“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
This exchange occurs in Book I, Chapter 2, as Gandalf explains the history of the Ring to Frodo. The “it” to which Frodo refers is the finding of the Ring by Gollum, as well as the return of Sauron. Gandalf’s response to Frodo’s lament is at once heroic and fatalistic. The wizard’s words are heroic because they insist that one must rise to the challenge offered by one’s time. At the same time, however, there is also the suggestion that one is born at a particular time and in a particular place for a certain preordained purpose. The decision is, of course, not one’s own to make; however, Gandalf does imply that it is a decision that is made somewhere—that Gandalf and Frodo’s “time” has been “given” to them. This sense of purpose, of fate assigning roles to certain people, surfaces in many other such passages in The Lord of the Rings, in which ancient prophecies assign characters to certain tasks. Indeed, as Aragorn says, the War of the Ring is fated to be Gandalf’s greatest battle. These pervasive references to preordainment and prophecy link Tolkien’s novel to earlier epics and mythologies, most notably those of ancient Greece. Like many of the characters in The Lord of the Rings, the Greek gods and mortals are at the mercy of fate, often in the form of prophecies made long before the characters were even alive. Despite this emphasis on fate, however, free will does play a significant part in Tolkien’s novel. Frodo is perhaps the ideal Ring-bearer, as his strength of character enables him to accept his fated role, yet also to retain a sense of free will in the face of the powerful, corrupting influence of the Ring.
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
Later in the same conversation in Book I, Chapter 2, Gandalf again explores—though this time more dimly—the hand of fate in the world of Middle-earth. The wizard’s words are again a gentle rebuke to Frodo, who bemoans the fact that Gandalf did not kill Gollum when he had the chance, even though the wretched creature “deserves” death. Though Gandalf does not know how exactly, he does have a sense that Gollum has some further role to play in the story of the Ring. Indeed, as we see later in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, the wizard is correct. On a plot level, predictions such as Gandalf’s serve to maintain suspense and create a sense of foreboding or anticipation, foreshadowing coming events but not telling us whether they are near or distant. On a more figurative level, however, Tolkien uses these prophecies and predictions to remind us of the presence of fate, which has assigned roles to all of the characters—roles that even the wisest and most powerful among them do not yet know or understand.
“[Bilbo] used to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary.”
The Lord of the Rings is a quest narrative, as the characters spend much of their time on the road, traveling toward the various destinations to which the quest takes them. Indeed, this tradition of the road narrative is a staple of Western literature. Texts ranging from the Danish epic Beowulf to Cervantes’s Don Quixote to Kerouac’s On the Road feature protagonists who take to the road in search of something. Here, as Frodo quotes Bilbo just as the hobbits set out in Book I, Chapter 3, Tolkien creates an image of the road as a river, carrying its travelers along in its current. This current works at the narrative level to advance the plot, keeping the Fellowship moving into fresh encounters and oftentimes into the unknown. Furthermore, the road serves as one of the most potent and charged metaphors in all of The Lord of the Rings. In part, the road represents the passing of time and the ages that time sweeps into the past, just as the road sweeps travelers off into the distant horizon. The road also represents the interconnectedness of all things, the fact that even the smallest footpath in the Shire leads, through many merges and branches, to the most distant and sinister places in Middle-earth. Though the Shire itself may be a place of comfort and familiarity, the road serves as a subtle yet constant reminder that the unknown outside world is present, and merely a journey away.
These lines are the beginning of a poem about Aragorn, quoted by Gandalf in his letter to Frodo in Book I, Chapter 10, and offered as a means for the hobbit to determine whether Strider is indeed Aragorn. The poem demonstrates not only Tolkien’s facility with language, but also the central place of poetry, lore, and prophecy in the world of Middle-earth. The verse functions as a sort of seal of authenticity for Aragorn, one that defines him not only through his past and lineage, but also through his future—the destiny that awaits him. Stylistically, the poem shows Tolkien at his mythic-poetic best. In opening the poem with an inversion of a widely known aphorism (“all that glitters is not gold”)—a move that also sets the metric rhythm for the poem—Tolkien grounds the poem in the known before using it to lay out part of his own created mythology. In this case, the mythology is the story of the return of the king to Minas Tirith and the reforging of the sword of Elendil. Tolkien uses this technique of grounding the mythic in the known many times throughout the novel. Perhaps the most notable arena for this technique is in Tolkien’s descriptions of the natural world of Middle-earth, which mix familiar elements, such as birds, horses, and willow and fir trees, with the unfamiliar or scary, such as Orcs, athelas and mellyrn trees, and the Balrog. This blending of elements enhances the believability of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, making it easier to swallow than a world in which literally everything is unfamiliar—and perhaps even characterizing Middle-earth as a sort of ancient predecessor to our own world.
For so it seemed to them: Lórien was slipping backward, like a bright ship masted with enchanted trees, sailing on to forgotten shores, while they sat helpless upon the margin of the grey and leafless world.
This passage describes the Fellowship’s departure from the mystical forest of Lothlórien in Book II, Chapter 8. Here, they look back from their boats as the Great River, Anduin, carries them away from the Elven realm. Lórien is, as Aragorn names it, “the heart of Elvendom on earth”—the most enchanted place in all of Middle-earth. Leaving the beautiful realm is painful for all of the members of the Fellowship, even Gimli, whose people, the Dwarves, have a long-standing animosity with the Elves of Lórien. The departure of the Company also has a broader significance, as it represents the more general fading away of the Elves and their realm. Tolkien uses the flowing Anduin to good effect in this description of transience and impermanence. To the departing travelers, it seems as if Lórien itself is sailing away like a ship, rather than the Company sailing away from it. This manner of description alludes to the fact that the Elves, if they survive the War of the Ring, plan to take to ships and cross the sea away from Middle-earth forever. The river’s current also symbolizes the passage of time—a convention of countless songs and poems—that sweeps the world before it, but leaves the Elves behind. Indeed, throughout the novel, the Elves occupy an unusual position as immortal beings whose creations are often nonetheless fragile and impermanent. The members of the Fellowship, in their boats, are acutely aware of the fact that the world without the Elves will be “grey and leafless,” a drab and less magical place.