The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The Lord of the Rings, the seminal work of modern fantasy, was first published in sections only as a concession to its length; the division of the work into the three volumes familiar to most readers bears no relation to the development of the story. J. R. R. Tolkien himself divided the work into six numbered but untitled books, two of which appear in each volume. Although The Lord of the Rings was begun as a sequel to Tolkien’s popular 1938 children’s book The Hobbit, it so dwarfs the earlier volume in both seriousness and scope as to have reversed the relationship. The Hobbit, though successful in its own right, is now considered primarily as a “prequel” to the longer work.

The length and complexity of The Lord of the Rings are such as to defy brief plot summary. The main action concerns Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, a member of a diminutive, rural, peace-loving race that lives in the northern land of the Shire. From his Uncle Bilbo, the hero of The Hobbit, Frodo inherits a magic ring that confers invisibility on the wearer.

Frodo learns, however, that his heirloom is far more than a toy: The wizard Gandalf explains that it is in fact the Master Ring created by the malevolent Dark Lord, Sauron, ages before. Sauron, a powerful spirit who presides over the hellish kingdom of Mordor in the far east of Middle-earth, invested the Ring with much of his original power, and he has been hunting it since it was taken from him in battle ages before. Should Sauron recover the Ring, Gandalf warns, he would become sufficiently powerful to overwhelm Middle-earth, plunging it into an age of darkness.

Frodo and three hobbit companions, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, set out for Rivendell, a distant haven protected by Elrond, a wise and mighty elf king. Gandalf has been called away on urgent business, and Frodo and his friends must begin the long journey through the wilderness alone. They are pursued by the Ringwraiths, terrifying, ghostlike servants of Sauron who are drawn by the Ring itself. Along the way, the hobbits receive the aid of Strider, a man expert in the ways of the wild. The party reaches Rivendell just ahead of the Ringwraiths, who wound Frodo and attempt to possess his spirit.

At Rivendell, Frodo is healed by Elrond, and a council of representatives of the free peoples (hobbits, men, elves, and dwarves) debates the fate of the Ring. Some advocate using its power to defeat Sauron, whose armies of orcs and trolls threaten to overrun Middle-earth. Gandalf, though, explains that the Ring cannot be used for such a purpose without causing the wielder to set himself up as a new Dark Lord; the Ring’s colossal power inevitably corrupts. Moreover, the Ring cannot be destroyed by conventional means: Only the volcanic fires of Mordor’s Mount Doom, where the Ring was forged, can unmake it. Frodo volunteers to undertake the seemingly hopeless quest of carrying the Ring to the fire in the heart of the enemy’s realm, and the council agrees, detecting the hand...

(The entire section is 1243 words.)

The Impact

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

The trilogy that featured Middle-earth, the fantasy world created by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, became mandatory reading for many in the 1960’s. The Lord of the Rings was published in three volumes, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1955), and The Return of the King (1956). Its already significant popularity grew when Ballantine Books issued a paperback edition in 1968.

The Lord of the Rings, or the Tolkien trilogy, describes the struggle between good and evil in Middle-earth, a place that is simpler and more honest than the real world yet contains many of the concerns that troubled people in the 1960’s. Greed, suspicion, and vanity haunt many of the characters. The evil that must be conquered is chiefly one of mind control, but it also entails destruction of the natural world. Tolkien, who was a Medieval scholar, used his familiarity with myth, language, and feudal society to create an entire world, complete with languages, theology, and political and geographical realities. In Tolkien’s world, all beings control their own destinies and must freely choose their fate, often with bittersweet results. All must confront the lure and destructiveness of total power, represented by the Ring.

In the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizard Gandalf discovers that a simple ring carries an overwhelming power that could be used to dominate the land. Frodo and his friends, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, set off to destroy the Ring. The four hobbits gain other companions—humans,...

(The entire section is 647 words.)

Historical Context

(Epics for Students)

Tolkien is often approached with the expectation that he was a typical child of late Victorian and...

(The entire section is 1240 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Physically Middle-earth resembles modern Earth. It is the inhabitants that add the touch of unreality that a reader expects in what Tolkien...

(The entire section is 138 words.)

Literary Style

(Epics for Students)

Point of View
Tolkien in the Prologue to Lord of the Rings adopts a common literary convention: he has...

(The entire section is 1001 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Tolkien's use of techniques garnered from medieval literature has already been discussed in detail. Suffice to say that what was true of...

(The entire section is 157 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

At the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien deliberately links the trilogy to its predecessor, The Hobbit. He...

(The entire section is 788 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Frodo makes important discoveries about the world very much as Bilbo did in The Hobbit (1937), but in The Lord of the Rings the...

(The entire section is 793 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions for The Lord of the Rings

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The bildungsroman concept discussed in connection with The Hobbit above is perhaps even more relevant to The Lord of the Rings. This is true,...

(The entire section is 1041 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Epics for Students)

Early Twentieth Century: Tolkien's secondary school education is centered on the language and literature of Greece and Rome....

(The entire section is 256 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. How does Tolkien develop the nature of the Black Riders so that their identity as Ringwraiths does not come as a surprise?


(The entire section is 365 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Epics for Students)

Adams, Robert M., "The Hobbit Habit," in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil D. Isaacs...

(The entire section is 1586 words.)


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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.


(The entire section is 141 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Throughout the trilogy Tolkien uses foreshadowing and flashbacks to draw the scattered events of his narrative together. Select at least...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Epics for Students)

J. R. R. Tolkien's lifelong interest in Philology, the study of change and development in language, is one of the foundations of his...

(The entire section is 230 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Although The Lord of the Rings is clearly a work for adults and The Hobbit just as clearly a work for children (although...

(The entire section is 113 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Lord of the Rings continues the story of the ring of invisibility found by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit; it also draws on...

(The entire section is 350 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Epics for Students)

The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle are poems by Tolkien, with music by Donald Swann, recorded on Caedmon Records in 1967. Poems...

(The entire section is 111 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Epics for Students)

Tolkien's first published fiction in 1937 was The Hobbit, subtitled or There and Back Again. It was...

(The entire section is 321 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. In this definitive biography of Tolkien, Carpenter traces...

(The entire section is 454 words.)