In 1997, The Lord of the Rings was voted, to the chagrin of some critics, the greatest book of the twentieth century in a poll run by major British booksellers. Despite some negative criticism, Lord of the Rings has been a steady best-seller since the first volume was published in 1954, and a campus craze in the sixties and early seventies. The extensive fantasy sections in today's bookstores, from Terry Brooks to Terry Pratchett, are all its children, as are, if George Lucas is to be believed, the Star Wars films.

On the surface, a combination of popular acclaim and critical disquiet is a baffling response to the work of an Oxford professor saturated in the study of language development and early medieval literature. Still, it is perhaps this crossing of characters and situations common to epic and folktale with a judicious use of novelistic technique that accounts for both its popularity with the reading public and the hostility of some critics, whose literary culture is too centered in the avant-garde to be comfortable with a work that reaches so deeply into medieval literature and which rejects, however thoughtfully, moral relativism. Despite its roots in medieval literature, Lord of the Rings places its characters and its readers on a collision course with modern moral dilemmas of knowledge and power. Tolkien poses these modern problems with absolute ethical principles and a belief in both an overarching providence and the importance of human choice. These ethical absolutes are, however, at least partially expressed in terms of a new type of hero, one which does not supplant the old epic hero but which complements it. Although Tolkien always insisted that Lord of the Rings was not allegorical, it is apparent that the Ruling Ring and the destruction of the natural world that flows from the desire for its power are a reflection of Tolkien's concern for humanity's ability to destroy both itself and the earth. That Tolkien chooses a course of total rejection of such knowledge and power is perhaps one of the unconscious sources of some critics' reaction to the work. Such a rejection strikes at the heart of the concept of progress as it has developed in western civilization.

The Lord of the Rings 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...

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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...

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The Lord of the Rings Summary

The Lord of the Rings Book 1 Summary

In Lord of the Rings, the inhabitants of Middle Earth join to save themselves from enslavement by the malevolent Sauron. Centuries before, Sauron forged a Ring, putting much of his power into it, to control through a series of lesser rings, men, dwarves, and elves. Some men fell into his power, but an alliance of men and elves defeated him, and the Ring was cut from his hand. It should have been destroyed, but a human prince, Isildur, took it. Isildur was slain, and the Ring fell into a river. There, the hobbit-like Deagol eventually found it. His friend Sméagol killed Deagol for the Ring. From Sméagol it passed to Bilbo Baggins, who, innocent of its powers and dangers, takes it back to his home and eventually leaves it to his cousin and heir Frodo Baggins. Once it is understood what the Ring is, and that Sauron is trying to recover it, it becomes clear that it must be destroyed. It can, however, only be destroyed in the same fire in which it was forged, the volcano Orodruin deep in Sauron's realm. It appears a rash and hopeless mission, requiring that the last forces of Middle Earth fight and act as a decoy while sending Sauron's ultimate weapon back into the heart of his realm. The very unlikelihood of the mission confuses Sauron. The Ring is destroyed in an act of providential irony, but not without enormous loss and a fundamental change to Middle Earth.

The Hobbit
The Lord of the Rings is preceded...

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The Lord of the Rings Book 2 Summary

The Fellowship of the Ring: Book 2
The hobbits and Aragorn reach Rivendell with the Ringwraiths closing in. There a council of men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits is held. They decide the Ring is too dangerous either to use or to hide. It must be destroyed. Frodo offers to take and destroy it in the fire where it was forged. With him go Gandalf, Aragorn, and Boromir, son of the Steward of Gondor, for mankind; Legolas, son of Mirkwood' s Elf-king, for the elves; Gimli, son of Gloin of the Lonely Mountain for the dwarves; Sam, Merry, and Pippin for the hobbits. Gandalf leads them until, thwarted in their attempt to cross the mountains, he takes them underground through the mines of Moria. There he falls in battle to an evil creature from the earth's depths. Aragorn takes over leadership of the band, guiding them to the elven kingdom of Lórien where its queen Galadriel tests their resolve and gives each a gift, then sends them down the river Anduin to the Rauros falls. There they must decide whether to turn east towards Sauron's realm or go with Boromir to the aid of Minas Tirith, capital of Gondor. Already they realize Gollum is following them. When it becomes clear Frodo will continue the apparently hopeless quest to destroy the Ring, Boromir tries to take the Ring. Frodo, horrified at the Ring's effect, leaves the others. Sam insists on coming with him. Orcs from Mordor and from the renegade wizard Saruman attack while the rest search for Frodo...

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The Lord of the Rings Book 3 Summary

The Two Towers: Book 3
Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas return at Boromir's horn call, but arrive only in time for Boromir to confess to trying to take the Ring and to beg Aragorn to save his people. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli start in pursuit of the Orcs. The three are overtaken by a troop of horsemen, the Riders of Rohan, led by Eomer, nephew of their King. Eomer tells them that he and his men overtook a band of Orcs at the edge of the great forest of Fangorn and slaughtered them. He lends them horses to search for their friends on the condition that they come to his uncle's court afterwards to justify his help. The hobbits, however, have escaped and met Treebeard the Ent, the master of the forest. Hearing their story, Treebeard decides the time has come to move against Sauruman who has begun to imitate Sauron, destroying or enslaving everything within his reach. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas reach the forest where Gandalf, sent back from the dead to finish his work, meets them. He tells them that the hobbits are safe and have found allies: the Ents. They travel to the court of Theoden, king of Rohan. The wizard turns the king from the despair induced by the insinuations of Grima, the king's councilor, Saruman's agent. They and the Ents help Rohan fight off Saruman's invasion, and then go with Theoden to confront Saruman, now besieged by the Ents. There they are reunited with Merry and Pippin. Saruman refuses to give up his bid for power; Gandalf...

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The Lord of the Rings Book 4 Summary

The Two Towers: Book 4
Frodo and Sam are found by Gollum, whom Frodo befriends, almost winning him over from his malice. Gollum leads them through the desolation around Mordor, but they discover that they cannot enter its "Black Gate." Gollum offers to show them another, hidden way. As they journey there, a scouting party under command of Boromir's younger brother, Faramir, catches them. Faramir learns of the Ring and their plans, but resists any temptation to seize it. He gives them supplies and warns them that Gollum's secret way, the Spider's Pass, is more dangerous than Gollum has said. They follow Gollum, however, having no other choice. A monstrous spider, Shelob, bites Frodo. Sam thinks he is dead and...

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The Lord of the Rings Book 5 Summary

The Return of the King: Book 5
Pippin and Gandalf reach Gondor and meet Denethor, the ruling steward. Denethor questions Pippin closely about his dead son. He is not happy with what he hears. He resents Aragorn and believes the Ring should be used to defeat Sauron. Pippin, who admired Boromir, offers his sword to Denethor who accepts him as one of his guardsmen. Meanwhile Aragorn has been joined by a small band of his kinsmen. He takes leave of King Theoden and rides for the Paths of the Dead to demand the help of a ghostly army cursed to have no peace until they fight against Sauron. Gimli and Legolas go with him. Longing for glory and in love with Aragorn, Éowyn, niece of Theoden and regent in his absence,...

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The Lord of the Rings Book 6 Summary

The Return of the King: Book 6
Sam rescues Frodo from the Orcs, helped by their in-fighting and the power of Galadriel's gift. He hands Frodo back the Ring, and they travel on, still shadowed by Gollum. They abandon their few possessions as they abandon their hope of doing anything more than destroying the Ring. The landscape grows increasingly bleak as they approach the volcano, Orodruin. Frodo grows weaker and Sam carries him when he can no longer walk. Gollum catches up with them and knocks both of them down. Frodo rises with sudden strength and orders Gollum out of his path: "Begone and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom,'' and walks up the...

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