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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The King vs. the Steward

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 Limits of Fellowship

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.

The Shire As a Fantasy of Home

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.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

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

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.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

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, Saruman's tower 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.

The Ring

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

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.

More symbols and themes

by KeeganTheAwesome, August 08, 2012

Another theme that appears several times in The Lord of the Rings is the conflict between nature and industry. Tolkien had been raised in the countryside and was very attached to nature, so you could understand his disappointment with his fellow humans when industry and machines began taking over. Because of his childhood home, he made a noticeable connection between evil and metal by making the Shire a rural place and filling Mordor and Isengard (the antagonists) with machines, forges, fire, wheels, and other objects associated with manufac... Read more


133 out of 146 people found this helpful

Slight Error

by Wholock903, May 26, 2014

Smeagol was not a Hobbit, he was one of the Fisher Folk, a race that are close to the Hobbits, and they lived in the Shire still, beside the river.


4 out of 9 people found this helpful

A minor correction

by nayomayo, April 04, 2015

While, yes, it is correct to say Aragorn rules over two kingdoms of men (namely Gondor and Arnor), he does not and never does rule over Rohan. The land on which Rohan is located did previously belong to Gondor centuries ago but was gifted to the Rohirrim to claim as their own. Rohan is its own kingdom and no longer is subject to the rule of Gondor's King. Rohan and Gondor are still linked through their strong alliance or the Oath of Ceorl.


3 out of 3 people found this helpful

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