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The Lord of the Rings: Part II of III
By: Grant C./Brock Strongpaw
Welcome to the second installment of my three-part series on J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings. Last time I took you on a brief tour of some of the reasons why Tolkien's story is so interesting to readers. We also discussed some of the fantasy archetypes he used so well. This week we are going to delve deeper into a few of Tolkien's characters.
The oddest thing about many of Tolkien's characters is how they each seem so foreign to us, and yet so familiar at the same time. Don't worry; it's not your imagination! Tolkien is simply using an old literary trick by using character archetypes.
The concept of archetypes has been around nearly as long as storytelling has. The funny thing is, we don't really notice it until we look very closely at the characters. In fact, the idea of an exile-king is incredibly common in fantastic and medieval literature like the legends of King Arthur and Nordic myths, as is the wise, old advisor cum magician, the hot-headed, roguish companion, and the everyman who ends up the hero of the tale. This is what lends them their familiar air. We've seen some version of these characters before. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Gandalf seem like they might be long-lost cousins. Aragorn and Arthur are even more similar at first (so similar that Terry Pratchett actually makes fun of the archetype in Guards, Guards.) Tolkien was not merely copying off of previous writers though. As I mentioned in my first column on The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien chose to consciously echo the themes of 'Faerie-Tales,' as he called them. In fact, he spent a great deal of time studying classic English and European literature, as his essay 'On Faerie-Tales' demonstrates.
Some authors, such as Christopher Paolini, struggle to use archetypes without enslaving their characters to the role. Because of this, the stories such authors write become boring re-treads of what we've already read. Tolkien does not limit himself to simply following along with the archetypes. Each of his archetypical characters has some twist to their make-up, a result of Tolkien's own unique worldview acting on these archetypes as we will see through the rest of this article.
Gandalf's archetype is the easiest to pick out; the councilor-magician. He is the wise old man who stands behind the king and helps him in any way he can. Tolkien's wizard, however, leads from the front. He rarely uses his magic but prefers to kindle bravery in the souls of others instead of casting about fireballs and explosions of his own arcane power. This does not mean he is weak; on the contrary, Gandalf displays amazing powers throughout the series, but only in the direst of circumstances.
The most surprising thing about Gandalf is his death and resurrection in the first and second books of the trilogy. In this, he becomes a type of Christ figure - and here I must deviate from the subject to explain what I mean by 'type.' In theological circles, people use the word 'type' to describe someone ,or something, who points to someone else. In this case, Gandalf is not analogous to Jesus. He merely echoes the Gospel. He does not retell it.
Frodo is the Everyman. He is, in the eyes of the wider world of Middle Earth if not his immediate neighbors, quite ordinary. Yet he is thrust into the midst of an adventure, quite against his own will. He finds in himself courage that he never expected to find, and he does things he never expected to do. Frodo is not able to resist the temptation of the One Ring - much as, Tolkien suggest, we are unable to resist the temptation to do ill - and in the end, is on the verge of turning forever to evil, until fate intervenes in the unlikeliest of manners.
Frodo's journey is another important element often found in stories. The 'journey' represents the changes the character goes through, as his or her resolve is strengthened, courage increased, and essential goodness brought forth. The odd thing about Frodo is his almost contradictory journey. Yes, his courage and will is tested and strengthened; but as he draws closer and closer to Mount Doom he becomes weaker and weaker, instead of stronger and stronger. At the climax of the book he is at his weakest, and is unable to cast away the Ring. Fate intervenes, and as soon as the Ring is removed, Frodo finds himself remarkably stronger than before - but changed somehow by the touch of the Ring. He is never again able to feel fully at rest in Middle Earth.
The agent of fate that saves Frodo would be the most fascinating, complex, and tortured character of Tolkien's saga: Gollum. In him we see what Frodo might have become; but even Gollum, Tolkien suggests, might not be un-redeemable. He refuses to make that choice and sides with evil, and here Tolkien makes another profound statement. At the end of the saga as Frodo stands on the edge of the Cracks of Doom, he is unable to cast aside the Ring. Gollum flies in, steals the Ring, and plummets to his doom in the fiery magma of the Mount, taking the Ring with him. He unintentionally destroys the very thing he is trying to take, and at the same moment completes the heroes' quest for them. Fate is able to act through any character, no matter their intentions. This is truly a statement to ponder.
Another fascinating character is Samwise Gamgee, my favorite character in The Lord of the Rings. I would even argue that Sam is the story's true hero, though his character is hard to fit into any classic fantasy mold. He never shirks from his duty and friendship to Frodo, even as Frodo is slowly twisted against him by the foul influence of the Ring and the dark whisperings of Gollum. Of all the characters of the story, Sam's character emerges un-impugned. The damage he suffers is the struggle against his constant wish to return to the Shire and mind his own business.
Perhaps Sam's only weakness is his attitude towards Gollum. Sam sees the world in a very black and white manner. There are, as he sees it, the good guys and the bad guys and Sam clearly views Gollum as one of the later. He proceeds to treat Gollum as a bad guy despite Frodo's urgings otherwise, and becomes quite callous to the poor creature's plight.
There are many more characters I could delve into: Aragorn, Faramir (and how they ruined his character in the movies), Treebeard, Tom Bombadil, the tragic hero Boromir, or even the character of the Ring. But I'm afraid I will have to leave that up to you. Please feel free to join in the discussion on the Terrouge Forums.