First published: The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954; The Two Towers, 1954; The Return of the King, 1955. London: Allen & Unwin
Subgenre(s): Adventure; fantasy
Core issue(s): Good vs. evil; grace; hope; nature; sacrifice
Frodo Baggins, the protagonist
Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s gardener and closest friend
Gandalf, a wizard who guides Frodo
Sauron, the Dark Lord, principal antagonist
Strider, (also known as Aragorn), the rightful king of Gondor, in exile
Gimli, son of Gloin, a dwarf
Legolas, an elf
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 Boromir.
Unable to cross the treacherous Mount Caradhras, the company goes beneath it, into the Mines...
(This entire section contains 1996 words.)
of Moria, an underground city of the dwarves. There they are attacked by the monstrous orcs, and Gandalf is killed by a fiery monster known as a balrog. After a healing rest in the elvish retreat of Lórien, Frodo runs off when Boromir tries to seize the ring. Repentant, Boromir dies defending the hobbits, but the fellowship has been divided by his momentary treachery.
Searching for the scattered hobbits, Legolas, Gimli, and Strider meet the Riders of Rohan, fierce mounted warriors who defend the frontiers of Gondor. Meanwhile, Pippin and Merry narrowly escape the orcs and run into the kindly ents, giant treelike creatures who care for the forests. When they learn from the hobbits the danger they face from an evil white-clad wizard named Saruman, the peaceful ents go to war. Meanwhile, a mysterious white-robed figure appears to Gimli and Legolas; they poise to strike him down, only to discover it is the resurrected form of Gandalf, now in glistening white. He rides with them to Edoras, releases Théoden, king of Rohan, from the spell of Grima Wormtongue (who in turn serves Saruman), and leads the Riders of Rohan into battle against the army of orcs. The orcs prove too strong, and the Riders must retreat to their stronghold at Helm’s Deep, where they hold off the orcs until the White Rider Gandalf appears, and the ents destroy Saruman’s citadel at Isengard.
At the same time, Sam and Frodo are being pursued by Gollum, a creature who seems a wretched monster, but in reality is the remains of a hobbit who had once held Frodo’s ring and is in its power. Frodo uses that power to bind Gollum to serve his quest, but Sam does not trust the creature. Wandering into domains patrolled by Faramir, Boromir’s younger brother, Frodo learns of Boromir’s death. As they continue toward Mordor, Sam and Frodo are betrayed again as Gollum leads them to the lair of a giant (and hungry) spider named Shelob.
Rescued from the flooded ruins of Isengard, Pippin rides with Gandalf to the fortified capital of Gondor, the splendid city of Minas Tirith. Meeting the steward of Gondor, and father of Boromir, Denethor (not “king”; the kings are in exile until the sword of their ancestor can be reforged), Pippin solemnly offers him service. Back in Rohan, Merry offers the same to King Théoden. Strider rides into the Paths of the Dead to summon the spirits who had broken an oath to Strider’s ancestor, the king of Gondor—for Strider is the exiled king, his real name being Aragorn. The spirits join the fight. In Rohan, Théoden’s niece Éowyn takes command while her uncle leads the armies; disguising herself in armor, she grabs Merry and rides into battle.
In the siege of Gondor, Pippin enlists Gandalf’s aid when the steward despairs, seeking only suicide. The three armies (Aragorn’s Dead Hosts, Denethor’s army bolstered by Gandalf, and the Rohirrim under Théoden) converge on the Orcish Hosts at Pelennor Fields, where the least likely warriors—the woman Éowyn and the hobbit Merry—defeat the king of the Nazgûl (the resurrected Black Riders).
In Mordor, Sam rescues Frodo, gives him back the ring, and leads him to the summit of Mount Doom, an active volcano. Poised on the fiery brink, Frodo suddenly refuses to destroy the ring and announces his intention to use its power himself. However, Gollum jumps Frodo, bites off his ring finger, and dances in triumph with the ring—only to topple into the volcano and fulfill the quest by accident.
In Gondor, Aragorn reclaims his ancestral throne. The hobbits return to the Shire only to find it overrun by exploiters who oppressed the Shire folk. The Fellows of the Ring easily defeat the bullies, but the Shire is scorched by the war. The last of the elves depart for the Undying Lands, and Frodo and Bilbo join them, leaving the Shire forever. Sam, however, stays, marries Rosie Cotton, and becomes a prominent citizen of the Shire.
The Lord of the Rings is virtually a test case for a definition of Christian Literature, since it contains not a single reference to religion in general, much less Christ or Christianity in particular—yet many critics (and Tolkien himself) have asserted that it is centrally Christian in conception and execution. Tolkien went even farther: in a December 2, 1953, letter to Father Robert Murray, he asserted that the Catholicism of The Lord of the Rings was unconscious at first, but then conscious in revision. As the setting of The Lord of the Rings preceded Christianity by several thousand years, Christian references would be anachronisms, and pagan references contrary to spiritual truth would also run counter to the vital truths Tolkien was trying to articulate in his novel.
In many ways this dilemma was exactly the one faced by Tolkien’s favorite Old English writer, the Beowulf poet. Critics before Tolkien had seen that heroic classic as a clumsy and anachronistic mishmash of Christian and pagan ideas, or as a pagan masterpiece spoiled with Christian excrescences. Tolkien, in his famous monograph “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936), instead suggested that the Christian poet knew he was conveying pagan legend and that Beowulf’s heroic morality resonated more with Christianity than later critics would think. The Beowulf poet’s solution to the tension was Christian commentary on pagan values: Tolkien’s solution was to explore those virtues common to pre-Christian and Christian cultures and allow them to shine through in the characters without comment.
Thus, for example, the moral contrast between Denethor, steward of Gondor, and Théoden, king of Rohan, not only illustrates the Christian virtue of hope (which for the Catholic Tolkien is a “theological virtue”) but also a Germanic pagan virtue that Tolkien dubbed the “Northern theory of courage.” Denethor (his name being almost an anagram of Théoden emphasizes the complementarity of the characters) sees no point in fighting impossible odds and seeks suicide. Théoden, on the contrary, relishes the battle precisely because of the impossible odds: It allows him to show his undaunted courage. Yet higher than both is Sam’s transcendent hope in the face of the same impossible odds: He realizes, in singing an old song, that though Sauron has blotted out the sun, the sun is still there, if unseen (a clear image of transcendence). When the happy ending comes unlooked for, Sam feels the movement of what Christian theology calls grace (and Tolkien called “eucatastrophe”).
Another spiritual theme of Tolkien’s fiction that is strikingly Christian (and perhaps particularly Catholic) is what theologians call the “sacramental” view of nature. In many non-Western spiritual traditions and in some Christian denominations, nature presents a spiritual danger: The world we perceive through the senses and the sensual, the flesh, drag the spirit down. It is clear that for Tolkien, nature instead lifts the spirit up. This phenomenon is called “sacramental” because, like the sacraments, nature is a physical reality that points to a spiritual reality.
Perhaps the most striking result of Tolkien’s faith informing his fiction is a favorite attack of hostile critics against The Lord of the Rings: the unabashed clarity of good versus evil in the book. The twentieth century mind, critics like Edwin Muir and Edmund Wilson asserted, rejects a moral vision that sees only black and white and instead demands shades of grey. The immense popularity of Tolkien’s fiction would suggest otherwise.
Sources for Further Study
- Birzer, Bradley. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2003. Argues that The Lord of the Rings is a “sublimely mystical Passion Play” in which myth is “sanctified” by expressing eternal (Christian) truths.
- Caldecott, Stratford. The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind “The Lord of the Rings.” New York: Crossroad, 2005. Suggests that Tolkien’s Catholic spirituality “illuminates” his writing, and the Christian virtues of the heroes in The Lord of the Rings purify the reader without proselytizing.
- Pearce, Joseph. Tolkien: Man and Myth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998. A biography of Tolkien emphasizing the role of his Catholic spirituality in developing his myth.
- Wood, Ralph C. The Gospel According to Tolkien. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. Explores Tolkien’s fiction as an “embedded gospel” providing an answer to the moral dilemmas of the twentieth century.