Literature’s Unlikely Heroines and Heroes

There are plenty of novels out there with characters seemingly born to be heroes and heroines. Brave. Perhaps big and strong. Perhaps with lots of training in the defensive and attacking arts.

Then there are novels starring unlikely heroines and heroes. Unlikely because the protagonists are very young, very old, not physically powerful, etc. Those books can make for riveting reading as they take us by surprise, allow us to relate to characters who don’t seem superhuman, etc.

My most recently read example of this phenomenom was Ray Bradbury’s deliciously creepy novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. A scary carnival has arrived in town, endangering the live of several people — including the boys Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway. To the rescue comes…a brooding, bookish, middle-aged janitor: Will’s father Charles.

There’s also Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. She’s a young, abused, antisocial computer hacker — not your typical literary heroine. But very courageous in a nothing-to-lose way.

Or how about Mary Minor Haristeen, who solves crimes with the help of her pets in the engaging mystery series by Rita Mae Brown. Mary’s training for her heroics? Running a small-town post office.

Another amateur detective, the elderly Miss Marple of various Agatha Christie mysteries, is also not a typical heroine.

Then there’s Neville Longbottom of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In the early books, Neville is a timid and socially awkward student. By the seventh and final book, Harry and friends may not have survived without the grown-bold Neville.

Speaking of popular fantasy works, J.R.R. Tolkien has Frodo Baggins find heroism the diminutive character barely thought possible during the dangerous adventures of he and his cohorts in The Lord of the Rings.

In the dystopian-novels-set-in-the-near-future realm, the resourceful/precocious teens Laura and Willing coolly keep family and friends together in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles. Heck, Laura in Butler’s book even manages to found a new religion of sorts.

Historical fiction? There’s the unlikely visionary teen heroine who’s martyred in Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. And the courageous sisters who, in a very patriarchal/macho society, take the huge risk of opposing brutal Dominican Republican dictator Rafael Trujillo in Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies.

Who are your favorite unlikely heroines and heroes in literature?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about America’s gun violence and more — is here.

84 thoughts on “Literature’s Unlikely Heroines and Heroes

  1. Or how about most unlikely villain? If you’ll permit a film adaptation, Andy Warhol’s frail, sensitive, vaguely gay Dracula is the most unlikely take on a famous character I can think of. On the hero side, my favorites are those who, like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, appear most likely “born to be hanged.”

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  2. I love Tiffany Aching, the 13 year old shepherdess from Terry Pratchett’s set of five books set on the Discworld – The Wee Free Men, Wintersmith, A Hat Full of Sky, I Shall Wear Midnight, The Shepherd’s Crown. She’s a brilliant, brilliant character.

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    • Thank you, The Book Keeper! I’ve read only one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (“Unseen Academicals”). It was very good, but unfortunately it didn’t include Tiffany Aching. She sounds like a great character!

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  3. Dave, Bela in Jhumpa Lahiri`s “The Lowland” is the unusual Hero.

    Subhash proved to be an outstanding parent to Bela, and this causes Gauri her mother discomfort knowing that he is not Bela`s biological father. Subhash asks Gauri to have another child for Bela’s sake but she is not willing to commit. Gauri begins to attend graduate school when Bela is five
    Gouri was uneasy that Bela did not know that Udayan is Bela`s father not his brother Subhash and they decided to tell her one day. Gouri was repeatedly negligent looking after her own child Bela which annoyed Subhash and one day he came home and found out Gouri has abandoned Bela and is gone with no return address.
    Fast forward, Bela grew up under the loving care of Subhash and became an independent wholesome woman and one day Gouri having a miserable life came to visit Bela for the first time…

    And we knew the strength and sustenance power of Bela.

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  4. The unusual hero of “The Man Who Was Born Again”, a between-the-wars (1921) novel by Austrian Paul Busson was a modern soldier who for his entire life was overcome with vivid visions and memories of another life, that of a German noble of the 18th century, Baron Melchior von Dronte,who, in turn, pursued a mysterious guardian who appeared throughout his own life, most often at times of danger. I won’t divulge the ending, but I can say that sometimes the hunter becomes the game, or the hunter of the hunter….

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, jhNY! “The Man Who Was Born Again” sounds like a pretty amazing novel, described intriguingly by you.

      Reminds me a bit of Michael Gruber’s “The Forgery of Venus,” in which a modern-day painter seemingly goes back in time to inhabit the body of master artist Diego Velazquez! Gets a little convoluted in the final third, but a very good book.

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  5. Unlikely heroes are likely to turn up in detective fiction– Miss Marple, as you mention, Nero Wolf, a fat agoraphobic gastronome who solves cases without leaving home is another, Easy Rawlins, a black man with a bit of real estate and a lot of cunning and attitude is another, given tempo and mores of his post-WWII LA setting. Then there’s my current fun read: MC Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series, which features a lazy Highlander constable in a tiny Scottish town who solves murders with uncanny regularity, yet worries his success might bring promotion and a city life he does not want.

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    • That’s a very good point, jhNY. Many of literature’s detectives are quirky and brainy, but don’t necessarily have a lot of brawn and other “heroic” attributes. Another not so “heroic” but great sleuth is Kinsey Millhone of the late Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries.

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      • I nearly mentioned Nero Wolfe as a very eccentric detective, along with Sherlock Holmes, each in their own way — the main one is that they both don’t have many (or any?) relationships with women. There is of course, THE woman, Irene Adler for Holmes, and if I remember correctly there is a daughter of Wolfe’s way back in his past, though that may not be true. Yet, they are both brilliant detectives, and Wolfe has his Archie Goodwin, and Holmes has Dr. Watson. Then there is the question of Holmes and his 7% solution; although, the worst Wolfe can do is have two beers a day, but he certainly eats very high caloric gourmet meals every day!

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        • Kat Lib, it does seem like some fictional detectives are married more to their sleuthing than to any person. (Nero Wolfe appears to be polygamous: wed to sleuthing and food. 🙂

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  6. I missed this week’s post – my apologies for being late in commenting. What came to mind for me was “Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving. Owen was an unlikely hero due to his small stature and weird voice, but he declared himself an ‘instrument of God.’ Great read and I loved Owen.

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  7. I was thinking about the heroines of (who else) my beloved Jane Austen, and the most surprising one to me is Fanny Price of “Mansfield Park.” She puts up with being treated as a servant by most of the Bertram family, yet is the one with the most moral convictions and courage than any of the others. She then incurs the wrath of Sir Thomas by refusing the marriage proposal of Henry Crawford and is sent back to her home in Portsmouth in order to bring her to her senses. However, once the eldest son Tom is sick from living a dissolute lifestyle, it is Fanny that the family turns to take care of him and all the others and is brought back to Mansfield. There is a movie that turned the shy, timid Fanny into a spunkier character than she is portrayed in the book. I watched the movie and thought who is this person playing Fanny? I assume that people today would prefer someone like that, but it left me longing for the real Fanny Price.

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    • Excellent observation, Kat Lib, and well argued! The timid, understated, “poor relation” Fanny Price DOES become an unlikely heroine in “Mansfield Park.”

      And, yes, some screen adaptations need to tamp down the “make a character spunkier” approach.

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      • However, I will probably be ostracized by the Janeite society (though I don’t belong to it)because there was just a little part of me that wanted Fanny to accept Henry Crawford’s proposal. Although I know he eloped with Maria (Fanny’s cousin) after Fanny turned him down, I don’t think he would have done so if Fanny agreed to his proposal, because I think he truly loved her. And Edmund Bertram, who ended up with Fanny, was such a wimpy character who would have married Mary Crawford had she not thought that Henry wasn’t to blame (or accepted it) when it came to eloping with Maria. It was probably the only romance in all of Austen’s novels that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, though I’ve heard that some were not happy with Marianne Dashwood finally marrying Colonel Brandon, but I thought it was perfect!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well argued, Kat Lib.

          Plus Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram were first cousins — a union that was apparently legal at the time in their religion but nonetheless rather awkward to contemplate.

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          • Dave, I’ve thought about that before, and I was thinking it still somewhat problematic in today’s world. I think that Queen Elizabeth 1 and Prince Philip were second cousins once removed when they married but it is something still talked about today, so who knows?

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            • Definitely problematic in any era. I think Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were distant cousins, too. I don’t have as much of an issue with that as with first cousins, but still…

              If I’m remembering right, Jeffrey Eugenides’ excellent “Middlesex” novel deals with that, too.

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  8. Howdy, Dave!

    — Who are your favorite unlikely heroines and heroes in literature? —

    Heroic characters of both sexes are a dime a dozen in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s brilliant Trilogy (“With Fire and Sword,” “The Deluge” and “Fire in the Steppe”) but none is more unlikely than the astonishing Yan Zagloba, arguably the most remarkable comic creation in all of world literature, who at first glance appears to be nothing more than a barroom blowhard whose every boastful bloviation seems as likely to be based in reality as the absurd flight of fancy so recently undertaken by Pomaranczowa Panda, who bizarrely imagines himself as The Hero of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — “I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon” — despite the fact Cadet Bone Spurs had not once done anything of the sort during his first 70 years on this planet.

    Zagloba in the Trilogy: The Art of the Real Deal.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

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    • Brilliantly written, J.J.! (Your comment and, from what you described today and before, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s trilogy.) Yan Zagloba sounds like an absolutely amazing character. And, yes, Trump is also a “remarkable comic creation” whose effect on us all is not so comic. I guess those five Vietnam War deferments were indeed an early indication of just how “brave” he is. Maybe he confused running into a gun massacre scene with running into a McDonald’s to do battle with a burger…

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      • Great and very funny comments by you and J.J.! I needed them, as I’m sitting in my den looking at the ten boxes of CDs and books that we packed up in anticipation of moving. Didn’t I say that I’d never move again? I’m reminded by the movie Sean Connery did “Never Say Never Again” after he played James Bond again (although not part of the franchise). Anyway, I still haven’t started looking at all the books in my downstairs library, so we’ll see what the total is, although I’m still trying to winnow it down as much as possible!

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        • Howdy, Kat Lib!

          — I still haven’t started looking at all the books in my downstairs library, so we’ll see what the total is, although I’m still trying to winnow it down as much as possible! —

          It is a good thing your favorite author is not Isaac Asimov but Jane Austen!

          J.J.

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          • So true, but remember that one of my favorite mystery authors is Agatha Christie, who as I mentioned last week, clocks in at 66 novels, 14 short story collections, plus a few non-fiction books about her. Nowhere near Asimov, I know, but it’s still a lot of books, fortunately I’ve bought most of them as mass market paperbacks, so less expensive and taking up less space!

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            • Dave, of course I meant less expensive and not les expensive. Can you please fix? Thanks! I think I may need to go a remedial class in typing, even though I was once a pro at it. 🙂

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              • Fixed. 🙂

                Agatha Christie was amazingly prolific!

                Not to take anything away from Isaac Asimov’s perhaps all-time-record output, but I think his 500-plus books included some he co-authored or edited — in addition to the huge number he wrote solo.

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      • — Brilliantly written, J.J.! (Your comment and, from what you described today and before, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s trilogy.) —

        With respect to the former: Eh. With respect to the latter: Yes! One of the generally unacknowledged joys of being an ink-stained wretch is first reading a clearly great writer’s sentence and then thinking, “How much better I could have said that!” While devouring the Trilogy, I experienced this particular joy just 0.0420403587 percent of the time, which amounts to only 1.5 of its 3,568 pages.

        — Yan Zagloba sounds like an absolutely amazing character. —

        One of a kind!

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        • I WILL try “With Fire and Sword” one of these days!

          In this digital era, it’s hard to be “an ink-stained wretch.” Perhaps we can dab some ink on our computer keyboards, or at least frequently tap the letters “i,” “n,” and “k”…

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          • — I WILL try “With Fire and Sword” one of these days! —

            If you do indeed get around to “With Fire and Sword,” then you may wish to focus on the Copernicus Society of America edition of the Trilogy translated into English from Polish by W.S. Kuniczak. Generous to a fault, the redoubtable James A. Michener once described previous translations of this masterwork as “creaky,” which indicates they might have been a great deal worse. (It appears the Trilogy was originally translated from Polish to Russian to English, a game of linguistic Telephone nobody would be likely to win.)

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            • Thanks for that valuable advice, J.J.! Yes, “creaky” could well be an understatement.

              “…from Polish to Russian to English, a game of linguistic Telephone nobody would be likely to win” — ha! At least it wasn’t translated by Google. 🙂

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  9. Dave I agree with Lisbeth Salander in Dragon Tattoo trilogy by Mr. Larsson.
    But there is one you will identify with is Rose Sanderson, tiny but powerful in “Midnight Line,“ the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. Just finished reading the thriller and it is certainly one of the best by Mr. Child but simply can’t imagine Cruise playing the role.

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  10. Good morning Dave,

    Following on from the conversation last week about formulaic fantasy books, I wonder if the likely hero has become the Frodo or Samwise character? Of course, when Tolkein did it, it hadn’t been done before, and it was easy to be impressed with the unexpected courage and resilience of the hobbitses.

    The first character I thought of was Jack Reacher. He obviously has the physical build of a hero, but there’s something about him that I thought was far from typical.

    Great mentions of Lisbath Salandar and Neville Longbottom 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • HA..Sue I just posted my comment without reading yours and I agree whole heartedly. Although I mentioned someone else I promise if you haven’t read the latest do read it you would love it .

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sue!

      Excellent point about how it’s not unlikely that a hero/heroine will be an unlikely hero/heroine. 🙂 That might have indeed been more unusual in Tolkien’s time, although he had sidekick inspirations such as Sancho Panza in “Don Quixote” and Sam Weller in “The Pickwick Papers.”

      And Jack Reacher is definitely a mix of the likely and unlikely hero type.

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      • Dave, I should have been more specific and said that I hadn’t read that kind of story before Tolkein. I guess just because I hadn’t seen it before, didn’t mean it didn’t exist.

        I’m glad to know that I wasn’t the only person to think of Jack Reacher. I didn’t know if it was a silly inclusion, as he does seem very physically heroey.

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  11. I am so glad you brought up Neville Longbottom. I definitely didn’t see that one coming when I started reading that series. And as a big fan of the underdog, I very much appreciated it – as I did Frodo Baggins in LOTR. I just finished a great book called “The Orphan’s Tale” by Pam Jenoff. Both the heroines in this book are just ordinary people, dealt an extraordinary situation, and they have to manage it because their survival depends on it. They certainly weren’t looking to become heroes, but they were to each other in the end. No superhuman ability, just superhuman courage! 🙂

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  12. I love the character of Silas Marner, who is falsely accused of stealing funds from a congregation. He moves to another town in England, where he leads a very solitary life, caring only about the gold he has amassed. When that is stolen from him, he is quite distraught, yet finds a two year-old “golden-haired” girl that he adopts and names Eppie. She enriches his life in a way that his gold never did, and the ending is just so moving and perfect if I can use that term. This novel by George Eliot was adapted by Steve Martin in 1994 in a modern movie called “A Simple Twist of Fate.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lib! I also love that wonderful novel and its memorable protagonist. As you know, “Silas Marner” is a rather short book, but George Eliot packs so much emotion and other elements into it. Silas — who also lost his fiancee to the jerk who falsely accused him — is indeed an unlikely “hero.”

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  13. Hello there, Dave.
    I read Big Sur, by Kerouac, a few months ago. It’s a sort-of novel based on his life, which I guess is the case for everything he wrote. The events in Big Sur take place a few years after he became famous in 1957 (On The Road came out in 1957). What’s interesting is that Kerouac describes how so many younger people came to idolize him because of the hip, personal freedom-loving person he seemed to be in On The Road. But he himself didn’t view himself as heroic or cool or anything like that. In Big Sur he views himself as what he was by that time: namely, a guy with a huge drinking problem and unsettling mood swings.

    Take care.

    Neil S.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Very interesting take on this topic, Neil. Thank you! Honest of Kerouac to sort of puncture the myth built around him. Heck, it certainly takes more than hipness and wanderlust to be heroic, though seeking personal freedom can be a braver thing than the alternative.

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  14. About third way through” Girl With Dragon Tattoo.” Salander is in early 20’s but wise beyond her years due to growing up quickly as life not easy,mother has mental health problems other complications makes her more vulnerable,more fragile. She has fralitities that she tries to overcome and is strong and smart,coping mechanisms as having to be an adult at young age as more responsibilities growing up,had to take care of herself. This makes her fearless cunning, and enduring in my opinion.

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    • Thank you, Michele! Sounds like you’re finding the book interesting. I love it, and the next two are just as riveting. Yes, Lisbeth Salander’s very difficult life did give her some major coping skills and abilities. People who are legitimately angry can indeed be fearless — and powerful.

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  15. A most delightful unlikely hero was Mrs. Pollifax who accidentally joined the CIA through a series of errors. She was a widow and in her 60’s when she applied for a job. Dorothy Gilman wrote the series of novels. I enjoyed them tremendously! I envisioned Mrs. Pollifax as a short plump senior much like Ruth Gordon or Helen Hayes, but a couple of movies were made starring the statuesque Angela Lansbury. I adore her, but she wasn’t Mrs. Pollifax any more than Tom Cruise was Jack Reacher!!!!

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    • I totally agree with you about the Mrs. Pollifax novels, which are such a delight. I didn’t know that there were movies starring Angela Lansbury, and I agree that though I haven’t seen any of them, she is not the picture of Mrs. Pollifax I have in my head. You triggered a faint memory of her also starring as Miss Marple in one of the films, “The Mirror Crack’d,” and that was definitely another miscast. However, she made a great Jessica Fletcher in “Murder She Wrote”!

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      • I did love Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in the first BBC productions of Christie’s books. She was a little bit sharper in tone than I would have thought, but she won me over completely throughout the series, and no one will ever come close. I shouldn’t tell everyone this, but I started carrying purses around that reminded me of her, and I loved that she was an older woman who stayed an older woman in all of the episodes that I watched of her. Why is that so difficult? I think the British are much better at that than we Americans, who seem to want everyone to look younger than they really are.

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        • I realized after posting this comment that I’m sitting here in in my den wearing jeans and a bright orange hoodie that says “Never underestimate an old woman who graduated from the University of Texas at Austin.” Hmm..not sure Miss Marple or even Joan Hickson would approve, but oh well…times have certainly changed from those days since I went to college or even the past week since I ordered it on line! 🙂

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        • Joan Hickson, (from wikepedia) “In the 1940s she appeared on-stage in an Agatha Christie play, Appointment with Death, which was seen by Christie who wrote in a note to her, “I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple”.

          I also learned from wikipedia, that Joan Hickson’s middle name was Bogle. The only other time I recall that name is as a pseudonym for WC Fields, who credited one Charles Bogle for a screenplay…coinkidink? Undoubtedly!

          Finally, the purse that Hickson carried, at least the one that I recall was a largish alligator one– many hundreds of pounds worth of purse on today’s market, and very expensive in Marple’s own time period. Did you tote such a one?

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          • jhNY, you probably won’t see this, because I’ve not had any power for three days, but I wanted you to know that I think I had something similar to the purse you mentioned, but it was hard to hold it the way Ms. Hickson did and it was from a discount store and not too expensive!

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        • I agree with you Kat Lib, Miss Marple and British actors. Look at today Maggie Smith still an A grade actor once gorgeous and today with wrinkles and all still wrinkles and all. Another A grade actor is Judy Dench in her 80`s.
          While American actors restructures their faces so tight that their expressions become blank.
          Where are the actors like Helen Hayes 😦

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  16. No first comment so I’m trying again, as usual:

    All of the hobbits in ‘Lord of the Rings’ are unlikely heroes but the most unlikely is Samwise Gamgee. When Frodo is pretty much possessed by the power of the ring, Sam takes it and then ensures that Frodo goes through with his mission. Frodo would have failed utterly without Sam to keep him on course.

    Speaking of ‘Sam’ characters, in George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’, the bastard Jon Snow is sent to the Night’s Watch, the group that guards The Wall to keep out the Wildlings as well as the deadly White Walkers, although in the first volume, most of the inhabitants of Westeros consider the White Walkers to be legends that don’t really exist. Of course, none of them have had any close encounters with them. At The Wall, however, there are some such as Jon and his overweight, intelligent but hardly soldier-material Samwell Tarly, who know something lurks out there that most people are not acknowledging. Samwell, like Sam Gamgee, rises to the occasion many times, and survives scrapes with not only some White Walkers but other dangerous characters. While Jon is handy with the sword and an excellent and brave fighter, Sam has to rely on his brain power to get him through many situations.

    The other unlikely hero in the series is the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, although he starts out as an antihero who, because he is the smartest character in King’s Landing, outsmarts his enemies and manages to survive. I predict that both Tyrion and Sam will be left still standing when the series finally comes to a close, after numerous major characters have fled the mortal coils.

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    • Great point, bobess48! Samwise Gamgee is indeed an even more unlikely hero than Frodo Baggins. Heck, though he’s the “sidekick” to Frodo, Samwise often basically calls the shots and (as you noted) even goes it alone for a while in “The Lord of the Rings.” All while being kind of humorous as well as courageous.

      And thanks for all the info on those “Song of Ice and Fire” characters! Given that I’ve yet to read George R.R. Martin’s series or see the TV version, I can’t really add anything. 🙂

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    • I love Samwell. Early in the series, Ned Stark is asked if a man can be brave if he’s afraid, and Ned’s reply is, “That is the only time a man can be brave,” and I think that sums up Sam perfectly. In the beginning, Sam knows that there’s a lot he can’t do because he’s craven. But then he’s forced to do those things DESPITE the fear. As a reader, it’s really rewarding watching Sam achieve so much. Maybe even achieving more than Jon Snow, simply because he had to overcome so much more to get there.

      Liked by 1 person

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