As with any great work in literature, there is generally a thematic framework in which the author centers his or her work around. For J.R.R. Tolkien, this framework is heavily rooted in both his own philosophical beliefs and his world view in general. Concepts such as nature vs. industry, Boethian principles of good, evil, fate and free will, and the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of the heroic code are just a few of the elements Tolkien uses to (sub)create his epic secondary worlds and fantasy literature. And as any thoughtful student of his novel The Lord of the Rings will recognize, his primary theme – that which runs throughout the saga – is that of an unfailing Hope, even in the midst of crushing despair. The fact that his characters have the ability to overcome this despair and experience the “eucatastrophic” happy ending (by their refusal to give up hope) is directly linked to the Anglo-Saxon view of comitatus, or heroic code. Interestingly, an argument can be made that comitatus both existed and thrived in The Lord of the Rings not only in the form of the returning king Aragorn and the Riders of Rohan, but also within a small band of four diminutive hobbits – two of which carried the future of Middle-Earth into the dark lands of Mordor and the hellish pits of Mt. Doom. By studying these hobbits and how they represent such elements as heroism, faith, hope, and comitatus itself – we can begin to understand how Tolkien relies on this ancient ideology to frame his (sub)creation in terms of theme.
Leslie Stratyner calls Tolkien one of the “most revered and celebrated Anglo-Saxonists of all time” (Stratyner 5). As such, he would be well-versed in the comitatus and its basic focus on the relationship/kinship between a leader and his followers. In short terms, the main element of comitatus is the idea of mutual obligation, in which the people swear an oath to follow a leader into battle no matter the circumstances, and he gives them his oath to reward and support them at all costs. This idea also goes hand in hand with the view that one keeps fighting for the cause, never giving up, even if all hope seems lost. It relies heavily on complete cooperation from both Lord and warrior in that the entire company charges into battle together, because that is where their duty lies. Interestingly enough, it matters not to members of a comitatus what the outcome may be. They are either victorious and survive, or they die gloriously on the battlefield – also seen as a “victory”. They are not concerned, then, whether or not success is guaranteed, or even if they will survive the fight. Many times, they do not. Their honor is found in such belief that dying on the battlefield is more honorable than sitting idly by, or giving up or surrendering altogether. A fellowship such as this keeps fighting on, knowing that defeat is near, and most likely eminent. This is the philosophical background, then, that Tolkien uses as his theme in The Lord of the Rings, and the foundation around which the previously mentioned unfailing Hope is built upon. It is this ideal that keeps the characters of Pippin and Merry engaged “most clearly in conventional heroic activity” (Lakowski 22). It is this ideal also that keeps Frodo and Sam trudging through extremely disparaging circumstances to destroy the One Ring and defeat the evil forces of Sauron.
When making a case for comitatus being present within the small fellowship of hobbits, it is important to also recognize how this ideology can be identified within the characters of Aragorn and the Riders of Rohan. Aragorn seems to be that surface hero, much like Beowulf, who readers immediately gravitate to. He is the swash-buckler, larger than life character that we normally associate with the idea of heroism in battle. He embodies many of the “heroic” ideals that we look for: bravery, leadership, courage, faith, etc. He has an ability to will others to follow, as he did on the Path of the Dead. Romuald Lakowski even goes so far as to call him the “embodiment of Arthur” (Lakowski 28). The Riders of Rohan represent, at least in my mind, the Anglo-Saxon tradition and are placed in the story by Tolkien to give us an idea of how the comitatus operates. They follow their leader into the fray, knowingly outnumbered. And since comitatus operates on such a platform of reciprocity, we see Aragorn as the type of leader who fits nicely into this paradigm. At first glance, this would be an easy answer to how Tolkien incorporated such a concept into his story. Yes, Aragorn and his accompanying Riders exhibit much bravery and steely confidence in their fight. They represent the comitatus well. But a few facts still remain to prove that they are not the true representation that Tolkien intended.
For one, Aragorn’s “full heroic stature” (29) isn’t revealed until after the defeat of Mordor. By this time, Frodo and Sam have already achieved the goal of destroying the Ring and emerge (Sam specifically) as recognizable heroes. Secondly, we have the concept of the Ring to deal with. Frodo as ring-bearer was immensely more affected by the power and evil seduction of the Ring than Aragorn. For him to keep up his Quest to destroy it in the face of insurmountable (seemingly) odds, despite the Ring’s bearing on him, is a testament to which character is more “heroic”. Admittedly, Frodo is not the stereotypical hero in the romantic sense, and an argument can even be made that his brand of heroism is unflattering and unacceptable to readers. But Frodo is heroic, and I think he represents the leadership role in the comitatus better than Aragorn does. For in the context of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo symbolizes the leader (Lord) of the hobbit’s version of comitatus. Sam, Pippin, and Merry all stand for the type of follower (thane) that the obligation rests on. A deeper study of the hobbits based on the text, the concept of Hope, and how they all combined to defeat a much more powerful foe will show us how Tolkien’s real embodiment of comitatus is perfectly represented in this small fellowship.
As stated earlier, Frodo emerges early in the narrative as the leader of the hobbits. He is the de facto choice as ring-bearer as Bilbo’s nephew, and is recognized by the other three hobbits as their Master. These three join the fellowship purely out of a sense of duty to Frodo. Gandalf reinforces this point with his comment after the Council of Elrond, “If these hobbits understood the danger, they would not dare to go.” (Tolkien 269). Further proof of the hobbit’s allegiance comes in a statement from Pippin, “You do not understand! You must go – and therefore we must, too…we know the Ring is no laughing-matter; but we are going to do our best to help you against the Enemy” (102). Duty such as this is rarely found, but it shows the reader that the hobbits are committed to Frodo on this “hopeless journey” (265) and are willing to risk everything, including their easy life in the Shire, to serve their Master. The fact is not lost on the reader that Pippin’s rationalization comes merely from the fact that if Frodo goes on this dangerous journey, so will they. Sam is even described as being willing to “jump down a dragon’s throat to save you” (102). This in itself gives us a glimpse into the heroism and loyalty they exhibit. Pledging to follow, even under threats of peril, strife, and possible death, they are loyal to Frodo and the cause.
As the representative leader of this comitatus, Frodo carries the One Ring into Mordor. The hobbits’ role, therefore, becomes one of protection. They knowingly admit not being prepared for this journey, but their moral obligation drives them to protect Frodo at all costs. The success of their comitatus relies heavily on the idea of Hope, the complex but true element that weaves itself throughout the entire novel. We are told that Sam Gamgee “never had [it] from the beginning” (624), and Tom Shippey, in The Road to Middle-Earth even suggests that the “wise characters in The Lord of the Rings are often without hope and so near the edge of despair.” (Shippey 158). The key point to remember is that even if the suggestion is true, the outcome reveals something completely different: the hobbits do not succumb to the enemy. Hope must, then, carry them through. Certainly it wasn’t preparation, or luck, or fate (arguably). It wasn’t their skill in warfare or their physical size that secured the victory over Sauron. The hobbits’ sheer will, enabled and edified by Hope, pushes them through Mordor, up the monstrous Mt. Doom, and delivers Middle-Earth. Hope is what enables Merry to slay the Witch-King at the Battle of the Pelannor Fields, under terribly desperate and overwhelming conditions. Hope gives Pippin the ability to help save Faramir from the funeral pyre and later destroy a powerful troll. Other arguments could be made the element of fear could be at the heart of the hobbits’ actions. Sam certainly didn’t “think of himself as heroic or even brave” (Carpenter 329), and so this lack of bravery could denote fear. Obviously, huge trolls and Ringwraiths would never have been a common sight to the Shire, so fear would be understandable in the hobbits. Loyalty to their comitatus is certainly a factor. But the underpinning for all of these things is the unwavering Hope that good will prevail and measures of success will be gained. Sam shows he has Hope with his reply to Frodo after the comment that they may never see the other members of the fellowship. His reply of “yet we may, Mr. Frodo. We may.” (Tolkien 397) shows an absolute security that Hope exists within the duo. Otherwise, what could the motivation be? He also expresses to his Master Frodo that he wishes for rest and sleep, saying directly, “plain ordinary rest, and sleep…waking up to a morning’s work in the garden. I’m afraid that’s all I’m hoping for all the time.” (697). Hope existed, and it most certainly carried them through. My opinion is that a certain will to survive has to be present in an individual in order to blindly undertake a task such as walking into the depths of Mordor (for one does not simply walk into Mordor). It must also be there to battle great enemies such as the Nazgul, the Orcs, and the trolls such as Merry and Pippin did. It is the overriding force that does so many things throughout Tolkien’s story, and without it urging the characters on, the outcome would have been very different.
Another view we can take in terms of how the hobbits’ comitatus was significantly more “real” than that of Aragorn and the Riders of Rohan comes in the form of the burden of the Ring. Specifically, Frodo and Sam and their particular brand of comitatus that existed just between the two of them. Shippey eloquently calls them “the two ants creeping along the Ephel Duath who are going to change reality” (Shippey 166). This image is at the core of Tolkien’s theme. They creep along, slowly, willing each step at a time, unknowing of what will happen next. They, of course, have the One Ring in their possession. Its heaviness increases with each step closer to Mt. Doom. Frodo and Sam are the ones tasked with its destruction, knowing full well what will happen if they don’t accomplish their goal. Significantly then, this burden strengthens their brand of comitatus. For Aragorn’s battle means nothing if the Ring is not destroyed. He and the Riders fight on, of course, displaying once again the Hope that they will be victorious, but ultimately their fate rests with Frodo’s success. This fact alone makes the argument that the hobbits’ comitatus outweighs that of Aragorn’s due to the relevance of each one’s task. If Aragorn fails, there is still Hope. However, if Frodo fails – then all Hope is lost and evil wins out. This incredible picture of the burden Frodo and Sam have undertaken is an amazing example of how Hope strengthens the relationship between the hobbits. Ultimately, it is this relationship that secures the “safety” of Middle-Earth. Call it a “mini-comitatus”, but the obligation that Sam Gamgee has to Frodo, and how this frames their relationship, is the key to the destruction of the Ring. Granted, the story needed Gollum’s character to complete the destruction absolutely, but the Ring never makes it through Mordor and up the path of Mt. Doom if not for the relationship between Sam and Frodo.
Interestingly enough, this relationship is absolutely crucial to the eucatastrophe that Tolkien created. Shippey reminds us that “Tolkien…being a Christian, did in absolute fact believe that in the end all things would end happily” (174). Frodo steps up at the Council of Elrond and says he will bear the Ring, even though he does “not know the way” (Tolkien 264). The text reveals later in the form of Elrond’s voice that “it is hardly possible to separate you [Sam] from him [Frodo]” (264). The imagery here is unmistakable: the ring-bearer as Lord emerges, and his inseparable servant (as thane) joins him. Again, as the two separate themselves from the rest of the fellowship, Sam simply tells Frodo he isn’t going alone, “I’m coming too, or neither of us isn’t going. I’ll knock holes in all the boats first” (397). Demonstrating that loyalty upon which comitatus is built, Sam says everything in a few short sentences. The relationship is therefore established. When Sam rescues Frodo from the evil Orcs in Cirith Ungol and they begin their final descent to Mt. Doom, we again see that Sam doesn’t give up – even though he briefly considers going the rest of the way alone. His Hope and his loyalty to Frodo outweigh anything else as a motivating factor. They push on, their wills unyielding. Frodo too, even though some critics brand his manner of leadership as lacking, exerts his will over the strength and power of the Ring. He pushes himself, with Sam behind him, urged by will, comitatus, and guts. Because of this, the duo is able to rise victoriously over the “long defeat” and put an end to Sauron’s evil rule. Once they are at the crucial moment of scaling the mountain and actually delivering the One Ring to its fiery destruction, we see Sam emerge as the unifying force that keeps the comitatus strong. Sam Gamgee, the little gardener hobbit from the Shire, literally carries the ring-bearer Frodo to the top of the mountain. Frodo “crashes” in the romantic style, unable to continue due mainly to fatigue and Ring’s effects. He even instructs Sam, “Lead me! As long as you’ve got any hope left. Mine is gone.” (907). And the hero in Sam responds. In what perhaps is the greatest show of indomitable will (heroism) that a reader will find in literature, Sam proves to us that the comitatus is alive in well on the rocky slopes of Mt. Doom. The Hope that pushes through did not die in Sam, it was turned into “a new strength” (913) and he literally takes Frodo on his back and crawls higher and higher. Comitatus rings true as Sam tells his Master, “I can’t carry it [Ring] for you, but I can carry you and it as well…tell him [Sam] where to go, and he’ll go.” (919). The fact that Sam literally burdens himself not only with Frodo’s physical body, but also the weight of the Ring’s effects, shows the absolute gut-check that he must have had in order to serve his Master. He admits to not even knowing where they are going, but still he goes. Absolutely and without question, there was Hope evident on that mountain slope, and I contend there were scores of Hope in these “small gray insects (that) crept up the slope” (921). It is the single most important element that carries a reader through Tolkien’s work, and it is the single most recognizable element when it comes to approaching the happy endings he loved so much. For without Hope, the next day could be a “day of doom…or disaster” (919).
Ultimately, Sam and Frodo reach the pits of Mt. Doom and the Ring is destroyed (with a little timely help from an equally “hopeful” Gollum). They are rescued by Eagles and return to the Shire. Aragorn regains his kingdom, and the evil forces of Sauron are defeated forever. All of this is perfectly framed within Tolkien’s idea of what he called the “eucatastropic” happy ending. Everything culminates into a happy story in which good overcomes the forces of evil, the once formidable enemy is defeated, and life returns to normal. The question then becomes, as we conclude this essay, how did all of this happen? Was it luck? Was it just good fortune that dropped the Ring into a fiery hole? Was it the element of fate, or the providential aspect that Boethius spoke of (which Tolkien knew so well) that crushed the likes of Saruman and Sauron? My contention is that none of these things had as much impact on the overall ending of the story as did the element of Hope and the bond of comitatus. And this is not necessarily a blind hope, akin to “I hope it doesn’t rain.” It is a Hope that lights a fire within, or draws us to action. It is the type that Lady Galadriel speaks about when she says, “stray but a little (from your Quest) and it will fail…yet hope remains.” (348). When everything else is failing around you and you are outnumbered, exhausted both physically and mentally, and seem to have no chance at victory, it is this type of Hope that pushes you forward and makes you take the next step. Sam embodies this when he and Frodo are sitting isolated, after the destruction of the Ring, and their deaths seem eminent. “I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me, somehow, if you understand.” (929). I think at this point, all readers can definitely understand where Sam is coming from. Persistence and Hope is what delivered Middle-Earth from evil. Belief in the comitatus, a stronger version of that of Aragorn’s, ultimately saves the day, and civilization.
Our concluding thoughts must then answer with the statements that no, it wasn’t luck that prevailed. Good fortune wasn’t to be applauded for the victories gained inside Mordor’s boundaries. It is difficult to garner from the text even whether fate or providence had a major role in the outcome. What is shown in the text of The Lord of the Rings, however, is the fact that Hope remained. Through trials and tribulation, and moments where all hope even seemed lost, it carried the day. Frodo and Sam certainly had it with them as they ventured into an unknown land with no guarantees of success. Characters such as Gandalf, Gimli, and Legolas pin their hopes onto the two hobbits slowly moving across Ephel Duath. Faramir and Boromir have differing views of Hope, but still they have it. And even the pitiable Gollum, who chases the Ring as far as its power will lead him, “hopes” to regain his “precious”. Tom Shippey sums up this idea of Hope beautifully with this quote from The Road to Middle-Earth:
What one can be absolutely sure about is that giving up does the other side’s work for them, and ruins all your own possible futures and other people’s as well. While persistence offers no guarantees, it does give ‘luck’ a chance to operate, through unknown allies or unknown weaknesses in the opposition. (Shippey 165)
In conjunction with this Hope, the ancient ideology of comitatus plays an equally important role as a major theme of Tolkien’s novel. The hobbits represent this kinship perfectly, with Frodo as the de facto leader and the rest of them as loyal subjects. What makes this work is the idea of reciprocity. Sam protects and serves Frodo with the understanding that Frodo will give his return oath of reward and support. They keep fighting as a group, no matter what. Even Pippin and Merry, whose courageous acts were done (yes) out of bravery and courage, but also out of a sense of helping Frodo. They knew they must be victorious in their endeavors if Frodo (again, as Master) was to succeed. This is what brings Tolkien’s (sub)creation full circle. The Anglo-Saxon idea of the comitatus as the heroic code, and retaining honor in the face of insurmountable odds puts the theme of The Lord of the Rings into perspective. Great battles are won, good trumps evil, and order is restored – all because Hope remained in a small brotherhood of loyal hobbits.
Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
Lakowski, Romuald Ian. “Types of Heroism in The Lord of the Rings.” Mythlore 90.Fall-Winter (2002): 22-34.
Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-Earth. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
Stratyner, Leslie. “He Who Gave Us These Rings: Sauron and the Perversion of Anglo-Saxon Ethos.” Mythlore 59.Autumn (1989): 5-8.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1954.