The Hero’s Journey and The Lord of the Rings

Periodically when I’m writing something I find a need to do some research and, since the hero’s journey was going to be a plot point – albeit a small one – during The Antisocial Network I figured I should read up on it some. One of the things people kept emphasizing as I read about it was that the two biggest movie franchises of the 20th/21st century, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, were perfect distillations of the formula. I can buy this with Star Wars. But it’s laughably inaccurate with Lord of the Rings (less so with The Hobbit, but that’s not what we’re looking at).

The basic hero’s journey consists of several basic stages, most of which the Lord of the Rings doesn’t adhere to or entirely subverts. Let’s take a look at them one by one, shall we?

  1. Establishing an ordinary world. Of course Tolkien and the Jackson films do this but that’s not surprising. Every story give some exposition and establishes the status quo before we get into the action. Nothing to see here.
  2. The call to adventure. This is the only part of the monomyth or hero’s journey that I find convincingly echoed in Lord of the Rings. Frodo does learn shocking facts about himself and the world around him that spurs him to take action. He learns about the nature of the ring he’s been left and the threat it poses and it frightens him.
  3. Refusal of the call. This is where things go off the rails. See, I can’t see any point in the story where Frodo refuses the call. He takes the ring to Rivendell on Gandalf’s advice but he never really seems to not want to do it – it’s a chance to see Bilbo and he’s always wanted to travel. Again, at Rivendell, no one has to convince Frodo to take the Ring to Mordor – he volunteers. Quite unexpectedly. In truth Frodo, while not eager to bear the Ring, still bears it without flinching. The closest we come to this trope is when he offers the Ring to Gandalf, thinking it might be safer with him. This could be considered a refusal of the call but it’s pretty far from how this trope usually plays out.
  4. Meeting with the mentor. Again, Frodo doesn’t seem to have any mentor character. Gandalf comes close, of course, but he doesn’t really equip Frodo for his task as Frodo can’t really be equipped for what he has to do. He is given talismans in the form of Sting and Bilbo’s mail shirt, as well as Galadriel’s phial, not to mention the Ring itself but these don’t come from Gandalf. On the other hand it’s Gandalf’s mention of Bilbo’s pity which ultimately opens the way for the quest to be completed. Again, there are echoes of this trope but nothing that really fits with it.
  5. Entering the unknown. This is the stage where the hero and his companions leave what they’ve known and enter the unknown. Theoretically this must happen when the hobbits leave the Shire, as they’ve never really traveled much, unless we see departing Rivendell as the moment when they enter the unknown… except most of Frodo’s nonhobbit companions have been to the places they’re going and… you see how the archetype isn’t making much sense by this point.
  6. Tests, allies and enemies. At this stage the hero and his companions face challenges, defeat enemies and get stronger… except in Lord of the Rings they don’t. Get stronger, that is. Yes, Merry and Pippen get larger, stronger and a little more martially ready later in the story and Gandalf ascends to a new level of wizardliness but other than that the characters don’t really become more formidable from the time they’re introduced. In particular the “hero” of this journey, Frodo, is a bit of an albatross in the story, doing more to expose his companions to danger than save them. Again, there are all kinds of challenges in Lord of the Rings, it’s just that none of them result in the kind of growing power in Frodo’s hands that the hero’s journey would lead us to expect.
  7. The supreme ordeal. At this stage in the story the hero is supposed to face the shadow, his nemesis of the story, go through a symbolic death and rebirth and emerge victorious by dint of the lessons learned through his struggles. While Frodo’s going into and emerging from Mount Doom might count as death and rebirth the fact is when he faces his ultimate opponent, the One Ring, he loses. He can’t overcome it and destroy it, Gollum must do so – and quite inadvertently at that. Again, the hero of this story isn’t the “hero”…
  8. The reward. Heroes are supposed to get something for all their work. Frodo is awarded PTSD. Okay, he also gets the adoration of a nation for a short period of time. This one applies, sort of.
  9. The road back. Again, this trope applies as Frodo does have to make a return journey, bidding farewell to his friends.
  10. Restoring the World. At this point the hero is supposed to use his newfound powers and the rewards he gathered during his adventures to make the world a better place. And again, the four hobbits do this, cleansing the Shire of the evil influences that have come upon it and restoring just government. It’s just that the hobbit who plays the smallest part in this is Frodo. His incredible exertions have won him to respect at home and the journey has left him diminished, scarred by heavy burden and long journey. His friends have grown and he has paid the price.

It’s important to note that there are a number of superficial similarities to the hero’s journey in The Lord of the Rings. Several characters seem to embody the tropes of the monomyth at various points – Gandalf’s death and rebirth leading him to the height of his powers, Aragorn being rewarded for his struggles with the crown of a kingdom and Merry and Pippen being forged into heroes of the Shire. But the so-called monomyth, while a common storytelling convention, is not the one Tolkien was working from. I’m not saying the monomyth is bad. But don’t let it blind you to what’s really going on.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a Catholic and his writing was deeply steeped in Catholic traditions. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the hero at the heart of the story is not a person who ascends to apotheosis but one who steadily diminishes himself on behalf of others. It’s the courage and sacrifice of Frodo we admire and the truth that there’s rarely rewards awaiting those who make sacrifices that gives the story its ring of truth. Writing conventions are all well and good, but don’t let them shackle you.

Sounds like a good idea to mull over next week, doesn’t it?

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