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Reading The Lord of the Rings, and reading about it (especially here), I get the impression that Tolkien perceived heroism to be inextricably intertwined with several other virtues, including mercy, compassion, determination, loyalty, and pity, but most importantly, humility. More than anyone else in LotR, Samwise Gamgee exemplifies all these traits. Scholarly theses, academic articles, and even entire books have been written about Tolkien's humble heroes. But I haven't come across anything about this subject from Tolkien himself (outside of the text of LotR, of course), only from people who study and critique his work.

To see what I mean, consider the difference between Faramir and Boromir: Boromir fails because he is proud and vainglorious, and therefore susceptible to the lure of the Ring; Faramir succeeds because he is humble, he doesn't seek glory or renown, and is therefore all but immune to the effects of the Ring. The same dynamic is at work in the contrast between Saruman, who was egotistical, and Gandalf, who was humble. And Sauron fell from grace because he would not submit himself to the humiliation of facing judgment for his actions while serving Melkor; in the end, it is his pride that destroys him - so confident was he in the Ring's ability to corrupt all who held it that he never considered the possibility that anyone would attempt to destroy it.

Did Tolkien ever talk or write about the relationship between heroism and humility, aside from what we see in the narrative of his stories?

  • I think the simple 'rustic' love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero's) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the 'longing for Elves', and sheer beauty. - The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien – Wad Cheber stands with Monica May 24 '15 at 22:38
  • What might also be interesting, though I do not remember the details, is what he wrote about The Battle of Maldon; as I recall this Early English poem describes a “heroic” leader fighting a battle he should perhaps not have done and Tolkien picks up on a criticism implicit in the text. See also battleofmaldon.org.uk/commentary.html. – PJTraill Apr 11 '18 at 22:55
  • At journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.2307/2854798?journalCode=spc I find this: «Professor Tolkien describes his poetic drama “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s Son” as “an extended comment on lines 89-90 of the original: ða se eorl ongan for his ofermode alyfan landes to fel laþere ðeode, ‘then the earl in his overmastering pride actually yielded ground to the enemy, as he should not have done’”», which the author, George Clark, says is or has been considered a misinterpretation of ofermode, but which at least gives us an idea of what Tolkien felt about heroism. – PJTraill Apr 11 '18 at 23:08
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Tolkien spoke about the role of the ur-hero in his works. Rather unsurprisingly, he defined true heroism as being based on fortitude, nobility, strength and mercy, qualities that he felt that Frodo was somewhat lacking, at least in some areas:

But, for one thing, it became at last quite clear that Frodo after all that had happened would be incapable of voluntarily destroying the Ring. Reflecting on the solution after it was arrived at (as a mere event) I feel that it is central to the whole ‘theory’ of true nobility and heroism that is presented.

Frodo indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted. I do not say ‘simple minds’ with contempt: they often see with clarity the simple truth and the absolute ideal to which effort must be directed, even if it is unattainable. Their weakness, however, is twofold. They do not perceive the complexity of any given situation in Time, in which an absolute ideal is enmeshed. They tend to forget that strange element in the World that we call Pity or Mercy, which is also an absolute requirement in moral judgement (since it is present in the Divine nature). In its highest exercise it belongs to God. - Letter #246

This was also heavily tied into his views about morality in general, that without normalcy, acts of heroism look far less impressive:

Similarly, good actions by those on the wrong side will not justify their cause. There may be deeds on the wrong side of heroic courage, or some of a higher moral level: deeds of mercy and forbearance. A judge may accord them honour and rejoice to see how some men can rise above the hate and anger of a conflict; even as he may deplore the evil deeds on the right side and be grieved to see how hatred once provoked can drag them down. But this will not alter his judgement as to which side was in the right, nor his assignment of the primary blame for all the evil that followed to the other side. Letter #183

He took some time to defend Frodo against the charge of having been a scoundrel because he ultimately proved not to be as heroic as some of his critics would have liked;

Frodo deserved all honour because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further. Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far. The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named’ (as one critic has said). See Vol. I p. 65.2 A third (the only other) commentator on the point some months ago reviled Frodo as a scoundrel (who should have been hung and not honoured), and me too. It seems sad and strange that, in this evil time when daily people of good will are tortured, ‘brainwashed’, and broken, anyone could be so fiercely simpleminded and self righteous. Letter #192

There are some brief mentions of humility in Tolkien's letters, especially in relation to Frodo's "failure" as a heroic figure

Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed.

and

Frodo undertook his quest out of love – to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task. His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that. I do not myself see that the breaking of his mind and will under demonic pressure after torment was any more a moral failure than the breaking of his body would have been – say, by being strangled by Gollum, or crushed by a falling rock. - Letter #246


He also touches on the subject of humbleness:

The Quest was bound to fail as a piece of world-plan, and also was bound to end in disaster as the story of humble Frodo’s development to the ‘noble’, his sanctification. Fail it would and did as far as Frodo considered alone was concerned. He ‘apostatized’ – and I have had one savage letter, crying out that he shd. have been executed as a traitor, not honoured. Believe me, it was not until I read this that I had myself any idea how ‘topical’ such a situation might appear. It arose naturally from my ‘plot’ conceived in main outline in 1936.I did not foresee that before the tale was published we should enter a dark age in which the technique of torture and disruption of personality would rival that of Mordor and the Ring and present us with the practical problem of honest men of good will broken down into apostates and traitors.

But at this point the ‘salvation’ of the world and Frodo’s own ‘salvation’ is achieved by his previous pity and forgiveness of injury. At any point any prudent person would have told Frodo that Gollum would certainly betray him, and could rob him in the end. To ‘pity’ him, to forbear to kill him, was a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time. He did rob him and injure him in the end – but by a ‘grace’, that last betrayal was at a precise juncture when the final evil deed was the most beneficial thing any one cd. have done for Frodo! Letter #181

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    "But you’ve left out one of the chief characters; Samwise the stout hearted. ‘I want to hear more about Sam, dad.... And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?’ ” :). +1. – Wad Cheber stands with Monica May 24 '15 at 22:45
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    @WadCheber - The question of who the true hero was, has already been dealt with elsewhere. – Valorum May 24 '15 at 22:47
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    Of course, but we're talking about what makes a person heroic, from Tolkien's perspective. Since Tolkien called Sam the "chief hero", it is worth investigating why he felt that Sam was the chief hero. What was it that made Sam so heroic, in Tolkien's eyes? In discussing Tolkien's view of heroism, surely the character he deemed most heroic of all is relevant, no? – Wad Cheber stands with Monica May 24 '15 at 22:49
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    "[Gollum's] marvelous courage and endurance, as great as Frodo and Sam's or greater, being devoted to evil was portentous, but not honourable." - J.R.R. Tolkien. Obviously, no one is as opposed to crapping out as Gollum was. Endurance is the opposite of crapping out, and Gollum's endurance was as great as Sam's or greater, in Tolkien's words. Not crapping out isn't what made Sam a hero. – Wad Cheber stands with Monica May 24 '15 at 23:39
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    @wadcheber - See edit. – Valorum May 25 '15 at 0:38

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