(c) Maurice G. London
In his 1953 essay "Ofermod," J.R.R. Tolkien addresses the subject of the leader and the subordinate in the northern heroic epic. Of the subordinate's place in the Old English poem "The Battle of Maldon" he says that he was one: "...who had no responsibility downwards, only loyalty upwards. Personal pride was therefore in him at its lowest, and love and loyalty at their highest." The leader, in his role as provider "may indeed receive credit from the deeds of his knights, but he must not use their loyalty or imperil them simply for that purpose." Part of the heroic relationship, therefore, involves unswerving loyalty by the subordinate and the mastery of pride by the leader.
In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien develops several relationships in keeping with the ideas on loyalty he expresses in "Ofermod." These ideas can also be applied to the famous Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, and thus a reading of Beowulf reveals many parallels to the leaders and subordinates in Lord of the Rings. Like Beowulf and Hrothgar, the dominant figures in the many quests and battles of Middle-Earth have characters who support them and follow their lead. While none of the individual participants in these relationships is depicted as perfect, the relationship itself is shown to stem from an ideal conception of the leader and servant dynamic, and the degree to which the relationship approaches this ideal helps to define the characters involved.
The central pair in Lord of the Rings
(LOTR), Frodo and his subordinate Sam, represent perhaps the most
ideal bond in the book. In the beginning of the trilogy, Frodo's initial
defining trait is his innocence. As a Hobbit, Frodo is small, and as a
hole-dwelling inhabitant of the far-western, rural land called the Shire,
Frodo's distance from the workings of Sauron and the events of the men
of Gondor and Rohan is emphasized. When told by Gandalf of Sauron's plans,
Frodo cannot relate, asking the Wizard, "Revenge for what? I still don't
understand what all this has to do with Bilbo and myself, and our Ring"
(Volume I, 58). By demonstrating Frodo’s naivete in this fashion, Tolkien
is showing a side of the hero-to-be that is not in keeping with the traditional
hero like Beowulf. Tolkien also portrays Frodo's fear through his shuddering
and quavering (I, 58-59). By the end of their conversation, however, Frodo
accepts the sacrifice he must make with bravery and humility:
Samwise Gamgee is depicted initially as one taken by notions of fantastic beings, possessing a deep sense of loyalty and a certain sensitivity. These traits provide a natural impetus for his desire to follow and serve "Master" Frodo. Sam "believed he had once seen an Elf in the woods, and still hoped to see more one day" (I, 54), and once he hears from Gandalf that he will go away with Frodo he shows unabashed enthusiasm: "Me sir!" cried Sam, springing up like a dog invited for a walk. "Me go and see Elves and all! Hooray!" he shouted, and then burst into tears" (I, 71). This scene sums up all three traits of Sam in the excitement, comparison to a dog, and the eventual tears. The characterization as a dog is important in my discussion, as it is the loyalty to a master associated with dogs that Sam possesses throughout the trilogy.
As Frodo and Sam's characteristics are expanded upon, so too are aspects of their relationship. Frodo grows weaker the farther they go from the Shire, and Sam's loyalty is made more prominent in the story as if to make clear that he is the reason why Frodo is still able to bear his burden. After Frodo is wounded by the Black Rider on the way to Rivendell, Sam shows the care of a loyal servant (I, 251). Much like Beowulf and Wiglaf, these two face a great task together, even though the leader feels that the burden of success lies on himself alone. Like Beowulf's need for Wiglaf's aid to slay the dragon, Frodo cannot complete the task without Sam's help. Frodo accepts the challenge to take the Ring south with characteristic humility and willfulness: "I will take the Ring," he said, "though I do not know the way" [underline mine] (I, 284). However, because he attends the Council to which he was not invited, Sam comes to join his master in yet another leg of their journey: "But you won't send him off alone surely, Master?" (I, 284). The reluctant bravery of Frodo echoes his earlier words about going east to Rivendell: "I will go east, and I will make for Rivendell. I will take Sam to visit the Elves; he will be delighted" (I, 75). In each case, Frodo's willingness to make a sacrifice is followed by the part that will be played by the loyal Samwise.
As the pair comes nearer to the land of
shadows, Sam's loyalty is made even more prominent. As Frodo is weakened
by the burden of the Ring, Sam's love for Frodo is shown through the care
he takes to feed him (II, 261) and in making certain that he is protected
from Gollum (II, 246). When it seems to him that Frodo has met his doom,
Sam willingly accepts the task of destroying the Ring by himself (II, 340),
knowing that is what Frodo would want him to do. After learning that his
master is alive, however, Tolkien shows repeatedly that Sam's love is what
carries him forward:
He had no longer had any doubt about his duty: he must rescue his master or perish in the attempt. (III, 173)
His love for Frodo rose above all other thoughts, and forgetting his peril he cried aloud: "I'm coming, Mr. Frodo!" (III, 175)
Once reunited with his master, Tolkien shows how Sam’s loyalty is manipulated by the Ring, further emphasizing the importance of loyalty in any consideration of Sam’s character and his relationship with Frodo. Like everyone who wears the Ring, Sam also falls victim to the desire to possess it despite his knowledge of the Ring and his love for his master. Knowing that his master would not willingly part with the Ring, Sam still feels that he must offer to share the burden of the Ring (III, 188). The Ring's influence over Frodo is apparent in his response, and Frodo makes it clear that he cannot part with the Ring. However, later, when Frodo complains of the burden of the Ring, Sam again says,"Then let me carry it a bit for you, Master," he said. "You know I would, and gladly, as long as I have any strength" (III, 214).
Sam is no fool, and that has been made clear throughout his adventures in Mordor (although his role as THE Fool may be debatable), but here he acts foolishly in asking for the Ring yet again, risking his Master's disapproval that he has previously been deeply hurt by twice before (III, 214 and I, 115). His lust for the Ring is the only logical cause for his words, and its powers of manipulation are made all the more evil by acting on the pure loyalty of Samwise Gamgee.
In the end of the trilogy, Frodo chooses to go across the seas and depart from Middle Earth. This choice will end his relationship with Sam, but Frodo tells Sam that he is now expected to lead others, as mayor, husband, and father. Sam's "part of the Story goes on" (III, 309). Despite his sadness at Frodo's parting, Sam, in his last words of the trilogy displays contentment with his new position: "He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I'm back,’ he said" (III, 311). Sam, defined as a loyal servant throughout the trilogy, becomes in the end a loyal family man with respect and love for the family that depends on him as well as the people he is to serve as an elected official. Undoubtedly, his relationship with Frodo is the ideal which Sam would try to uphold in his new roles.
Like Frodo and Sam, Merry and Theoden (from the Old English ‘theoden’ meaning ‘lord’) form a relationship based on love and loyalty. Recalling the aged Hrothgar and the older Beowulf of Beowulf (Beowulf, 357, 2209-2210, the first image of Theoden, is of an old man, "...a man so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf" (III, 116). He is deceived and debilitated by the influence of the wicked Grima Wormtongue, and not until the words of Gandalf revive his conscience do we see the true Lord of Rohan:
As his fingers took the hilt, it seemed to the watchers that firmness and strength returned to his thin arm. (III, 123)
Not one foot Will I retreatLikewise, Theoden says, "I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better" (II, 123). He is still an old man, but he is an old man riding willingly to battle.
from the barrow-keeper, but there by the wall
it must go between us as fate decides,
the Lord, for each man (Beowulf, 2524-2527).
At the core of his character, however, Theoden is a lord, and a lord of any age requires servants who are both loyal and helpful. It is the Hobbit Merry's practicality that marks him at the beginning of the trilogy, and shows him to be one willing to act in the interest of others. It was he who helped Frodo locate a home in Crickhollow (I, 76), and once Frodo, Sam, and Pippin arrive, he proves to be a thoughtful host, addressing all of his guests concerns:
"I have prepared practically everything. There are six ponies in a stable across the fields; stores and tackle are all packed, except for a few extra clothes, and the perishable food" (I, 117).
That Merry is brave is shown by his willingness to aid Frodo on his quest, despite what he already knows of the danger involved. When it is an issue whether anyone should accompany Frodo on his journey, he says, "We know that the Ring is no laughing matter; but we are going to do our best to help you against the Enemy" (I, 117). This bravery and willingness to serve make Merry a perfect example of the type of individual who could best serve an Old English type lord.
When he finally meets Theoden, a bond is quickly formed between the two and Merry acts unswervingly to offer his service to the Lord of the Rohirrim:
"Gladly will I take it," said the king; and laying his long old hand upon the brown hair of the hobbit, he blessed him.
"Rise now. Meriadoc, esquire of Rohan of the household of Meduseld!" he said. "Take your sword and bear it unto good fortune!"
"As a father you shall be to me," said Merry.
"For a little while," said Theoden. (III, 50-51)
When Theoden makes ready to go to war and
tells Merry to stay behind, Merry's act of disobedience is necessary to
the fulfillment of his oath. This is understood by realizing that since
Theoden knew little about hobbits and the bravery they were capable of
possessing, he was only doing what he felt was best for Merry. Merry alone
knows what he is capable of, and so when Dernhelm (Eowyn) gives him a chance
to follow Theoden to battle he accepts:
"You wish to go whither the lord of the Mark goes: I see it in your face."Merry disobeys the command of his lord but never swerves from the spirit of loyalty that makes him desire, above all else, to be at his lord's side through the darkest times.
"I do," said Merry. (III, 77-78)
Theoden rides to battle, valorously and bravely as a good leader might have been expected to according to the Old English heroic ideal displayed in such heroic poems as Beowulf and "The Battle of Maldon":
...the bent shape of the king sprang suddenly erect. Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before (III, 113)Bravery and a drive to lead by example are what Tolkien emphasizes in Theoden, and thus through these qualities is he presented as a good leader to his men and to Merry
Right through the press drove Theoden, Thengel's son, and his spear was shivered as he threw down their chieftain (V, 114-115).
Love for Theoden and adherence to his oath
make Merry face his own fears and help Eowyn slay the Nazgul Lord:
Merry crawled on all fours like a dazed beast, and such a horror was on him that he was blind and sick.
"King's man! King's man!" his heart cried within him. "You must stay by him. As a father you shall be to me, you said" (V, 115)
As Merry grieves that he has disobeyed
Theoden's command, Theoden forgives him and commits a final act of bravery
as he faces his own death:
"...I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!"
Merry could not speak, but wept anew. "Forgive me, lord," he said at last, "if I broke your command, and yet have done no more in your service than to weep at our parting."
The old king smiled. "Grieve not! It is forgiven. Great heart will not be denied.
In contrast to Merry and Theoden whose
individual traits served them well in forming a relationship based on leadership
and servitude, the traits of Pippin and Denethor make them less than ideal
individuals to form a northern heroic bond. The traits emphasized in Pippin
through the first half of the trilogy are his impatience, curiosity, and
rudeness. He is quick to snap at others, even though there is a slightly
jesting tone to his words at times:
"Sam! Get breakfast ready for half-past nine! Have you got the bath water hot?"When the fellowship has come to the gates of Moria:
Sam jumped up, looking rather bleary. "No, sir, I haven't, sir!" (I, 81)
"Water!" shouted Pippin. "Where's the water?" (I, 82)
"Why doesn't Gandalf do something quick?" (I, 321)Pippin's curiosity is shown when he drops a stone into a well in the Mines of Moria and Gandalf rebukes him (I, 326-327). Later, his impatience and curiosity to see the Palantir lead to his sneaking a glimpse and he nearly betrays his companions’ location to the Enemy as a result (II, 196-198). Pippin is a constant source of irritation to Gandalf throughout the trilogy, and as the Wizard is one of the guiding forces behind the quest to destroy the ring and thwart Sauron, Pippin’s actions make him a less idealized figure than others such as Frodo, Sam and Merry who do little to test Gandalf’s patience.
At other times, Pippin acts in an insensitive manner, especially to Sam, as already shown above. This happens two other times, and is curiously paired with hints at his bravery to join Frodo on his quest:
"It's most unfair," said Pippin. "Instead of throwing him out, and clapping him in chains, Elrond goes and rewards him for his cheek!" (I, 285)
Our first glimpse of Denethor is as a proud old man and ungracious host. Like Theoden, he does not welcome Gandalf to his hall with open arms (III, 26), but unlike Theoden, the reason for his behavior is shown to be within him and not a result of the workings of another man. Although the influence of the Palantir could be compared to the figure of Wormtongue, it is made clear that Denethor chose to look at the Palantir of his own free will, and his desire to do so sprung from his pride. The pride is seen in subtle clues noticed by Pippin, such as when the Lord seems to get a gleam in his eye when he speaks of the Stones (III, 30), or how he imparts so much knowledge about distant lands without telling others how he has come to know so much (III, 80). This pride is with him at the beginning of his part in the story and remains until his end.
Denethor is shown to demand much of others,
particularly Pippin and especially Faramir. He must have information from
Pippin, and demands it of him before greeting him or speaking a kind word
"So," said Denethor. "You were there? Tell me more! Why did no help come? And how did you escape, and yet he did not, so mighty a man as he was and only orcs to withstand him?" (III, 27)He is also demanding of Faramir, and unfatherly, in contrast to the view we have of Theoden through his relationship with Merry. Denethor holds Boromir in higher regard than Faramir because:
Like Merry, Pippin offers his service to a lord, but unlike Merry he does so out of pride resulting from the insulting words of Denethor:
This union is depicted as completely barren of the mutual love seen in Merry and Theoden's and Frodo and Sam's relationships. Denethor is not concerned with what Pippin can gain by forming a bond with a lord, only with what it can give himself. Denethor accepts Pippin's offer on the grounds that it is in repayment for the death of Boromir, although Gandalf and Pippin made it clear that Pippin should not be held responsible (III, 27-28). In contrast to Theoden's willing acceptance of Merry's sword, Denethor demands the weapon from Pippin: "Give me the weapon!" (III, 28). Once the oath is given, Denethor wastes no time in demanding of his new servant:
Pippin never forgot that hour in the great hall under the piercing eye of the Lord of Gondor, stabbed ever and anon by his shrewd questions. (III, 30)
The union of these two characters who are
not presented as ideal individuals can only result in a less than desirable
situation. As I already stated, Denethor is mainly concerned with what
Pippin can give him, and tells Pippin that he shall "wait on me, bear errands,
and talk to me, if war and council leave me any leisure." (III, 79). Pippin,
however, is not content with this role:
"...And I'm not used, Master Beregond, to waiting hungry on others while they eat. It is a sore trial for a hobbit, that. No doubt you will think I should feel the honour more deeply. But what is the good of such honour?" (III, 81)Pippin and Denethor, as flawed characters have formed a relationship that can have no happy outcome for leader or for subordinate.
Denethor's downfall is hinted at early on by his pride, and his resulting madness makes him abandon his role as leader. The first sign of his madness comes when he says that he sleeps in his armor (III, 92), and when it is clear that he is no longer in his right mind, Pippin must make a choice of what he should do. Like Merry, he must disobey his lord to fulfill the duty to protect his lord. Although Denethor gives Pippin leave to go as he himself prepares to meet his death (III, 97), he does not give his servant leave to interfere with his intentions. Pippin, realizing the situation and knowing that something must be done, commits his greatest act of bravery as he goes to the battlefield to find Gandalf (III, 101). Although Pippin has done much in the trilogy to prevent an interpretation of his character as a coward, this selfless act for a man who has only given him grief is the true turning point in his characterization.
Unlike Theoden who was valiant in his entry
into battle, Denethor shows no bravery as he prepares to burn himself and
"...But soon all shall be burned. The West has failed. It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended." (III, 128)
The essential spirit of the leader-subordinate relationship depicted earlier can be found in the pair of Saruman and Grima Wormtongue as well, although perhaps master-servant may be a better description for their bond. What Tolkien gives us concerning Saruman is that he is untrustworthy, as he betrays the trust of Gandalf and imprisons him (I, 273), greedy in his quest for power (I, 272), and that he has aligned himself with the forces of darkness. Above all, however, he is deceptive, and capable of using the power of his words to influence and deceive others. At the Tower of Orthanc he speaks to those gathered outside:
Grima is a deceiver and manipulator of words as well, and he is shown to be the cause of Theoden's idleness and premature dotage (II, 124-125). Hinted at first by his appellation Wormtongue, his characterization as a snake, or dragon, is the most prevalent. Gandalf says to him:
"Down snake!" he said suddenly in a terrible voice. "Down on your belly! How long is it since Saruman bought you?" (II, 124)This characterization aligns him with the side of wickedness in the trilogy, lead by Saruman.
Grima is the servant of Saruman, as acknowledged
by Gandalf, and given the choice of fighting for Theoden or returning to
Saruman he chooses to remain loyal to his true leader:
"But you, Wormtongue, you have done what you could for your true master. Some reward you have earned at least. Yet Saruman is apt to overlook his bargains. I should advise you to go quickly and remind him, lest he forget your faithful service." (II, 125)
Although Saruman and Denethor share the trait of overmastering pride, when all is apparently lost, Saruman does not abandon Grima to his foes (II, 179), and so possesses at least one trait that the Steward of Gondor does not. Grima still serves Saruman even though their cause is lost, even going so far as to throw the Palantir at his master's enemies (II, 189). Even though he is apparently punished for his act (II, 190), Grima remains with Saruman.
Saruman is proud, vengeful and cruel up
to the end of his part in the trilogy and so helps bring about his own
doom. When confronted by the hobbits in the Shire, he does not back down
from them even though it is clear that he does not possess the power he
once held, daring them to "Kill [me], if you think there are enough of
you, my brave hobbits!" (III, 298). Grima, now called "Worm" by his master,
is still loyal at the end of the trilogy, even given a chance to be disassociated
from Saruman (III, 299). Saruman, however, eventually strays too far from
the spirit of the bond between himself and Worm. First, he calls attention
to his servant's loyalty only to make a mockery of it, then proceeds to
"You do what Sharky says, always, don't you, Worm? Well, now he says: follow!" He kicked Wormtongue in the face as he grovelled, and turned and made off. But at that something snapped: suddenly Wormtongue rose up, drawing a hidden knife; and then with a snarl like a dog he sprang on Saruman's back, jerked his head back, cut his throat, and with a yell ran off down the lane. Before Frodo could recover or speak a word, three hobbit bows twanged and Wormtongue fell dead (III, 300).If you’ll notice, it is only when Saruman first betrays his servant through showing their bond to be a mere mockery of an ideal situation, that Wormtongue responds with the vicious murder of his lord.. Even possibly deserving of punishment as he is, however, Saruman is still the master of Grima, so when the heroic relationship has been broken by the servant, the servant renders himself deserving of punishment as well. In contrast to Sam, who was likened to a loyal dog excited over a walk (I, 73), Wormtongue here is a dog that kills his master and is thus deserving of the death he receives.
The Lord of the Rings tells a story of the end of an era where feudal servitude marked by heroic idealism was the mode. The figures of Theoden, Denethor, Frodo, and even Saruman are the figures who most closely fit this model of the leader that Tolkien has discussed in his "Ofermod" essay and that can be seen in Beowulf. The relationship they form with a subordinate figure helps define each of the leaders as they struggle in a world at war. Yet these leaders all pass from the world of Middle-Earth, and this is perhaps the most telling sign of Tolkien's conception of heroic bonds. As in our world, the time of the ring-giver and the hearth companions is gone, replaced by the elected official, as the demands of an ever-changing and increasingly complex world prove too strong for unswerving loyalty to endure.
Chickering, H.D. Beowulf. New York;
Anchor Books, 1977.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings
Part I: "The Fellowship of the Ring". Toronto: Methuen Publications,
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings
Part II: "The Two Towers". Toronto: Methuen Publications, 1977.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings
Part III: "The Return of the King". Toronto: Methuen Publications,
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.