As the Ring-bearer and then principal protagonist of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is endowed with a temperament well suited to resist evil. He is brave, selfless, thoughtful, wise, observant, and even unfailingly polite. Unlike the common run of provincial, self-satisfied Hobbits, Frodo is curious about the outside world and knowledgeable about the traditions of the Elves. As everyone from Bilbo to Gandalf to Aragorn notices, there is something special in Frodo, something that sets him apart from the rest of his race—a fineness, perhaps, or an inner strength. Frodo’s goodness, wisdom, and generally impeccable character might make him seem one-dimensional if he were not so frequently wracked with doubt and faced with obstacles he feels unable to surmount. Frodo is not Elrond, nor even Aragorn; he has no otherworldly powers or even physical prowess. Frodo is initially so weak he can barely even get out of the Shire without the help of Farmer Maggot and then Tom Bombadil.
The Hobbit, small and furtive, is a clever inversion of the typical epic hero—an Odysseus or Beowulf—whose strength and bravery equip him in his struggles against monsters and angry gods. In this sense, Frodo can be seen as a very Christian protagonist. Christianity celebrates the power of humility: it teaches that strength of character triumphs over strength of arms, that the path to salvation lies through sacrifice—even self-sacrifice—in the face of a greater power. Frodo’s stewardship of the Ring and his heroism, which consists largely of resisting the temptation to use the Ring, exemplify these ideas.
Perhaps what distinguishes Frodo more than any other quality is the sense of remote sadness and reluctance that surrounds him. Unlike Aragorn or even Gandalf, there is no particular glory associated with Frodo. He has a great task, but it is to him simply a burden—one that grows heavier as the quest progresses. While in the Shire, Frodo dreamed of adventure; on his quest, he simply longs for home. In this sense, Frodo is again a different hero than the traditional sort. His great adventure does not feel like an adventure to him; it is simply a task, and an impossible one at that. Frodo does not long for the thrill of exploration or battle or timeless deeds of heroism. As such, his willingness to go ahead with the quest speaks much about the sort of strength of character Tolkien values.
The loyal Sam consistently serves as a foil to all of the grandeur and earthshaking events that take place in The Lord of the Rings. Some readers may find Sam’s folksy wisdom and extreme devotion to Frodo somewhat cloying, but these traits do allow Tolkien to keep a little bit of the flavor of the Shire with the Fellowship as it moves toward the dark land of Mordor. Sam is much more the typical Hobbit than Frodo, though Sam, too, displays a great curiosity about the world beyond the Shire, especially Elves. Sam is shy and somewhat awkward socially, but he is ferocious in a fight and clever and quick on his feet. His speech consistently has a modest, awestruck tone. Tolkien, for instance, speaks through Sam when he wishes to capture the particular grace of the Elves simply and directly. Sam also serves as a foil for Frodo’s melancholy and fatalism. When Frodo becomes increasingly preoccupied with the great burden of the Ring, he comes to rely more and more on Sam for help. Indeed, throughout even the lowest and most hopeless points of the journey, Sam remains relentlessly pragmatic and optimistic. If it is Frodo’s duty to “carry” the Ring, it is often Sam’s duty to carry Frodo.
Gandalf is a Wizard of surpassing power and wisdom, but when we first meet him he merely appears to be a wizened old man driving a wagon full of fireworks. This mix of the awe-inspiring and the touchingly human defines Gandalf. He is as comfortable at a Hobbit birthday party as at the Council of Elrond, and he counts both the celestial Galadriel and the lowly Barliman Butterbur among his friends. This quality makes Gandalf a more sympathetic character than the sometimes aloof Elves. It also gives him insights that even the wise Elrond misses, as when Gandalf supports Pippin and Merry’s wish to be included in the Fellowship on the grounds that their loyalty to Frodo makes up for their lack of experience and strength.
Paradoxically, we see Gandalf grow in power throughout The Fellowship of the Ring even as he comes up against obstacles that show him at the limits of his power. He is tested again and again, whether by Saruman or at the Door to Moria or, finally, on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. In some of these moments Gandalf responds with a blazing magical spell or a feat of wizardry, but in others he triumphs in more modest, human ways. After many unsuccessful attempts to open the Door to Moria, Gandalf finally realizes that the password is a deceptively simple riddle. When he cannot remember which way to go in the tunnels of Moria, he calms himself down with a smoke. As we see later, in The Two Towers, Gandalf returns, having survived his battle with the fearsome Balrog and been made even more powerful by his trial. Nevertheless, even at the height of his powers, Gandalf retains his common touch.
Aragorn, much like Gandalf, hides an impressive amount of power, greatness, and knowledge under a humble exterior. We first meet Aragorn as Strider, the laconic, worn Ranger at the Prancing Pony inn in Bree. As the action moves forward, we see Aragorn slowly transform into the king he is destined to become. Aragorn also displays Gandalf’s bravery, kindness, and wisdom—indeed, neither of them appear to have any major faults to speak of. At certain moments, however, Aragorn does display a sort of vulnerability. When questioned about why he does not immediately offer proof of his identity to the hobbits in Bree, one of his answers is simply that he wishes the hobbits would count him as a friend without knowledge of his lineage—indeed, he is tired of being constantly wary. Such an admission is a poignant revelation of a somewhat unexpected trait in such an indomitable woodsman and warrior as Aragorn.