In what ways is The Lord of the Rings a typical quest narrative? In what ways is it not?
The Lord of the Rings draws heavily from the literary tradition of the quest narrative, but it also inverts and reimagines significant aspects of the archetypal quest. Perhaps the most prominent element of the traditional quest in Tolkien’s novel is the journey, the road the Fellowship takes through many lands as it makes its way to Mordor, the ultimate destination in the quest. Many of the great literary quest narratives that precede The Lord of the Rings—from Beowulf to the Odyssey to Don Quixote—are built around exactly this concept of the hero who embarks on an epic journey in search of a goal. The journey typically is a trying one, with many tests for the hero as he or she passes through unknown lands and previously unimaginable dangers. The Lord of the Rings follows this conceit from the start, as Frodo and his companions encounter dangers from the moment they leave the familiar confines of the Shire.
The hero at the center of Tolkien’s quest, however, is quite atypical—a far cry from Odysseus or Beowulf. Whereas archetypal epic heroes draw upon incredible strength and bravery in overcoming the hardships of their quests, Frodo is an ordinary fellow. There is no particular glory or great power associated with him; indeed, from the beginning, he is characterized as “weak.” He is shouldered with an epic task, but he is reluctant to accept it, wondering why the responsibility has fallen upon him. Furthermore, Frodo relies on strength of character rather than strength of arms to endure the hardships he faces. He does not feel the thrill of adventure and does not yearn for glory and recognition. Rather, he views the quest as merely a burden, and a seemingly impossible one at that. He maintains a bearing of great humility throughout the novel, and we sense that it is this very humility, along with his strength of character, that may enable him to succeed in the end.
The novel is full of songs, most of which are transcribed in full. Discuss the significance of these songs and the way in which they are presented.
The frequent appearance of songs in The Lord of the Rings—and the length of these included verses—is one of the most distinctive and noteworthy aspects of the novel. The presence of these songs works toward a number of different ends. Perhaps most important, the songs add the weight of mythological history and tradition to the events that Tolkien describes. The songs link the present action of the novel—Frodo’s quest—to noble, epic events of a distant past. We sense that the events that are unfolding before our eyes are destined to become part of this mythic history themselves—that, ages after the events of the novel take place, the quest of the Fellowship will be similarly immortalized in song. These included songs add such epic weight to the events of the novel because they link the novel to the oral tradition of myth and storytelling in human history. In the time before written literature was ubiquitous throughout much of the world, myths and tales were, by necessity, memorized and passed along orally. Tolkien’s use of song links The Lord of the Rings to this ancient oral tradition. Furthermore, the songs Tolkien includes also highlight the importance of language in the world of the novel. Tolkien, a trained philologist, built much of the world of Middle-earth around the various linguistic systems he created to give it character and color. The songs the characters sing foreground these various languages, adding to the depth and realism of the universe Tolkien has imagined.
Discuss Tolkien’s depictions of the natural world in the novel. How do the various societies of Middle-earth interact with the nature that surrounds them? Is nature a benevolent or malevolent force?
As the Fellowship travels throughout a number of different realms during the journey toward Mordor, Tolkien includes a wealth of descriptive passages about the changes in the surrounding landscape and its natural features. Despite the remarkable diversity of these landscapes, one common element is maintained throughout: the distinction between wild, untamed nature and domesticated natural landscapes in various forms. The Shire, the first setting to which we are introduced in the novel, is seemingly a model of harmonious interaction between society and nature. The landscape is domesticated, but gently and beautifully so; the Hobbits appear to have a clear and profound respect for nature. As we see later, Tom Bombadil and the Elves share this respect for nature: the grounds of Tom’s house, along with the Elven realms of Rivendell and Lothlórien, are beautiful and peaceful respites from the rigors of the quest. However, Tolkien implies that not all such domestication and harnessing of nature is beneficial. The Dwarves, for instance, appear to overstep their bounds in mining for the precious metal mithril in the Mines of Moria. They ultimately pay a price for this irresponsible use of nature, as they awaken the terrifying Balrog that sleeps deep in the earth. All of these examples of domestication, whether responsible or irresponsible, sharply contrast with realms in which nature is untamed and feral. Allowed to run wild, nature is unpredictable and sometimes very dangerous, as we see in the encounters with Old Man Willow and the pass of Caradhras. Nature never appears to be a wholly neutral force: Middle-earth is a mystical world in which each natural element is aligned with either good or evil. This moral alignment, however, is haphazard and unpredictable: the reasons why one tree is good while another is evil are thoroughly unclear.
1. How would Tolkien define good? How would he define evil? Use examples from the text to support your answer.
2. Explain the distinction Tolkien makes between knowledge and wisdom.
3. Tolkien was a devout Catholic. What elements of his novel might be traced to a Catholic worldview?
4. Discuss the significance of the fact that Frodo, the Ring-bearer, and his closest companions are Hobbits rather than Elves, Men, or some other, more powerful race.
5. What does Sauron’s Ruling Ring signify?