Themes and Characters
The enduring conflict between good and evil is the underlying theme of the trilogy, but Tolkien develops others in connection with it. He explores the positive and negative sides of power, the nature of heroism, and the role of friendship. To Frodo Baggins, favorite nephew of the ring-finder Bilbo Baggins, is entrusted the task of saving Middle-earth from the control of the master of evil, Sauron. Frodo's task reverses the basic quest pattern: instead of finding a treasure, Frodo is sent to destroy what Sauron values above all, the One Ring.
Sauron had poured much of his power into the One Ring to strengthen his control over the nineteen Rings of Power. Of these nineteen rings, only the Three made by the elves for themselves have never been touched by Sauron and his evil. The Seven, originally distributed to dwarf leaders, have been destroyed and do not affect events in the trilogy. The major concentration of evil confronted by Frodo comes from the Ringwraith, or Nazgul, who are men enslaved by Sauron through the Nine Rings. Sauron, having learned from Gollum the whereabouts of the One Ring, sends the Nazgul to recover it. Since the defeat in which the Ring was cut from his hand, Sauron himself can no longer assume a physical form. He can, however, act through those who have submitted their minds and wills to his service. The nature of the Rings of Power and of the Ringwraiths is made clear to Frodo before he accepts the responsibility for destroying the Ring. The wizard Gandalf and Elrond, great leader of the elves of Middle-earth, determine who will accompany Frodo on his quest. Since there are nine enslaved Nazgul, they include nine individuals in the Fellowship of the Ring, representing the people of Middleearth: four hobbits (Frodo, his servant Sam, and two young friends, Pippin and Merry); the elf Legolas; the dwarf Gimli; two men, Aragorn and Boromir; and Gandalf himself.
The fellows all demonstrate some aspect of heroism. Gandalf has about him an aura of supernatural power. He risks his life and his power when he is pitted against other supernatural forces: his fellow wizard Saruman, turned evil by desire for the Ring; the Balrog of Moria, who leads him to at least a symbolic death; and the Lord of the Nazgul, who is reinforced by the great strength of Sauron. Although Gandalf is clearly a hero, his heroism is beyond human imitation.
Human heroes abound in the...
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Tolkien has, on occasion, been criticized by mainstream literary critics for simplistic and stereotypical characterization and, when compared to the detailed characters of Henry James or Faulkner, his Gandalf and Aragorn do come across as thin. Such criticism, however, is largely a matter of condemning an apple for not being an orange. When examining Tolkien's use of character development, his technique should be compared not to that of the masters of the realistic tradition, but rather to that of the writers of the romance and epic, both medieval and modern. Within this context, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the rest seem surprisingly well rounded. Like most of the great heroes of romance, from King Arthur to Ivanhoe, from Captain Ahab to Sherlock Holmes, they have a vitality that induces the reader to care what happens to them. Similarly, in his comic portrayal of Sam Gamgee, although it has occasionally caused him to be accused of class prejudice, Tolkien has transcended the forelock-tugging stereotype of the British bumpkin and created a living, growing character, someone who is fully capable of both love and heroism.
Finally there is the matter of Frodo Baggins, Tolkien's protagonist. In Frodo, Tolkien does approach the complexity of character which one is accustomed to finding in the modern novel. The Hobbit's growth from good-hearted but shallow young country squire to suffering tragic hero is perhaps the novel's greatest triumph. Much of the latter half...
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The last descendant of the kings of the west, Aragorn, named Estel (Hope) by his mother, was born in the northwest of Middle Earth. (Aragorn is variously known as Strider, Thorongil, Estel and Elessar.) There his kinsmen and people had dwindled to a small clan of hardy, relatively long-lived men and women. His father was killed soon after his birth; Aragorn was raised in Rivendell, the last secret hope of his people. He has spent his adult life, like the other men of his people, as a Ranger, protecting the northwest lands of Middle Earth (particularly the Shire, since the finding of the Ring) from the threat of Sauron. He has ridden under an assumed name with the riders of Rohan and fought under an assumed name—Thorongil—in Gondor.
Aragorn is not a fairy-tale hero. His hard, hunted life has made him grim and, at times, a little tart. His ability and experience have not left him without self-doubt. His personal life, particularly his love for Arwen, has been mothballed for decades. He hardly refers to that love, and only retrospectively do some of his actions, for example, singing the Lay of Beren and Luthien, reveal its true, almost painful intensity. Despite this, his capacity for true friendship defines him as much as his actions. He is capable of great tenderness and understanding, born of intuition honed by experience. Gandalf relies on him. Bilbo treats him with the avuncular fondness with which he treats his own young cousins. Eomer of Rohan...
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A half-elf and Elrond's daughter, like all elves, she is for all practical purposes immortal. Arwen (also known as Undomiel 'Evenstar') is called 'Evenstar' because of her resemblance to her great-grandmother, Luthien 'Morningstar,' who also renounced immortality for the love of a mortal man. She has waited for Aragorn through all his labors and marries him shortly after the end of the War of the Ring, assigning her right to pass over the sea to the uttermost west to Frodo should he wish. After Aragorn's death, she goes back to her mother's home of Lórien and, the elves all departed, dies alone.
Arwen's character and meaning are elusive, but in the end, hidden away in the Appendices, supremely tragic. The true female counterpart of Frodo, she is wounded by the necessary choice between father and lover, immortality and mortality, just as Frodo is by the experience of the Ring. Although she assumes mortality, she dies utterly elven in her attitude.
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Cousin and adopted heir of Bilbo, he is left a clearly magic ring along with the rest of Bilbo's property and warned not to use it. After a number of years, Gandalf comes to perform a final test that identifies the ring as the One Ring of Sauron, whose power and influence is so great and so corrupting that it cannot be safely used. Attempting to protect the Shire and his people, Frodo and three companions, Sam, Merry, and Pippin flee with it while being pursued by the Sauron's servants the Ringwraiths. At the Council of Elrond, he offers to take it to Mount Doom and destroy it. He struggles to perform the task, slowly being devoured by the power of the Ring until, at the edge of the volcano's crater, he chooses to claim the Ring for himself. At that moment, Sauron is aware of him and is distracted from the little army lead by Aragorn. Before he or Frodo can act, Gollum bites off Frodo's finger to steal back the ring and, dancing with glee, falls backwards into the fire, destroying the Ring. Frodo is doubly maimed by his sufferings while carrying the Ring and by his final failure to resist and destroy it. He can find no peace in his return home and takes up Arwen's offer to pass over the sea into the west in her place.
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The last ruling steward of Gondor. He is very much in the mold of the ancient men of the west. His resemblance to Aragorn is mentioned at more than one point. Nevertheless, he pays only lip service to the essential nature of the stewardship. It is clear he would not relinquish, with any good grace, his rule to the true king should he return. He is contemptuous when speaking of Aragorn. In the Appendices in the last volume of Lord of the Rings, there are suggestions that Denethor's attitude may have been affected by an earlier meeting of the two men. Aragorn, under the name of Thorongil, fought as a captain in the wars of Gondor under Denethor's father, Ecthelion II. Denethor resented Thorongil's ability, success, and his...
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A Hobbit who accompanies a group of dwarves on an attempt to kill a dragon and reclaim their home and treasure. All this happens, although not quite the way they expected, and largely through Bilbo's growing self assurance and the help of a ring Bilbo finds, steals, or wins—actually a little of all three—that renders its wearer invisible. Bilbo brings the ring back with him and occasionally uses it, largely to avoid meeting his more obnoxious relatives. It has, however, other effects. He enjoys extended life and vigor, but also begins to feel it "growing on his mind." The ring is the Ring, the great ruling Ring of Sauron, holding a power that devours and corrupts sooner or later all that...
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