Who is the hero?

I’ve recently been listening to a podcast on writing presented by Brandon Sanderson and several other writers, in which they discuss a different aspect of writing each time, in about fifteen minutes per post. In one such post the were covering heroes, protagonists, and main characters when it came out that they didn’t consider Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings to be a good hero, because he starts out powerful, confident, and committed, and ends much the same way. They feel that people aren’t interested in characters like that these days, and that Peter Jackson was right to do his hatchet-job on Aragorn’s character for the movies.

I think they missed the point altogether. The Lord of the Rings is not about Aragorn. Aragorn is a supporting character. The Lord of the Rings is about the hobbits; Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. They are the ones who change through the course of the story. They are the ones who are indispensible.

Yes Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and even Gandalf are all interesting, but they exist only to assist the hobbits on their path to becoming who they will be and to destroying the Ring. Yes, their assistance is important, especially early on. And had Aragorn not led the remnants of the armies of the west on his foolish diversion at the Black Gate Frodo would never have reached Mount Doom. But it was Frodo and Sam (and ultimately Gollem) who actually destroy the Ring. Without them Aragorn and the rest would have failed, and would have died.

The story of The Lord of the Rings is about four timid, naive, and unaware hobbits who first come to walk among the noble and great of Middle Earth and then to take their place among them. Nothing is more indicative of this than the final chapters of the book referred to as “The Scouring of the Shire”. Though Peter Jackson chose to ignore it, Orson Scott Card agrees with me (okay, he probably gave me the idea, to be honest) that this is the culmination of the book.

The hobbits that left the Shire in Book One would have been cowed and subjugated just like all the other hobbits when Saruman came had they remained in the Shire like they would have preferred. But because they were willing to leave the Shire in an effort to save it, they went through terrible things that built them up to become the very means of the Shire’s redemption. They came back with the courage, leadership, and skills to effectively foment and orchestrate the rebellion that overthrows “Sharkey” and his men and freed the Shire. In fact, what would have been impossible only a year earlier, was now almost easy.

So of course Aragorn doesn’t change and develop. He doesn’t need to! The story is not about him. He and the others exist to provide the models the hobbits need to become who they become. Their criticism is like saying the tyrannosaurus in Jurrassic Park is not a good protagonist because it starts out big, tough, and hungry, and remains big, tough, and hungry throughout. No, the tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park is not a good protagonist because it’s not the protagonist. And a Boeing 747 is not a good cruise ship!

Don’t get me wrong. I like Sanderson and crew. They offer some good insights into the writing process and the life of an author. But they seem to fail in recognizing when their opinions are simply opinions. Their ideas on what makes a good hero, for example, may be somewhat grounded in fact, but they are still largely giving their opinions.

Look at Orson Scott Card, for example. I’ve read four different Ender books at least, and in none of them does the character of Ender Wiggin change significantly. Much of his changing, such as it is, takes place between books. Not only that, but he’s a near-superman (as opposed to Superman). Ender defies most every definition of a good protagonist that Sanderson, et al, put forth, and yet Ender’s Game has become one of the seminal works of Sci-Fi.

Furthermore, Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies achieved the success they did not because the audience connected with Aragorn’s renovated character better. It was successful because the audience connected with the story itself, with the seemingly impossible task that the characters nonetheless undertook simply because someone had to. They connected with the black-and-white-ness of it; pure evil being overcome by pure goodness, by loyalty, love, and friendship.

So yes, I do take exception at Sanderson and party’s continual dismissal of The Lord of the Rings. They pay some homage to Tolkien, certainly, because the book defined an important genre, but at the same time refuse to acknowledge there is anything to be learned from it. Their view is understandable to a point; a lot of bad literature has been written through the years in the effort to duplicate Tolkien.

But just because so many fail at it does not diminish what Tolkien did–it strengthens it. It was not easy for even Tolkien to write Tolkien. What he wrote is precisely what he set out to write: mythology; a work so invocative and deep it insinuates itself into a civilization’s collective psyche and culture. So successful was he that the literary form “trilogy” has become a subconscious ideal that has taken a long time to begin to challenge, let alone throw off.

So while I appreciate and enjoy what Sanderson and the rest are doing with Writing Excuses, I’m only willing to follow them so far. I’ve read Tolkien, and I’ve read Sanderson. I know which one has most shaped my life. Sanderson is good. Sanderson is enjoyable. But life-changing? No. Tolkien stands alone.

I’ve gone a bit off my intended topic. My original point was made some time ago. If you’ve made it this far you have my surprise and sympathy.