Frodo’s role as the main protagonist of The Lord of the Rings changes significantly in the novel’s final volume. Frodo no longer leads the quest, but is increasingly led by others and by circumstance. We wonder in what sense Frodo remains the true Ring-bearer if he himself must be borne by others in order to carry on his quest. For a brief time at the opening of Book VI, Frodo does not even possess the Ring. Lying naked in the tower of Cirith Ungol, Frodo appears a lifeless shell with little control of the Ring’s movement toward Mount Doom. After the quest is completed, Frodo looms in the background of the events in Middle-earth and slips into irrelevance in his home, the Shire. Frodo explains to Sam in the last chapter that he is “wounded” in a way that will never heal. Certainly, Frodo is far from morbid or pitiful. His once-youthful nobility now appears a weathered reticence. Rather, Frodo is wounded because all the experiences after Mount Doom seem like a trite footnote. More important, Frodo feels wounded because he has completed a grand quest in which the goal—to get rid of something—was distinctly negative. In this, Frodo remains the true hero, for he has succeeded in a task that no one really wanted. The quest is both futile and yet the most important deed of all. Frodo’s loss of vigor and identity after such a strange accomplishment propels his desire to sail away to the paradise of the West.
Sam’s remarkable heroism in Book VI consists of courageous action that is tempered by love and spontaneity. Aragorn and the Riders of Rohan fight without restraint, as though they have always done so and know little else. As a Hobbit, Sam tends merely to stumble into adventurous deeds, and his plodding pursuit to save Frodo echoes with the running self-commentary Sam performs in his head. We do not just watch Sam run through the gates of Cirith Ungol brandishing the phial of Galadriel; we hear Sam prepare himself and see him shrug his shoulders and fumble absentmindedly for the magic phial. We know that Sam is not really an imposing Elf-warrior, as the Ring’s power causes the Orcs to see him. Instead, we see the Orcs from Sam’s perspective, sharing his dismay when they turn to run from him in fear. Sam offers a model of the hero whose heroism lies not in impulse, but in the choices he constantly and consciously makes to perform heroic deeds. Sam’s heroism is comical, for he is consistently surprised by his success.
Sam’s playfulness as a surprised hero is tempered by his genuine devotion to Frodo. All heroes must have first principles—the -inspiration of their actions. Sam possesses such a strong tacit love for Frodo that he becomes united with the object of his service. As Sam climbs Mount Doom, carrying Frodo, the comrades appear to be only one hobbit climbing, not two. The ascent of Mount Doom is emblematic of Sam’s friendship with Frodo. Sam’s sacrifice produces true friendship, for he loses all thoughts of himself in his devoted care for his companion and master.
Gandalf is a formidable and intimidating Wizard who uses his powers sparingly and cares primarily for the individuals around him. He takes Pippin with him to Minas Tirith, as though both he and the hobbit might soften each other’s behavior. Gandalf spends each night answering Pippin’s unending questions and allaying the hobbit’s fears. The wizard is patient and stern with Pippin, but he always has time to listen to the hobbit, and he values Pippin’s perspective on the Steward of Gondor. Gandalf’s attention remains divided between the political and the private, between the cosmic future of Middle-earth and the immediate personal needs of those around him. Tolkien uses Gandalf to establish the importance of redemption in the novel, showing that present, personal dilemmas always supercede responsibility to the larger, mystical crises of the world. For instance, Gandalf turns from rebuking the Black Captain of Mordor at the city gates to deal with the crazed Denethor, who has locked himself in the Citadel to attempt suicide.
Like Frodo, Gandalf—whom we later learn is a bearer of one of the three lesser Rings—distinguishes himself from the evil Sauron in that he does not perceive his life or destiny to be fixed. Sauron has limited himself to evil, and evil has become for him a necessary logic. Gandalf rarely plays the role of the enchanting wizard, and he uses his power sparingly. Rather, Gandalf uses his wisdom to imagine new possibilities in his counsel to others, offering others redemption by imagining their potential for good. Gandalf believes that it is possible for even the Lieutenant of Mordor or the dejected Saruman to turn from their evil ways and follow a new, unexpected path.
The title of the third volume, The Return of the King, refers to Aragorn, or Strider, and his return to claim the throne of Gondor. When the hobbits first encounter Strider in The Fellowship of the Ring, he is a cloaked and mysterious Ranger of the North, a mercenary who patrols the borders of Middle-earth against bandits and evildoers. As the novel progresses, we learn that Strider is Aragorn, the heir of Isildur, the last and greatest king of Men who led the forces of Middle-earth against the armies of Mordor. To the hobbits, Strider appears rugged yet strangely stately, an ideal combination for the ruler of the great realm of Gondor. As time passes, however, Strider becomes quiet and aloof. He increasingly refers to himself as Aragorn, and his attention is fixed mainly on the throne he will claim if the quest to destroy the Ring succeeds.
In Books V and VI, Aragorn ceases to be a character who reveals himself through conversations, personality quirks, or limited knowledge of events. Aragorn becomes the opposite of the hobbits, who represent the common individual’s perspective and for whom the quest is a journey of self-understanding and discovery. Aragorn’s character reveals itself in the roles he plays, and particularly in the symbolic actions he performs. Aragorn emerges as a Christ figure—one whose experiences resemble those of Christ and who performs a sacrifice that redeems others. Interestingly, Tolkien’s Christ figure does not sacrifice himself for anyone in the novel. Aragorn heals people, like Christ in the biblical Gospels, but he suffers no wounds on their behalf. Tolkien opens the sacrificial role to all characters, particularly the most humble ones, the hobbits. Aragorn represents the eschatology of Christ—the belief that Christ will return to establish a kingdom on earth for his faithful.