The LOTR Movie Site
October 13, 2000

Fate, Choice, and Heroism
Stacy B.

Austin brings up an interesting point that I hadn't previously paid much attention to.Tolkien plays around a lot with destiny, fate, and freedom. The main example would be Frodo's choice to become the Ringbearer: was it really free? Can we use this as a rubric on the question of what constitutes heroism in the Lord of the Rings?

I seem to recall some rather grave lines from Elrond to the effect that the quest of the Ring is such a heavy burden that no one could lay it on another, that it could only be taken up "freely."

However, this comment is juxtaposed with several others that do not support the idea of a completely free choice. For instance, Elrond also opens his council by saying that each member was called, though not by him, to meet in that time, in that place, implying that each character's choice was in some sense predestined though each might have consciously chosen to head to Imladris. And of course, he also says that he believes that Frodo is in some sense chosen even before he opens his mouth: "If I understand aright all that I have heard... I think that this task is appointed for you Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will. This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and cousels of the great...."(FotR, 354).

The sense of mission and of a cosmic order underlying and "ordaining" (as I think Aragorn put it) the actions of certain iconic characters (Frodo, Sam, Boromir, Aragorn, Gollum, Gandalf, etc.) is at the same time bound up with the choices of each character. Some choose in such a way as to consciously reinforce the destiny of which Elrond and seers throughout the ages have spoken; others continue on blindly. Some own their fates, through an act of faith; others refuse to acknowledge fate (or try to refuse).

Tolkien seems to go back to the old idea that the free person is he or she who knows so well the rules of the game (in this case, the game being life) that the rules become a source of creativity, rather than constraints, just as the master musician is so well aware of the rules governing melody and harmony that they cease to be an obstacle and become the means for truly spectacular acts of creative genius. This is a very different notion of freedom from the one we are all familiar with, and it affects the way we might view Tolkien's characters in terms of their alleged heroism.

If there is a destiny playing itself out in LOTR (and I think no one will deny this), then those aware of this current have a clear duty: to decide either to accept the part that fate thrusts on him or her, or to reject it. The hero will accept what duty and destiny require of him (or her), because he or she already recognizes that accepting fate is not a diminution of individual worth. Choosing to accept permits these characters to bring the full force of their personalities and talents to bear on their assigned roles, hence the easy classification of Frodo, Sam, Gimli, Legolas, Gandalf and Aragorn as heroes.

However, characters such as Gollum, Bilbo, Sauron and Eowyn then become a bit more problematic. If destiny ordains that the former characters shall be heroes, then does it also ordain that Sauron *must* be the villain? And since the fallen Maia is so willing to comply, does that make him a hero as well?  Clearly not, and yet one could make such an argument if we want to talk about heroism as being defined by the sheer necessity of a given role. Without Sauron, no ring; no ring, no quest; no quest, and we'd not be sitting on our virtual rear-ends having this debate.

Let's leave Sauron alone for the moment. If a hero accepts and owns the role that fate hands him or her, then the villains refuse to accept their roles. Denethor may fall into this category, as would Boromir, at least for a time.  
Finally, there is the third prong: those characters who are (apparently) unaware of the cosmic game being played out around them, who act without realizing that their "choices" are not fully their own. As any aspiring musician will tell you, being unaware of the rules concerning harmony and melody may not prevent you from strumming a guitar, but the chances of your efforts yielding a masterpiece are laughably low. Eowyn and Bilbo, then, are the archetypes of this category: they cannot really own their roles because they are unaware that they have one. In this light, they become almost pathetic, pitiable characters, swept onto towards crises that they survive they know not how. Consider Eowyn, after she wakes in the houses of healing: she presents a pathetic figure, she doesn't understand why she has survived, and wants only to go to what she perceives as the natural end (death in battle), unaware of her significance in the grand scheme of things. The wills of these characters !
have very little to do with their success, because they have no idea that they were supposed to make a choice. Yet we always think of Eowyn and Bilbo as heroes: Tolkien doesn't leave us much choice given how he wrote them.

Gollum differs from Eowyn and Bilbo only in that he is so completely enthralled to another that he has almost no personal will left. He is, in a sense, a conduit for destiny, but one who is completely destroyed by the forces at work. The rules of the game own him, rather than vice versa.

The choices that these three characters make, then, in a cosmic sense, are radically unfree. And yet it would be hard to disbar Eowyn or Bilbo from the ranks of heroes, and equally hard to admit Gollum to those same ranks.

Sorry this is so long and rambling, I think when I write, so forgive me. Isn't it odd, that one poll question could generate so much interest?