In celebration and honor of passing the comprehensive exams in my Master’s program in Mythological Studies and Depth Psychology, I’m sharing each essay I wrote. Here’s my second piece. This was a very open topic. I had to discuss a piece of literature from a mythological perspective. I decided to tackle something I’ve had a personal struggle with: Frodo’s final action in The Lord of the Rings. I already know many disagree with my analysis here, as small chats with close friends have revealed. I’m not looking to argue my point. This is just the way I see Frodo. I wrote this with the following comment from one of my profs in my mind: “You are such a competent, clean writer that I sometimes wished for something a little riskier or edgy.”
The Role of the Monomyth in The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings is hailed as one of the greatest pieces of literature from the twentieth century. It also functions as a beautiful mythology. It contains a supernatural realm, heroes, personal and collective journeys, and battles between good and evil. Though the characters range from hobbits to elves, they are akin to humans and share our experiences with life and death and all the emotions in between. Like any great myth, The Lord of the Rings transcends time and depicts the human condition. One of the central features of any myth is the hero. There are many heroes in The Lord of the Rings as nine members volunteer in The Fellowship of the Ring to take the ring to Mordor to be destroyed. Along the way, they meet many other admirable and fine characters who aid them in their quest. The quest to destroy the ring and save Middle Earth is the main storyline of the trilogy. The ring bearer, Frodo Baggins, is arguably one of the predominant main characters in this epic story. He is the one who carries the weight of the ring, and the safety of Middle Earth rests on his small, humble shoulders. A close examination of Frodo’s movement through Joseph Campbell’s monomyth reveals that although Middle Earth is saved, Frodo himself is a failed hero.
Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, famously defined throughout his text The Hero with a Thousand Faces, provides the structure that he found to exist in mythologies across time and cultures. The monomyth tracks the pattern of the hero on a quest. Campbell indicates that the patterns may shift in order and be presented in various ways, but accentuates that all mythological heroes must move through a separation, initiation, and return. Frodo certainly embarks on a quest that separates him from his known world, is initiated through his road of trials, and returns home. However, Campbell also emphasizes the inner journey that must occur on this heroic quest, and it is from that perspective that Frodo fails.
Frodo’s call to adventure begins when the wizard Gandalf asks him to get the ring out of The Shire, the simple hillside where he and the other hobbits live. Frodo’s initial aid is his friend Samwise Gamgee. They are soon accompanied by Frodo’s cousins Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took. Frodo’s crossing of the first threshold occurs when they nearly encounter Ringwraiths in The Shire and flee into the Old Forest. The small hobbits are leaving their known world and really beginning their adventure. They continue to travel to new places, as when they enter Bree, but they always receive assistance when needed. In the Old Forest they meet the helpful spirit Tom Bombadil, and in Bree they meet the ranger Aragorn, who remains by Frodo’s side through the first book of the trilogy. Frodo’s separation is clear and follows the elements mapped out by Campbell.
As the hero continues the quest, he will be immersed in the belly of the whale and go through a road of trials. The belly of the whale provides that final separation from the world the hero came from. In the Shire, Frodo had nothing to fear and knew nothing of pain. But on the hill of Weathertop, Frodo is mortally stabbed by a Ringwraith. The injury consumes Frodo as he falls into a world of shadows. Frodo is taken to Rivendell and saved by the elves, but this encounter has truly marked his initiation. The Fellowship of the Ring is then formed in Rivendell, and he gains a total of eight companions. Together, the fellowship undergoes many hardships. Frodo, specifically, nearly faces death again in the Mines of Moria and loses his companion, Gandalf, to a demonic Balrog. Frodo and the remainder of the Fellowship find refuge, again from elves, in Lothlorien. It is here where Frodo has his meeting with the goddess, as Campbell phrased it. The goddess is represented by the great elf Galadriel. She fills Frodo with hope and also offers him and each of his companions a supernatural aid. Though Campbell indicates supernatural aid is received in the separation phase of the journey, this departure from the monomyth demonstrates that the different elements can appear in varying order. Through the separation-initiation-return path, the hero can be tossed about between aids and trials various times.
A key element seen in the hero’s trials is temptation. This often takes shape with the woman as temptress, but is ultimately anything that tempts the hero to wander from his quest. The ring itself provides Frodo with the greatest temptation imaginable. Forged by Sauron, the ring seeks to do the bidding of the dark lord. If Frodo puts the ring on, he can be seen by Sauron and the Ringwraiths. Caving into this temptation threatens his very life and the future of Middle Earth. However, the desire to wear the ring grows heavier and heavier as Frodo continues to be the bearer of the ring.
Through the trials the Fellowship faces, Frodo flees from his companions and seeks to go to Mordor alone, though he is accompanied still by his dearest friend, Samwise. Throughout the novel, readers become aware of Gollum, another creature drawn to the power of the ring, who wore it for years, hidden away in a cave. When Frodo and Sam catch Gollum following them, they capture the pathetic creature. Out of the mercy Frodo learned from his uncle, Bilbo, Frodo never harms Gollum. Driven by the power of the ring, Gollum later tries to have Frodo killed by the giant spider Shelob. Though his attempt fails, he escapes the hobbits and eventually Frodo and Sam enter Mordor with the ring alone.
In Campbell’s monomyth, after undergoing the various trials of initiation, the hero experiences apotheosis. This can consist of a literal or figurative death, but the hero ultimately unites opposites and achieves his quest. This should be followed by receiving a boon to disseminate to the world and ultimately end with the hero returning to the home he left at the beginning of the myth. Often this return includes the hero refusing to return and being rescued from without. This is an important component to the monomyth and to the personal development, typically a form of individuation, which the hero is to achieve.
After surviving many life-threatening experiences, Frodo and Sam enter the Cracks of Doom, their ultimate destination. Now, Frodo must simply toss the ring into the fires to defeat Sauron and protect all of Middle Earth from the return of his evil reign. At this climatic moment, however, the power of the ring finally possesses Frodo, and he places the ring on his finger. He has claimed the power of the ring for himself and abandoned his quest. The weight on him has been very heavy, and it is unfortunate that he surrenders when he is so close to such a great achievement. However, Tolkien then provides what he coined a eucatastrophe: when all seems lost, there is a sudden turn of events. Gollum, spared by Frodo’s mercy, shows up unexpectedly, attacks Frodo, and claims the ring. In his unbound enthusiasm, however, Gollum falls into the pits of the fire with the ring, thus destroying himself, the ring, and Sauron. Frodo completed his quest in getting the ring to Mount Doom, and he carried a heavy weight on his shoulders throughout the book; however, ultimately the weight of the ring was too much for him to bear. Middle Earth was saved by chance, which was made possible by Frodo’s mercy (an action that speaks greatly to Tolkien’s Catholic background). Nevertheless, Frodo failed to achieve apotheosis, wherein the hero recognizes the divine within himself.
Frodo and Sam do continue on the hero’s journey when they receive rescue from without and, after more trials, are able to return to their home in The Shire, which is unfortunately not in the condition they left it in. With the aid of the other hobbits, Frodo and Sam are able to reclaim The Shire and restore peace and happiness for its inhabitants. Throughout Middle Earth, there is much joy. Other main characters survive the battles, including Gandalf, who returns from the pits of Moria where he had been consumed. The couple Arwen and Aragorn and the couple Eowyn and Faramir are granted a standard happily ever after. Middle Earth has been saved, for everyone except for Frodo. He does not get to become the master of the two worlds, as Campbell indicates. His physical and psychological scars are too deep. Frodo has been returned, but he remains broken. After trying to maintain life in The Shire, Frodo decides he cannot remain there. He lives in great pain, and his time with the ring has extended the length of his life. Accompanied by Bilbo, Frodo sails to Valinor, the Undying Lands. Valinor is the land of the elves, and they have granted Frodo and Bilbo, both ring bearers, safe passage for the weight the ring had on them both. The elves mercy, like Frodo’s mercy for Gollum, grant him a place to find peace and finally find recovery.
The Lord of the Rings offers an undeniable mythology with a variety of characters whom can each be explored in their own right. Frodo is often heralded as the hero of the story, so it is important to examine how he fits the role. Campbell has demonstrated the importance of the hero and outlined the hero’s typical journey. This journey has occurred in mythology time and time again throughout all cultures. It is a significant journey, and one that will have variations. The variations Frodo experiences in the return, however, indicate that the mercy he granted Gollum led to the final defeat of Sauron, but that his personal failures prevented him from gaining the personal boon of the hero.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton, UP. 1972.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.