As I was reading The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien recently (read my review here), I was struck by a passage in the final version of the story where the protagonist Tuor walks into an abandoned city/throne room, finds a dazzling set of arms left behind, and promptly claims them as his own. For the briefest of moments, I was confused. Who finds expensive armor and just puts it on? But then I realized that Tuor’s sense that this was right, that the armor was meant for him (…turns out it was, actually) is something I love about Tolkien’s work. Tuor is a hero with confidence, someone who knows he can achieve and is determined to set out to do it. In this moment, the readers see Tuor as he is meant to be seen, a stern and mighty hero, destined to change the fate of Middle-Earth.
This isn’t something I see a lot of in other fantasy, which tends to emphasize the uncertainty of the hero/heroine as a way to help readers “relate” to a protagonist who is objectively doing extraordinary things. Tolkien’s work, in contrast, often does not shy away from emphasizing the heroic nature of its characters (think, for instance, of Aragorn). That isn’t to say that these characters don’t work hard or face challenges or have doubt. They do. But the world building of Middle-Earth and the existence of a higher power invests the characters with a steadiness of spirit I don’t always see in other protagonists.
Before I explain more, here’s the passage from The Fall of Gondolin I’m thinking of:
As he stood before the great chair in the gloom, and saw that it was hewn of a single stone and written with strange signs, the sinking sun drew level with a high window under the westward gable, and a shaft of light smote the wall before him, and glittered as it were upon burnished metal. Then Tuor marvelling saw that on the wall behind the throne there hung a shield and a great hauberk, and a helm and a long sword in a sheath. The hauberk hone as it were wrought of silver untarnished, and the sunbeam gilded it with sparks of gold. But the shield was of a shape strange to Tuor’s eyes, for it was long and tapering; and its field was blue, in the midst of which was wrought an emblem of a white swan’s wing. Then Tuor spoke, and his voice rang as a challenge in the roof: ‘By this token I will take these arms unto myself, and upon myself whatsoever doom they bear.’ And he lifted down the shield and found it light and wieldy beyond his guess; for it was wrought, it seemed, of wood, but overlaid by the craft of elven-smiths with plates of metal, strong y et thing as foil, whereby it has been preserved from worm and weather.
Then Tuor arrayed himself in the hauberk, and set the helm upon his head, and he girt himself with the sword; black were sheath and belt with clasps of silver. Thus armed he went forth from Turgon’s hall, and stood upon the high terraces of Taras in the red light of the sun. None were there to see him, as he gazed westward, gleaming in silver and gold, and he knew not that in that hour he appeared as one of the Mighty of the West, and fit to be the father of the kings of the Kings of Men beyond the Sea, as it was indeed his doom to be; but in the taking of those arms a change came upon Tuor song of Huor, and his heart grew great within him.
The Qualifications of a Hero
I read a lot of YA fantasy, so it makes sense that the protagonists, who are young people finding their way in the world, often tend toward being uncertain about their roles as heroes. Many of them don’t want the tasks that have been pressed upon them. Many of them are “ordinary” people without particular skills that would “qualify” them to save the the world, the kingdom, their friends, etc. Authors often think this helps make them “relatable” to readers, who generally also do not have badass archery skills or training in martial arts or a family with a history of greatness. These are the stories of the Everyman rising up to do what needs to be done. (Also, a lot of readers just hate the perceived arrogance of Chosen Ones.)
However, the difference between Tolkien’s heroes and these other fantasy heroes isn’t just their age or uncertainty or “unsuitableness” to be heroes because Tolkien has his Everyman heroes, too, most notably the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. The difference is how confident even the Everyman can be when there is a sense of a guiding force in the universe. Gandalf mentions this explicitly in The Lord of the Rings:
I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work, Frodo, than the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the ring. In which case you also were meant to have it, and that is an encouraging thought.
Although the characters of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (the two of Tolkien’s works that are most familiar to readers) don’t have religious rituals, the world of Middle-Earth is a deeply religious one, ruled over by Iluvatar and shaped by the Valar . Iluvatar’s existence and the sense that he actively intervenes in the fate of Middle-Earth (not a trait shared by all deities) allow the characters to believe that, even if the journey is difficult, they will find the strength and resources to do what needs to be done.
It is this belief, I think, that allows Tuor to don that armor with such confidence.
A Higher Power
I’ve talked briefly before about how I don’t see a lot of religion in fantasy, not in the sense that the characters’ believes or actions are actively shaped by their faith. (Sure, a character might stop by a temple or take the name of a god in vain, but I rarely see characters who say, for instance, “I am going to do x” or “I am not going to do y because of my faith.”) And in a world where no higher beings exist, or the characters don’t think those deities care about humans or intercede on their behalf, then heroes must rely on their own skills, their own determination, and the help of their friends or allies to succeed at their missions.
Tolkien’s heroes, however, believe that Iluvatar and the Valar will intercede on their behalf, maybe not directly, but enough that they can always have hope, even in the darkest of places. After Tuor takes his armor, he goes out to the sea and receives a mission from that Vala Ulmo to journey to the hidden city of Gondolin and warn King Turgon that he must march against Morgoth, if there is to be a chance of defeating the Dark Lord.
Tuor is willing but a bit skeptical, and Ulmo tells him:
“If I choose to send thee, Tuor son of Huor, then believe not that they one sword is not worth the sending.”
Even when things go wrong, Tuor, like Frodo, can find solace in the fact that he was meant to undertake the journey.
So, while I initially began reading Tuor as oddly presumptive and arrogant, I quickly came around to the idea that his confidence is warranted; he has the guidance and love of higher powers who will help him on his journey. That doesn’t mean it won’t be hard. It doesn’t even mean the the journey will succeed. It simply allows him to have faith in his own mission and his ability to do what must be done.