Originally published in Area of Effect magazine
I’m going to die.
Sometimes that thought swirls through my brain as I try to grasp its reality. That’s what living is: slowly expiring. And the older I get, the more frightening it becomes. I don’t want to die, but sooner or later someone will put my body in the ground and there will be nothing I can do about it. I probably won’t even get a say in how I die; it’ll happen how it happens.
A similar thought plagued Frodo on his journey through Middle-earth. Though warrior societies view death as a matter of personal honour, what is a hobbit (or a hobbit at heart, like me) to do when confronted by the matter? Many of us are little people, more in love with the shade of a green tree in summer than we are with great deeds and adventure.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo finds his friends under the spell of a vengeful spirit—a barrow-wight. Much like the threat of Black Riders on the road, darkness has snuck up on him and fear grabs hold of him; the Ring also plays a subtle role. Out of sight, the wight chants a chilling incantation that freezes Frodo’s heart. Then a dark thought comes to him:
“He wondered if he put on the Ring, whether the Barrow-wight would miss him, and he might find some way out. He thought of himself running free over the grass, grieving for Merry, and Sam, and Pippin, but free and alive himself. Gandalf would admit that there was nothing else he could do.”
My respect for Frodo’s character would be reduced if he took this option out of danger, yet the thought makes sense because both the quest and Frodo’s life are at stake. Self-preservation rarely looks farther than the next moment of “running free over the grass.” This selfish calculation is characteristic of an existential fear of death and it can enable all kinds of evil. Frodo, to his credit, chooses to risk himself to preserve his friends.
Frodo resists the fearful prompting of the Ring through an awakening of courage he didn’t know he had—the hidden quality that made him the “best of hobbits” in the eyes of both Bilbo and Gandalf. Before leaving the Shire, Frodo looked in the mirror and saw an aging Hobbit with a bit of paunch, but under the barrow, this seed of determination sprouts. Frodo’s newfound courage outgrows his fear of death in large part because “he could not leave his friends so easily.” Frodo has no love for glory, only a great love for his friends. He does what he can, keeping the wight’s cold hand at bay, but finally places his trust outside himself entirely—crying out for Tom Bombadil.
Tolkien was well acquainted with warrior societies like those in Beowulf and other medieval literature. Dying, in these texts, is a matter of personal honour. Beowulf, especially in his youth, frequently boasts of his strength and physical triumphs. And rather than wait for old age to claim him, he chooses to die fighting a dragon. The archetypal warrior’s life is defined by the death he deals out and the death he dies; he disdains humility because it gets in the way of personal glory. But Frodo is unlike Beowulf, or any of the typical heroes who embrace death and laugh in the face of danger. He values life, and puts his hope in something other than himself.
Frodo may not be a great warrior, but Boromir of Gondor is. And yet he succumbs to the Ring’s temptation. Boromir accepts the Ring’s offer of self-preservation, believing its power will give him the strength to defend his people, defeat Sauron, and (of course) bring honour to Gondor. Madness seizes Boromir; but the Ring doesn’t control, it coerces, working on what’s already inside. When Frodo escapes, Boromir realizes he has broken the Fellowship and, subverting the warrior trope, he humbly makes atonement. Boromir, the great fighter, dies defending two unimportant hobbits, and nobody remembers or cares how many Uruk-Hai he killed in doing so.
The Fellowship of the Ring offers an alternative to the heroism of the old pagan heroes, who trusted their own strength and put on a brave face when confronting their foes. Boromir’s thirst for strength was in fact a weakness, but his self-realization and redemption are more memorable than a thousand orcs lying slain at his feet.
Both Boromir and Frodo stand between death and their friends, and their courage is strengthened more by love than any desire for glory. I sometimes dream of living and dying like Boromir: brave, brash, and capable. But more often, I’m Frodo under the barrow. Frodo is rescued by Tom Bombadil, which isn’t very heroic on the hobbit’s part, yet his choice to stay when he has the power to escape is noble indeed. Instead of trusting the Ring, he places his hope in a foolish man who sings the darkness away.
Does a hero who needs rescuing still qualify as a hero? I hope so, because I want to be one and I constantly find myself overwhelmed by troubles great and small, afraid that if I play the hero I won’t be able to deliver a victory.
Like Frodo, I’m no hulking hero, and I don’t know if I’d want to be, given the choice. For one thing, I don’t want to face the Grendels and barrow-wights of the world on my own. I’m thankful for the quieter hobbit’s heroism that Tolkien favours, also highlighted in his poem Mythopoeia: “Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate, that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate.” When darkness inevitably falls, I want to be motivated by love and place my trust in something bigger than myself; personally, my faith rests in a saviour who promises to descend into the dark for me. When my time comes, I want to be like Frodo under the barrow standing between death and his friends, hoping for rescue—that’s how I want my life to be remembered.