I have a lot of thoughts about this book so this is likely to be very long (I mean REALLY long). I have what I consider a strange relationship to Tolkien’s work. I have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so many times that I can not even count all of them. Every time I do it is another magical experience that reveals new and powerful things about the world that Tolkien built. However, because of my familiarity with the work I no longer view it with an eye looking for entertainment (though I do still get that from these books more than almost any other) but an eye for analysis and criticism. I see, in The Lord of Rings some powerful Christian allegory — probably unintended as the author states — which come from deep in Tolkien’s subconscious.
I have written essays in college about The Lord of the Rings, I have had arguments and discussions, I have compared it to passages of scripture to find the parallels.
I have done all these things and I have read almost none of the other works of Tolkien in Middle Earth. I read the Children of Hurin, I have glanced through the appendices, reading mostly the genealogy charts of the Hobbits. I have never even opened the Silmarillion, the Book of Lost Tales, the War of the Ring, etc. Somehow I feel that those things will not be as good, will somehow strip away the magic that is contained in The Lord of Rings and make it less potent to me. There is a fear that, beneath it all there will be something that doesn’t make sense.
Basically, I’m afraid that somewhere in all that literature I will find the Tolkien mythological version of midichlorians and my decades long fortress of refuge and wonder in Tolkien’s world will crumble to dust around me.
I will try to keep my comments about The Fellowship of the Ring in particular but I may bring in parts of later books if it makes sense.
Tolkien is obviously drawing heavily on legend from around the world, both in theme and content. The Norse, in particular are paid homage to at seemingly every turn. The dwarves, with their love of mines and precious stones and metals and their long beards and blustery attitudes come straight from Norse mythology. As do the elves with their willowy, carefree but sometimes quite sinister demeanor. Gandalf is Odin in all but name, including the hat and staff, his propensity to wander around wearing gray clothing, even down to his giving his own life to save the world — though the means by which he gives his life is much changed.
Tom Bombadil is the Irish Green Man. He wanders about the countryside, older than the hills and takes care of things that grow.
The elves, also, have hints of the Irish legends of the sidhe, with Galadriel being a direct parallel with the Summer Queen. Their perilous nature is hinted at greatly in the way in which Boromir and Gimli warn the company about accepting gifts from them and Frodo mentions on several occasions that the advice of an elf is not always the answer you were looking for. What I find interesting is that Tolkien succeeded in making the elves both perilous, scary, and dispensing with advice of dubious consequence and clarity while also making them wise, kind and generous. They are also frequently misguided and unable to change. Galadriel tells Frodo that his “coming to [them] is as the footsteps of doom,” because at the moment that Frodo enters Lothlorien only two possible futures await the elves. Either Frodo will fail, the Ring will fall into the hands of Sauron once again and his strength will be used to enslave the elves, or Frodo will succeed and the destruction of the Ring will herald the end of the elves power in Middle Earth. They will begin to diminish and will no longer be a force of good and power in the world.
The elves also have names that all sharply connote divinity in some way. The Hebrew suffix ‘El’ meaning God (found in so many real world names like Michael, Daniel, Joel, etc.) is found in nearly all of the elven names: Galadriel, Elrond, Glorfindel, Elberreth. The elven names also hark back to different real world cultures, Celeborn and Haldir are obviously of Irish origin while Thranduil and Legolas are much more in line with the Norse traditions of the fae. These names also line up with the cultures of the elves — Lothlorien elves being much more mysterious and nebulous than their more jovial and physically dangerous Mirkwood cousins.
The story of Beren and Luthien that Aragorn likes so much because of it’s parallels to his own situation is obviously inspired by the poem of Sir Orfeo that Tolkien translated from the original Old English. That particular love poem was so powerful to him that he and his wife share the the inscriptions of ‘Beren’ and ‘Luthien’ on their gravestones.
Aragorn, being the High King has some echoes of Arthurian legend but plays much stronger as a Messiah figure — he comes out of the west ‘with healing in his wings’, as Isaiah puts it in the old testament — even the point of leading the Rangers (the lost tribes) back to their home, healing the sick and claiming his place as King. The Arthurian legends itself have some parallels to Christian themes so the message here is muddled a bit.
Smaug feels like he flew right out of Beowulf.
I don’t know if Tolkien uses the Campbellian monomyth and Hero’s Journey on purpose or not but it’s almost certain that he was aware of Campbell’s work. I suspect as a student of mythology and legend he couldn’t help but pick out many of the same elements of myth that Campbell found. That said, Tolkien employs the monomyth with such subtlety that many times it is hard to identify.
In particular, while Frodo goes through his own Hero’s Journey, beginning with his being orphaned at a young age (the drowning of his parents being a symbolic rebirth and reawakening, aka baptism) all the way to the end and leaving Middle Earth at the Grey Havens, he is not the traditional hero that is usually expected. Nor is he the only character to undergo the Hero’s Journey in these books. Aragorn also goes through many of the same thresholds and discoveries that Frodo does, in a general sense, and it is him that so many fantasy authors have tried to copy in the decades since.
Part of this is one of the themes of Tolkien and integral to the message that he was trying to give to the world. Aragorn is the Hero. He is the lost King returned, fulfilling his prophesied destiny with a magic sword. But Aragorn is not the hero of this story, he is not the one to save the world from unrelenting enslavement and evil. Frodo, a hobbit, the weakest and smallest of the sentient creatures of Middle Earth is the key, the strength that saves everyone — and in the end he doesn’t become a great ruler, or a warrior or a wizard, he goes home and struggles to deal with the heartrending loss of post traumatic stress and the constant reminder that the world is now much bigger than it used to be.
As a further flipping of the common trope of the Hero’s Journey Frodo and Sam have a conversation where Frodo is surprised at Sam’s resourcefulness and exclaims that by the end of the journey Sam will be a wizard himself, or a great warrior. Sam exclaims, “I hope not… I don’t want to be neither.”
In fact all through the book there is a lamentation of the passing of the pastoral life of the hobbits. In true Tolkien fashion with establishing resonances throughout his work the beginning that dwells so long on the Shire and Bilbo’s birthday party is echoed by the ending of the last book. The story of Frodo and his friends doesn’t end when the Ring is destroyed, it ends when the four Hobbits, alone again, return to the Shire and eject Saruman from his industrialization of their home, using Galadriel’s soil and Sam’s gardening abilities to restore it to the pastoral existence they remember.
Sam is not a traditional hero. Sure he puts on the Ring and fights orcs when it becomes necessary and he is fiercely loyal and humble and imminently likable on so many levels that it’s no wonder he is so many people’s favorite character. But he is not the hero, the Ring is not his burden to bear, he doesn’t come back as a wizard or a warrior, but as a gardener and, in the Shire, that’s exactly what he needs to be. Sam has his own Hero’s Journey, crossing his own personal threshold into a wider world when he steps beyond the Shire for the first time and pronounces, “this is as far as I have ever been.”
Leave the warrior business to Merry and Pippin who underwent their own rebirth when drinking from the Entwash (once again water is prominently featured in their change from timid to hobbits to legendary heroes that rally the ents to battle). Leave the brooding knowledge of the wider world to Frodo who can never return to his old life without deep and abiding melancholy. Sam is a gardener, and his journey of discovery that leaves him more confident and more powerful also left him unchanged in what he was. Like Frodo he will never be the same, but unlike Frodo he has the strength to heal and remain, in his core, Sam Gamgee.
Tolkien has an interesting relationship with nature that seems to be both respectful and maybe a little bit scared. Trees in particular he seems to have a great love for that is colored by a deep respect for their sinister qualities. The trees of Lothlorien are described using words that connote light and peace and feel very much like coming home. Far more common, however are the dark, knotted and twisted forests such as the Wood outside Buckland, the Mirkwood that has been twisted by the Necromancer and the Entwood that has fallen into disarray because of the slumber of the Ents. It segues nicely into his seeming obsession with caves. Nearly everything that goes wrong for Frodo and company happens inside a cave or under a forest canopy. This theme is continued from the Hobbit where Tolkien has Bilbo and the dwarves go through a series of underground adventures, each building and falling into a book long thematic chiasmus.
In fact that same kind of chiasmus parallelism is inherent in The Lord of Rings on a much subtler scale than it was employed in The Hobbit — for example, Frodo has to pass through the dark and twisted wood near Buckland in order to leave the Shire and then later he must pass through the dark and twisted tunnels of Shelob’s lair to get into Mordor. In both cases he nearly succeeds and then succumbs (to Old Man Willow in the wood and to Shelob in her lair).
Tolkien’s theme of underground places representing bad things is carried throughout with even places such as Moria and Erebor only being shown in their fallen and darker state. There is a hint of something that once was beautiful and now is decayed and dark. In The Fellowship of the Ring we have the Buckland Wood, The Barrow Downs, Weathertop, and Moria, all of which are underground and where bad things happen.
In fact the entire series is a constant struggle through darkness, trying to find the light, only to be forced by circumstance or evil design back into the gloom and darkness once again.
As a slight contrast to this — in comparison to Tolkien’s dichotomy about trees — hobbits live underground in hobbit holes which are neither dank, dark or musty and in which nothing bad happens.
Tolkien imbues his story with history and verve that it feels absolutely real to such success that few authors are able to imitate the trick, though many have tried. Tolkien does it with almost no exposition and very little by way of storytelling or any of the other common tricks for explicating fantasy history. Rather a passing mention of Angmar or Amon Sul show up casting great historical weight on the places the Hobbits travel to.
In fact many of these references appeared new to me, this time through. Many of them were things I knew, so I must have noticed them before, but they are so subtle that I could not have pointed out how I knew what the significance of Angmar is. Many of these subtle references also color the world more fully than I had realized before. This is not a world where men are sparse. I had always assumed there was Bree and then Rohan and Gondor and that was about it. However, there appears to be a thriving rural community in and around Bree with no central government to police the roads or establish trade and the like. No wonder people were so happy to welcome Aragorn as the High King.
Speaking of Aragorn he seems to be suffering from whatever the opposite of Dunning-Kruger effect is. He’s insanely competent at nearly everything. He just seems to be unable to admit that fact to himself — which is part of his journey. He must find a way to realize that he is, in fact Aragorn, not Isuldur. When given the chance to take the Ring he refuses it and goes on to become the King, fulfilling prophecy and uniting people. All through this book Aragorn is the competent one. Gandalf tells Frodo that the reason he made it to Rivendell was because of Aragorn and that Frodo was actually safer with him than if Gandalf had been there. Aragorn expresses some prophetic ability when he warns Gandalf against entering Moria, telling him that he will not come out alive. He also senses the orcs when they are nearby, many times before Sting starts to glow. In the movies many of these abilities are given to Legolas instead, making Aragorn a much less powerful character — completely missing the point.
That’s the only comparison I’m going to make to the movies.
Tom Bombadil is an interesting character. He speaks in lyric and seems to be completely carefree. In fact it is mentioned that he would care nothing for the Ring and it would not be safe with him because he would lose it. It is also stated that eventually even Bombadil would not be able to stand against Sauron if something were not done. This made me curious, what would Bombadil have done if Sauron had tried to enter into his demesne.
The debate about Tolkien being racist is long and varied. I will say that I can see where some of the complaints are coming from. The evil men in Bree that betray Frodo to the Nazgul are described as swarthy and squinty eyed. On the other hand the Rangers are described as having dark skin so I don’t know if the racism angle is really justified. It is true that the majority of Tolkien’s characters are white males and that is a problem for some people. Tolkien’s world was mostly white males and he was writing a story that was meant to be legend and myth for his native England. Most of the stories that he based his writing on were about white males. I feel certain that he populated his list of heroes with such without even thinking about it. I don’t believe that this points to any inherent racism or sexism on his part. There is much more that has been said about this but I find the question problematic to argue about. There is none of Tolkien’s correspondence that indicates he had a racist or sexist bent (unlike other authors of his time) and he is not alive to ask.
The One Ring is probably the greatest MacGuffin of all time. Not only in its scope of recognizability but also in how powerfully the plot and world depend on its existence and destruction so inherently that this world and story could not exist without it.
Elrond and the Rivendell elves seem to be a mellower version of their intense Mirkwood cousins and a more friendly group than the distant Lothlorien elves. Which bring up the question in my mind: what do elves do all day? They are spoken of in such idyllic terms that it is hard to imagine them doing anything other than hanging out all day long, which would get boring really fast if you had a short life span, but for a near immortal it seems interminable… literally.
Tolkien writes sheer terror like no other author. The scene in Balin’s tomb where Gandalf read the journal sends shivers down my spine and leaves me clawing to get out into the open every time I read it. “We can not get out,” gives me nightmares, every time. In fact the entire Moria passage is grim and terrifying. Starting with Aragorn’s prophecy that Gandalf will not come out alive to the discovery of Balin’s tomb it is a lesson in building tension that finally breaks when the orcs attack. The flight over the Bridge of Khazad Dum with the Balrog on their heels is another part of this story that is genuinely frightening.
I had not remembered that Aragorn and Boromir rush to help fight the Balrog. Gandalf’s desperate attempt to foreshorten the battle and his subsequent plunge into blackness may have stemmed from his knowledge that Frodo needed them more than he needed Gandalf.
Following Gandalf’s death there is surprising little time spent on the emotional impact to the characters. I say surprising because it has a powerful emotional impact on each of them and Tolkien communicates that impact clearly and in so few words that structurally it is difficult to point out where that is done. Aragorn obviously feels the stress of leadership and the weight of the company settling on his shoulders. This is never expressed explicitly, rather it is shown in the way Aragorn’s demeanor changes, the way he interacts with the characters.
Middle Earth is much grayer than people often give it credit for. I hear much malignancy given to Tolkien’s work for it’s simple views of good versus evil, which I argue is at the heart of all epic conflict. Good versus evil is what makes The Lord of the Rings a part of modern myth, a classic rather than a book. But I digress. I have always had the view that dwarves, men, elves and hobbits are good guys, orcs and goblins and trolls are bad guys. However, in the Council of Elrond it is mentioned that Sauron approached the dwarves and offered them rings of power. There is the sense that not everybody present knows which way that story is going to go and many are relieved when they learn the dwarves turned him away (though it’s only to have time to consider, not a blatant dismissal). The elves also, in Lothlorien, are mentioned as dangerous and Galadriel tells Frodo that “long have I desired” to take the Ring as her own. She admits that she would use it to heal her land and keep it safe but through her the Ring would gain great power and replace Sauron with something even worse.
My final thoughts.
This is the story of the ending of a world, the passing of the old world where the numinous and strange give place to the mundane and ordinary. It is the changing of a world of wizards and warriors to one of gardeners and blacksmiths. It is an ode to times past, simpler times but it is a rhapsody to the future. Our world is constantly remaking itself into something new and this is a story about that change. Look back ten years and try to explain our modern world to yourself ten years ago. It almost can’t be done. Tolkien is writing about a world that is passing, many good things (elves, wizards, rings of power) must pass away in order for better things (peace, happiness, comfort) to have their day.
This story ends where it needed to — with Frodo and Sam, leaving on a boat. This is Frodo’s book, Frodo’s story and once he left the book had to end, back where it started, with Frodo and Sam. All of Tolkien’s books deal with this same kind of reflected symmetry. I know that Tolkien wanted The Lord of the Rings to be one novel but if he had to break it, this was the place to do so. Frodo’s book has ended, the Fellowship is broken.