J.R.R. Tolkien has often been criticized about the lack of deep characters in his work. Many would suggest this comes from his attempt to have fifteen main characters in The Hobbit and nine in The Lord of the Rings. Of course, to those that have a real appreciation of his work (or are blinded by fanatical devotion to everything he ever wrote), these criticisms are not to be taken that seriously. Tolkien obviously did not try to make every Dwarf in The Hobbit a main character in the same way the entire Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings does not contribute to the story equally. I’m not here to pass judgement as a literary scholar (as I have no such degree) about the depth Tolkien’s characters do or do not possess, but I would like to look closely at the characters he created and examine how exactly they fit into the epic he wove.
In part 1 of this mini series about Purpose in The Lord of the Rings, we looked at the broader swath of how the different races of the Fellowship of the Ring contribute to the narrative at large. I would now like to zoom in a little more on each individual character and see how they all supplement the plot and main ideas of the story. What I am not going to do with this post is try to dissect and interpret the hidden meanings and symbolism of all of the characters’ actions; I want to simply examine why each one is important to this book.
To accomplish this more easily, I have arbitrarily broken up the Fellowship into smaller parts to both examine groups of the characters and then the individuals. Seeing as how there are nine members of the Fellowship, I have split the characters into three divisions of my own preference: what I call The Other Hobbits, The Three Kindreds, and The Three Keys. These will be explained a little more as we go. As I stated before, I’m not interested (at least not in this particular post) about what each character necessarily represents metaphorically, but more specifically what they contribute to the narrative and why they exist in a practical sense. Hopefully this will also make more sense as we move forward. Lastly, I will give my personal verdict as to whether or not each character was really necessary to include and how their function might have been revised if they were excluded.
In this post, we’ll look at The Other Hobbits of the Fellowship. Parts 3 and 4 will subsequently address The Three Kindreds and The Three Keys.
Note: I will skip most of the trivia and biographical facts for each character as these won’t really contribute much to this discussion and all of that stuff would just be me copying from Wikipedia anyways. Don’t judge me! It’s hard enough remembering the birthdays of people in real life, let alone fictional characters!
The Other Hobbits
The first group I want to take a closer look at in the Fellowship is what I’m calling The Other Hobbits (mostly because I couldn’t think of a more clever name). These will include the three halflings that are not Frodo as he serves more of a main character function and they (arguably) do not; but, while they may not be the sole Ring-bearer, they are not to be outdone in terms of bravery and importance from a narrative perspective. These hobbits all work together, sometimes as a team and sometimes separately, to push the plot along and feed the fire of the fantastical story being developed. Let’s look at them one-by-one and see how Tolkien accomplished this through them (or if he failed at the attempt). The first character we are looking at is Meriadoc Brandybuck; more commonly known as Merry.
What he does: The first time we have real and meaningful interaction with Merry is when he rides up out of the fog as the hobbits are being taken to the ferry by Farmer Maggot. After the initial scare of thinking he is a Black Rider, he leads the way to Crickhollow (where Frodo is meant to be staying) and from there the real journey begins. It is indeed Merry’s idea to take the “shortcut” through the Old Forest on their way east. This may have placed the halflings in many unnecessary and unexpected dangers but in the end provided some of the most important plot devices in the story. The most immediate of these being that the hobbits were able to evade the Black Riders entirely for the several days they were off the main road. After an eerie trek through the Old Forest and a close-encounter with a bad-tempered tree, they meet Tom Bombadil, an interesting danger in himself, who later saves them from the barrow-wight. Here they receive the barrow blades. These were forged to combat the Witch-king and his armies at a time when darkness threatened the north. This proves most fortunate as Merry uses one of these very blades to aid Éowyn in defeating the Witch-king at the Battle of Pelennor Fields, one of the greatest accomplishments of the entire story.
Well before this, however, both Merry and Pippin are captured by orcs. This leads to the Three Hunters (Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas) pursuing the band of Uruks in hopes of saving their small friends. Things do not quite work out that perfectly, though perhaps it was better for the story that way. Merry and Pippin, after escaping from the orcs with help from the Riders of Rohan, journey into Fangorn Forest where they meet Treebeard, an ent, and also where the Three Hunters are reunited with Gandalf. The hobbits help Treebeard and the other ents realize exactly what needs to be done about Saruman and his orcs, which leads to the Last March of the Ents on Isengard and the ultimate defeat of Saruman. At the same time, though they did not find the hobbits, Aragorn and his two companions follow Gandalf to Edoras which evetually leads to the salvation of Rohan. Skipping ahead, perhaps the most pertinent contribution to the War of the Ring by Merry, is his humble oath and swearing of himself to King Théoden of Rohan. He accepts Merry’s service and makes him Holdwine of the Mark. This proves to be very important as, after Pippin leaves with Gandalf for Gondor, Merry is alone in the midst of the Rohirrim as they prepare for war. Forbidden by the king to ride with them to Gondor, Merry is taken up by Dernhelm (later revealed to be Éowyn) and gets the opportunity to fight for his new master. As mentioned before, this ultimately proves very fortunate as Merry goes unnoticed by the Witch-king and is able to stab him with the barrow blade, allowing Éowyn to make the final blow.
Why it matters: I think it would be safe to say that Merry’s contribution in the defeat of the Witch-king alone is enough to justify his inclusion in the story. But that’s the thing: that event by itself is a result of so many other interwoven decisions and actions made by him and other characters leading up to that. As we’ll see as we continue through the rest of the Fellowship, it is not easy to take any of them out of the narrative and revise their role. Had Merry not been captured by the orcs, the Fellowship might not have journeyed westward and never have come to Rohan or met Gandalf until it was too late. He also provides us with a point of view from within the ranks of the Rohirrim and gets us closer to the king than perhaps we would see from another character. My verdict on Merry is that he is essential; his Witch-king take-down alone justifies this, I think.
What he does: Many of the details of Peregrin Took’s contribution to the story are the same as Merry’s for a large part it, so I’ll try to avoid doubling down. Picking up on Pippin’s unique contribution in the latter parts of the narrative finds him at the foot of Orthanc, as the parley with Saruman is coming to an end. From a window high above, a heavy, globular stone is tossed and smashes one of the front steps of the tower, rolling towards one of the many standing pools of water scattered across the court of Isengard as a result of the fury of the ents. Pippin saves the stone from being lost and picks it up. He reluctantly hands it over to Gandalf, but the damage is already done.
Pippin’s temptation later gets the best of him and he sneaks the stone away from the wizard while he sleeps. The hobbit gazes into the ball (later revealed to be a Palantír, a Seeing-stone of Númenor) and has an encounter with Sauron, the Dark Lord himself. The result of this is twofold: firstly, Sauron seeing Pippin in the stone was likely a contributing factor to his over confidence in the War of the Ring. This alone did not cause the Dark Lord to over-extend his reach, but certainly gave him a false hope of domination. This is primarily due to him thinking Pippin was the Ring-bearer. Sauron thought Saruman had caught the most important prize of all and was over-excited to finally get his lost Ring back. Secondly, as punishment for his disobedience, Gandalf makes Pippin ride with him to Gondor. A long chain of events results from this, the most important being Pippin’s meeting with Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. Like Merry to Théoden, Pippin swears fealty to the Steward and becomes a member of the Guard of Minas Tirith. This, also like Merry’s relationship to the king of Rohan, allows Pippin almost-unfettered access to the highest places and events of the White City, and a unique perspective of the royalty of Gondor. Finally, when Faramir is brought back to the city and is feared dead by almost everyone, including his own father, Pippin is the one with sense enough to see that it is not so, and stands up to the quickly-waning sanity of Denethor. As Denethor gives the orders for both father and son to be burned alive, Pippin runs to fetch help from Gandalf. The wizard arrives just in time to save Faramir’s life and see the final, sad moments of Denethor’s.
Why it matters: Perhaps Pippin’s peril does not seem to hold as much weight as Merry’s. After all, yeah it was nice he saved a guy’s life, but what did that really accomplish? Sure, Sauron may have gotten fooled for a little bit with his run-in with the hobbit in the Seeing-stone, but what did that ultimately matter? Maybe not much in the long run. Had he not looked into the Palantír, maybe very little would actually be different in the overall narrative structure. We would, as readers, get a lot less information about Denethor and the happenings in Gondor while the Rohirrim were making their way there, and we probably would’ve lost the other son of the Steward, but maybe nothing drastic. I have a personal favor for the chapters with Pippin in Minas Tirith and do think it’s crucial to the story in providing that counterpart perspective to Merry’s Rohan story, but that is just my opinion. My verdict on Pippin’s inclusion is that he is not entirely necessary, though enjoyable.
What he does: Beloved Samwise Gamgee is the third “other” hobbit in the Fellowship, but perhaps number 1 in the hearts of most readers. There is so much to say about Sam, but I don’t want to fill up the rest of the post on one character. To save time and condense my thoughts, I’ll break Sam’s contribution up into three possible roles he could be described as fulfilling in the narrative:
- The servant: In hobbit society, there are very real divisions between families and classes; some are simply born into the higher class and are thus born into more of the role of servant-hood than anything else. This is not to say that all servants stay servants, as Sam is the prime example, but to understand Sam’s role in The Lord of the Rings one must take into account the reality that Sam is not on the same caste level of the other hobbits. This is seen by Sam’s willful attendance to some of the more menial work among the characters. He cooks often and runs errands and takes more than his share of the load and trouble the Fellowship experiences. He knows his place as the story progresses and he finds himself faced with the decision to follow his master, Frodo, or try to head back home. He doesn’t for a second consider leaving his master and acts as though it is his life’s duty to stay by Frodo’s side.
- The friend: Perhaps the most heart-warming aspect of Sam’s many-faceted role is his undying devotion to not only be Frodo’s servant, but also his friend. Sam is constantly defending Frodo throughout the story: from Gollum, from Shelob, and from entire mobs of orcs at Cirith Ungol. He is constantly thinking about Frodo’s well-being and standing up for him, perhaps to the point of stepping out of place as far as servants go, but not shying away from being a true-hearted friend. Sam goes above and beyond what any servant should do, and risks his life as one friend would for another. He loves Frodo. Our modern, homophobic society can’t imagine love between two men meaning anything but “they are gay,” but this is far from that. The love Sam has for Frodo is the love men want to have for each other but can’t shirk their pride long enough to make it happen. Sam is the best friend to have and that plays out in the narrative consistently.
- The hero: Referred to by Tolkien as “the chief hero” of the story, Sam could be considered to be one of the main characters of The Lord of the Rings. I am of the persuasion that Frodo is indeed the main character, seeing as how the story follows him and he is the chief person the story revolves around, but I can attest to the fact that Sam’s role is equally important and he is indeed the true hero of the story. His naivety and outright dull-wittedness is largely overridden by his heroism and valor in the latter chapters of the book. He fends off Gollum, absolutely defeats Shelob, and is brave enough to storm the Tower of Cirith Ungol to reclaim his master. Perhaps the most heroic acts he performs involves the One Ring. He makes the desperate decision to take the Ring off of his master when he thought he was dead, and then, in perhaps the most moving scene of the book, he physically carries his weakened master up the face of Mount Doom.On top of all of this, the key literary function Sam serves is to provide the reader with his perspective. As Frodo slowly slips deeper into the veil of the Ring’s power, he becomes more and more distant; more and more unrelatable to the audience. As this occurs, the narrative naturally shifts to Sam’s perspective. The slow-thinking, but sure-hearted hobbit gives a simple, straight, and more innocent tinge to the final, darker parts of the story.
Why it matters: It should go without saying that Sam’s role in the story is anything but useless. You would have to be a monster to not be moved by the love the hobbit has for his master and friend, and his devotion to the task at hand is admirable to even the most fearless reader. It’s hard to imagine The Lord of the Rings without the Gamgee hobbit involved. “Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam,” is an understatement. A lot of singular acts Sam does justifies his inclusion in the story, not the least being his taking of the Ring before Frodo is captured by the orcs. My verdict on Sam Gamgee, in case it hasn’t been made clear enough, is that he is 100% necessary to the integrity of the story and everything the narrative stands for.
This concludes part 2 of my take on Purpose in The Lord of the Rings. The next part will contain the second group of the Fellowship characters, the Three Kindreds, where I talk about the roles Boromir, Gimli, and Legolas play in the story. Do they matter in the long run or did Tolkien just put them in to be able to write more about Dwarves and Elves and snobby Men? We’ll discuss it next time! Finally, in part 4, we’ll finish up with the “Three Keys.”