WARNING: The following contains major spoilers for the Attack on Titan manga, by Hajime Isayama, Dezi Sienty and Alex Ko Ransom, available in English from Kodansha now.
Just over a decade since it first began serialization, the legacy of Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan manga is assured as one of the medium’s all-time great fantasy epics. That title comes with a series of caveats, from its controversial Jewish cipher in its central heroic, fictionalized race to accusations of pro-Imperial leanings toward its author. However, that’s not to say there aren’t individual elements that are praiseworthy. One of those is the way, especially in its latter half, Isayama’s story lifts up seemingly insignificant side characters as the true beacons of hope in his murky, hopeless world.
Though not exclusively his, the idea of the “unsung hero” in fantasy literature undoubtedly has J.R.R Tolkien’s Sam Gamgee as its ordinary, do-gooder poster boy. Like Isayama, Tolkien not only pointedly selected Middle Earth’s most underestimated race, Hobbits, as the hairy-footed heroes of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but he also made the most underestimated Hobbit their best and brightest when push came to shove in the fiery bowels of Mordor. Although made of stronger stuff in his own right than some of his enemies — or allies — give him credit for, the Ring-bearer, Frodo Baggins, wouldn’t have gotten very far at all without the unyielding loyalty, bravery and optimism of his trusty gardener, Sam.
On a broad scale, the worlds of Attack on Titan and Middle Earth aren’t dissimilar in their despairing tones, emphasis on the horrors of war and expansive lore. On a smaller one, and when it comes to unsung heroes, Armin Alert is perhaps the most obvious Sam Gamgee analog. And, no, it’s not just because they’re both blonde-haired sidekicks to angsty brunettes. Both from humble origins, Armin and Sam are the measured, if not naive, at times, thinkers of their respective adventures. For every time Frodo struggles to push forward with his important quest, Sam is the voice of reason and comfort that helps him to keep going. Similarly, Armin makes for a loyal and level-headed rock for Eren and Mikasa to rely on.
Armin does go some way toward having his importance more widely recognized. When Levi is forced to make a choice between Armin’s and Commander Erwin’s lives, he ultimately makes the surprising decision to inject Armin with the life-saving Titan serum, rather than a superior officer with whom he shared a close bond. Though unpopular, Levi’s decision came down to preserving someone who represented humanity’s bright future — someone who still believed humanity even had one, and how it could keep pushing toward it. While Eren’s emotional turmoil and bestowed powers lead him to become a paranoid loose canon — like the corruption of Frodo by the One Ring — Armin’s selflessness and quiet dedication to the dream of a free world makes him far more deserving of the spotlight.
But Attack on Titan has far smaller and less recognized heroes than Armin. Onyankopon, one of the only Black characters featured in Isayama’s world, arrives on Paradis with the Anti-Marleyan Volunteers with the intention of helping the Island’s Eldian people modernize and better defend themselves from their Marleyan aggressors. Onyankopon, in particular, demonstrates a deeper, personal understanding of what it means for the Subjects of Ymir to be “othered” more than most of his white comrades. “All of us exist because someone meant for us to exist.” Because of this, he remains loyal to the Islanders even when the Volunteers turn on them, at tremendous risk to his own life. Standing up to your enemies is one thing, but standing up to your friends (who lack basic human empathy) is another. Isayama actually lets us know of Onyankopon’s significance right from the get-go: his name means “the great one.“
Then there are those who are even further removed from the main conflict, like Sasha Blouse’s family, who represent the goodness in humanity that’s sorely lacking closer to the battlefield. After Sasha’s death at the hands of Gabi, one of the Marleyan military’s Warriors-in-training (read: child soldiers), both she and her fellow young Warrior, Falco, escape from Paradisian custody and flee into the countryside. There, they’re taken in by the very family of the Eldian soldier Gabi killed in cold blood, discovering them to be a humble group of farmers and not — as the Marleyan propaganda machine made them out to be — “Island devils.” In fact, when Sasha’s adopted sister, Kaya, finds out the truth of their national identities and Gabi violently lashes out at the young girl, she harbors no ill will toward them; instead, Kaya tries to help them get safely back to their home.
When the truth about Gabi’s involvement in Sasha’s death also comes to light, Kaya does see red, but by this point, her family’s generosity has already wormed its way into Gabi’s psyche. The once-spitefully angry girl found herself questioning her entire upbringing, an emotional crossroads which eventually led her to the right destination. When faced with the possibility of a retributory death sentence for Sasha’s murder, Gabi does nothing to defend herself, proving that the last vestiges of her ingrained hatred for the Island-dwellers had fallen away. Finally, she no longer saw herself surrounded by two-dimensional enemies, but by human beings with lives as rich, complicated and worthy of existing as her own.
Despite its pro-military iconography, at Attack on Titan‘s core is the idea that the actions of individuals, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can be enough to break perpetual cycles of violence. Gabi’s character arc, along with the considerate actions and gentle temperaments of both Onyankopon and Armin, proves — in a very, Tolkien-esque sense — that the smallest among us really can make a difference.
KEEP READING: Attack on Titan: Why Eren Will NOT Commit [SPOILER]
In a way that's very Tolkien-esque, Attack on Titan's most important message is carried by its smallest characters.