Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1138

Samuel Johnson is credited with saying that “A book should teach us to enjoy life or to endure it.” J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings teaches both. It also fits the dictum of another writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, who said, “And this is the particular triumph...

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Samuel Johnson is credited with saying that “A book should teach us to enjoy life or to endure it.” J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings teaches both. It also fits the dictum of another writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, who said, “And this is the particular triumph of the artist—not to be true merely, but to be lovable; not simply to convince, but to enchant.” Tolkien has been compared to Lodovico Ariosto and to Edmund Spenser. Indeed, he belongs to the tradition of writers of epic and romance going back to the days of Homer. His work is deeply rooted in the great literature of the past and seems likely itself to be a hardy survivor resistant to time. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, Celeborn the Elf King (no doubt speaking for his author) warns against despising the lore that has survived from distant years, for old wives’ tales may be the repositories of needful wisdom.

Although The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy, each volume of which bears a different title, it is really a single, continuous tale. The author is in complete control of his copious material. He creates a consistent world with a sharply realized geography that includes maps; he works out a many-centuried time scheme and summarizes the chronology in an appendix to the third volume, The Return of the King (1955). With fertile inventiveness, Tolkien launches an amazing number of well-drawn, believable characters, places, and events. If there are any loose ends in the three volumes, they are so minor as to be negligible. The book has been pronounced an allegory; with equal certainty it has been pronounced not an allegory. At any rate, it is a gigantic myth of the struggle between good and evil.

The author first presents his invented creatures, the hobbits or halflings, in an early book, The Hobbit, to which The Lord of the Rings is a sequel, but a sequel with significant differences. Hobbits are small, furry-footed humanoids with a delight in simple pleasures and a dislike of the uncomfortable responsibilities of heroism. They share the world with human beings, wizards, elves, dwarfs, trolls, orcs, and other creatures. Although many of these creatures are not the usual figures of the contemporary novel, thoughtful readers can find applications to inhabitants and events of their world, which has its share of traitors, malice-driven demidevils, and time-servers, yet is not completely destitute of heroes and individuals of goodwill. Of the three volumes, The Fellowship of the Ring has the widest variation in tone: After beginning with comedy and domestic comfort, it moves into high adventure, peril, and sorrow. Occasional verses appear in the pages, but Tolkien’s poetry resides in both his prose and his verse.

The Fellowship of the Ring introduces two tales that run side by side throughout the trilogy. One tale is that of the destruction of Sauron and the return of King Elessar to the throne of his fathers; the other is the story of the journey of the hobbits from jolly complacency to unexpected heights of self-knowledge and self-sacrifice. The former gives the work its quality of ancient romance, for the characters are larger than life and speak to one another in elevated language; natural descriptions and expressions of emotion tend to be more formal and ceremonious than realistic. The second tale contains elements of realism; the most realistic, homey, and familiar characters are from Tolkien’s invented race, the hobbits.

The major figure in Tolkien’s high saga is Aragorn, later King Elessar. He is certainly the most heroic of the characters in the classical sense, but the very elevation of his character has led some critics to see him as inhuman, lifeless, or too good to be true. Actually, however, he is a character of considerable subtlety and complexity; he earns his credentials as a hero honestly. Initially, in his disguise as Strider, Aragorn must use guile and indirection to win the confidence of the hobbits. They understand neither the implications of their situation nor their own personal danger. Aragorn, on the other hand, realizes that he is as frightening to them as any of Sauron’s agents. Therefore, he uses their apprehensions toward him to stimulate their sense of danger, after which he ingratiates himself by his wit and finally by Gandalf’s letter of identification. When asked why he did not identify himself earlier, he replies that he wants to be accepted for himself. Once the quest begins, Aragorn proves his mettle and worthiness for kingship, not primarily by brute strength or heroic posturing but by his adroit handling of the others and his subtle strategies. A special poignancy and humanity are further given to him by his prolonged and tender love affair with Lady Arwen. Readers may never feel close to Aragorn, but they can understand and feel for him as a human being and admire him as a heroic figure.

Although Aragorn leads the troops to victory in battle, the primary task of the epic falls not to the most heroic of the men but to the mildest of the hobbits, Frodo Baggins. The name of this little race suggests a hob, hobnobbing, a dobbin; it calls up visions of fireside comforts, companionship, patient steadfastness, and good sense. Descriptions of hobbits and hobbit life in the prologue outline the prototype: a steady, plain little person, none too clever.

This impression, however, is belied in the story by the characters of Samwise and Frodo; in developing the character of Sam, Tolkien begins with a collection of those homely virtues that most nations arrogate to their own peasant class and then adds, without loss of credibility, a quirky intelligence that outstrips shrewdness and a fancy for elfish lore. In Frodo, he marries the homely world of the Shire with the high deeds of the Dunedain. In Frodo are combined the best things of both worlds: He is the wisest and most noble of the hobbits and the bravest of the heroes because he is the smallest and most afraid.

It is primarily because of Frodo’s unpretentiousness that he is “chosen” for the crucial task of casting the ring into the fire of Mordor. The “large” heroes of the book, Aragorn and Gandalf, refuse the task, not from fear of external dangers but from the knowledge that they would not be able to resist the ring’s effect on them—they are too worldly and versed in the ways of power to be immune to the awful temptation to use it. Only Frodo is sufficiently small and humble to withstand its corrupting influence right up to the edge of the fire—where even he weakens and the ring is finally destroyed by powers beyond his control.

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