THE EPIC JOURNEYS OF BILBO AND FRODO

THE MYTHIC HERO CYCLE AND J.R.R. TOLKIEN

By Scott Warner


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The relationship of Professor Tolkien's Middle Earth quartet to the famous Mythic Hero Cycle is a very uncertain proposition due to a high degree of ambiguity. Originally intended to be applied to demi-godlike human heroes, the Cycle's relevance for hobbits is questionable. Tolkien intentionally wished to resurrect the literary form of mankind's ancient mythic epic by eliminating the saccharine quality of Victorian fairy tales. Since epic sagas are essentially gigantic adventure tales, they are naturally replete with disputes for supremacy between adversaries; personal ordeals and steadfast devotion to moral responsibility; magic talismans and spells, secret passageways and mysterious conundrums; cliffhanger situations with sudden reappearances, miraculous rescues and hair's breadth escapes; and the ever popular mortal combat with hair-raising monsters.

The heroes of these mythic epics are characters usually born by a liaison between a god or goddess and a mortal human. Though the child of this union (almost always male) is born mortal, he can inherit limited superpowers and great bravery from his godly parent. While analyzing the lives of these Heroes, Lord FitzRoy Raglan (great grandson of Wellington's adjutant general) discovered that there was a common path that many of them followed. He listed 22 similar events that most Heroes underwent, then ranked each one according to the number of communal events he experienced. Oedipus ranked highest with 21 points; Theseus and Moses both scored 20 points; and Dionysus and King Arthur tied for third with 19. Other high scorers were Perseus, Romulus and Heracles. Raglan's concern with this Hero paradigm was not from a lietrary or psychology viewpoint but only with its relevance to the factual existence of these characters. Raglan published his findings in The Hero: A Study In Tradition, Myth And Drama in 1936. He omitted discussion of Jesus for fear of public reaction.

Famed anthropologist Joseph Campbell refined Raglan's formula by showing that the steps of the Mythic Hero pattern formed a circular path with an ascending phase followed by a descending stage. Campbell published his ideas in The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1949. By accident, novelist John Barth stumbled upon Campbell's work and added refinements of his own. Barth realized that the formula was composed of four phases: ascendant; descendant; re-ascendant; and final decline. A diagram of Barth's cycle appeared in his collection of novellas Chimera in 1972.

The question is whether the Hero cycle-like events are present in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy because Professor Tolkien was intentionally invoking the path of the Mythic Hero Cycle in the same manner as George Lucas and J. K. Rowling or simply because the novels and the Cycle are both concerned with intrinsic events in historic myths. While there are numerous correlations between the Cycle and Bilbo's and Frodo's expeditions, there are also significant omissions and discrepancies. Most important of all is the fact that there were no mysterious portents concerning Bilbo's or Frodo's births. Both were of genealogically commonplace stock with no unusual traits to their conceptions. Neither was attacked by a close relative, so there couldn't be any real assassination attempt, wounding or escape from a homicidal family member. Both were the only child born to their parents, thus there could be no true "brother battles."

If Tolkien had been intentionally following the Hero Cycle, it would seem de rigueur that he make some allegorical allusion to these important factors. Since The Hobbit (pub. 1937) grew out of impromptu bedtime stories for his children in the mid-1930s, it's possible that Somerset's theory had no imprint on its creation and any similarities between Bilbo's quest and the Cycle would have been simply coincidental. However he was already an expert on classical mythology and the medieval European sagas by then. So the possibility that Tolkien was conversant with Somerset's Cycle and chose not to include these important features exists. If true, then his reason may have been that such topics were too adult for his intended audience.

Frodo's heritage is quite similar. Tolkien began the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the mid-1940s but Fellowship of the Ring wasn't published until 1954. As an esteemed expert on classical and Norse mythology at Oxford, he could hardly have been unaware of Campbell's celebrated opus by then. The chance to alter Frodo's familial heritage was present yet Prof. Tolkien made no attempt to do so (Frodo's status as orphan adopted by his Uncle Bilbo has no discernable correlation with the Cycle). Gandalf makes note of surprising, undetected qualities in Bilbo's and Frodo's personalities but also alludes to the steadfast, persistent nature of hobbits as a species. Certainly Merry and Pippin exhibit these traits at times. Therefore the heroic qualities of Bilbo and Frodo may not have been so overwhelming! John Barth's adaptation of the Hero Cycle could not have played any part in Tolkien's tetralogy due to the dates involved.

Another substantial divergence of the Middle Earth quartet from the Hero Cycle is that neither Bilbo nor Frodo suffered a tragic death at the end of their quests. At the climaxes of The Hobbit and Return of the King, Bilbo and Frodo each faced imminent death, yet both miraculously survived. Whether Prof. Tolkien chose this option because he was not intentionally following the Cycle or because he thought it inappropriate for the story is indeterminate. Since the final Grey Havens departure scene of Tolkien's masterpiece is as emotionally satisfying for the reader as one could wish for, any tragic death would be superfluous. It is quite apparent that both Aragorn and Gandalf qualify as Mythic Heroes. However, their biographies are not comprehensive enough to allow for discussion of their relationship to the Cycle.

In contrast, George Lucas was definitely schooled in the Hero Cycle and deliberately modeled the lives of Anakin and Luke Skywalker upon its steps. Rowling's use of the Hero Cycle was palpably imitative and Harry Potter missed few opportunities to adhere to the Cycle. Cursory research on Tolkien's speeches and papers reveals nothing overt on this subject. On the other hand, both Lucas and Rowling are famously reticent about admitting their reliance on the Cycle. Without discovering some outright admission by Prof. Tolkien that he was aware of both Somerset's and Campbell's books, there seems little chance of settling this question. If such evidence could be uncovered, then it would not be stretching logic too far to assume that he employed the Mythic Hero Cycle with intent, regardless of the aforementioned omissions.


Notes about the Hero Chart: Like Star Wars, the shuffling of sequential order and the transfer of traits or events to other characters is permissible á la George Lucas. Also similar to Star Wars, the Hero Cycle applies to the Middle Earth stories figuratively as one continuous revolution of the circle. Some steps were interpreted figuratively like Joseph Campbell's theory while others were interpreted literally like John Barth's formula.

MYTHIC HERO CYCLE
NUMBERED WHEELQUADRANT I: DEPARTURE (Steps 1-5)
QUADRANT II: INITIATION (Steps 6-10)
QUADRANT III: RETURN (Steps 11-15)
QUADRANT IV: REIGN and DEATH (Steps 16-20)

Lord of the Rings novels and films:
H) The Hobbit (strictly movies - H1, H2 + H3
1) Fellowship of the Ring ; 2) The Two Towers ; 3) Return of the King

QUADRANT I: DEPARTURE
STEP 1 - Unusual conception and virgin birth; twins
H) Bilbo descended from Bullroarer Took; 1) Frodo's parents of Sackville lineage, not Hobbiton; died in accidental drowning

STEP 2 - Assassination attempt by family member
1) "attacked" by Bilbo in Rivendell
Hero wounded
H3) Bilbo knocked uncious by Bolg; 1) Frodo stabbed by Ringwraith; speared by troll
But escapes
H) Bilbo escapes from goblin cavern; 1) Frodo escapes from Hobbiton; disappears in front of Boromir (Fellowship member); attempts to cross to east bank of Anduin River alone

STEP 3 - Summons to adventure
H) inherent wanderlust of Bilbo; Gandalf scratches rune on door; Bilbo signs Burglar contract; 1) wanderlust of Frodo; markings on Ring appear; horn of Gondor; 2) Helm's Horn; 3) Pippin lights signal fire; Theoden elevates Eowen to heir but she ignores; horn calls of Rohan cavalry

STEP 4 - Acquisition of helper
H) Gandalf; 13 dwarves; Beorn; Elrond; Gwaihir + eagles; thrush; Bard of Lake Town; 1) Sam, Merry + Pippin; Farmer Maggot; Bombadil + Goldberry; Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli + Boromir; Glorfindel + Arwen; Elrond + Galadriel; 2) Eomer + Eowyn; Treebeard; Shadowfax; Haldor the elf at Helm's Deep; 3) Gollum (partially + temporarily); Faramir; army of Dead Men

STEP 5 - Brother battle
H1) Enmity of Thorin; 1) Sméagol + Déagol; brother wizards Gandalf + Saruman; 3) Sméagol + Déagol; "brother" Ringbearers Gollum + Frodo inside Mt. Doom
Dragon battle
H) Trolls; spiders; Smaug; 1) Watcher in the Water; Balrog; 3) wraith dragons at Osgiliath + Minas Tirith; trolls + oliphants; Shelob; wraith dragons at Black Gate
Crucifixion
H1) Threatened with "crucifixion" by trolls; 1) donning of Ring in Bree + Amon Sul?; poisoned Mordor knife; impaled by troll spear; Balrog shatters Gandalf's staff

QUADRANT II: INITIATION
STEP 6 - Imprisonment in whale's belly
H) Bilbo falls down goblin cavern shaft; H3 Gandalf imprisoned in Dol Guldur; 1) Bilbo + Frodo enthralled by Ring; hobbits swallowed by Old Forest trees; imprisoned in barrow
Night sea journey
H) Gollum's lake; Elf feast hallucinations; barrel ride; 1) Buckleberry ferry; dreams at Bombadil's house; Moria lake; 2) enchantment of Theoden; Aragorn's dream of Arwen; 3) transmutation, seclusion + amnesia of Sméagol; insomnia of Frodo ("sleepless menace" of Eye); despair + madness of Denethor; recuperative dream of Galadriel
Petrification
H) Trolls petrified by sun; H1) Stone Giants1) Black Breath; 3) Pippin mesmerized by palantir; lethargy of Frodo; immolation of Denethor; Merry + Eowen semi-paralyzed by stabbing Witch King; spider venom coma
Dismemberment
1) amputation of Sauron's finger; dismemberment of Uglúk (Uruk-hai); 3) Eowen beheads wraith dragon + implosion of Witch King; Gollum bites off finger
Hell's Gate
H) Smaug's cavern; 1) hiding from Rider under tree; Rivendell river; Khazad-düm bridge; Amon Hen observation point; 3) Gate of the Dead; breaching of Minas Tirith gate; tunnel entrance of Mt. Doom; eruption of Mt. Doom; collapse + demolition of Barad-dûr; earthquake + collapse of Black Gate

STEP 7 - Labyrinth
H) goblin cave tunnels; Mirkwood maze; Lonely Mt. tunnels; 1) Moria tunnels; Lothlorien; 2) Emyn Muil maze in fog ; Dead Marshes; 3) Stonewain Valley; Cirith Ungol Winding Stairs + tunnel; Dimwalt road; desolation of Gorgoroth
Scylla & Charybdis
H) Gollum blocks passageway; leaning tree vs Azog; five armies; 1) Caradhras blizzard vs Moria tunnels; fork in tunnels; 2) Black Gate vs Southrons; Gollum vs anti-Gollum; Helm's Deep box canyon; Rohan cavalry vs Fangorn Forest; 3) Faramir vs Denethor; Gollum's lies vs Sam's loyalty; Aragorn vs king of Dead Men; entering Cirith Ungol tunnel vs climbing down; spider webs vs Shelob; orc army in Gorgoroth vs Eye

STEP 8 - Passage of riddles, tests and ordeals
H) capture by trolls; moon runes on map; capture by goblins; Gollum riddle contest; wargs + goblins; spiders; capture by wood elves; Battle of 5 Armies; 1) barrow wights; Riders in Bree + Amon Sul; Caradhras avalanche; code word for Moria doors; 2) pursuit of Uruk-hai; Grima's treachery; Faramir's oliphant engagement; Helm's Deep battle; 3) ascension of Winding Stair; siege of Minas Tirith; Frodo's battles with Shelob + Gollum; Legolas kills oliphant; Frodo's battles with Shelob + Gollum; Sam passes Silent Watchers at Ungol Tower; crossing of Gorgoroth plains; ascension of Mt. Doom; Sam carries Frodo; destruction of Ring

STEP 9 - Adherence to narrow path
H) replaces Gandalf as de facto leader; goes first into Lonely Mt; rejects war madness; rejects treasure; 1) Gandalf rejects Ring; Sam adopts role of Frodo's guardian; Arwen accepts mortal life; Frodo volunteers to carry Ring at Rivendell; Galadriel + Aragorn reject Ring; Sam follows Frodo to east bank of Anduin River; 2) Frodo spares Gollum's life (swears allegiance to "Master"); Frodo wants to save Gollum from Ring enthrallment; Frodo's resolve to accomplish task; "fixed path" of Aragorn; Arwen's choice of mortal life; Faramir resists lure of Ring + releases Frodo, Sam + Gollum; 3) Theoden honors Gondor beacon; Pippin swears allegiance to Denethor; Faramir self-sacrifice at behest of Denethor; Eowen + Merry secretly join Rohan cavalry; Sam gives Ring back to Frodo

STEP 10 - Illumination
H) illumination about life from Mirkwood treetop vision; illumination about greed + war; 1) illumination for Gandalf about true nature of Bilbo's ring; illumination for Gandalf about Sauron + Saruman; acceptance by Aragorn of his destiny; Frodo's vision at Seat of Amon Hen; 2) illumination for Theoden about recent events; illumination for Frodo that quest will be fatal; illumination for Merry about Shire's fate; illumination for Faramir about Ring's iniquity; 3) palantír vision of Eye for Pippin; Arwen's vision of son; illumination for Eowen about futility of relationship with Aragorn; return to sanity of Denethor just before death; realization for Sam that there will be no return from Mt. Doom

QUADRANT III: RETURN
STEP 11 - Sacred marriage
1) betrothal of Aragorn + Arwen; 2) attraction of Aragorn for Eowyn; 3) marriage of Arwen + Aragorn; Faramir + Eowyn; Sam + Rosie
Theft of magic elixir
H) Sting; Bilbo finds Ring; theft of gold cup + Arkenstone; mithril mail; 1) palantir; athelas; Sting + mithril armor; Mirror of Galadriel; Light of Eärendil; mallorn seed + dust; 2) escapes from Southrons by elvish cloak; Saruman's magic breaches Helm's Deep wall (gunpowder); dawn light at Helm's Deep; magical appearance of Huorns at Helm's Deep; 3) Déagol uncovers Ring; Pippin recovers palantír (thrown by Grima), then steals it from Gandalf; re-forging of Narsil; sunlight at Minas Tirith; distraction of Eye by attack on Black Gate; Aragorn discovers mallorn sapling; Sam restores Shire with mallorn seed + magic dust
Father atonement
H3 Bilbo atones to Balin about enmity of Thorin; 1) atonement by Bilbo for keeping Ring; atonement by Gandalf for "delay" at Bree; atonement by Bilbo for involving Frodo; 2) Frodo apologizes for not heeding Sam's warnings about Gollum + Ring; 3) Pippin apology for palantír disaster + atonement to Denethor for death of Boromir; Frodo atones to Sam for driving him away

STEP 12 - Summons to return
H) return of Thorin to Long Lake + dwarves to Lonely Mt; return of Gandalf at Battle of 5 Armies; return of eagles; 1) return of Gandalf + Bilbo in Rivendell; return of Gollum; 2) reappearance of Gollum; return of anti-Gollum; return of Aragorn + Arwen's locket at Helm's Deep; return of elves to alliance; reappearance of Gandalf + Eomer; 3) return of Elrond; Dead Men return to service of king of Gondor; reappearance of Light of Elandir; Sam returns to Frodo; return of wraiths; reappearance of Gollum on Mt. Doom; reappearance of eagles; return of Ring to Gollum; return of Arwen + Elrond; release of Saruman; Sam returns home

STEP 13 - Magic flight
H) carried by eagles; 1) Bilbo disappears at party; Gandalf escapes Isengard on eagle; 2) Gandalf's fall down Khazad-dûm abyss; "wraiths with wings"; 3) escape from Mt. Doom on eagles

STEP 14 - Departure of helper
H) frequent disappearances by Gandalf; death of Thorin + 6 dwarves; 1) Gandalf departs from Frodo + Sam; Gandalf falls from Khazad-dûm bridge; death of Boromir; abduction of Merry + Pippin; breaking of fellowship; 2) banishment of Eomer; Aragorn falls from cliff; death of Haldor; 3) separation of Pippin from Merry; withering of Arwen; Frodo drives Sam away; departure of Aragorn, Legolas + Gimli from Rohan army; death of Theoden + Snowmane; Aragorn releases Dead Men from vow; final departure of Elrond, Celeborn, Galdriel, Gandalf, Bilbo + Frodo

STEP 15 - Rout of pretenders
H) Gollum; goblin king + army; Smaug; Azog + Bolg; 1) Uglúk; 2) Gandalf slays Balrog; slaughter of Uruk-hai; Grima; defeat of Saruman by Ents; defeat of orcs at Helm's Deep; 3) death of Denethor; Merry + Eowen slay Witch King; Rohan cavalry + Dead Men halt siege of Minas Tirith; Sam conquers Shelob; Gollum + Ring; Sauron + 8 wraiths; Sharkey + Bill Ferny
Resurrection
1) resurrection of Sauron; resurrection from Morder poison; resurrection from troll impalement; Fellowship protected in Lothlóien; 2) resurrection of Gandalf; resurrection of Theoden; Aragorn resurrected by Arwen's kiss (horse); 3) Frodo awakens from spider venom coma; Frodo awakens in Minas Tirith after destruction of Ring
Fame
H) as burglar; Bard becomes king of Lake Town; Bilbo brings peace to warring factions; 1) as Ringbearer; 3) as savior of West (Aragorn kneels before hobbits)

QUADRANT IV: REIGN and DEATH
STEP 16 - Rescue
H) Gandalf rescues dwarves from trolls + goblins; Bilbo rescues Thorin from Azog; Bilbo rescues dwarves from spiders + Elfin prison; thrush tells Bard about Smaug's weakness; H3) Galadriel, Elrond + Saruman rescue Gandalf + Radagast from Dol Guldur; 1) rescued from Black Riders by Merry + Pippin; rescued from trees + barrow by Bombadil; rescued by Strider in Bree; Gandalf rescues Walkers from Balrog; Boromir defends Merry + Pippin; Frodo rescues Sam from drowning; 2) rescue of Merry + Pippin by Eomer + Treebeard; rescue of Theoden by Gandalf; Frodo rescues Gollum from Faramir at Henneth Annûn hideout; Aragorn rescues Gimli from warg + wall breach; Sam saves Frodo from wraith at Osgiliath; 3) Aragorn saves Pippin from palantír; Pippin + Gandalf save Faramir from Denethor; Sam rescues Frodo from Shelob + Ungol Tower; eagles fight off wraiths; Sam saves Frodo from Gollum during ascent; Sam rescues Frodo from fall into lava; rescued by Gandalf + eagles; Arwen's life spared

STEP 17 - Founding of city
H) Lake Town rebuilt; Lonely Mt. kingdom re-established; 3) coronation of Aragorn; rescue + rebuilding of Shire
Law giving
H) Bilbo's insistence on peace; writes There And Back Again; 3) Gandalf counsels Aragorn to take "different road"; Elrond urges same; Aragorn devises diversionary plan; Frodo finishes book

STEP 18 - Fall from grace
H) Accused of cowardice by Thorin; Bilob lies about escape from goblins; Bilbo lies about Arkenstone; Thorin succumbs to greed; 1) Boromir tempted by Ring; 2) mesmerized into Dead Marsh; start of Frodo's enthrallment by Ring; lies to Faramir about knowing Gollum + disabuses Gollum's trust; 3) defends Gollum from Sam's accusations; Denethor commits suicide; Gollum attacks Frodo but falls from cliff; Frodo surrenders to Ring + dons

STEP 19 - Exile
H) frequent disappearances of Gandalf; 1) isolation of Ring bearer from normal life; exile of Aragorn from Gondor throne; 2) isolation of Rohan from allies; 3) exile of Sméagol after murder of Déagol; isolation of Gondor from allies; Gondor army surrounded at Black Gate; Frodo loses all sense of life ("naked in dark by veil of fire"); Sam + Frodo trapped by lava flow; Arwen exiled from elfkind; hobbits isolated from normal life by arduous adventures; Frodo still plagued by role of Ringbearer

STEP 20 - Extraordinary hilltop death
1) Gandalf falls from Khazad-dûm bridge; 2) Aragorn falls from cliff; 3) Gollum falls into river of lava; Frodo nearly falls in; Bilbo + Frodo sail away to Uttermost West
(378 examples)

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