Long before he set foot on the battlefields of WWI, J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, had acquired a profound sense of the nature and importance of heroic “courage under fire”. The classical, Norse and medieval literature that fed his childhood imagination (and that inspired his professional devotion to language and mythology) all sprang from cultures in which the warrior hero was a central figure. But while many emerged from the ashes of the Great War understandably embittered and incurably cynical towards the traditions and institutions of the past—including the seemingly outdated notion of heroic virtue and the institution of the church—JRR Tolkien’s wartime experience helped inspire a lifelong commitment to re-imagining and re-commending the ideals of the “heroic quest”.
A better hero
But why was Tolkien’s faith in heroism not obliterated by the Great War—a conflict that nearly cost him his life during the Battle of the Somme, killed nearly all of his closest friends and ultimately left millions dead or scarred for life? The reasons are complex, but there is something to be said for the particular notion of heroism Tolkien encountered in medieval literature. When we think of what it means to be a hero, we might imagine such qualities as physical strength, skill in battle and of course courage in the face of terrible danger. Like the superheros of today’s popular culture, many of the heroes from the ancient world succeeded owing to their superhuman power and ingenuity. However, in the early Anglo-Saxon stories of the medieval period, this “self-sufficient hero” came into contact with the Christian gospel for the first time and was dramatically transformed.
The central Hero of the Christian story is Jesus, whose power, paradoxically, is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), and whose heroism is most fully realised in His obedience to the will of His Heavenly Father, even to death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). Through human eyes, Christ’s victory on the cross appears a total disaster—the worst of all ends visited upon the best of all men. But this inversion of human heroism reveals a larger story, a cosmic theo-drama into which all are invited and equipped to take part. That, of course, is the message of the gospel and the mission of the church—a call to adventure that affirms the heroic quest as found (in one form or another) in practically every culture, while dramatically amplifying its significance and reconfiguring what true heroism amounts to. Such a Christianised heroism is clearly on display in Tolkien’s writing.
An ordinary hero
Heroes abound in Middle-earth. But one of the most striking features of Tolkien’s epic fantasy is the figure of the ordinary hero—characters whose heroism, while vital to the outcome of the story, doesn’t stem from physical strength or ingenuity. Even those characters who are skilled with the sword are at their most heroic when they are brought low, having to trust others less powerful than themselves, and to the higher purpose to which they’ve been called. Time and again, the hero’s power falters, the odds stacked so heavily against him that all hope seems lost. The temptation to despair is overwhelming. But it is precisely at this moment that a new kind of heroism kicks in.
The best examples of such “ordinary heroes” are Tolkien’s hobbits, especially Frodo Baggins and his faithful companion Samwise Gamgee. Hobbits know more of the pumpkin patch than the battlefield and aspire to little beyond the domestic comfort of the Shire. Yet, Tolkien assures us, “There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow . . .” Tolkien was inspired in this regard by the many men of humble standing he fought alongside in the trenches, writing: “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself.”
Like the humble soldiers, Sam and Frodo face increasing danger on their quest. However, it is in the middle of overwhelming danger that they come to rely, not on their natural strength and courage, but on each other and on the rightness of the task to which they’ve committed. Approaching Mount Doom, staring down death and defeat, everything non-essential to their quest seems to fall away, affording Sam a renewed glimpse of his mission, and an unexpected resolve:
“So that was the job I felt I had to do when I started,” thought Sam; “to help Mr Frodo to the last step and then die with him? Well, if that is the job then I must do it.” . . . But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned into a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.
The heroic inversion
Tolkien’s more obvious heroes—like Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas—also come to rely on this strange brand of courage born of the desperate situation. Once Frodo and Sam become separated from the Fellowship, their fate remains hidden so that no-one knows if all hope is lost. Their companions are left “fighting blind” and frighteningly outnumbered. Not surprisingly, as hope fades, temptations arise—the temptation to despair, to fight for self-preservation or one’s people alone or to take possession of the ring and trust in its treacherous power. Some lose hope. But those who stay true to the quest are afforded hope when all hope seems lost. Not all live to see the final victory, yet those who fall for the sake of the quest are held in the highest esteem of all.
There is something deeply moving about the heroism of Middle-earth. Historian Joseph Loconte suggests this is because, “The heroes of these stories are vulnerable to temptation and corruption, while the antagonists are almost never beyond redemption.”1 This not only makes Tolkien’s heroes relatable; it also infuses the drama with a quality of hope that satisfies deeply because it rings true. It might seem odd to suggest that such a fantastical work has proved so successful because of its realism, but there is a sense in which this is true. Concerning Tolkien (and his fellow fantasy writer, colleague and WWI veteran, CS Lewis), Loconte writes:
Tolkien and Lewis were attracted to the genres of myth and romance not because they sought to escape the world, but because for them the real world had a mythic and heroic quality. The world is the setting for great conflicts and great quests: it creates scenes of remorseless violence, grief and suffering, as well as deep compassion, courage, and selfless sacrifice . . . Their depictions of the struggles of Middle-earth and Narnia do not represent a flight from reality, but rather a return to a more realistic view of the world as we actually find it.
In Tolkien’s world, like our own, the hero’s strength, courage and ultimate success pertains to something not of their own making. The horrors of the Great War led many to doubt and despair. But for Tolkien, the tragedy of the war helped reinforce his belief that the courage, sacrifice and friendships that made it endurable, point beyond themselves to a source of goodness we cannot do without, and which often serves to highlight the folly of worldly ambitions that lead to war. As philosopher Peter Kreeft points out:
The hero cannot, by his own efforts, prevail in the struggle against evil. The forces arrayed against him, as well as the weakness within him, make victory impossible. The tragic nature of his quest begins to dawn on him, to oppress him, until the moment when failure seems inevitable . . . Frodo’s defeat—our defeat—is overturned by a Power stronger than our weakness. Tolkien identified this Power as “that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named”.2
Like the hero of the medieval quests that shaped his imagination— and resonated powerfully with his Christian faith—the true heroes of Tolkien’s Middle-earth are those whose hope is grounded not in the principalities and powers of this world, but in the One to whose glory all earthly goodness attests. What else could be meant by the following lines, in which the hope and courage of ordinary hero Samwise Gamgee are so beautifully conveyed?
There, peeping among the cloudwrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
James Cooper is coordinator of creative writing and communication at Adelaide’s Tabor College. He is also senior editor of inScribe journal and has published numerous poems and stories locally and overseas. James’ first novel, Something About Alaska, written for young adults, was published in September 2022. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Adelaide Hills.
- A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918 (Thomas Nelson, 2017)
- The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings (Ignatius Press, 2005)