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Companionship and Betrayal in Medieval Literary Heroism

Companionship and Betrayal in Medieval Literary Heroism

In Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings, companionship and betrayal are major themes that arise in notions of Medieval heroism. Protagonists of the texts share numerous parallels – both Beowulf and Frodo are betrayed in their climactic battle scenes, and rely on the loyalty of others in their weakest moments. Before fighting the dragon,

In Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings, companionship and betrayal are major themes that arise in notions of Medieval heroism. Protagonists of the texts share numerous parallels – both Beowulf and Frodo are betrayed in their climactic battle scenes, and rely on the loyalty of others in their weakest moments. Before fighting the dragon, Beowulf is abandoned by all his men aside from Wiglaf, who shields off the beast to the best of his abilities before his King perishes. Similarly, as Frodo scales Mount Doom, he relies on the literal and metaphorical support of his friend and gardener from the Shire, Sam. Frodo is also ambushed on the mountain by his former guide, Gollum, and Frodo and Sam must grapple with how to treat him. In this paper, I will argue that one may look critically at the roles of Sam and Gollum in relation to Frodo as representations of a hero’s relationship to humanity. Furthermore, Tolkien modernizes Medieval concepts by highlighting compassion and empathy as aspects of heroism, as seen in Sam and Frodo’s forgiveness of Gollum.

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

The primary protagonists in Beowulf and Lord of the Rings are responsible for protecting mankind – Beowulf by warding off the monsters that plague society, and Frodo by defeating Sauron through the destruction of the Ring. In the poem, Beowulf upholds a duty to protect other people, and is praised for defending both the Geats and Shieldings. His dedication towards doing so is repeatedly referred to as a noble and just trait. In ‘Beowulf’: The Hero as Keeper of Human Polity, Norma Kroll argues that a critical aspect of Medieval heroism was the value a hero placed on his responsibility to other men. “By implication, Beowulf is heroic not because, like Abel, he acts rightly toward God, but because, unlike Cain, he acts rightly toward men. Beowulf provides a counterbalance to Cain-like denial of responsibility for his brother by becoming his brothers’ keeper, an essentially political role that involves relationships broader than those of blood or even of tribal kinship.”[1] Kroll’s point here is that Beowulf is celebrated as a noble warrior because he is devoted to protecting humanity, whether a person is his kin or not. I agree that Beowulf’s dedication tos protecting others is a critical aspect of his heroic identity – however, his respect for men only extends to those who are, in turn, loyal to others. Beowulf never explicitly absolves his warriors who abandon him in the final battle, and at one point curses Unferth for being a kinslayer. Conversely, while Beowulf does not care for traitors, Sam and Frodo and exhibit empathy towards Gollum after he turns against them on Mount Doom. This divergence will be explored later on in the paper.

Betrayal is addressed in Beowulf as one of worst sins that someone could commit. In a significant passage of the poem, Beowulf criticizes a lord named Unferth by addressing him as a kinslayer, a man who killed his own brother in his desire for power. Furthermore, the poem repeatedly refers to Grendel’s inherently treacherous nature as a descendent of Cain – the first Biblical kin-slayer. These examples lay a foundation for the upsetting mass abandonment in Beowulf’s final battle. An aged King, he finds himself deserted by his own warriors as he approaches the fight with the dragon. A young man named Wiglaf is the only warrior to stand by Beowulf in his final time of need, and as the rest of the men start to run, Wiglaf tells them that he would not flee:

Sad at heart, addressing his companions,

Wiglaf spoke wise and fluent words:

‘…As God is my witness,

I would rather my body were robbed in the same

Burning blaze as my gold-giver’s body

Than go back home bearing arms.’[2]

Here, Wiglaf is saying that he would rather die than be a traitor his King. And while the other warriors still refuse to fight, Wiglaf risks his life to protect Beowulf, even momentarily shielding him from the dragon’s flames. The two of them slay the dragon together, and are celebrated in the text as equals in that moment. They are referred to as a “pair of kinsmen, partners in nobility,” and the line that follows affirms that “so every man should act, / Be at hand when needed.”[3] Wiglaf is recognized and rewarded here as a devoted warrior among treasonous, selfish cowards. He may be considered in this sense as an idealized representation of what the Medieval Hall stood for; he embodies the concept of faithful kinship. It is no coincidence that after Beowulf passes, the kingdom turns to ruins – with a dearth of honest men comes widespread fear and distrust among the land. The climactic display of betrayal versus allegiance in the fight against the dragon encompasses the crux of the Medieval hero’s relationship to others – that his power is only as strong as his subjects’ loyalty.

This theme is explicitly represented in the triad of hero, companion, and traitor that is Frodo, Sam, and Gollum in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. While nearing the end of their journey to destroy the Ring, Sam mentions numerous times to both himself and Frodo that he will do anything, at the sake of self-sacrifice, to help his Master complete the quest. As they climb Mount Doom and approach the entrance to the volcano where the Ring must be destroyed, Frodo collapses and insists he cannot go any further. Sam is filled, not for the first time, with a sense of intense duty towards Frodo: “‘Come, Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.’”[4] But more than simply being faithful to the task of destroying the Ring, Sam exhibits an elemental love and responsibility towards protecting Frodo, as both his friend and as his Master. In a manner that very much mirrors Wiglaf, Sam is unwaveringly loyal to Frodo in the darkest hour. He is physically and emotionally supportive, by carrying him up Mount Doom and providing him with steadfast encouragement. The core of the relationship between Frodo and Sam is rooted in dependency and care for each other. These traits tether Frodo to his sense of humanity, which otherwise dwindles under the control of the Ring. Sam’s constant sacrifices for Frodo – abandoning the safety of the Fellowship, risking his life to fight Shelob, offering the last drops of water, and finally carrying him up Mount Doom – all represent pure acts of devotion and brotherhood. Furthermore, it is impossible that Frodo could have succeeded in his quest had it not been for Sam’s unrelenting presence. In Tolkien’s construction of the Medieval hero, much like the anonymous poet does in Beowulf, he presents a dynamic that suggests strong interdependence – the hero cannot exist without his companion, and conversely, the companion is nothing without his hero. This weaving of the roles of men (or Hobbits) emphasizes the importance of trust and loyalty in a functional society.

However, reliance gets Frodo and Sam so far with Gollum, a degenerated creature destroyed by years of isolation and obsession with the Ring. Gollum was forced to be their guide on the quest and had promised to lead them towards Mordor, until he escaped near the end of the journey. On Mount Doom, Gollum reappears and attacks Frodo, wrestling the Ring away from him. Sam immediately draws his sword but finds he cannot protect Frodo, who is too tightly entangled in the struggle with Gollum. Just like Grendel and Cain, Gollum is a kinslayer – back when he was a Hobbit known as Sméagol, he killed his cousin Déagol in a fit of jealousy over the initial discovery of the Ring. This violent act against his own kind, followed by decades of solitude, reduced Gollum to a vile creature with a blurred identity between man and beast.

In “Treatments of Treachery and Betrayal in Anglo-Saxon Texts,” Hugh Magennis examines textual Medieval reactions to deceit. When looking at Beowulf, Magennis considers the hero’s condemnation of Unferth’s reputation, and argues that his words reflect a greater context in which treachery may have been somewhat expected:

You became the killing of your brothers, your closest kinsmen; for that you must suffer damnation in hell, though your cleverness avails you.’ The enormity of Unferth’s crime is fully acknowledged in the eternal punishment to which Beowulf here appeals, but it is ignored among the Danes. Indeed, Beowulf himself appears disconcertingly well-disposed towards Unferth outside the one scene of their altercation. With regard to Unferth, as to others in the poem, Beowulf accepts the fact of treachery in society with considerable equanimity, as though, despite his own high standards, he does not have high expectations for the conduct of others.[5]

 

Magennis may subtly constructing Medievalism here – he argues Beowulf is accustomed to traitorous behavior among men, indicating notions of a time period steeped in backstabbing and kinslaying. However, the portrayal of Beowulf as calm in the face of treachery is an intriguing image, for the hero is never depicted in the poem as raging against disloyal men. But while Beowulf may be composed in the face of treachery, Wiglaf’s aforementioned denouncement of cowardice and the association of Cain’s kin-slaying with an actual monster contribute to the illustration of a society that does not look highly upon betrayal. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, it is outlined in the poem that loyalty is considered the most exemplary behavior among men. In this case, one may reverse such values and view the culture as unforgiving towards traitors.

Tolkien may have considered Beowulf’s culture and attitude towards treachery when considering how his hero-companion duo were to react towards being betrayed. When Sam is confronted with the opportunity to kill Gollum in punishment for his treachery, he cannot bring himself to do it. Sam is overcome with pity and even grief for the ruined life of the once-Hobbit.

Sam’s hand wavered. His mind was hot with wrath and the memory of evil. It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him…now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shriveled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again.[6]

 

Sam’s empathy for Gollum shines as a beacon of humanity in the dark landscape. He understands the tragedy that brought Gollum to that point on Mount Doom – his ambiguous state between man and monster is a product of being alone for too long. Sam recognizes the way in which isolation from humanity could have destroyed Frodo in a similar fashion, had he not been present. Again, Tolkien is referencing here the Medieval literary tradition that stresses the importance of community and kinship. And forgiveness towards traitor is an expression not present in Beowulf, and is a gesture that Tolkien uses to construct his own ideal image of mankind.

In conclusion, Tolkien references Medieval literary themes of heroism, companionship, and betrayal by exploring the relationships between Frodo, Sam and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The interactions between these three on Mount Doom closely parallel the roles of Beowulf, Wiglaf and the warriors who deserted them in the final battle on the hill against the dragon. Loyalty is emphasized in both Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings as an important characteristic for both leaders and their followers, and its value is offset by the repeated placement of shame on traitors. Criticism of those who betray their kin or leader is expressed through allusions to Cain, Beowulf’s damnation of Unferth, the shaming of Beowulf’s deserters, and in Sam’s twisted pity on the wretched Gollum. And by having Sam and Frodo forgive Gollum, Tolkien considers how compassion – even towards those who have broken one’s trust – may be a heroic trait.

 

Bibliography

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Norton, 2000.

Kroll, Norma. “‘Beowulf’: The Hero as Keeper of Human Polity,” Modern Philology 84 (1986):

117-129.

Magennis, Hugh. “Treatments of Treachery and Betrayal in Anglo-Saxon Texts,” English

Studies 76 (1995): 16.

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Boston: Houghton

Mifflin Harcourt, 1955.

[1] Norma Kroll, “‘Beowulf”: The Hero as Keeper of Human Polity,” Modern Philology 84 (1986): 121.

[2] Seamus Heaney. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (New York, Norton, 2000), lines 2648-53.

[3] Heaney, Beowulf, lines 2707-2709.

[4] John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955), Chapter Three: Mount Doom.

[5] Hugh Magennis, “Treatments of Treachery and Betrayal in Anglo-Saxon Texts,” English Studies 76 (1995): 16.

[6] Tolkien, The Return of the King, Chapter Three: Mount Doom

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