*"That Hobbit's a Wuss": Frodo's Detractors*
Not everybody is fond of Frodo Baggins. Some people downright detest him. They complain that he "whines". They gripe because he claimed the Ring in the end, the wuss! They insinuate that he is "gay". (If Frodo Baggins can be mistaken for "gay", gay people should be proud.)
Frodo's detractors want him to be free of doubt. They want him to be strong and silent. They want him to be victorious.
They want him to be an action hero.
I think he threatens the heck out of them. But why?
Action heroes never express doubt.
Confidence is part of an action hero's attraction. Think of C-3PO or Mr. Spock quoting the odds just so Han Solo or Captain Kirk can brazenly defy them!
Frodo has doubts, loads of them. He's not sure he's going to make it. In fact, he's pretty sure he isn't and he doesn't mind saying so. In "The Two Towers" book, Sam expresses concern that their food might last to Mt. Doom, but it won't last long enough to get them back. Frodo says:
"But Samwise Gamgee, my dear hobbit -indeed, Sam my dearest hobbit, friend of friends-I do not think we need give thought to what comes after that. To do the job, as you put it -what hope is there that we ever shall? And if we do, who knows what will come of that? If the One goes into the Fire, and we are at hand? I ask you, Sam, are we ever likely to need bread again? I think not. If we can nurse our limbs to bring us to Mount Doom, that is all we can do. More than I can, I begin to feel."
Action heroes never surrender to Fate.
Action heroes are in control. They do not acquiesce to Fate, but somehow bend it to their will. Because they are able to do this, they minimize their own suffering. Why should they suffer when they have the power to change things? If they engage with Fate at all, it is in a very uplifting way for it is always their Fate to come out on top.
Frodo is not passive. He fights, resists, shows mercy, makes choices. Yet he is caught up in a mytho-historic drama much bigger than himself. He bows to it, slowly coming to accept the dreadful burden that will cost him absolutely everything. Although he must confront external evil at times, his chief task is to weather the slow torment of his own soul as he slowly creeps closer to Mordor. His suffering is terrible, and there is little action he can take to alleviate it. He can only endure.
Action heroes do not speak the truth of their pain.
They don't talk about their troubles. They don't weep or need reassurance. They don't do anything that might seem too female-like. In a misogynistic, homophobic society, we require our action heroes to be stoic except when it comes to rage of the hot or cold variety. Love motivates them, but only through the medium of vengeance. When they lose their partner, wife, child to some hideous evil, their pain is expressed through violent retribution.
Frodo is ever so reluctantly violent. He is a dreamer, a scholarly introvert, not a warrior, and he dares to speak his pain. He never "whines", but he does express sadness and regret, fear and hopelessness.
It is "movie" Frodo I think of now, standing on the banks of the Anduin, holding the Ring in his outstretched hand. Tears stream down his face. He is trying to steel himself to go on with the Ring alone -the only thing he can do to protect his friends. He thinks: "I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened." Who can blame him for his terror and his grief?
Frodo does go on, with loyal Sam as his only companion. He marches on foot through desolate landscapes with little hope in his heart and little food in his belly. Of the horrific battle raging inside him, he barely speaks. It is not until Sam asks if he remembers a special meal they'd enjoyed in better times that Frodo admits:
"No, I am afraid not, Sam. At least, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades."
This is not whining. This is telling it like it is.
Action heroes always win.
This goes without saying, doesn't it? Action heroes emerge victorious. Furthermore, their victory is unblemished and totally theirs.
Frodo doesn't win, not exactly. He makes it to Mount Doom, thanks to his unflagging efforts and Sam's blessed help, but he does not cast the Ring into the Fire. After spending all his spiritual and physical strength getting there, he is no match for a Ring made all-powerful by proximity to its nefarious birth place. He does what he has been warned never to do and what he has struggled against for months. He puts it on. He succumbs. He "fails".
He is only human, hobbit or no.
When the One is destroyed it is not through Frodo's efforts alone. His goal is achieved and Middle Earth is saved, but his role in the triumph is only partial. Although he sacrificed everything he had -body, mind, will, heart, soul-he is granted neither unadulterated victory nor glorious death.
And, of course, when it is all over and he can go home, he is never the same.
He does not collapse in despair. He labors over the Red Book, for example, chronicling his quest and the War of the Ring. He is supportive of Sam, encouraging him to marry and inviting him and his bride to live at Bag End. Still, he can find no peace. He is plagued with nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD, not to mention the spiritual aftereffects of carrying the cursed Ring. His wounds do not heal. His "illness" worsens. Finally, he comes to accept that he must bid farewell to all he loves and seek healing beyond Middle Earth.
Pain. Doubt. Powerlessness. Human Frailty. An Ending That Feels So Unfair.
Frodo is too real for some people, and their ridicule reflects the degree of their discomfort. His suffering is frightening, too symbolically close to what they bear or what they might bear, down the road. They want to relate to winners, manipulators of Fate, people who are in control, people who can't be hurt. They want action heroes and a feel-good ending.
But those action heroes... They don't look like anybody we know, least of all ourselves. And those candy-coated, Hollywood happily-ever-afters... They are a cheat, far removed from what most of us can expect from this life.
How ironic. "The Lord of the Rings" has been dismissed by some as an escapist fantasy, yet Frodo Baggins is more "real" than contemporary movie heroes like Martin (Lethal Weapon) Riggs or John (Die Hard) McClane. He is small. He is afraid. His heart is heavy. He does not always win. When it's all just too much for him, he may speak his pain or shed tears.
He is like us.
How I love him for it, for all of it. It is Frodo who is the "real" hero. He bows to Fate, but he is not passive. He makes sacrifices, but he is no victim. He weeps, but he is no weakling. He quails, but he never gives up.
My friends and I -and many other people marching through this life with heavy burdens-also feel small and afraid, all the more so if we are disempowered by virtue of our social class or role, our color, our gender. Each day is hard. There is no clear victory, no clear ending and, yes, there are days when we sit down and cry.
What have macho action heroes to offer us? Nothing real. Nothing lasting.
Frodo, on the other hand, inspires and empowers. However exotic his circumstances, I can relate to him. He is tired and scared, as am I. He has been promised no reward, no glory. Nor have I. Love propels him onward even when his heart is breaking, something I can understand.
When I am defeated, when I am so exhausted and full of despair I don't think I can carry on one more second, when I am tempted to give up, I think of Frodo. Frodo on that river bank. Frodo in the Dead Marshes. Frodo in Mordor.
Then I somehow find it within myself to take one step more.
With Frodo as my inspiration, I know I always will.