In the world of fantasy and science fiction, we expect our protagonists to be men and women of action; people who make hard and risky choices with potentially dire consequences. And while we love heroic characters that can accomplish great feats of strength and agility, sometimes the best characters are ordinary people who find a way to overcome extraordinary circumstances. But if these characters become too ordinary—too inactive, flawed or encumbered by their plight—there is also a potential for us as readers to resent them for being so damn ordinary. Alas, I give you Frodo Baggins. Simply put, things happen to Frodo; Frodo doesn’t make things happen. He needs significant assistance or an outright bailout in virtually every situation. This, coupled with his increasingly whiny temperament, serves to remind us about how ordinary he truly is.
Firstly, let me say that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is without a doubt one of my favorite pieces of fantasy literature. The world is rich and immersive; the characters are dynamic and engaging; the story is epic and multi-layered; the action is…well, the characters are great. Accordingly, we get off to a great start with our protagonist, Frodo Baggins, who initially comes off as intelligent, witty, and good-natured. During the early stages of the saga, Frodo shows himself to be an unusual hobbit—one of strong initiative. Not only does he willingly choose to go on the journey to Rivendell, in part to protect the Shire from the Nazgul, but he quickly saves his whole party through sheer force of will when they are captured in the lair of the barrow-wights. Here, though, we already begin to see some foreshadowing of Frodo needing a savior in virtually every situation. Tolkien creates the God-man Tom Bombadil to get Frodo and his companions out of this predicament, just as he does earlier on the journey when the party is seduced and attacked by the tree sorcerer, Old Man Willow.
Not long after the encounter with the barrow-wights, Frodo finds himself a new savior in Strider. It is through Strider’s efforts, and his alone, that Frodo is saved from certain death at the hands of the Nazgul when they are attacked at Amon Sul. At this point, because of the wound Frodo receives from the Witch King’s Morgul-blade, he finds himself in the need of a different kind of a savior—a healer. As the party continues to risk their own necks against the Nazgul to get the dying Frodo to Rivendell, it requires the further intervention of the elf Glorfindel, coupled with Elrond’s magic flooding river, to get him there. But, in fairness to Frodo, his finest hour is still to come.
At the council of Elrond, Frodo shows great strength of character when he volunteers to bear the ring to Mordor and destroy it in the furnace of Mount Doom. This is a particularly bold choice because, by now, Frodo has some appreciation for how perilous the journey is and how taxing the ring can be. Frodo is becoming the character we want him to be… or is he? While he is certainly due credit here, it still takes the subsequent self-sacrifice of Gandalf at Moria, the death of Boromir, and the selfless efforts of his companions to just get him through the first book. Even Frodo’s indestructible mithril coat single-handedly saves him on several occasions. In short, by the end of the Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo is already proving himself to be more of an observer than a participant.
Through the Two Towers we begin to see Frodo develop into a moody, inactive, and fatalistic character. While Frodo has some high points, such as when he subdues Gollum with Sting and then spares his life, his lethargy begins to wear on us, just as the ring wears on him. After flexing his whiny authority over his companion, Samwise Gamgee, he lets Gollum lead the party to Ithilien, where they get captured and find themselves at the mercy of Faramir and company. Fortunately for them (and entirely through luck), Faramir is a good man who provides them with provisions and sends them on their way. By the time the three adventurers close in on Minas Morgul, Frodo has become annoyingly sluggish. Meanwhile, Samwise starts to become the hobbit we want Frodo to be. No one in the series is as ordinary as Sam, but through his love, devotion and selflessness, we begin to see a character we are happy to call our hero. Accordingly, the Two Towers ends with Sam (who was also right not to trust Gollum) saving Frodo from the giant spider, Shelob, and choosing to take on the ring himself to complete the quest. Sam has, in effect, become the primary protagonist.
By the third and final book, we don’t even encounter Frodo until a third of the way through, and the first time he does appear, it is in the context of Sam saving him from the two factions of orcs who wipe each other out over Frodo’s mithril coat (yet another save from the mithril coat). By the time the reunited hobbits escape Minas Morgul, Frodo has become impossibly lackluster and moody, and is literally being dragged along by Sam who has sacrificed everything to get Frodo to, and through, Mordor. By now Frodo has ceased to be a character and has effectively become a character device—merely an obstacle for Sam to deal with. When the hobbits finally do arrive at Mount Doom, Frodo gets the ultimate chance to redeem himself from his inactivity—he can finally cast the ring info the fires of Mount Doom and end the reign of Sauron. But instead of destroying the ring, he claims it for himself! As with most everything else Frodo does, it takes the action of someone else—in this case Gollum biting his finger off—to get him to take action. Frodo’s great chance for redemption as an inactive character falls flat; he’s just kind of there.
A Victim of Expectations?
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Frodo isn’t the depth or activeness of his character, but who he is being compared to. For readers familiar with the predecessor to the Lord of the Rings series, The Hobbit, we have every reason to believe that Frodo is just like his uncle and guardian, Bilbo Baggins. They’re both hobbits named “Baggins;” they both have an unusually high level of initiative—a result of their shared Took blood; heck, they even share the same birthday—September 22nd. Unfortunately for Frodo (and for the reader who is trying to like him), this inevitable comparison sets a level of expectation too high for his character to overcome because these perceived similarities quickly break down as the saga unfolds. Where Bilbo is reluctantly forced into a great and perilous journey and grows into a hero—a man…er…hobbit of action—along the way, Frodo’s arc seems to go the opposite direction. He willingly takes on the journey to Rivendell and, subsequently, on to Mordor, but by the end of the series, and because of the burden of the ring, Frodo has become brooding and fatalistic. Bilbo, on the other hand, never loses his sense of humor, even though he is faced with similarly perilous circumstances. However, the biggest difference between the two is that Bilbo proves to be a hobbit of action; one capable of saving his entire group from a TPK (total party kill) as with the forest spiders, while Frodo increasingly becomes a liability to his group, requiring someone or something to bail him out time and time again. In short, Bilbo is an ordinary hobbit that proves to be extraordinary, while with Frodo, we assume he is extraordinary and disappointedly learn that he is annoyingly ordinary.
So, by the end of the Lord of the Rings series, pretty much everyone in the book has become a hero in some way or another with the exception of its main protagonist, Frodo Baggins. Frodo essentially stumbles his way across the finish line and provides us with numerous and constant reminders that he’s no more exceptional than the guy down the street. And while we love common and ordinary characters that rise above their circumstances, Frodo’s just not that guy.
Michael Witwer is the author of Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, available from Bloomsbury. Find him on Twitter @mikewitwer.