Deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.
Imagine a story. This story has a hero. By the end of the tale, the hero has done many great deeds. He (or she) has vanquished some terrific evil, journeyed to some distant place, or protected the innocent multitudes from a cruel fate they did not deserve. In a past age, accomplishing feats such as these was enough to earn the title ‘hero.’ But this hero comes from a different time. His heroism is not found in the number of enemies he slew, in the distance he traveled, or in the acclaim of his adoring crowds. His heroism is rooted in his character. The relevant aspects of his character are apparent only to his closest friends. Occasionally even they are not privy to the source of his glory, which the audience only learns of because they have privileged access to the hero’s internal thoughts. His heroism is grounded in a firm conviction: he does not want to be a hero.
The hero wants not fame, nor fortune; he is not motivated by power, nor by revenge. He performs his heroics out of necessity, out of duty, or out of the simple fact that he is the only one on the scene. The hero would rather not be out slaying dragons. He earnestly wishes for a normal life. He yearns for a peaceful and settled world where he is not the chosen one. But it is precisely because our hero lacks ambition that he can be trusted. In a world where men ache for power, we cheer for the protagonist who emphatically rejects it. From beginning to end, our hero’s defining trait is a desire not to be a hero. Some are born great, others achieve greatness—but we love best those blessed few who have had greatness thrust upon them.
Here I’ve sketched out an archetypal template. This is the template upon which the vast majority our era’s hero-tales are crafted. This is the story of Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker, and Jack Ryan. It is Captain America and Spiderman. It is the central trope of science fiction, fantasy, international thrillers, super hero stories, and their “YA literature” counterparts. It is the myth that drives the imaginations of our times (a).
For all of this we have John Ronald Reuel Tolkien to thank. I am sympathetic to the argument that Tolkien is the seminal Anglophone author of the 20th century. Perhaps his literary craft is deft enough to deserves that title. Perhaps it is not. Either way I wager that in a few centuries time when our descendants’ literary memory has collapsed our age down to one author (as we have done with the ages of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton), Tolkien will be the man remembered. This is not just because Tolkien’s works have been fantastically popular, even decades after its first publication, and in cultural milieus quite divorced from its creation. Nor it is because in Tolkien we find the genesis of so many of our era’s most popular genres (fantasy, science fiction, role playing games, and so forth). Tolkien’s influence is both subtler and more fundamental than this. Tolkien redefined the way popular literature treats many of its most common themes. This post looks at only one of those themes, but I am comfortable with the contention that Tolkien’s work embodies an entire era’s way of understanding the world. It is hard to say if Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (a) actually created the central cultural currents of our age or if it is simply their most prominent and enduring incarnation. Either way, Tolkien’s work is here to stay.
Readers familiar with Lord of the Rings will immediately see the connections between my opening sketch and the tale of Tolkien’s ring-bearer. I am not going to devote an entire essay to this topic—a great deal has already been written about Tolkien’s conception of good and evil, power, corruption, innocence, and heroism, and I see no reason to repeat others’ feats here—but I will emphasize two points that deserve strong restatement.
The first point: An aversion to glory is not just the defining character trait of the novel’s central hero. The distinction between greatness and power as goods to be strived for versus greatness and power as burdens to be carried is the distinction that sets apart almost of all of the novel’s protagonists from their foils. It is the defining difference between Frodo and Smeagol, Faramir and Boromir, Aragorn and Denethor, and Gandalf and Saruman. The second trait saves Galadriel in exile; the first corrupts Sauron anew after his master’s defeat. If one is allowed to describe objects as foils, this same distinction sets Sauron’s rings, key to his strategy for corrupting Middle Earth, as a foil to the methods of the ‘wizards’ sent from Western lands to save Middle Earth.