The Lord of the Rings: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Zach Watkins

Zach earned a master's degree in creative writing and has designed and taught college literature courses.

The twentieth-century fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings reveals how the smallest heroes can accomplish the greatest deeds. This lesson summarizes the main plots and highlights the principle characters.

The Modern Fantasy Novel

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, tells the story of the War of the Ring in the fictional world of Middle-earth. The long novel--commonly published as three volumes and mistakenly called a trilogy--centers around the magical One Ring, discovered by Bilbo Baggins in the earlier novel The Hobbit. Now, the free peoples of Middle-earth, such as Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits, must overcome the dark power of Sauron by destroying the Ring.

Volume One - The Fellowship of the Ring

Bilbo Baggins, the most famous hobbit in the Shire, retires and leaves his magic ring to his nephew, Frodo Baggins. Frodo lives peacefully to middle age when Gandalf the Grey, a wandering wizard, uncovers the true nature of the ring. It is the long-lost One Ring, forged by the dark lord Sauron to control all of Middle-earth. Gandalf urges Frodo to take the ring to the Elven land of Rivendell. Frodo journeys there with his friends Samwise Gamgee, Merry Brandybuck, and Pippin Took.

An artistic rendering of the Shire by Roxanne Ready
Artistic rendering of the Shire (Roxanne Ready)

In Rivendell, a council of the wise (including Frodo and Gandalf) determines that the Ring must be destroyed. This can only be accomplished in the volcanic Mount Doom, deep in Sauron's realm of Mordor. A Fellowship is formed to escort the Ring and Frodo, the Ringbearer, as far as they may. The Fellowship is made of the four younger hobbits, Gandalf, Aragorn the Ranger, Legolas the Elf, Gimli the Dwarf, and Boromir, the son of the Steward of Gondor.

The Fellowship travels through the old underground Dwarf kingdom of Moria, where Gandalf perishes, and the Elven forest of Lothlórien. Galadriel, the Elf queen, grants each member of the Fellowship gifts to aid them in their quest. They are meanwhile being trailed by Gollum, an ancient Hobbitish creature who once bore the Ring for centuries and wants it back. Boromir also lusts for the Ring and the powers it can grant him. But before he can seize the Ring, a raid of evil orcs splinters the Fellowship; Sam and Frodo slip off toward Mordor.

Volume Two - The Two Towers

Boromir dies in the raid while defending Merry and Pippin, who are captured and carried to the malicious wizard Saruman. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli chase their friends as far as Rohan, a kingdom of horsemen. They meet Gandalf, who has returned to Middle-earth as Gandalf the White. Together, they free King Théoden from the thrall of Saruman's servant. They accompany the Rohirrim to Helm's Deep, where they are besieged by Saruman's armies.

Merry and Pippin escape their captors and encounter Treebeard the Ent, a shepherd of the trees. The Hobbits persuade the ents to attack Saruman and his armies; the tree-herders trap Saruman and destroy his armies at Helm's Deep. The remaining members of the Fellowship reunite at Saruman's tower. Gandalf and Pippin ride hastily to Gondor on the borders of Mordor.

Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam rely on the unexpected help of Gollum, who is familiar with the landscape surrounding Mordor. Frodo takes pity on the sad creature, rather than killing him. Gollum leads them to the Black Gate of Mordor, where Frodo cannot enter. But Gollum knows another way.

Skirting Mordor, the trio are captured by a Gondorian troop led by Faramir, Boromir's brother. Faramir discovers the purpose of their quest but agrees to let them go, rather than take the Ring for himself. Gollum leads the hobbits up a little-used stairway into the land of Mordor. There, the giant spider-beast Shelob stings Frodo. Sam fights off the spider and reluctantly claims the Ring. Orcs discover Frodo and take him prisoner. Much to Sam's delight, Frodo is not dead; to Sam's dread, he is held captive in a tower stationed with orcs.

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