From the outset, The Fellowship of the Ring introduces readers to a world in which cultures memorialize the feats of their legendary heroes in myth and song. In Tolkien’s early chapters, the narrator and protagonists make reference to larger-than-life individuals who excelled in combat and magic, including Frodo’s ancestor Bandobras “Bullroarer” Took (renowned as the hobbit who slew the orc leader at the Battle of Greenfields), as well as Gil-Galad and Elendil (elvish and Númenórean high kings of old who fought together against the evil Dark Lord Sauron in the battles of the Second Age). The Fellowship’s protagonists remember these great heroes of past ages long after their deaths due to the glory they have earned on the battlefield. Tolkien complicates this definition of heroism, however, as the story goes on. Nine individuals form the titular Fellowship (also known as the Company of the Ring) in order to defeat Sauron by destroying the Ring that would enable him total domination over Middle-earth. During their journey towards Sauron’s stronghold in Mordor, it becomes apparent that the strongest and bravest fighters in the Company of the Ring are not necessarily the heroes of the tale. Tolkien employs a dynamic and diverse Fellowship to suggest that heroism is not dependent on particular skills and talents, but rather on one’s moral fortitude and acts of selflessness.
Those with great talents or skills—in magic, fighting, or wisdom—are not necessarily the most heroic characters of the story. Boromir, Captain of Gondor, is a man of renowned skill in combat who frequently uses his sheer strength to support members of the Fellowship. For example, he and Aragorn use their size, strength, and stamina to force paths through the deep snowbanks on the mountain of Caradhras. Boromir is also a member of the Fellowship who deals with the brunt of the orc assault in Moria. However, he fleetingly but significantly betrays the Company of the Ring when he tries to take the Ring from Frodo by force in order to wield the Ring’s power himself. In this case, Boromir’s strength actually negates his heroism—his talent on the battlefield doesn’t automatically elevate him as a hero. Similarly, Gimli the dwarf is a character of great physical strength who is a powerhouse in battle and an essential protector for the Fellowship. However, he is not the hero of the company due to his tendency to make heated judgments and decisions. Boromir and Gimli demonstrate great courage in battle, but fail as truly heroic characters due to their flaws in arrogance, pride, and folly. Contrastingly, the four hobbits in the Fellowship—Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin—are repetitively referred to as insignificant by their comrades and themselves. Indeed, most of Middle-earth views hobbits in general as simple, merry folk without much depth of character. The Fellowship’s journey reveals this is not the case, as the hobbits surprise all with their continuous abilities to overcome hardship. Most tellingly, the humble Frodo consistently rejects the Ring’s evil power, despite a man as traditionally heroic as Boromir yielding to its temptation. Tolkien therefore implies that one of the most physically inconsequential and least talented characters is the most heroic due to his moral integrity—Frodo’s resilience in persevering towards a doomed quest while overcoming his fears and failures is the ultimate form of courage.
It is selflessness, particularly in the forms of humility and service, that Tolkien promotes as the key aspect of courage and heroism. By thrusting the four hobbits into situations in which their allies and enemies are greater than them in physical stature as well as in fighting and magical prowess, Tolkien dramatizes the distinction between moral and physical power. The hobbits demonstrate a stronger moral compass than many of their peers, particularly due to their humility in admitting their weaknesses and fears, and through their camaraderie in volunteering their services to the Company of the Ring despite likely death. These forms of selflessness arise from a loyalty to one another and to their home, contrasting with the goal of earning personal glory that drives traditional heroes. Furthermore, The Fellowship of the Ring does not suggest that heroes are fearless, but rather that courage requires individuals to acknowledge and deal with their fears—even if there is little hope in defeating them completely. Frodo the Ring-bearer is heroic because he is willing to attempt to defy Sauron, despite the ultimate personal cost of a likely death. Aragorn is another character that Tolkien promotes as a hero in The Fellowship. Although Aragorn has mighty skills in combat, selflessness in serving others has always been his guide to right action and seems to eclipse his more traditionally heroic qualities. For example, the inhabitants of Bree treat Aragorn with suspicion and even malice due to his mysterious nature. They are unaware that they owe their safe lifestyles to the tireless work of Aragorn and the Rangers who guard Bree’s borders. The Rangers’ collective heroism in protecting unknowing common folk demonstrates another form of selflessness and humility. Overall, then, the hobbits and Aragorn reveal that heroism is not about proving oneself the bravest and strongest, but instead relies on selflessness, courage in the midst of fear, and the bonds of fellowship in taking care of others.
From a modern perspective, readers likely agree with Tolkien that acts of selflessness and moral integrity are more noble and heroic than the traditional definition of seeking personal glory through combat. In considering the role of a hero, Tolkien demonstrates that a person’s strength and courage is not determined by their stature, skills, or talents. Indeed, The Fellowship of the Ring relates the story of how the most unlikely of characters can be central to the fate of the world.
Courage, Heroism, and Selflessness ThemeTracker
Courage, Heroism, and Selflessness Quotes in The Fellowship of the Ring
At no time had Hobbits of any kind been warlike, and they had never fought among themselves. [...]
Nonetheless, ease and peace had left this people still curiously tough. They were, if it came to it, difficult to daunt or kill; and they were, perhaps, so unwearyingly fond of good things not least because they could, when put to it, do without them, and could survive rough handling by grief, foe, or weather in a way that astonished those who did not know them well and looked no further than their bellies and their well-fed faces.
For some years he was quite happy and did not worry about the future. But half unknown to himself the regret that he did not go with Bilbo was steadily growing. He found himself wandering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams. He began to say to himself “Perhaps I shall cross the river myself one day.” To which the other half of his mind always replied “Not yet.”
[…] He took to wandering further afield and more often by himself; and Merry and his other friends watched him anxiously. Often he was seen walking and talking with the strange wayfarers that began at this time to appear in the Shire.
“[Bilbo] used often to say there was only one Road; and that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountains or even further and to worse places?’ He used to say that on the path outside the front door at Bag End, especially after he had been out for a long walk."
“If you don’t come back, sir, then I shan’t, that’s certain,” said Sam. “Don’t you leave him! They said to me. Leave him! I said. I never mean to. I am going with him, if he climbs to the Moon, and if any of those Black Riders try to stop him, they’ll have Sam Gamgee to reckon with, I said. They laughed.”
There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid Hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow. Frodo was neither very fat nor very timid; indeed, though he did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) had thought him the best Hobbit in the Shire. He thought he had come to the end of his adventure, and a terrible end, but the thought hardened him. He found himself stiffening, as if for a final spring; he no longer felt limp like a helpless prey.
"They come from Mordor," said Strider in a low voice. "From Mordor, Barliman, if that means anything to you."
"Save us!" cried Mr. Butterbur turning pale; the name evidently was known to him. "That is the worst news that has come to Bree in my time."
"It is," said Frodo. "Are you still willing to help me?"
"I am," said Mr. Butterbur. "More than ever. Though I don't know what the likes of me can do against, against –" he faltered.
“Against the Shadow in the East,” said Strider quietly. “Not much, Barliman, but every little helps. You can let Mr. Underhill stay here tonight, as Mr. Underhill, and you can forget the name of Baggins, till he is far away.”
“If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, [the Rangers] have played another part. Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay. You know little of the lands beyond your bounds. Peace and freedom, do you say? The North would have known them little but for us.
[…] Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names. 'Strider' I am to one fat man who lives within a day's march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly. Yet we would not have it otherwise. If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so. That has been the task of my kindred, while the years have lengthened and the grass has grown.”
“It is true that if these Hobbits understood the danger, they would not dare to go. But they would still wish to go, or wish that they dared, and be shamed and unhappy. I think, Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom. Even if you chose for us an Elf-lord, such as Glorfindel, he could not storm the Dark Tower, nor open the road to the Fire by the power that is in him.”
“Slow should you be to wind that horn again, Boromir,” said Elrond, “until you stand once more on the borders of your land, and dire need is on you.”
“Maybe," said Boromir. "But always I have let my horn cry at setting forth, and though thereafter we may walk in the shadows, I will not go forth as a thief in the night.”
"It was not the fault of the Dwarves that the friendship waned," said Gimli.
"I have not heard it was the fault of the Elves," said Legolas.
"I have heard both," said Gandalf; "and I will not give judgement now. But I beg you two, Legolas and Gimli, at least to be friends, and to help me. I need you both. The doors are shut and hidden, and the sooner we find them the better. Night is at hand."
"And now we must enter the Golden Wood, you say. But of that perilous land we have heard in Gondor, and it is said that few come out who once go in; and of that few none have escaped unscathed."
"Say not unscathed, but if you say unchanged, then maybe you will speak the truth," said Aragorn. "But lore wanes in Gondor, Boromir, if in the city of those who once were wise they now speak evil of Lothlórien [...] only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them.”
[Aragorn’s] own plan, while Gandalf remained with them, had been to go with Boromir, and with his sword help to deliver Gondor. For he believed that the message of the dreams was a summons, and that the hour had come at last when the heir of Elendil should come forth and strive with Sauron for the mastery. But in Moria the burden of Gandalf had been laid on him; and he knew that he could not now forsake the Ring, if Frodo refused in the end to go with Boromir. And yet what help could he or any of the Company give to Frodo, save to walk blindly with him into the darkness?
Then the Lady unbraided one of her long tresses, and cut off three golden hairs, and laid them in Gimli’s hand. “These words shall go with the gift,” she said. “I do not foretell, for all foretelling is now vain: on the one hand lies darkness, and on the other only hope. But if hope should not fail, then I say to you, Gimli son of Glóin, that your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion.”
"We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of Wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And behold! in our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory. What could not Aragorn do? Or if he refuses, why not Boromir? The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!"
The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills: orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes. Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly strife of Elves and Men and fell bests. The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lórien.
Horsemen were galloping on the grass of Rohan; wolves poured from Isengard. From the havens of Harad ships of war put out to sea; and out of the East Men were moving endlessly: swordsmen, spearmen, bowmen upon horses, chariots of chieftains and laden wains. All the power of the Dark Lord was in motion. Then turning south again he beheld Minas Tirith. Far away it seemed, and beautiful: white-walled, many towered, proud and fair upon its mountain-seat; its battlements glittered with steel, and its turrets were bright with many banners. Hope leaped in [Frodo's] heart. But against Minas Tirith was set another fortress, greater and more strong. Thither, eastward, unwilling his eye was drawn. It passed the ruined bridges of Osgiliath, the grinning gates of Minas Morgul, and the haunted Mountains, and it looked upon Gorgoroth, the valley of terror in the Land of Mordor.
"But I must go at once. It's the only way."
"Of course it is," answered Sam. "But not alone. I'm coming too, or neither of us isn't going. I'll knock holes in all the boats first."
Frodo actually laughed. A sudden warmth and gladness touched his heart.
[…] “ So my plan is spoilt!” said Frodo. “It is no good trying to escape you. But I'm glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad. Come along! It is plain that we were meant to go together. We will go, and may the others find a safe road!”