Study Guide

The Lord of the Rings

by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

J. R. R. Tolkien’s modern fantasy classic The Lord of the Rings is a massive novel, often called epic both for its size and scope and for its heroic theme. At half a million words, balancing scores of main characters and hundreds of minor ones (the index lists more than seven hundred personal names) and interweaving several plot strands, The Lord of the Rings was too big for one volume in its first publication, resulting in a three-volume version that was (inaccurately) dubbed a trilogy. The setting is Middle-earth, conceived vaguely as Northern Europe before the recorded history of humankind and before geological forces changed the shape of the land.

The unlikely hero of the story is a little hobbit named Frodo Baggins, nephew of Bilbo Baggins, the hero of Tolkien’s earlier and more child-oriented novel, The Hobbit (1937). The story opens with a party at which Bilbo hands over his estate to his nephew and leaves the Shire for good. With his estate, Bilbo leaves Frodo the magic ring that makes the wearer invisible. As Frodo receives it, however, the wizard Gandalf discovers this and reveals to Frodo, that the ring is in reality the One Ring that controls a host of other rings of power dispersed among the races of Middle-earth (three to the elves, seven to the dwarves, and nine to humans). Sauron, a mysterious power who has sought for millennia to control all people, now seeks the ring from his stronghold in Mordor. Holding the ring endangers Frodo and all around him: He must leave the Shire he loves.

Frodo attempts to sneak off alone, but his loyal hobbit friends—his gardener Sam Gamgee, and younger cousins Merry and Pippin—guess Frodo’s secret and willingly share his danger. Pursued by the shadowy Black Riders—cloaked figures so shadowy that they seem to have no substance—the four hobbits are trapped between the Riders, menacing Barrow Wights, and malicious willows that enclose the hobbits until the kindly Tom Bombadil rescues them. Moving on, the hobbits seem lost without Gandalf until they fall in with a scruffy character, a Ranger named Strider, who looks disreputable, but whom Frodo decides to trust. Strider fends off the Black Riders, but not before Frodo is wounded by a Morgul Blade, a magic sword whose wound can be cured only by elvish healing. Strider rushes Frodo to the Halfelven King Elrond at Rivendell, while Gildor calls down a flood that vanquishes the Black Riders.

Recovering at Rivendell, Frodo is called to a council where the greatest minds—elf, dwarf, human, hobbit, and wizard—debate how to answer the threat of the ring. The inescapable conclusion is that the ring must be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, in the heart of Mordor where the evil power resides. Frodo agrees to the dangerous mission, supported by the Fellowship of the Ring: Gandalf, Strider, Sam, Pippin, Merry, an elf named Legolas, a dwarf named Gimli, and a man named...

(The entire section is 1197 words.)

The Lord of the Rings Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Twenty years of continued subcreation mark the difference in tone and design of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit’s paternal narrative voice is missing, so that almost from the opening of the trilogy the reader is aware that the issues of the novel are greater.

Tolkien’s trilogy has spawned dozens of multivolume quest fantasies using a medieval setting. They range from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (1968-1973) to Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (1977) to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s extended Darkover series (1972-1988). Each of these authors, including Tolkien, incorporates a theological element into the adventure story. Most appeal to the audience Tolkien awakened, and each has captured a share of a growing market for such fiction. Yet few succeed in the task of subcreation. Tolkien offers readers that possibility for “communion with other living things” that he claims all humans desire, in a world in which differing races have well-documented histories, languages capable of a range of poetic expression, and differing cultural assumptions. To some extent, too, Tolkien succeeds because one can imagine life apart from adventure in Middle-earth.

The Fellowship of the Ring, like The Hobbit, begins in innocence. Although the Shire, Gandalf, and Bilbo reappear, almost immediately the story changes direction. Bilbo, sixty years older, surrenders the ring of invisibility to his nephew Frodo and rejoins the elves. After an interval of some years, which Tolkien compresses, Gandalf returns to announce that Frodo holds the One Ring, forged by the magician Sauron, which both empowers its wearer and tempts the wearer to exercise that power selfishly. No one can wear it safely.

Frodo, like Bilbo apparently undistinguished, unimaginative, decent, fair, and quietly stubborn, is the audience’s vantage point for the story. Circumstances demand that he outgrow his hobbit isolationism, and indeed, offer himself without reserve or selfishness for a whole world that he does not know. His travels take him out of the Shire and into a land utterly threatening; he is betrayed by a companion, offers forgiveness and redemption to another who betrays him, and carries a burden no good person in the novel can endure. Throughout the novel, he battles the power of the ring itself, which tempts him to use it; he also carries the burden of knowing that his success will mean that the world will change, and some of its goodness, as well as much of its evil, will diminish. In Frodo, Tolkien explores the recurring theme of substitutionary love: Some must be willing to offer their lives that others might live. His quest reverses the movement of the earlier novel; the ring, once found, must now be destroyed in the place of its forging, deep within Sauron’s kingdom, Mordor.

Accompanied by several hobbits, Frodo leaves the Shire for Rivendell, acquiring along the way a human companion, the ranger Aragorn, known as Strider. Pursued, Frodo is wounded in battle before they arrive safely at Rivendell. A council representing all civilization—elves, dwarfs, humans, and hobbits—eventually agrees that the One Ring must be destroyed. That can happen only if it is returned to the place of its making, deep within Mordor. Representatives of the four kindreds agree to accompany Frodo on the journey.

A contrasting quest emerges when one of Frodo’s human companions, Aragorn, declares himself the heir of the throne of Minas Tirith, the city that has opposed Mordor for millennia. As Frodo is the naïve initiate, Aragorn is the experienced warrior assuming a heroic challenge of his own. In Aragorn, Tolkien awakens Frodo and the audience to that desire “to survey the depths of space and time,” for Aragorn represents a tradition and race coming from a forgotten age of the world, from the land of Numenor.

Before the first volume ends, Tolkien has succeeded in opening to Frodo and his hobbit companions an awareness of a larger world, both older and more varied than they have known. He has also suggested the capacity for growth and heroism in the unheroic, as Frodo has been wounded and has accepted the possibility of death in his willingness to take the ring to Mordor.

The Lord of the Rings is most often remembered for its scenes of adventure, particularly the heroic language of warriors confronting their foes. From the first volume onward, however, Tolkien establishes a rhythm of adventure and reflection that serves several purposes. His characters are not always journeying. In The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, Frodo and his companions are entertained both at Rivendell and at the secret retreat of the elves in Lothlorien. The...

(The entire section is 1962 words.)