#1 Lord of the Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings is a high fantasy epic written by English philologist and University of Oxford professor J. R. R. Tolkien. The story began as a sequel to Tolkien’s earlier, less complex children’s fantasy novel The Hobbit (1937), but eventually developed into a much larger work. It was written in stages between 1937 and 1949, much of it during the Second World War. It is the second best-selling novel ever written, with over 150 million copies sold. Only A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens has sold more copies worldwide while the third best-selling novel is Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
The work was initially intended by Tolkien to be one volume split into three sections. However, when Tolkien submitted the first volume entitled The Lord of the Rings to his publisher, it was decided for economic reasons to publish the work as three separate volumes, each consisting of two books, over the course of a year from the 21st of July 1954 to October 1955, thus creating the now familiar Lord of the Rings trilogy. The three volumes were entitled The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Structurally, the volumes are divided internally into six books, two per volume, with several appendices of background material, much abbreviated from Tolkien’s originals, included at the end of the third volume. The Lord of the Rings has since been reprinted numerous times and translated into many languages, becoming one of the most popular and influential works in the field of 20th-century fantasy literature and the subject of several films.
The title of the novel refers to the story’s main antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron, who had in an earlier age created the One Ring to rule the other Rings of Power as the ultimate weapon in his campaign to conquer and rule all of Middle-earth. From quiet beginnings in the Shire, a Hobbit land not unlike the English countryside, the story ranges across north-west Middle-earth, following the course of the War of the Ring through the eyes of its characters, notably the Hobbits Frodo Baggins, Samwise “Sam” Gamgee, Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck and Peregrin “Pippin” Took, but also the Hobbits’ chief allies and travelling companions: Aragorn, a Human Ranger, Boromir, a Human nobleman, Gimli, a Dwarf warrior, Legolas, an Elven prince, and Gandalf, a Wizard.
Tolkien’s work has been the subject of extensive analysis of its themes and origins. Although a major work in itself, the story was only the last movement of a larger epic Tolkien had worked on since 1917, in a process he described as mythopoeia. Influences on this earlier work, and on the story of The Lord of the Rings, include philology, mythology, religion and the author’s distaste for the effects of industrialization, as well as earlier fantasy works and Tolkien’s experiences in World War I. The Lord of the Rings in its turn is considered to have had a great effect on modern fantasy; the impact of Tolkien’s works is such that the use of the words “Tolkienian” and “Tolkienesque” has been recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The Lord of the Rings started as a sequel to J. R. R. Tolkien’s earlier work, The Hobbit, published in 1937. The popularity of The Hobbit had led George Allen & Unwin, the publishers, to request a sequel. Tolkien warned them that he wrote quite slowly, and responded with several stories he had already developed. Having rejected his contemporary drafts for The Silmarillion, putting on hold Roverandom, and accepting Farmer Giles of Ham, Allen & Unwin thought more stories about hobbits would be popular. So at the age of 45, Tolkien began writing the story that would become The Lord of the Rings. The story would not be finished until 12 years later, in 1949, and would not be fully published until 1955, when Tolkien was 63 years old.
Although The Lord of the Rings was published in the 1950s, Tolkien insisted that the One Ring was not an allegory for the Atomic Bomb, nor were his works a strict allegory of any kind, but were open to interpretation as the reader saw fit.
A few critics have found what they consider to be racial elements in the story, generally based upon their views of how Tolkien’s imagery depicts good and evil, characters’ race (e.g. Elf, Dwarf, Hobbit, Southron, Númenórean, Orc); and that the character’s race is seen as determining their behavior. Counter-arguments note that race-focused critiques often omit relevant textual evidence to the contrary, cite imagery from adaptations rather than the work itself; ignore the absence of evidence of racist attitudes or events in the author’s personal life and claim that the perception of racism is itself a marginal view. The book has been read as fitting the model of Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth”.
The King vs. the Steward was the first theme presented in the trilogy. At the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth is weak and disunited, with little trust existing among the various races. Dissension plagues the different human kingdoms, and one of the main problems is that the true leaders are not in their rightful positions. In The Return of the King, Théoden of Rohan proves himself to be a good, noble leader when he heeds Gondor’s cry for help, but he was not always so effective. For a while, a spell cast by Sauron incapacitated him, and his kingdom was effectively ruled by the evil wizard Saruman. Even after Théoden’s strength is restored, he is incapable of uniting all humanity. Only the king of Gondor can do that.
Until the conclusion of the trilogy, Gondor is without a king. The throne is instead occupied by the steward Denethor, a weak-willed man who seems to be losing his mind. The perilous state of Denethor’s sanity suggests the weakness of Gondor when it is ruled by a steward rather than a king. Boromir, Denethor’s son and heir to the stewardship, also displays considerable moral weakness when he attempts to steal the ring from Frodo. Aragorn, the true heir to the throne and the future king of Gondor, is able to resist the temptation of the ring. Just as Saruman had to be cast out of Rohan to restore that kingdom to strength, the real king of Gondor must assume his throne for that kingdom to thrive. Throughout the trilogy, this tension between true leader and acting leader means the difference between life and death, success and defeat, and unity and dissent among the people of Middle-earth.
The theme of the Limitations of Fellowship was a hard one for the characters to swallow. Though the fellowship is integral to the success of Frodo’s mission, it cannot make the entire journey with Frodo or help him at the journey’s end. The fellowship serves as a kind of backup for Frodo, keeping enemies at bay and Middle-earth as calm as possible so he can fulfill his mission. Frodo must ultimately make the journey with only the company of Sam. The entire fellowship is committed to Frodo’s success, but their roles are ultimately limited by the nature of the task at hand. The journey is such that only the two small hobbits are capable of making it successfully.
The nature of the ring itself puts its own limits on fellowship. The ring is a heavy burden for whoever carries it, and it forces its bearer into tremendous isolation. Gollum was a victim of the ring, and his peaceful life as a hobbit ended when he gave in to its temptation. He retreated into a cave and became isolated from the world. The ring isolates Frodo, too, even though Sam accompanies him. While the entire fellowship is in great danger, only Frodo is haunted by visions of Mordor and Sauron. He is unable to share this torment with the others, so it becomes the very basis of his isolation. At the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Galadriel tells Frodo that bearing the ring is a solitary task, prompting him to leave the others. Though Sam refuses to leave Frodo alone and gives him much comfort, he remains blind to his friend’s inner torment. Even after the ring is destroyed, Frodo remains isolated. He is unable to readjust to life in the Shire and eventually leaves the other hobbits behind. His experience as ring-bearer has permanently isolated him from his peers.
Indeed, the Shire was seen as a fantasy of home, and even as they returned, they realized that a fantasy was what it had been. At the very start of their journey, Sam notes to Frodo that they have just passed the spot that marks the farthest he’s ever before been from home, the first of many thoughts the hobbits will have about home and their distance from it. Nostalgia for home, even to the point of homesickness, plagues Frodo and Sam throughout their journey, and Sam speaks of it most often. When Sam and Frodo travel to Mordor, Frodo’s intense focus on the journey to Mount Doom is balanced by Sam’s focus on the return journey. The Shire is a lush, happy place untouched by the tumult disturbing much of Middle-earth and, compared to the rocky, dangerous terrain Frodo and Sam face on their journey, seems for them a kind of paradise. However, their talk of returning to the Shire is rooted in more than the physical Shire itself. The Shire suggests a childlike innocence, which the hobbits left behind with the very first step of their journey. It also suggests a different kind of life, where hobbits live simply, unworried, and free from war, greed, evil, death, and all the other vices and hardships that complicate life in much of Middle-earth. In Frodo’s and Sam’s memories, the Shire becomes a sort of Eden, where life was perfect and could be perfect again, if they can only get back. The thought of returning animates them and gives them strength in their darkest moments.
The paradise of the Shire, however, is an illusion. Though the Shire remains lush and the hobbits who live there remain happy and joyful, especially when Frodo and Sam return, the innocence and ignorance Frodo and Sam once enjoyed in the Shire are gone forever. They have seen and experienced too much, and they have become adults now, with many painful memories. Though Sam adapts to his new status in the Shire and thrives in the happiness it offers, Frodo cannot regain a sense of equilibrium even being back at home. Returning to the Shire had seemed to promise the end of fear and worry, but Frodo must journey on.
Frodo and Sam’s destination is Mordor, specifically the volcanic Mount Doom, in which they intend to destroy the ring of power. Though their journey is hard, their destination is almost always in sight, at the edge of the horizon. However, actually reaching Mordor proves to be extremely difficult. The hobbits frequently find themselves going in circles. When they finally arrive at Mordor, Faramir captures them and brings them back to Osgiliath. Later, Gollum leads them back to the gates of Mordor, only to propose a different way in. Sam and Frodo seem to be always on their way to Mordor, but they never quite arrive. Mordor is the place that drives their every action and the goal they hold above all else. The closer they get, the further off Mordor seems, and their journey takes on epic proportions, outlasting two tremendous battles.
The journey to Mordor is fraught with setbacks not only because Mordor is located in difficult terrain and guarded by dangerous monsters, but also because this journey represents another journey, a spiritual quest that Frodo, as well as Sam and other characters, must undertake. This journey takes Frodo to a private Mordor, the dark core of his soul, where even his pure heart is no match for the temptations of the ring. The many delays in the journey to the actual Mordor suggest the many trials and tribulations Frodo must face in confronting his internal Mordor. The hobbits eventually reach Mordor, and Frodo faces his inner darkness. Though he returns to the Shire, the Mordor he’s seen within himself precludes his journey coming to a completely peaceful end.
The temptation of the ring is the motivating force behind every action in The Lord of the Rings, whether characters are fighting the temptation, nurturing it, denying it, or preventing someone else from giving in to it. Characters of every race pursue the ring. The ringwraiths and Sauron seek it constantly. Gollum attacks Frodo several times to try to take it from him. The sons of Denethor, Boromir and Faramir, both try to take it from Frodo. The ring tempts Gandalf and Galadriel, each of them drawn to the thought of the immense power it could give them. Even pure-hearted Sam briefly wonders how it would be to possess the ring. No one, apparently, is immune to its temptation, and Frodo is no exception. Though he is chosen as ring-bearer because he is most resistant to the ring’s lure, Frodo must constantly fight his desire for it. He is sometimes tempted to hand it over to his more powerful friends, while at other times he wants to keep it for himself. When he finally arrives at Mount Doom, Frodo elects to keep the ring, despite the tremendous anguish it has caused him. At no other moment in the trilogy is Frodo more tempted by the ring’s power. Frodo gives up the ring only because Gollum appears and fights him for it, a fight that leads to its destruction. The ring that has possessed so many and that has served as a kind of connective tissue among all the races of Middle-earth is ultimately destroyed by its own power.
The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy about a journey, but this large journey consists of many smaller journeys that advance the greater one. Individuals and groups are constantly setting off for someplace, to pursue a goal of their own, rescue someone, or escape. Merry and Pippin engage in an unintentional journey when they join forces with Frodo and Sam early in The Fellowship of the Ring. Aragorn takes many dramatic journeys across Middle-earth on his horse, a Lone-Ranger-type figure taking the brave and necessary steps to save his people. Gollum journeys with Frodo and Sam and also within his own conflicted soul. The elves journey to their land of immortality, though Arwen elects to remain behind—her own journey will be one that leads her to Aragorn and a mortal life. The last time we see Frodo in The Return of the King, he is embarking on yet another journey, this time with the elves, to pursue his next adventure. A constant feeling of movement stretches through all three films, and, though the destinations are always clear, the journeys often seem to have no end in sight.
Throughout The Lord of the Rings, water serves as a lifesaving force for the good beings of Middle-earth. Gandalf and Aragorn are saved from death after long falls when they land in bodies of water. When Arwen races to Rivendell on horseback with a badly injured Frodo, she escapes the pursuing ringwraiths when they are flooded by water. Similarly, Isengard loses its power when its plain is flooded. Water also suggests the afterlife. The elves depart Middle-earth on a boat and sail out to a great body of water. When Boromir dies, his dead body is placed on a pyre and sent down a river. Although he is dead, this journey suggests that he will live on in the memory of others. In my opinion, water is probably one of the most frequent but varying symbols in the trilogy.
The ring is the center of the trilogy, and it gains multiple, changeable meanings as Frodo’s journey proceeds. Created by the evil Sauron, it is at first synonymous with its maker’s evil power. Those who encounter the ring are overcome with longing for power over others, and the ring could give more power to Sauron. For all, the ring suggests the dangerous urges that lurk even in the most pure-hearted beings of Middle-earth. It also suggests slavery and weakness, since whoever gives in to the temptation of the ring becomes a slave to it. Gollum is an example of what happens physically when one succumbs to the ring. Man, too, is weak, and Isildur failed to destroy the ring in Mordor. The fact that weakness affects every race of Middle-earth shows the extent of the ring’s power.
As the trilogy proceeds, new symbols emerge to counteract the temptation of the ring. The sword Anduril suggests good and unity, rather than evil and disunity. When Elrond presents the sword to Aragorn, he says that the fate of Arwen has been linked to the fate of the ring: as the ring grows stronger, she grows weaker. Arwen, therefore, serves as a kind of symbol herself, the very opposite of Sauron: the anti-ring, the symbol of hope and good.
Mount Doom is both the birthplace of the ring and the place where it can be destroyed. This is Frodo’s ultimate destination, and it also presents him with his greatest challenge. Destroying the ring is in many ways more difficult than reaching Mount Doom, and twice we see characters fail when faced with the task. Isildur, after defeating Sauron’s armies, enters the fiery mountain intending to destroy the ring, but at the last moment he turns back and decides to keep it for himself. When Frodo brings the ring to Mount Doom, he, too, intends to destroy it, but like Isildur, he decides at the last minute to keep it. Though the ring is ultimately destroyed after Frodo and Gollum’s struggle for it, Frodo did not let it go on his own. Though he passes many tests on his journey, Frodo fails in this final test at Mount Doom. Mount Doom in this case suggests the darkness and weakness that exists even in the most pure-hearted, a lure so powerful that even the most determined voyager needs additional help to resist temptation. Mount Doom also marks the furthest Frodo gets from the security and familiarity of the Shire. He is as out of place at Mount Doom as the ring was in the Shire, and this is the place where Frodo comes closest to actually giving himself over to evil.
The books were very well written, very descriptive, precise. The movies soon became disappointments for the details that were so readily available to them, but left to the reader’s imagination. While the movies made me feel that Frodo and Sam were always on their way to Mount Doom, the book filled in all those steps with so much fodder for my mind’s eye, that it became a varied and colorful journey that kept my mind moving. Hidden and insinuated details were also offered to fill in the holes that the movies left.