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The Lord of the Rings: Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Diedra Taylor

Diedra has taught college English and worked as a university writing center consultant. She has a master's degree in English.

Delve into the realm of ''The Lord of the Rings'', an epic three-volume fantasy novel series written by J.R.R. Tolkien, a linguistics scholar who is known as one of the greatest fantasy writers of all time.

Background

The Lord of the Rings has become a colossal popular phenomenon, and even if you haven't read the books, you have likely seen, or at least heard of, the films. Written by J.R.R. Tolkien primarily during the 1940s and published in three separate volumes in 1954 and '55, The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the penultimate example of high fantasy written in the English language. High fantasy is a genre of fiction that typically takes place in a medieval-like world, yet it may not share many specific details with the actual world or factual medieval history. Some typical characteristics of this type of fantasy fiction include maps of the fictional world and fictional languages unique to the characters and their races.

The Books

The Lord of the Rings is a series, and it is part of the epic fantasy tradition. It's not called 'epic' because it's awesome (although it is!), but because of its long length. Most people think of the series as a trilogy, but instead of being made up of three books, it actually consists of three volumes:

-The Fellowship of the Ring

-The Two Towers

-The Return of the King.

These three volumes contain six books:

-The Ring Sets Out

-The Ring Goes South

-The Treason of Isengard

-The Ring Goes East

-The War of the Ring

-The End of the Third Age

Too much happens in this epic to give a detailed summary. Let's keep things brief. A huge cast of characters, including multiple races (hobbit, human, dwarf, elf, wizard, orc, ent, goblin, spider, and more), choose sides in a war that will determine the future trajectory of their world. The main antagonist is Sauron, who wants the One Ring referenced in the series' title. The primary protagonists form a band known as the Fellowship of the Ring, which plans to destroy the One Ring in order to save the world. The fellowship consists of hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, the wizard Gandalf, the dwarf Gimli, the elf Legolas, and the men Aragorn and Boromir.

After numerous setbacks, injuries, and deaths, the Ring is finally destroyed in a showdown over volcanic lava that has readers biting their nails to see who survives and whether the Ring will actually be melted. In both the films and the books, the ultimate destruction of the Ring comes when Gollum bites Frodo's finger off -with the ring still on it- and loses his balance, falling into the fires of Mt. Doom.

Themes and Analysis

Tolkien was a professor of linguistics, and as such he was both well read and well informed about various social and political issues. This background influenced his works. In fact, he likely got the idea of the One Ring from Plato's The Republic, in which the philosopher discussed the Ring of Gyges, an artifact that could turn the wearer invisible. Additionally, some critics believe his history of Middle-earth, the fictional setting of this trilogy, was based on the Norse legend of Sigurd the Volsung.

Some of the themes discussed below lead readers to believe that Tolkien's work was an allegory regarding the real changes and war that took place in his era, but Tolkien himself steadfastly claimed that his stories were not allegory. However, his problem seems to be more with the term 'allegory' and its implications; he prefers to use the term 'applicability'.

Religion

Tolkien himself was Roman Catholic, and his religious beliefs and questions influenced The Lord of the Rings, even if religion was not an overt subject in the books. You see him tackle the question of mortality versus immortality through various characters. The hobbits are a simple people who are considered very much mortal in the story, as are men and dwarves. But, in contrast to these races' definitive mortality, the elves represent a more long-lived race who seem to have unearthly powers. The wizard, Gandalf, makes a miraculous return from death, and Sauron was also thought to be defeated, only to return.

The theme of right and wrong acts (morality) is evident throughout the work. In fact, this is the greatest struggle of all. On the surface, it seems like Tolkien takes a binary approach, but that's not the case. We see the internal struggles of several characters who are fighting the evil within themselves. Gollum is mostly consumed by evil, but the small spark of kindness still lives inside him somewhere, and we occasionally see a glimpse of it. Frodo, who carries the Ring finds it harder and harder to know his true self as he gets closer to the end of his journey. Boromir, a mostly decent man, nearly kills Frodo to get the Ring. Even the elf queen Galadriel is tempted by darkness when she sees the Ring.

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