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 of fate in Frodo’s selection.
Frodo and eight companions, including Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, and Strider—who has been revealed to be Aragorn, heir to the ancient kings of Middle-earth—set out on the quest. Also in the company are Legolas, an elf, Gimli, a dwarf, and Boromir, a man from the southern kingdom of Gondor, the principal bulwark against Sauron’s forces.
The company journeys south in the middle of winter. Unable to cross a mountain range, they attempt to pass through Moria,...
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a subterranean realm created by dwarves but long since taken over by evil creatures. In Moria, the company is nearly captured by hosts of orcs and trolls. In guarding their flight, Gandalf is pulled into an abyss while fighting a Balrog, a powerful demon.
Escaping to the elven realm of Lothlórien, the company is equipped with boats, in which they travel down the River Anduin. Frodo comes to the decision that he cannot allow his friends to accompany him on the harrowing trip into Mordor, and he steals away from the others; Sam, however, catches up with him. At the same time, the other members of the company are attacked by orcs. Boromir is killed, and Merry and Pippin are captured. Choosing to follow the hostages, Aragorn and the others pursue the orcs, leaving Frodo and Sam to continue the quest alone.
The action then diverges into two principal story lines. Aragorn’s party is reunited with Gandalf, who has survived his ordeal and returned with renewed wizardly power. Merry and Pippin escape the orcs and meet the Ents, powerful, ancient, treelike beings who care for the forests. With the assistance of the men of Rohan, they defeat the forces of the treacherous wizard Saruman, who had hoped to rival Sauron. Gandalf and the others then go to Gondor, where they organize resistance to Sauron’s invading forces. In a huge battle, Sauron’s advance troops are routed, but the defenders of the West remain hopelessly outnumbered. Concluding that their only chance is to distract Sauron’s attention so that Frodo and Sam can reach their goal, the allied forces advance toward Mordor.
Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam attempt to approach Mordor through the Dead Marshes, a noxious maze of swamps. There they capture Gollum, a twisted, hobbitlike creature who once possessed the Ring and who has been following Frodo in the hope of reclaiming it.
Intimidated by the power of the Ring, Gollum reluctantly agrees to guide the hobbits into Mordor. He brings them safely through a dangerous mountain pass only to betray them by leading them into the lair of Shelob, a colossal spider. Frodo, stung by Shelob, appears to be dead; Sam fights off the spider and reluctantly takes the Ring. He leaves to continue the quest, and orcs capture Frodo, who recovers from the effects of the spider’s poison. Sam realizes his error and returns to liberate Frodo. Dogged by Gollum and hiding from orcs, they continue their journey through the desolate landscape of Mordor.
The climactic scene takes place on Mount Doom. Gollum assaults the hobbits as they struggle up the mountainside, but Sam fends him off as Frodo goes on. Gollum evades Sam and catches Frodo as he stands over the cracks leading to the mountain’s fiery interior. Frodo, overcome at last by the evil power of the Ring, refuses to destroy it; instead, he puts it on his finger and claims it for his own. At the same moment, Gollum attacks Frodo and bites the Ring—and a finger—from his hand. Gollum loses his balance and falls into the abyss, destroying both himself and the Ring, and the mountain erupts.
The beleaguered troops of the West are on the verge of being overcome. With the destruction of the Ring, however, everything created with its power is also destroyed. Mordor’s gates and fortresses crumble, and the orcs and trolls are driven to madness. As the reinvigorated allied troops complete the rout, Gandalf flies to Mount Doom on the back of an enormous eagle, rescuing Frodo and Sam from certain death. The hobbits are returned to Gondor, where they witness the coronation of Aragorn. They then return to the Shire, which in their absence has fallen under the sway of petty evil, to set things to rights in their homeland.
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, dwarves and elves—who represent the major races helping in the struggle against the evil Dark Lord, Sauron. In The Two Towers, the company formed to accomplish the errand splits apart, partly because of jealousy and partly because Frodo believes he must continue on alone. Merry and Pippin meet the ents, a treelike people who help to neutralize a power-hungry wizard, Saruman. The others rouse the Riders of Rohan, Nordic-like horsemen, to add their arms to the struggle. The Riders go to help the people of Gondor, the last barrier to Sauron’s conquest. In The Return of the King, Strider, one of Frodo’s companions, is revealed as the new king. Frodo and Sam finally destroy the Ring, but only after each has faced his own weaknesses. The destruction of the Ring brings the end of the age of magic, and elves and wizards depart for another land.
The Lord of the Rings was originally published in the 1950’s in the United States and England. The trilogy became overwhelmingly popular in the United States when Ballantine Books issued a paperback edition in 1968. Its appeal lay partly in its description of a magical world, where people had powers beyond those of the everyday world. More significantly, it described the conflict between noble and ignoble forces in a lyrical yet concrete way. The heroes struggled not only with external forces but also with their own shortcomings. These struggles caught the imaginations of its readers, typically adolescents and young adults, who were concerned with challenging themselves and the world about them. As they stood in protest lines, they could imagine themselves engaged in a heroic struggle, much like that of the hobbits of Middle-earth.
Discussion groups, Tolkien societies, and fan magazines sprouted in the 1960’s and continued with vigor throughout the remainder of the twentieth century. Fantasy as a literary genre became both more popular and more respected as adult literature. Other authors such as Anne McCaffrey and Piers Anthony, inspired by Tolkien’s work, also developed trilogies and series based on fantasy themes.
Tolkien’s prequel to the trilogy was The Hobbit (1937), which described the land of Middle-earth about fifty years before the time period described in the trilogy.
For an analysis of the meaning of Tolkien’s works, see T. A. Shippey’s The Road to Middle-Earth (1992) or Paul H. Kocher’s Master of Middle- earth.
Introduction Tolkien is often approached with the expectation that he was a typical child of late Victorian and Edwardian England, and deeply embedded in the British intellectual establishment. He was in some ways, however, atypical. His Catholicism, passion for Philology, profound love and respect for the earth, and distrust of the benefits of technology, particularly that of the internal combustion engine, made him a potentially uneasy member of his society. Even as the atomic bomb was being developed, the Ring was emerging in his narrative as the technology that cannot be harnessed, but must be destroyed, the source of unlimited power that corrupts and destroys even the best and highest. His picture of the Shire, which works as a society because justice and law are internalized rather than imposed, while admittedly ideal, is an ideal that has more in common with the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy than Imperial or Post-Imperial Britain. Far from being an imperialist, Tolkien was the champion of the local, wherever it was, as is clear from Aragorn's treatment of Rohan, the Woses and the Shire. He identified deeply with the West Midlands of England and spent much of his scholarly life working on its medieval texts, which he felt preserved a literary language and a sense of worth and identity through the dark days of Norman French domination.
Philology Tolkien's passion for language emerged in his earliest Latin lessons with his mother. Philology as it developed in the early nineteenth century, after the discovery of Sanskrit and its great grammarians by western scholars, was one of the intellectual success stories of the first half of the century. The discovery of a family of languages stretching from Ireland to India and the pattern of their development, the history fossilized in words and their changes of pronunciation and meaning can be compared to the great developments in cosmology in the twentieth century. Indeed Philology could be described as the particle physics of literature. Philology allowed scholars to comprehend patterns of thought deep in the past. At its best, Philology sensitizes the reader to nuances and subtle shifts of word meaning, which are the manifestations of conceptual development. At its worst, it can strike those outside the area as an arid and endlessly refining word game. Philology, properly done, is hard work and requires a facility for languages and a willingness to expend infinite care upon a text. Even at Oxford in Tolkien's time, Philology was under attack by members of the faculty who thought literature and their students should not be bogged down in what they perceived as minutia.
The Destruction of the Countryside and the Fallibility of Progress In the "Scouring of the Shire" chapter of The Return of the King, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin return to find Sharkey (Saruman) and his men have been busy destroying the Shire, building ugly buildings, cutting down trees, and fouling the water and air. This is only the beginning on a smaller scale of a process the reader has already seen on an almost unimaginable scale in Mordor and in mimicry of Mordor at Isengard. Tolkien was deeply distrustful of the ideas of progress, which seemed to be driving his world. Unlike most of his colleagues, he had experienced the real face of industrialization. He had lived in some of the worst parts of industrial Birmingham. He wrote in incomprehension of colleagues, who described the enormous car factories growing up around Oxford as the real world, as if there was something essentially unreal about fields and trees. He mourned for a large tree that had been cut down by a neighbor apparently simply for having the temerity to be alive and big. He was also acutely aware of the uses made of technology and the impulse that often drove its development. In The Hobbit, he wrote, "It is not unlikely that they (Orcs) invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild places they had not advanced (as it is called) so far." He wrote of the prisoners and slaves that they made to work "until they die for want of light and air." Nevertheless, the Ring transcends a mere symbol for the atom bomb and Sauron has no true historical counterpart. They are embodiments of the idea of evil in which historical evils only participate, symbols of a situation in which men and women in the mid-twentieth century, like Frodo, found themselves with the possession of a power over nature. This possession is a threat over humanity so immense that even the contemplation and desire of its use corrupts. It is not enough that it be kept out of the hands of the evil, because it will betray the good into evil.
The Lord of the Rings and Catholicism Tolkien's Catholicism was deeply felt. His devotion to Christ present in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper was both traditional and fervent. He was by no means, however, the typical conservative Catholic, and his Catholicism did not put him in an intellectual straight jacket. Even if we did not know that he was a supporter of the Ecumenical movement and faulted the Church for its paternalistic attitude, the very ability to create a narrative and world that does without traditional biblical narrative would suggest it.
The Experience of the Twentieth Century, Old English Literature, and Heroism Tolkien did not reject the idea of the heroic, but redefined it over a number of years. His understanding and treatment of the heroic was born out of an interaction between two Old English texts and the realities of the twentieth century. Looking at the Old English epic Beowulf in the context of the 1930s, he concentrated on the existence of radical evil and the necessity of opposing that evil even if in the face of inevitable defeat. By the 1950s, the effects of the almost inevitable pride of the traditional hero had come to loom large in Tolkien's thought and writing on the Old English poem "The Battle of Maldon", in which the narrator suggests that Earl Beortnoth gives the Vikings an advantage out of pride, and therefore, throws his men's lives away in subordinating good sense to a notion of 'good form.' It is the heroism of obedience and love, of service, which has become the truly heroic in his mind.
Such a view of heroism is not new. It was traditionally the mode of representing the sacrifice of Christ and underlay the idea of king as shepherd of his people. It was a heroism that Tolkien had witnessed and taken to his heart in the horrors of his service in World War I. The renunciation of power is essential to Tolkien's view of heroism and to his perception of the changes brought about by mankind's ability to destroy itself and all earthly creation. The truly heroic required restraint, selflessness, and concern for the good of all. It required even the renunciation of glory. It is important that Aragorn insists that attention should be directed away from him to the Ringbearers and to Gandalf and it is important that Frodo seems almost relieved that he is not honored in the shire, and Sam hardly realizes his fame.
Physically Middle-earth resembles modern Earth. It is the inhabitants that add the touch of unreality that a reader expects in what Tolkien calls a "secondary" world. In making a world for his hobbits, elves, wizards, dwarves, ents, orcs, ringwraiths, and other unusual beings, Tolkien assumes the creative rights which he says in his essay "On Fairy-stories" belong to the storymaker: the right to be free with nature; to use the world as a basis to make something new, while giving this new world its principles of inner consistency. Much of this mythology and history of Middle-earth comes through songs that pervade the narrative, but a more organized "history," complete with dates for the four ages of Middle-earth and genealogies of major families of elves, dwarves, hobbits, and human beings, is included as an appendix to the third volume.
Point of View Tolkien in the Prologue to Lord of the Rings adopts a common literary convention: he has 'translated' it from Bilbo and Frodo's own Red Book of Westmarch. For long stretches of Lord of the Rings the point of view is third person, but there are important flashes of omniscience. These flashes derive from a complex set of circumstances rooted in the convention of translation from an autobiographical account, not a wavering of approach. What a character is thinking is usually revealed by means of words or actions. Where omniscience occurs, the mind involved is usually Frodo's. In the narrative of the debate before the company leaves Lórien, Boromir's thought is revealed by his words and actions, while the reader is taken into Frodo's mind. A more complex example occurs when Frodo's struggle with the eye of Sauron is reported. When Frodo puts on the Ring, the narrator becomes fully omniscient, but the ground has been carefully prepared for this effect of the Ring. If readers will accept that the 'real' authors are part of the action and one of those authors has the heightened awareness born of the Ring, it will not be strange to find that at times that we know the mind of Frodo, Sam or even, at the end, the reaction of Sauron himself.
Setting Tolkien wrote of Middle Earth in the Prologue to Lord of the Rings: "Those days, the Third Age of Middle Earth are now long past, and the shape of all lands have been changed; but the regions in which the Hobbits lived are doubtless the same as those in which they still linger: the North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea." The landscapes Tolkien brings his characters through and describes in such loving detail are clearly European, suggesting landscapes from the arctic Norway to the shores of the Mediterranean. It is a sparsely inhabited, pre-industrial world, with scattered self-sufficient communities. Along with his care in describing the landscape and mapping the larger topography of Middle Earth, is the careful chronology and the accurate astronomical data that suggests he set his narrative in a time which was not long ago in astronomical terms. Despite this, the landscape of Middle Earth recapitulates epic landscapes back to Homer. The movement of battle across the Pelennor Fields can be compared to the Iliad. Lórien draws on both the island of Circe and the land of the Phoenicians. Meduseld is modeled on Heorot from Beowulf.
Allusions Tolkien's allusions are self-contained. They are drawn exclusively from within the history he created for Middle Earth. Possibly because the Silmarillion was not published and seemed unlikely to be published at the time he was writing the Lord of the Rings, even these allusions are kept to a minimum.
Imagery Tolkien's imagery is rooted in the traditional. There has been some critical disquiet at his use of black and white, but careful reading demonstrates that it is complex and heavily nuanced. The corrupt wizard Saruman's color is white, Aragorn's banner is white on a black field and he wears black armor. Grey is a privileged color, elven cloaks are grey, Gandalf's color is grey. Similarly some critics have equated Tolkien's use of the 'industrial' landscape with class hatred or dislike for the urban industrial proletariat, an idea which is as far from his opinions as it was from Blake's when he wrote of 'dark satanic mills.' Two images are worth particular attention. One is of a great wave rearing up over fields, houses and trees, drowning the land of Númenor, the reflex of a dream Tolkien had from childhood. The second is Tolkien's complicated use of trees and forests running the full gamut of positive and negative meaning, from the trees of the Valar to Old Man Willow.
Quest or Anti-Quest The Lord of the Rings has been discussed as a quest at least since Auden. Gandalf himself announced, "The realm of Sauron is ended. The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his quest," as Mordor and its armies collapse. A quest, however, presupposes something or someone that is sought. Circumstances and enemies will have to be overcome, but even if this involves the destruction of evil beings or places, the destruction is not the quest, only the means by which the quest is achieved. In Lord of the Rings only Sauron and his forces and Gollum are strictly on a quest, seeking the Ring. Frodo and his companions have the Ring. Their journey has only one purpose, to destroy it, ending Sauron's threat. Even Aragorn, who apparently turns to save Gondor and take up his responsibilities, offers himself to his followers as bait to distract Sauron away from the Ringbearer. In this, Lord of the Rings is closely related to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, in which Victor Frankenstein struggles to destroy his creation that has proved to be deeply flawed and uncontrollable.
Fantasy Although all fiction writers,"make things up,'' fantasy involves this act of 'subcreation'—creating a world or vision of the world that has an inner consistency and honesty—to a much greater extent. Fantasy worlds are drawn with sharper outlines and clearer colors. At its best, fantasy draws the audience to fresh awareness of reality. The reader believes not because the genre requires suspension of disbelief, but because the consistency and coherence of the imaginary world compels belief. The Lord of the Rings' success is based in equal measure on delineation of a physical world and thoroughness in creating Middle Earth's historical cause and effect. Fantasy requires enormous discipline on the part of the writer or it will slide into sentimental wish fulfillment. A writer of fantasy can allow their characters almost unlimited range of experience, but must be rigorously selective in the character's reaction to them. It is a characteristic of the most successful type of modern fantasy that it extends the range of reaction by skewing the expected characters. In this, Tolkien took a lead, introducing an almost Dickensian invention.
Tolkien's use of techniques garnered from medieval literature has already been discussed in detail. Suffice to say that what was true of Tolkien's technique in The Hobbit is even more evident in The Lord of the Rings. What is new to Tolkien's masterpiece, however, is scope. With the exception of Austin Tappan Wright, author of Islandia (1942), no fantasy writer had ever created a world which was anywhere near as detailed as is Tolkien's Middle-earth. Indeed, the entire tradition of putting maps and appendices on languages, calendars, histories, and cultures in the back of fantasy novels stems almost entirely from The Lord of the Rings, whose last volume contains more than one hundred and twenty pages of such material. It can even be argued that Tolkien's subsequent posthumous best seller The Silmarillion (1977), along with the many volumes of literary fragments published by Christopher Tolkien since 1980, are themselves nothing more than extended appendices to The Lord of the Rings.
At the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien deliberately links the trilogy to its predecessor, The Hobbit. He describes the return of Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Ring and, in the prologue, he expands the nature of hobbits and summarizes the story of Bilbo and Gollum. The narrative at first continues the light spoken tone of the earlier novel, but as it develops, this tone recedes, only occasionally bursting forth in the words and actions of the irrepressible hobbits.
The author creates two major challenges for himself in structuring the three volumes: deepening the story's historical dimensions and uniting the many narrative strands. To make Frodo's quest part of a more cosmic struggle, Tolkien continues evolving the history of Middle-earth, using Gandalf and Elrond to relate the ancient history of Sauron, the Lord of the Rings, and supplying many glimpses of the mythological and legendary past through songs, allusions, and tales told by elves, dwarves, ents, and mortals. Tolkien allows information to seep through gradually. The Black Riders, for example, appear several times, each time causing deeper dread in the hobbits, before they are identified as the Ringwraiths. Aragorn's nobility also impresses itself on the reader in stages, not only through his historical deeds but also through revelations about his descent from legendary heroes. The destruction of the Ring and the crowning of Aragorn complete a chain of events stretching back from the end of the third age to the creation of elves and men in the first age. The compact history of Middle-earth in the appendix provides a broader explanation for many of the allusions within the trilogy itself; several sections of the appendix also extend into the future.
While Tolkien is deepening the overall dimensions of the War of the Ring, he also interlaces separate narrative threads to tell of the great deeds of the Fellowship. In the first volume the action moves forward smoothly and quickly, adventures following one another chronologically, and flashbacks deepening his story without blurring the time sequence. After the breakup of the fellowship, however, Tolkien links the activities of the separated fellows by a more intricate system of flashbacks, foreshadowings, retellings, and allusions to what is happening simultaneously at other places.
After the death of Boromir Tolkien traces two groups of six fellows; later (in book five) the narrative becomes even more complex because the fellows have reformed into three groups. Isengard and Minas Tirith provide not only meeting places where the six fellows can explain recent events to one another (and to the reader), but also dramatic events to which the story of Frodo and Sam can be linked.
At the end of the final volume, The Return of the King, Tolkien completes the cycle with the hobbits' return to the Shire after Aragorn's coronation and wedding. In the account of the journey home, the reader learns what has happened to several characters from the earlier stages of the quest. Tolkien leaves no loose ends in his narrative. Saruman, for example, is removed from Middle-earth; Sam's friend Bill, the pony, reappears to bring revenge on his old master and joy to Sam; Lobelia Sackville-Baggins proves that goodness can assume many guises. When the narrator finally reveals who has the Ring of Fire, the source of Gandalf s pervasive fire-creating power becomes clear.
Throughout the trilogy Tolkien exemplifies his views of true fantasy. He produces an inner consistency within the secondary world so that what happens there follows consistent principles. Although some of the inhabitants of Middle-earth remain foreign to the "real" world, they fit convincingly within the Tolkien cosmos. Those who appear repeatedly act according to their natures each time. Orcs, for example, are cruel, crude, ugly, arid quarrelsome; they love darkness and hate sunlight. When the orcs do not shrink from the sun, Aragorn sees their actions as a sign of Saruman's greater control over them. Ents are consistent in their hatred of orcs and in their longing to see the lost entwives again. Their legends, their treelike distinctions in personality, and the fitting traits of their leader Fangom add a touch of humor and a sense of the role of nature in the history of the world. The strangeness of talking trees is explained by their relationship with elves, who befriended ents in the past and taught them to speak. Whenever elves appear, they are beautiful and good; they love starlight and water and trees. The mythic significance of their "Star Queen," Elbereth, permeates the trilogy, as does the concept of the movement of the elves over the sea to the west. The final sailing of the elves with Gandalf and the two ring-bearers provides an ending in accord with elven traditions and with the cyclic narrative.
The bildungsroman concept discussed in connection with The Hobbit above is perhaps even more relevant to The Lord of the Rings. This is true, in part, because we discover what happened to Bilbo in later life. Some of the ramifications of his adventures are not entirely clear at the end of The Hobbit. More importantly, however, the concept of the bildungsroman is even more relevant to Frodo Baggins, the protagonist of The Lord of the Rings, than it was to Bilbo in The Hobbit. Frodo actually is a young man when his novel opens. Although like Bilbo, he is far from impoverished, he also is something of a misfit, an outsider. When he leaves the relative safety of the Shire for the dangers of the outside world, he faces moral decisions of a complexity far beyond those which Bilbo had to deal with. When he returns to the Shire, transformed by his adventures, he stays awhile, but must ultimately leave again. Those who have borne the Ring are permanently changed by it.
It is the nature of the traditional bildungsroman, however, that the protagonist's adventures are usually personal, of consequence only to him and his immediate circle. Rarely do the bildungsroman hero's decisions have a major impact on the larger world around him. This is not entirely the case in The Hobbit and it is certainly not the case in The Lord of the Rings. Upon Frodo's moral courage hinges the fate of the entire Middle-earth. Much room for fertile discussion will be found in a consideration of this intersection; Tolkien makes it clear that private moral decisions can have overwhelming public consequences.
1. Tolkien always rejected any attempt to read his work as religious or political allegory, and yet it's enormously tempting to do so. In your opinion, to what extent can Frodo or Gandalf be seen as Christ figures? To what extent can The Lord of the Rings be seen as a retelling of World War II?
2. The Hobbit is classified as a story for children whereas The Lord of the Rings is generally perceived as a novel for adults. To what extent can this difference be seen in the changing characterization of Bilbo Baggins, Gollum, and Gandalf? To put it another way, how are these characters in The Hobbit different from the corresponding characters in The Lord of the Rings?
3. Compare Bilbo in The Hobbit to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. How do their stories differ? In answering this question, go beyond the obvious facts of their adventures. By the end of The Hobbit, Bilbo has in essence become a "man." Can the same be said of Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings? Compare the amount of pain and disillusionment that the two characters go through in the course of their adventures. Does the idea of adulthood take on different, darker implications in the latter novel.
4. If The Lord of the Rings were a traditional hero tale, Aragorn would be the book's protagonist, and, in fact, he is given the hero's traditional reward, kingship and fame, at the end of the novel. Yet he is clearly secondary to Frodo in Tolkien's scheme of things. Why did the author choose Frodo as his protagonist when he had Aragorn available?
5. Besides character development and, obviously, length, what else about the two novels makes The Hobbit a children's book and The Lord of the Rings a book for adults?
6. Tolkien is very much aware of the problem of evil in The Lord of the Rings, and particularly in evil's ability to corrupt even the best of human beings. Consider such characters as Boromir, Theoden, Saruman, even Frodo. How and to what extent are they corrupted by evil? To what extent is that corruption reversible? What price do they pay? Why is Frodo so much more able to resist that corruption than is the more traditionally heroic Boromir? How do Aragorn and Gandalf avoid corruption?
7. Most heroic tales end with the defeat of evil. The black knight is unhorsed and vanquished; the wicked witch is burned or melted; the. wolf is cooked and eaten, or runs away never to be seen again. This is true, for example, of The Hobbit. In The Lord of the Rings, however, it is clear that all the suffering, all the heroism of Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf, and company has merely served to push evil back for a time. Sauron can be defeated temporarily, but he cannot really be killed, and he will be back. What do you make of this pessimism?
8. Consider the role of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. One of his main purposes, clearly, is to show the corrupting power of the ring and of evil in general. He represents what could happen to Frodo if he allows the ring and evil to take control of his life. And yet there's more to Gollum than just a bad example. Look closely at the scene at the Crack of Doom, when the ring is destroyed. What role does Gollum play there? Has Frodo ultimately fallen prey to the ring's evil?
9. Many readers have wondered why Tolkien chose to end The Lord of the Rings with the two chapters entitled "The Scouring of the Shire" and "The Grey-Havens." What do you make of these two chapters? What purpose or purposes do they serve?
10. How much do the various appendices to The Lord of the Rings add to your understanding of the novel and to your reading pleasure?
11. Many contemporary fantasy writers are heavily indebted to Tolkien, among them Stephen R. Donaldson, Terry Brooks, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, Raymond E. Feist, and David Eddings. If you're familiar with the work of any of these writers (or of others who share their debt), compare their work to The Lord of the Rings. What similarities do you see? What differences? Some critics have argued that Tolkien's influence on modern fantasy fiction is not entirely a positive one. Can you see reasons for this opinion?
12. Get copies of the Bakshi's animated film version of The Lord of the Rings and of the Rankin-Bass The Return of the King, To what extent do these films succeed in doing justice to the original?
Early Twentieth Century: Tolkien's secondary school education is centered on the language and literature of Greece and Rome. He is expected not only to be able to read and write both languages, but to be able to speak them with some fluency. Debating in Latin was common, and in Classical Greek not unknown.
Today: Science and technical subjects have moved to the heart of the curriculum in English-speaking countries, and few students receive a similarly thorough training even in their mother tongue.
Early Twentieth Century: The society that Tolkien depicts is an essentially self-sufficient one, in which families grow their own food and most goods are produced locally by craftsmen. Trade, when mentioned, is usually in luxuries: wine, pipeweed, and dwarf-made toys. In Tolkien's own childhood in the English country side, this life-style would have not have seemed like the stuff of fairy-tales, but very close to people's own experience.
Today: Nearly all goods are mass-produced, often on a world-wide scale of distribution, and even the production of meals from basic ingredients is being superceded by ready prepared foods.
Early Twentieth Century: There is a strong antipathy among many British people towards Catholics. Mrs. Tolkien's conversion distances her and her children from both her own and her husband's family. Her sister, who is converted at the same time, is forced by her husband to renounce her new faith.
Today: Britain has a large population of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus whose religious views and observances are generally treated with respect and who are legally protected from discrimination.
Although The Lord of the Rings is clearly a work for adults and The Hobbit just as clearly a work for children (although beloved by adults), they really are of a piece and their literary precedents are, for the most part, identical. To the extent that they differ, The Hobbit can be said to owe somewhat more to the folk tradition, whereas The Lord of the Rings can be seen as more heavily indebted to the medieval chronicle and the high romance tradition of Chretien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Malory. Scholars seeking out the works which influenced Tolkien, however, have turned up innumerable allusions to Spenser, Tasso, Shakespeare, Milton, and other writers.
The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle are poems by Tolkien, with music by Donald Swann, recorded on Caedmon Records in 1967. Poems and Songs of Middle Earth were also recorded in the same year. William Elven performs.
'The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins' was recorded by Leonard Nimoy.
Lord of the Rings was made into an animated film released in 1978, directed by Ralph Bakshi.
The Lord of the Rings, directed by Peter Jackson, is to be released as three separate live action movies beginning in 2001. There is a trailer/ preview available on the internet.
"Harvard Lampoon'' published a parody of The Lord of the Rings entitled Bored of the Rings in 1969.
Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. In this definitive biography of Tolkien, Carpenter traces the many influences that affected Tolkien's writing while avoiding, as much as possible, literary judgments.
Crabbe, Kathryn F. J. R. R. Tolkien. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. In the chapter, "The Quest as Legend: The Lord of the Rings," Crabbe considers the book from the standpoint of tone, the nature of heroes and heroism, and the concepts of good and evil, and she discusses the place of differing languages in Middle-earth.
Day, David. A Tolkien Bestiary. New York: Ballantine, 1979. The index is often needed to locate items that can be listed under different names. It is an illustrated glossary of places and creatures in Middle-earth.
Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983. Flieger's study is based on the belief that The Lord of the Rings cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of the mythology that underlies it, and that the trilogy is a fragment of the continuing history of Middle-earth.
Fonstad, Karen Wynn. The Atlas of Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Chronologies, maps of Middle-earth at different periods in its creation and development, and maps of places relevant to the journeys of the fellows visualize the progression of the narrative.
Isaacs, Neil D., and Rose A. Zimbardo, eds. Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968. Each of the fifteen essays in this collection focuses on a specific aspect of the trilogy. Together they give a broad overview of the work.
Purtill, Richard L. J. R. R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality and Religion. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. Purtill interprets The Lord of the Rings in light of traditional concepts of myth, but he links these concepts to the moral and spiritual dimensions in Tolkien's heroes.
Rogers, Deborah Webster, and Ivor A. Rogers. J. R. R. Tolkien. Boston: Twayne, 1980. The authors explore Tolkien's biography and literary background. Their chapters on "Mythic History" and "The Dawn of the Age of Man" focus on the overall mythic background of Middle-earth and the forward movement of its peoples as related in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.
Shippey, T. A. The Road to Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. Shippey highlights those aspects of Tolkien's background which contributed to the creation of Middle-earth and its inhabitants. He is especially concerned with names and what they reveal etymologically about those who bear them.
Tyler, J. E. A. The New Tolkien Companion. New York: St. Martin's, 1979. This is probably the easiest "guide" to characters and places in Tolkien's Middle-earth stories. It is arranged alphabetically, with notes at the end of each letter section.
Sources Adams, Robert M., "The Hobbit Habit," in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University Press of Kentucky, 1981, pp. 168—175.
Aldritch, Kevin, “The Sense of Time in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings," in Tolkien A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, Harper Collins, 1999, pp. 86-91.
Auden, W. H., "The Quest Hero," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 40-61.
-----, "At the end of the Quest, Victory," in New York Times Book Review, January 22, 1956, p. 5.
Basney, Lionel, "Myth, History, and Time in The Lord of the Rings," in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University Press of Kentucky, 1981, pp. 8-18.
Beagle, Peter S., "Tolkien's Magic Ring," in The Tolkien Reader, Ballantine Books, 1966, pp. ix—xv.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer, "Men, Halflings, and Hero-Worship," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 109-127.
Brewer, Derek S., "The Lord of the Rings as Romance," in J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, Cornell University Press, 1979, pp. 249-64.
Caldecott, Stratford, "Over the Chasm of Fire: Christian Heroism in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings," in Tolkien A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, Harper Collins, 1999, pp. 17-33.
Carpenter, Humphrey, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, Allen and Unwin, 1977.
Christensen, Bonniejean, "Gollum's Character Transformation in The Hobbit," in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell, Open Court, 1975, pp. 9-28.
Coulombe, Charles A., "The Lord of the Rings—A Catholic View," in Tolkien A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, Harper Collins, 1999, pp. 53-66.
Curry, Patrick, "Modernity in Middle Earth," in Tolkien A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, Harper Collins, 1999, pp. 34-39.
Dowies, William, "The Gospel of Middle Earth according to J. R. R. Tolkien," in J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, Cornell University Press, 1979, pp. 265-285.
Fairburn, Elwin, "J. R. R. Tolkien: A Mythology for England," in Tolkien A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, Harper Collins, 1999, pp. 73-85.
Flieger, Verlyn, "Frodo and Aragorn: The concept of the Hero," in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, pp. 40-62.
Fuller, Edmund, "The Lord of the Hobbits,’’ in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp.17-39
Gasque, Thomas J., “Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 151-163.
Grant, Patrick, “Tolkien: Archetype and Word,’’ in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University Press of Kentucky, 1981, pp. 87-105.
Guntun, Colin, "A Far-off Gleam of the Gospel: Salvation in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings," in Tolkien: A Celebration, edited by Joseph Pearce, Trafalgar Square, 1999.
Harvey, David, The Song of Middle Earth: J. R. R. Tolkien's Themes, Symbols and Myths, Allen and Unwin, 1985.
Helms, Randel, Tolkien's World, Thames and Hudson, 1974.
Hughes, Daniel, "Pieties and Giant Forms in the The Lord of the Rings," in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University Press of Kentucky, 1981, pp. 72-86.
Huttar, Charles A., "Hell and the City: Tolkien and the Traditions of Western Literature," in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell, Open Court, 1975, pp. 117-142.
Isaacs, Neil D., "On the Need for Writing Tolkien Criticism," in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University Press of Kentucky, 1981, pp. 1-7.
-----, "On the Possibility of Writing Tolkien Criticism," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 1—11.
Isaacs, Neil D. and Rose Zimbardo, ed., Tolkien and the Critics, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.
-----, Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, University of Kentucky Press, 1981.
Jeffrey, David L., "Recovery: Name in the The Lord of the Rings," in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University Press of Kentucky, 1981, pp. 106-116.
Kaufmann, U. Milo, "Aspects of the Paradisiacal in Tolkien's Work," in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell, Open Court, 1975, pp. 143-52.
Keenan, Hugh T., "The Appeal of the The Lord of the Rings: A Struggle for Life," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 62-80.
Kocher, Paul, Master of Middle Earth the Achievement of J. R. R. Tolkien, Thames and Hudson, 1973.
-----, "Middle Earth: An Imaginary World?" in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University Press of Kentucky, 1981, pp. 117-132.
Lewis, C. S., "The Dethronement of Power," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 12—16.
Lobdell, Jared, ed., A Tolkien Compass, Open Court, 1975.
Manlove, C. N., Modern Fantasy—Five Studies, Cambridge University Press, 1975.
McGrath, Sean, “The Passion according to Tolkien," in Tolkien A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, Fount, Harper Collins, 1999, pp. 172-182.
Moorman, Charles, "The Shire, Mordor, and Minas Tirith," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 201-17.
Murray, Robert, "J. R. R. Tolkien and the Art of the Parable," in Tolkien A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, Harper Collins, 1999, pp. 40-52.
Nitzsche, Jane Chance, Tolkien's Art, Macmillan Press, 1980.
Noel, Ruth S., The Mythology of Middle Earth, Thames and Hudson, 1977.
Parks, Henry B., "Tolkien and the Critical Approach to Story," in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University Press of Kentucky, 1981, pp. 133-149.
Pearce, Joseph, "Tolkien and the Catholic Literary Revival" in Tolkien A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, HarperCollins, 1999, pp. 102-140.
----, Tolkien A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, Harper Collins, 1999.
Perkins, Agnes and Helen Hill, "The Corruption of Power," in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell, Open Court, 1975, pp. 57-68.
Plank, Robert, "‘The Scouring of the Shire': Tolkien's View of Fascism," in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell, Open Court, 1975, pp. 107-116.
Purtill, Richard L., J. R. R. Tolkien, Myth, Morality, and Religion, Harper and Row, 1984.
Raffel, Burton, "The Lord of the Rings as Literature," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 218–46.
Reilly, Robert J., “Tolkien and the Fairy Story," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp.128—150.
Rosebury, Brian, Tolkien a Critical Assessment, St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Ryan, J. S., "Folktale, and the Creation of a Story," in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University Press of Kentucky, 1981, pp. 19-39.
Sale, Roger, "Tolkien and Frodo Baggins," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 247-88.
Salu, Mary and Robert T. Farrell, J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, Cornell University Press, 1979.
Schall, James V., "On the Reality of Fantasy,’’ in Tolkien A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, Harper Collins, 1999, pp. 67-72.
Scheps, Walter, “The Fairy Tale Morality of The Lord of the Rings," in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell, Open Court, 1975, pp.43-56.
Shippey, T. A., "Creation from Philology in The Lord of the Rings," in J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, Cornell University Press, 1979, pp. 286-316.
----, The Road to Middle Earth, Harper Collins, 1992.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer, "Power and Meaning in The Lord of the Rings," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 81-99.
Tinkler, John, "Old English in Rohan," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 164-69.
Tolkien, J. R. R., The Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
----, Unfinished Tales, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Unwin Paperbacks, 1982.
West, Richard, "The Interlace Structure in The Lord of the Rings," in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell, Open Court, 1975, pp. 77-94.
West, Richard C., Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist, Kent State University Press, 1970.
Wilson, Edmund, "Oo, Those Awful Orcs," in Nation, April 14, 1956, p. 182.
Zimbardo, Rose A., "The Medieval-Renaissance Vision of the Lord of the Rings," in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, pp. 63-71.
----, "Moral Vision in the The Lord of the Rings," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp.100-108.
Further Reading Beagle, Peter S., “Tolkien's Magic Ring," in J. R. R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader, Ballantine Books, 1966, pp. ix-xv. An excellent, if non-technical and short, introduction to The Lord of the Rings by another celebrated writer of fantasy.
Rosebury, Brian, Tolkien a Critical Assessment, St. Martin's Press, 1992. An excellent extended study of Tolkien's style, and an antidote to a lot of extremely bad criticism.
Shippey, T. A., The Road to Middle Earth, Harper Collins, 1992. One of the finest pieces of Tolkien criticism yet written, it is unsurpassed for the sources of The Lord of the Rings and the influence of Philology upon Tolkien's work.
Tolkien, J. R. R., "On Fairy Stories," in The Tolkien Reader, Ballantine Books, 1966, pp. 3-82. Written while Tolkien was beginning the Lord of the Rings. It is a critical theory and justification for the trilogy.
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.