Chuck vs the One Ring
By Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Common through various expressions of the Hero’s Journey is a force known as Fate or Destiny. Of course, Tolkien would probably disagree with the terms, and would no doubt use Providence instead. Either way, the common presupposition is that the hero is destined for something greater. There is something intrinsically unique within the hero that sets him apart, and which reacts with the catalyst and produces the call to adventure, and thus, the becoming of the hero. But why? What is it about the hero that makes this becoming possible?
If I may wax philosophical for a moment…literally: back in the day, Aristotle had this theory of what he called the τελος (telos) of a thing, which basically means fulfillment, completion, or the ultimate end of a thing. And the telos must be present within the thing itself. For example, an acorn cannot grow into an oak tree unless it contains within it oak tree-ness. Likewise, the acorn’s completion, it’s means of fulfillment, is to become an oak tree. Now, what does this have to do with becoming a hero? Excellent question, and I’m glad you asked. In order to become a hero, the hero must already exist within, which means there is another process going on.
This process of becoming contained within the Hero’s Journey, it seems to me, is actually a revelation. A hero is revealed to be what he always was. The process in which the hero is revealed is obviously one of growth, trial, and often times heartache and even death, but it is a revelation. And this revelation isn’t due to Fate or Destiny, though we may use those terms. It is contained within the hero, an internal fulfillment of his very existence.
Now, there are innumerable examples of the heroic becoming throughout innumerable stories like Harry Potter, Perseus, Heracles (Hercules), Odysseus, Cu Chulainn and a host of others. But this post is about Chuck Bartowski and Frodo Baggins because I believe they share a common theme. They are each, in their own particular way, ring-bearers. The weight of the world, and the fate of many, is on their shoulders because of who they are, and what they are.
We start each journey with these heroes in a similar place: the mundane world. Both are somewhat undecided about how to spend the rest of their lives. Both have been raised by people who are not their parents. Both are innocent, trusting, and inspire loyalty in their friends and companions. Both have eccentric relatives. Frodo has Bilbo, the restless hobbit that he is, and Chuck – unbeknownst to him initially – has an almost mad scientist type figure as his father. Neither asks for the responsibility placed upon them. Neither wants to begin the Hero’s Journey, and both try desperately to be rid of the burden, only to realize that they must undertake the Quest.
The One Ring and the Intersect are heavy burdens our heroes bear. How are they able to bear them? Gandalf tells Frodo that he, Frodo, was meant to have the Ring. In much the same way, we find out throughout the seasons of Chuck that there is something particular about Chuck Bartowski that enables him to be the only one to bear the Intersect properly. Now, I realize there are multiple people throughout the show that have the Intersect at various times, just as there are different people who hold the Ring, but Frodo is the only one able to carry the Ring in relative innocence; likewise, Chuck is the only person able to carry the Intersect in relative innocence.
At various times throughout the long, and murderous, history of the Ring, many people possessed it, and all of their lives ended in the same way: betrayal and death. All, that is, except for Bilbo and Frodo. Even Gollum’s life ends in destruction. In the same way, only Chuck Bartowski is able to carry the Intersect without the requisite destruction. For any of the other characters throughout the series who have, at one time or another, carried the Intersect, there is a very real, though not necessarily literal, destruction. It becomes clear that only Chuck and Frodo can bear these burdens because there is something heroic within each of them to begin with. But this innate heroism does not prevent the fall that each suffers.
As I mentioned above, Gandalf tells Frodo that Providence has brought the Ring to the young Hobbit and in the second season of Chuck, Bryce Larkin tells Chuck why he sent the Intersect to Chuck. Bryce knew that Chuck would “do the right thing.” To paraphrase, Chuck is the only one with the integrity and morality to use the Intersect responsibly. Like Frodo, Chuck is less likely to use the immense power that comes with the Intersect for personal, or nefarious, ends. Indeed, in the beginning, Chuck Bartowski seems to be the only one not enamored with the idea of knowing all the secrets. But like the One Ring, the Intersect brings a set of temptations and pitfalls that have a negative effect on our slacker hero. The Intersect seeks to undo the innocence, integrity, and morality. Just as with Frodo carrying the Ring, the longer Chuck carries the Intersect, the more our hero begins to change, and not for the better. He begins his descent, and the descent is into hell itself.
Just as the Ring begins to work its insidious power on Frodo, the Intersect has the effect of dragging Chuck more into the ‘spy’ life, and he begins to lose himself. He burns an asset, after pretending to be the young man’s friend. As he descends further, lies become easier to tell, morality becomes confused. In Chuck, we can see the power of the Ring-like Intersect overcoming his sense of right and wrong, confusing his perceptions, his thinking, and even his soul. The pulling of Casey’s tooth for the sake of selling his cover, and forgetting his love for Sarah complete his descent. Just like Frodo under the strain of his immense burden, Chuck, in season 3, is no longer whole, no longer innocent, no longer himself. If Chuck were to continue down this path he would ultimately become Gollum.
Gollum, that poor, pathetic, self-loathing creature who resides in the depths of hell represents the ultimate end of the Ring-Bearer. Chuck’s spiraling descent into hell will result in him becoming a Gollum figure, and I believe, far worse than Volkoff or Shaw, because, again, of who he is and where he began his journey.
Thankfully, Chuck finds the catalyst for his resurrection in Sarah. When Frodo was at his weakest, Sam was able to carry him. It is the same for Chuck when he overhears Sarah’s conversation with Shaw about how she’s changed and wants to tell someone, anyone, her real name. Chuck hears the change in Sarah and is carried by it. He sees that because of him she has become more open, more loving, and more innocent. This is important to remember: there is always the possibility to return to innocence. There is always the possibility of restoration, of being made whole.
Unlike Frodo, however, Chuck is actually able to come back to himself. He is able to regain his innocence, and not only that, but is able to fully actualize the hero within. Frodo’s Fate, though “good,” is still quite a bit darker. He was never meant to fully succeed. Tolkien, himself, says that Frodo could never have willingly thrown the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. He was to get the Ring to the threshold, and through Providence, Gollum, in a fit of savage self-love, destroys the Ring. It’s almost as if Tolkien refused to allow Frodo to fully realize his own heroic nature. But then, the ending of The Lord of the Rings is much, much darker than Chuck.
The One Ring and the Intersect are tools of power. Admittedly, this is not a perfect analogy as the One Ring is a tool of the Ancient Evil, and is itself essentially evil, and the Intersect is quite possibly an essentially good piece of technology. But I actually think this makes the Intersect far more dangerous because it doesn’t give off an obviously evil aura. It doesn’t seek to undermine the bearer. It doesn’t have a will of its own. The real danger of the Intersect is that it isn’t evil at all, but it does hold tremendous power. Because of this any misuse of it is the result of the bearer’s will.
Chuck Bartowski becomes the Intersect Bearer. He reluctantly accepts it, and falls into his own version of hell before regaining his humanity, fulfilling his heroic nature, and saving those around him. Frodo, likewise, reluctantly accepts his burden and the quest to destroy the Ring, and eventually succumbs to the will of the Ring maker, and is not allowed to be fully restored to himself. He is certainly able to come to the very brink of his journey, but he comes to a point that he is not allowed to pass due to the darker view of mortal nature that runs throughout The Lord of the Rings.
You see, the stories of Chuck and Frodo present us with seemingly conflicting worldviews. On the one hand, the story of Frodo presupposes two metaphysical absolutes, one good and one evil that are in eternal conflict, and no matter how many times this evil is defeated, it will always come back. It may take several ages of the world to do so, but it will return. The story of Chuck Bartowski, on the other hand, does not presuppose two metaphysical absolutes. Rather, it presupposes that the choices one makes with what one has been given can be called good or evil. There’s a quote from Alexei Volkoff/Hartley Winterbottom that’s appropriate here: “Money, greed, and power are a dance with Satan, and he looks like me.”
The truth is probably somewhere in between these two worldviews, and so the stories of Frodo and Chuck provide valuable insights into the hero’s journey. Frodo’s heroic nature is fulfilled inasmuch as it can be given the cosmology of Tolkien’s universe–which is to say that it will always fall short. Chuck’s heroic nature is fulfilled fully as the soteriological hero. These stories encourage us all to realize that the heroic nature lies within us, and this nature can be actualized by doing good with the burdens we bear, even if that burden involves the imposition of another’s will.