Let’s be frank: Frodo was kind of a whiny turd who failed his mission and betrayed the most loyal character in literature.
Tolkien, in his brilliance, befuddled us into believing that Frodo Baggins was the hero of LOTR, when in reality it was his gardener who accomplished the greatest act of the Third Age.
MISDIRECTION. The old Oxford professor of languages understood this subtle, difficult-to-master writing art.
While many writers will mislead their readers through unreliable narrators, or narrators who are uninformed or misinformed, Tolkien took another route—a longer, winding path—to misdirecting his readers. He chose to share his tale in Third Person, following primarily Frodo, and secondarily a few supporting characters, when all along it was the sidekick we should’ve been focusing on.
This was misleading, because Frodo possesses few of the qualities of a hero. Sure, his journey is tragic, and he chooses to take the hard road, but he is, for the most part, a reactive character that rarely seems to put himself out there for others, and indeed never seems interested in the well-being of others. The fact that he takes on a quest may seem noble, but as Tolkien makes clear through some clever phrasing, the Shire-folks’ decision was made almost without his heart and will:
‘At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.’
Frodo’s decision seems almost guided by a higher power (perhaps by one of the Power’s of which Tolkien was frustratingly vague and evasive in the LOTR.)
All throughout his journey, Frodo depends entirely on Sam. Sam cooks, comforts, hunts and fights for Frodo, without complaining. It is Sam who tries to protect Frodo from the deceptions of Gollum/Smeagol. And finally it is Sam who fights off Shelob in what might be the most moving scene in the entire Trilogy. Sam displays the courage of Strider without the training and muscles. He shows the loyalty of a true friend, one who would die for another.
Do we need even mention that moment on Mount Doom? (Tolkien had a knack for character names, but seriously, Mount Doom?)
‘I can’t carry it for you—’ even though he had done just that after poking Shelob ‘—but I can carry you!’
I still get writer tingles just thinking of that scene.
If all these actions of Sam ‘the Gardener’ Gamgee are not enough to convince us that he is the true hero and main protagonist of the tale, Tolkien brings this truth home by concluding the entire series with Sam. He returns home from seeing Frodo off to the Havens, and then settles into his chair by the fire, puts his feet up on a stool and declares: “Well, I’m back.”
It’s as if Tolkien is finally admitting that it was Sam we were following through Middle-Earth all along. There and Back Again: a Hobbits Tale may tell of the adventures of Bilbo and Frodo, but it is Sam who finishes it, Sam who comes back again.
Frodo never really returned home. He was too damaged, too emotionally broken to have psychologically survived the Fellowship’s horrorshow of a quest. Sam, on the other hand, improves his life on returning to the Shire. After facing off against orcs and giant spiders, proposing to Rose Cottonwood proves to be an easy and enjoyable privilege. He becomes mayor of Hobbiton, produces a brood of happy healthy children, and, when he is good and ready, is honored by being allowed to cross over to the Havens—having been, for a brief but noble time, a ring-bearer.
Misdirection. Tolkien knew that if Sam were directly shown to be the main character, we would:
- Quickly grow weary of his unshakable loyalty to a lesser character
- View Frodo as a poor friend and borderline antagonist
- Wonder why Frodo was even going on the Quest
Frodo’s journey and struggles were intriguing because we were led to believe he was the hero of the tale, and so when he struggled and grew too weak and weary to continue, we felt his weariness. And it was Sam who picked us up. Sam’s energy never seemed to flag. He never wavered in his devotion. Placing him as the clear protagonist would not have worked, because he is almost too good of a person be taken seriously. Frodo is very much affected by the stories’ events; he has weaknesses, and so we can easily identify with him. We understand heavy burdens. Frodo is the everyman. Sam is the almost-un-relatable hero we both aspire to and have a hard time believing could exist for real.
The brilliance of misdirection—when done skillfully in a novel—is that it adds an element of unpredictability to the narrative. If you cannot rely on the narrator, or if the author is intentionally misleading you, the epic finale will come as a pleasant surprise. No spoilers spelled out for you the way amateur writers would have done.
In my YA fantasy W.A.N.D. I incorporate misdirection (SPOILER ALERT!) by leading readers to believe that the Mythics are the main antagonists, when it is something altogether darker and even more threatening lurking behind the scenes which forces Nick into making certain decisions. The need of a wand is even more important because of this lurking menace. By misdirecting readers, I add an unstable unpredictable element. This–I believe–adds depth and intrigue to the book.
When you go to practice your own misdirection remember what Tolkien said: It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
Don’t be afraid to be swept off by your writing. You never know where it might take you.