Of all the characters in Lord of the Rings, Frodo tends to get the most hate and criticism. It’s fairly easy to see why. Compared to characters like Gandalf, Aragorn, or even the other hobbits, he doesn’t have that much presence. Especially in the films, which is the version of the story most people are familiar with.
Frodo is a fairly simple character. He’s a normal guy, a country man adopted by a modern living hobbit legend in Bilbo. Growing up, he admired Bilbo and yearned to go on adventures just as his adopted father figure did. But when that adventure is thrust upon him, Frodo is not prepared nor is he excited. The gravity of his quest is just as much a burden on him as the Ring itself. Despite that, he’s still a friendly soul, as well as a brave one. But as the Ring’s influence on him grows, his mental state slowly deteriorates.
So, why don’t people like Frodo? Well, a large part of it is that he doesn’t have much influence over the plot most of the time. Both in the books and the films, he tends to sort of disappear into the shadows of the characters around him. On the journey towards Moria, for example, Frodo doesn’t have a whole lot to think or say. In Moria itself, he mostly stays quiet until he’s in danger, and even then all he does is cry out for help. It’s fairly easy to forget that he’s even there a good amount of the time.
There is a reason for this, though. Frodo is the Ringbearer, the one who must carry the Ring of Power. Anyone who gets too close to him risks being corrupted by his burden. He’s surrounded by strangers that he can’t trust. He knows he can trust his friends from the Shire, but he’s caught between worry over them and guilt over bringing them along. He feels isolated and unprepared and out of place. It’s hard to be a social butterfly in a situation like that. Unfortunately, it doesn’t leave Frodo with a lot of room to show off his character traits.
That’s why Frodo leaving the Fellowship is such a strong character moment. His distrust is confirmed by Boromir’s turn and he accepts that he must go on this quest alone. Despite his fears, he musters his courage and goes off towards Mordor. But when confronted by Sam, the one person he trusts more than anyone, he is overwhelmed by relief and allows him to travel with him.
From there, most of Frodo’s characterization is tied in with Gollum. Gollum is very much the dark reflection of what Frodo could become: a monster consumed by the Ring and transformed into a wild beast. Here, Frodo shows some of his strongest personality moments. He tries his best to help Sméagol break free from the Ring’s influence. But in doing this, he exposes his greatest weakness as a character: his ignorance. He allows Gollum to manipulate him in his efforts to help him. All the while, the Ring’s influence keeps corrupting him, making him drive his trusty Sam away.
This can be pretty frustrating for a reader/viewer. We tend to agree more with Sam, who can see the obvious fact that Gollum is an irredeemable bastard and doesn’t trust him. Frodo’s every attempt to be clever or subtle ends up backfiring, from his ‘negotiating’ with Farimir to his ‘healing’ of Gollum. As the Ringbearer, Frodo is being pushed hard on all fronts, and he is only succeeding because of luck and because of Sam’s efforts.
But that’s kind of the point. Frodo can’t do this alone. He is totally convinced that he has to, that it is his duty as the Ringbearer to complete this quest and that he is the only person capable of saving Gollum or of holding the Ring. He needs others to succeed, but the Ring’s influence leads him to push others away, both out of fear and anger, and leave himself vulnerable.
All of this culminates in the trek across Mordor. Frodo is exhausted, the Ring is heavier than ever, and their situation is so hopeless that even Sam gives up hope on a return journey. Regardless, they press on, determined to at least fulfill their quest before they die. They climb into Mount Doom…
…and Frodo fails. He succumbs to the Ring’s influence and tries to make it his own. The Ring is only destroyed because Gollum takes it back and falls, and Frodo only survives because Sam is there to save him. By all intents and purposes, Frodo failed to fulfill his quest.
This, I think, is why so many people have an issue with Frodo. On one hand, it does make sense given all the build-up; Frodo has only fallen more and more into the Ring’s power as the series went on. It subverts the audiences expectations in a way that makes sense and makes for an incredibly tense climax. On the other, it robs Frodo of that heroic moment of success. We the audience are robbed of the satisfaction of seeing Frodo overcome the impossible odds before him because he doesn’t. He fails and it’s up to Sam to save the day.
We never really see Frodo recover from that, either. After being rescued from Mordor, Frodo is more quiet than ever. Even in the books, where the hobbits need to save the Shire from Saruman, Frodo doesn’t play a particularly large role in that rescue. After that, he sails away with Gandalf and Bilbo and the elves forever, leaving the Shire behind because his PTSD has left him too scarred to go back to his old life.
Frodo’s character arc is surprisingly dark. He is forced out onto a journey of incredible importance, one that will more than likely be the death of him. His innocence is stripped away as he becomes paranoid and distrusting of those around him. All of his efforts end in failure, making him more of a burden than a hero. He ultimately fails in his mission. When he returns home, he’s too scarred physically and emotionally to remain, so he sails off forever in search for peace and happiness.
I don’t think Frodo is a bad protagonist. We the audience still sympathize with his struggle, and his personality isn’t unbearable. At no point are we wishing for him to fail purely because he is unlikable. But we never get a satisfying moment of growth or that glorious moment of triumph that makes all of the other heroes in Lord of the Rings so memorable. Not to mention that his quiet personality makes him easy to overlook when placed next to… well, just about anyone really.
Is he bad? No. It isn’t character he lacks. It’s presence on the page and satisfaction in his arc. His story is a tragedy, but it simply doesn’t stand out.