Places Discussed

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Shire. Homeland of the hobbits, J. R. R. Tolkien’s “little people,” whose environment and culture are provincial and innocent. The journey motif anchors the story in the Shire, which is an idealized adaptation of Tolkien’s boyhood haunts in an English Midlands village. Free of industrial pollution, the well farmed...

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Shire. Homeland of the hobbits, J. R. R. Tolkien’s “little people,” whose environment and culture are provincial and innocent. The journey motif anchors the story in the Shire, which is an idealized adaptation of Tolkien’s boyhood haunts in an English Midlands village. Free of industrial pollution, the well farmed countryside is pocked with underground housing, from the luxurious homes of the gentry to mere burrows, a correlative to the hobbits’ preference for a snug way of life that demands little awareness of a larger world outside.


Rivendell. Northern haven where the representatives of the “free peoples” (elves, dwarves, men, and hobbits) meet to discuss the fate of the Ring. When Frodo accepts the burden of the Ring. He, his servant, and two kinsmen set out on the Great East Road to this distant stronghold. A detour leads them through the Old Forest, where hostile trees menace them, but Tom Bombadil, a benign nature spirit, befriends them. Quickly they discover that the natural world beyond the Shire can be either dangerous or welcoming.

The travelers ford a wild river to reach Rivendell, the palace of Elrond Half-elven, who maintains this enchanted retreat by the power of one of three Elvish rings. Concealed in a deep and narrow valley, Rivendell is called the Last Homely House East of the Sea, “a perfect house,” as Bilbo once reports, “whether you like food or sleep or storytelling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.” At present it is also a key political site at which men, Elf lords, dwarves (Tolkien’s spelling), a wizard, and now hobbits confer about the rising dark power in Moria and his One Ring.

Reaching Bree

Reaching Bree. Village held jointly by hobbits and men. Frodo’s servant Sam is daunted by the inn, his first sight of the tall houses of men. There the hobbits are joined by Aragorn, a ranger of the North, who leads them on secret paths through marshes and woods, paralleling the dangerous road.


Moria. Ancient dwarf kingdom. The Nine Walkers (Gandalf, four hobbits, two men, an Elf, and a Dwarf) set out with the goal of destroying the One Ring. They travel south, hoping to cross the Misty Mountains by the Redhorn Pass; however, blinding blizzards force them to take a terrifying underground passage through the ruinous Mines of Moria. Moria’s decaying splendors, now dark except for light thrown by Gandalf’s wand, house Orcs, coarse goblinlike creatures, and also, on a deeper level, a Balrog, a fierce fire spirit. Galdalf leads the party through eerie winding tunnels to safety. Confronted by the Balrog on a narrow stone bridge, Galdalf falls into an abyss. Aragorn leads the surviving Walkers out into Dimrill Dale, a sacred dwarvish place, and beyond it to the outskirts of the Golden Wood.


Lothlorien. Even more than Rivendell, Lothlorien epitomizes the Elvish (Tolkien’s spelling) ideal in Middle Earth, but it, too, is vulnerable. Like Elrond, its Queen Galadriel wields an Elven ring, without which this demi-eden and its folk would “dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.” The necessary destruction of the One Ring may also negate the potency of the Three, ending the “stainless” beauty of a land that seems to Sam to be “inside a song.” After receiving aid and resting under the golden flowered mallorn trees of Caras Galadon, the remaining travelers turn south on the great Anduin River toward Minas Tirith, the principal city of Gondor.


Gondor. Declining but still powerful South Kingdom of Men. The journey to Gondor affects two of the Walkers in an enlarging way. Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the Elf, two individuals whose cultural history is one of enmity and racial antagonism, become friends as they explore the Golden Wood, and they share one of the little boats. The companions, sensing the presence of Orcs on the east bank, and fearing that Gollum, a small, corrupt, sort of ur-hobbit who once held the Ring, is now stalking them, become careless in their calculations and are nearly undone by the rapids of Sam Gebir. Eventually they reach outlying relics of an older, stronger Gondor: first, the Argonath, immense stone pillars of “kings” who guard the river’s gorge into a placid lake. On the lake’s west bank is Amon Hen, the “Hill of Sight,” where in the days of the great kings a stone seat was placed for the rulers’ contemplation. The Fellowship rests while Frodo, who carries the One Ring, slips off alone to Amon Hen in hope of guidance. Boromir, mad with desire for the Ring, follows and tries to take it by force. Frodo eludes him, and with Sam, escapes to the eastern shore, where they set off on foot for Mordor, the Dark Lord’s realm. The other companions, searching for Frodo, are attacked by Orcs and scattered. The Fellowship is broken.

Literary Techniques

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Tolkien includes throughout The Fellowship of the Ring numerous references to the near and distant history of Middle Earth, adding a great deal of richness to the characterization, the dialogue, and the story of his novel. He developed this history over decades of writing and left much of it unpublished during his lifetime. Nonetheless, the sense of history allows the reader more readily to believe in the fantasy setting, at least to the degree necessary to enjoy the work. Moreover, Tolkien's history of Middle Earth is an essentially positive one—despite struggles and conflicts, justice and good generally prevail over their opposites in Tolkien's work, even if that may not always appear obvious in Fellowship,

Adding to this sense of the believability of his creation is Tolkien's use of cultural myth and archetypes, including mythical creatures such as Elves, Dwarves, and Trolls, monsters such as wraiths, and situations such as the heroic quest. These archetypes can appeal to a western sensibility as representative of western cultural truisms. Thus the quest can take on significance beyond its stated goal, as a symbol of some sort of inner journey or quest for spiritual significance. This is certainly the case here, where Frodo's errand to destroy the Ring tempts him with visions of personal glory, or even a simple return to his life before the Ring entered it, and Gollum serves to remind the reader of what happens to those who fail to resist such temptations.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Tolkien's richly detailed history of Middle-Earth, much of the detail of which never made it into his Lord of the Rings, nonetheless provides a depth of background and setting that has continued to resonate with readers for decades. Although Tolkien himself consistently denied that the work was intended to be allegorical, the work has received numerous allegorical readings by critics, in part to attempt to render the work somehow more relevant to "real life." Perhaps such relevance must come from the reader, rather than the writer, applying the perceived meanings and themes of the text to his or her own social situation. The ability of Tolkien's readers to apply his work to social settings in a variety of cultural contexts over time may account, at least in part, for the enormous popularity of the novel.

1. Tolkien appears to waiver between the concepts of predestination and free will. Give examples of this from Fellowship, and explain which of these concepts Tolkien presents more convincingly (i.e., which do you think he really believed).

2. How does Tolkien use violence in the novel? For example, is it a means to an end, a necessary evil, a source of glory, a threat to be avoided, or something else?
3. Examine one instance of Tolkien's use of poetry. Is there a difference between the poetry of the Hobbits and that of the Elves or other races?

4. This work originally gained great popularity through college campuses throughout the United States when the paperback second edition was released in 1965. Why do you think Tolkien appealed so strongly to the American college student in this time? What other reasons would you give for its continued popularity since?

5. Compare and contrast the characters of Aragorn and Boromir. Each is heroic in his own way, but Boromir has one essential flaw. What is that flaw? How is Aragorn different?

6. Compare and contrast Frodo with either Aragorn or Gandalf. How does Tolkien portray each of these characters as heroes?

7. Who is Tom Bombadil? What does he represent? Why is his presence in the novel important, or is it?

8. Tolkien tells the reader very little about Sauron directly. How does he cause the reader to consider Sauron a dangerous threat?

9. Explain the presence of the "Prologue," particularly the "Note on the Shire Records." What is Tolkien's purpose in including this information?

10. The Ring can symbolize an endless cycle, and also serves as a symbol for marriage in the Christian tradition. To what other symbolic uses, if any, does Tolkien put the One Ring?

Social Concerns

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At its heart, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Lord of the Rings in general, revolves around questions of power. Who has power, from where does power come, and to what uses should power ethically be put, all appear as thematic questions in one place or another in the text. The evil Sauron created the One Ring, but it now lays in the hands of those who would use it for good; cannot those who have the Ring justify its use against its creator, that is, for good? Virtually every character in the novel must at some point choose to accept or reject such a use of the artifact, and even Gandalf the Grey, a magician of many years and much wisdom, does not trust himself to possess the Ring, or even to touch it. for the Ring represents not merely power, but absolute power—in its forging, Sauron's fate was sealed, and his corruption completed. In an obliquely democratic fashion, Tolkien entrusts the Ring only to Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the two most "common folk" in a novel filled with heroic deeds performed by persons of varying degrees of heroic stature.

Despite his concerns with the uses of power, Tolkien's work reveals the author as a man who believes in an essentially orderly universe, one in which individual choices have relevance and more or less logical consequences. Although Middle- Earth bears little physical resemblance to our world, Tolkien's world-view comes across as essentially Christian, with great import placed on the responsibility of each individual—human or otherwise—to do what he or she believes is right. Thus, his work serves to encourage the individual to action against evil, even as the Hobbit Frodo, essentially ignorant and powerless, chose to carry the One Ring to its doom: "'I will take the Ring,' he said, 'though I do not know the way.'" Frodo will do his share, then, to combat the evil overtaking Middle Earth, and Tolkien illustrates his belief that only such individual choices can overcome such great evil.

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien essentially invented a mythology, including a world complete with geography, history, and multiple sentient races, each with its own language. This allowed Tolkien to comment as he liked on our own world and its social structures without either sermonizing or giving offense. For example, Tolkien clearly addresses issues of social disunity. Written over a period of time including the Second World War, Fellowship includes Tolkien's memories of the alliance that achieved victory over the Axis Powers, not because of the sameness of the Allies, but because of their common war goals. Tolkien uses the initial distrust and later close friendship of Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf as an example of the harmony between individuals that may be achieved through unity against a common enemy. The reader should note, however, that Tolkien advised against a strictly allegorical reading of Fellowship, or any of his work, for that matter; Tolkien repeatedly insisted that no such interpretation of his work made sense.

Tolkien also appears relatively conservative in his belief that the "West" contains some values, some characteristics worthy of individual sacrifice to preserve. In Middle Earth, the danger from Sauron appears from the vast armies of the kingdoms of the East. The reader should bear in mind, however, that Tolkien balances what might otherwise appear as an essentially western, almost capitalistic worldview with the efforts and motivations of his major character, Frodo Baggins. Frodo does not display the fierce individualism of a typical western hero but rather engages in self-sacrifice for the communal good—for the good of the Shire at first, and later for the whole of Middle Earth. Thus Tolkien argues for a balance between strict individualism and societal benefit without directly addressing any "real world" political or social systems.

Literary Precedents

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A portion of the continuing appeal of The Lord of the Rings trilogy undoubtedly lies in its originality. Nonetheless, Tolkien studied language, and much of what he wrote about in The Fellowship of the Ring can be traced to his linguistic studies. He translated numerous Middle English poems, including "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and "Pearl" into modern English, and much of the quest theme and his beliefs about the cyclical renewal of life can be found in these early works as well as in Tolkien's fiction. A number of his characters' names are taken directly from the Eddie poem "Voluspa"— Gandalf's is one of them. Certain references in his work also remind the reader of the epic Beowulf, a poem that Tolkien is known to have studied and written upon at some length as an Oxford don.

Perhaps the most closely related literary precedent to Fellowship, however, is Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (and the numerous other versions of the tales of King Arthur and the Round Table, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King). Certainly, both are works of high fantasy, in which groups of disparate individuals join together in the defense of common ideals. In both works, each fellowship suffers from the betrayal of a trusted member. Each group receives advice from an ancient wizard. Neither work is terribly realistic at its most basic level, but each presents a core sense of psychological realism through its characters and each portrays itself as a written history, intended as an essentially accurate, if subjective, record of actual events.


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Recorded Books Unabridged has released both cassette and compact disc versions of The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) read by Rob Inglis. Random House Audio released an abridged version of Fellowship on cassette and compact disc in 2001, as well. Tolkien himself recorded portions of The Hobbit and Fellowship for a 1977 audio release by Caedmon. A Ralph Bakshi animated film entitled The Lord of the Rings, released in 1978, actually includes material only from Fellowship and portions of The Two Towers, and does not complete the trilogy. Peter Jackson has directed a live-action version of all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, including The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).


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Giddings, Robert, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien: This Far Land. London: Vision Press Limited, 1983. A collection of ten essays that discuss Tolkien’s world and examine subjects ranging from narrative form and the use of humor to the construction of female sexuality.

Kocher, Paul H. Master of Middle-Earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972. A critical examination of Tolkien’s major fictional works. Focuses on the creation and development of Middle Earth and provides perspective on the different qualities of the races inhabiting the realm. Offers critical insight on Tolkien’s notions of choice within a Christian framework.

Lee, Stuart D, and Elizabeth Solopova. The Keys of Middle-Earth. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. A handy portal into Tolkien’s medieval sources, featuring modern translations of the original texts.

Penn, Anne C. One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien’s Mythology. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1979. A critical examination of Tolkien’s process of mythmaking, moving beyond traditional literary analysis to employ perspectives derived from linguistics, folklore, psychology, and folklore studies.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The History of Middle-Earth. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. 12 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. Edited and fully annotated by J. R. R. Tolkien’s son, this series documents the creation of Middle Earth and its mythology in chronological fashion. Volume six, The Return of the Shadow, contains the initial drafts of The Fellowship of the Ring and demonstrates the painstaking creation of the story in fascinating detail.

Tyler, J. E. A. The New Tolkien Companion. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. A one-volume encyclopedia of Middle Earth, alphabetically identifying and explaining the characters, peoples, places, languages, religion, and histories that make up Tolkien’s world.

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Critical Essays