Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Sauron bound up much of his power in the One Ring when he forged it ages ago, and whoever wields the Ring has access to some of that power. The full extent and nature of the Ring’s power never becomes entirely clear to us, but we get the sense that the Ring symbolizes a power almost without limits, and which is utterly corrupting. It is immensely difficult for many of the characters to resist the temptation to take the Ring for themselves and use it for their own ends. Regardless of the wearer’s initial intentions, good or evil, the Ring’s power always turns the wearer to evil. Indeed, even keeping the Ring is dangerous. The Fellowship of the Ring is strewn with examples of those who are corrupted by the Ring. The power of the Ring transformed the Black Riders, once human kings, into fearsome, undead Ringwraiths. Gollum, once a young boy named Sméagol, killed his friend Déagol for the Ring and then gradually became a wretched, crouching, froglike creature who thinks only of his desire to retrieve the Ring for himself. During the travels of the Fellowship, Boromir grows increasingly corrupted by the proximity of the Ring, wanting to use its power to destroy Sauron rather than destroy the Ring itself, as Elrond and Gandalf have advised; ultimately, the Ring leads Boromir to desire it for himself. For many, the great power offered by the Ring overrides all rational thought. The power of the Ring is by no means the only temptation in Middle-earth—the Dwarves of Moria, for example, coveted mithril too much, and they dug so deep that they awakened the Balrog beneath them—but the Ring is the greatest temptation and therefore the greatest threat.
The Middle-earth of The Lord of the Rings is a world on the cusp of a transformation. After the events the novel describes, the age of the Elves will pass and the age of Men will dawn. A large portion of the story eulogizes this passing age of the Elves. The Elves and their realms have a beauty and grace unmatched by anything else in Middle-earth. Though the Elves themselves are immortal, as Galadriel tells us, the destruction of Sauron’s One Ring will weaken the Three Elven Rings, forcing the Elves to leave Middle-earth and fade away. Throughout the novel, Tolkien gives us the sense that the adventures of the Ring represent the last burst of a sort of magic that will not be found in the world that comes afterward. This later world will be a world without Sauron, but also a world without Lothlórien. Even in chapters about the Hobbits and the lowly Shire, we sense that we are witnessing something good and pure that is, for whatever reason, no longer present in this world. The Hobbits, the narrator tells us, have become somewhat estranged from Men in the times since The Lord of the Rings took place, and now avoid us “with dismay.”
The sense of transience and lost grandeur that pervades The Lord of the Rings goes, in part, with the territory in which Tolkien is wading. He writes the novel in a mythic mode, and one of the conventions of myth is that it describes a past that is more glorious than the present. This sense of loss certainly is present in the Greek myths, for example, or in Homer’s epic poems that draw on these myths—both of which describe a world in which men and gods mix freely, a world that is no more. Tolkien’s own work is something between mythology and fiction, locating itself in a middle ground between a past that is remembered only in song and the everyday present of the reader. This sense of ancientness is constantly present, brought to life in chants, poems, and graven inscriptions. As Tolkien shows again and again—whether with the Elves or with the Númenóreans or the Dwarves—the stories that the characters tell define them. In some cases, as with Aragorn for example, this mythology explains not only where a character comes from, but also where he or she is going. The characters carry their past and their lore around with them, and they are virtually unable to speak without referring to this lore. The twist Tolkien adds is that these “myths,” while retaining all of the usual metaphorical resonance and symbolic simplicity, also happen to be true—at least in his world. This sense of reality within the novel, in turn, lends power to even the most everyday occurrences in Middle-earth.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
It is no exaggeration to say that The Lord of the Rings is literally filled with song. Nearly every character seems to burst into at least one song throughout the course of the novel. Moreover, each song is presented to us in its entirety, with every verse and refrain included. The ubiquity of song in the novel serves a number of purposes. First, the songs link the action of the novel to a distant past, a time long before the written word was dominant over the spoken word. The profusion of songs gives us the sense that the story we are reading is closely tied to something ancient, such as myth or folklore, a body of knowledge or tradition that has been memorized and passed along orally. Furthermore, as the events of which the characters sing are real—at least within the world of Middle-earth—we can easily imagine that, ages later, there will be ancient songs celebrating the deeds of Frodo and the Fellowship. The novel’s emphasis on the spoken word also highlights the existence and the sounds of the hundreds, if not thousands, of words—names, place names, terms for emotions, fantastical animals, plants, and other creatures—that Tolkien created in writing the novel. A trained philologist, Tolkien obviously took much care in his invention of the linguistic elements of his universe. One remarkable aspect of The Lord of the Rings is that Tolkien’s names, without resorting to familiar words, clearly convey the nature of what they describe: is there any question that the mellifluous-sounding Galadriel is benevolent, while an Orc or a Balrog is evil?
Early in the journey, Frodo recalls how Bilbo always used to warn, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” This idea of the road as a river, sweeping travelers before it, suggests the means by which Tolkien himself keeps the action of his novel moving—by keeping his characters moving. The Lord of the Rings shares this motif of the road and the quest with many of the great epics that precede it, from the Odyssey to Beowulf; furthermore, the vast majority of all quests depend on a road or journey of some kind or another. The road takes the hobbits out from the familiar confines of the Shire and into the unknown, where, like all epic heroes, they are tested. It exposes them to previously unthinkable dangers, such as the Black Riders and the fury of Caradhras, but also to the unimaginable beauty of places such as Rivendell and Lothlórien. More than a physical means of travel and a narrative means of advancing the plot, the road also emphasizes the fact that nothing stands still in Tolkien’s universe; everything is in constant motion. Significantly, the first Elves the hobbits meet are on the road—Elves heading west to the shore before leaving Middle-earth. Time, like the road, sweeps all before it into the distance. Legolas’s lament upon leaving Lothlórien sums up the link between the two perfectly: “For such is the way of it: to find and to lose, as it seems to those whose boat is on the running stream.”
Very little happens in Middle-earth that someone, somewhere, has not already prophesied. These prophecies, like the songs that often contain them, link the past to the present, and beyond to the near or even distant future. Like the road, these prophecies move the plot forward, setting up targets for which the plot then aims. These targets are crucial to the remarkable sense of suspense and anticipation Tolkien is able to maintain throughout the whole of The Lord of the Rings, which totals more than 1,000 pages in length. In this heavy use of prophecy Tolkien takes a cue from the ancient mythological tradition. Just as Greek heroes such as Theseus and Hercules lived out the predictions of prophecies made long before their births, so do Aragorn and Frodo. The repeated presence of prophecies also shows the great importance of fate in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Things in this universe happen for a reason, though perhaps one that is not immediately clear. Gandalf invokes the hand of fate in his explanation of why Bilbo was the one to stumble across the Ring in the first place. Furthermore, fate is partly why Gandalf spares the wretched Gollum; the wizard has a suspicion that Gollum still has some part to play in the saga of the Ring. The presence of such a logic and will beyond the knowledge of any of even the most powerful of the characters is as close as Tolkien comes to implying an overarching consciousness or higher power that controls all of Middle-earth.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Rings of Power represent pure, limitless power and its attendant responsibilities and dangers. The One Ring of Sauron confers almost unimaginable power to its wearer; however, in return, it exerts an immense pressure on its wearer, and inevitably corrupts him or her. The Three Elven Rings, on the other hand, are imbued with a different sort of power, one closely tied to learning and building. Galadriel’s ring, for instance, gives the Lady of Lórien the power of sight into the unknown, which she uses to good ends. Galadriel’s ability to use her ring responsibly is rooted in the unwavering self-control she demonstrates when she refuses the take the One Ring from Frodo.
The legendary Sword that was Broken once belonged to Elendil, an ancient ancestor of Aragorn’s line who died in battle at the Siege of Barad-dûr, the assault on Sauron’s stronghold. The sword was broken under Elendil when he died, and its shattered remains have been passed down for generations as an heirloom of his once-great kingdom, now fallen into decay. Aragorn, Elendil’s distant heir, carries the fragments of the sword with him. When Aragorn has the sword reforged in Rivendell, renaming it Andúril, it becomes a symbol of Aragorn’s greatness and a sign that Aragorn is officially setting out to claim his birthright in the House of Isildur. In a sense, the sword mirrors Aragorn himself. When we first meet Aragorn, he appears to be merely a haggard, weatherworn Ranger, but later he is revealed to be the heir of an ancient and glorious lineage—just as the sword, initially merely a collection of shattered metal fragments, is transformed into a weapon of great beauty and power.
Galadriel’s mirror, into which she invites Frodo and Sam to gaze, serves as a symbol of the ambiguity of the gift of knowledge and the ultimate incomprehensibility of fate. Looking into the mirror, one sees events and places that have been, or that are, or that may be— though one is never sure which. It is impossible, therefore, to try to escape what is shown in the mirror, or to alter one’s actions to fit the scenes that are shown. The events shown in the mirror will happen, or perhaps have happened already; as such, the reasons or explanations for these fated happenings are largely irrelevant and inconsequential. The only matter of importance regarding the knowledge the mirror reveals is what one ultimately does with that knowledge—whether one uses it responsibly, or toward evil ends. Even Galadriel herself, though a being of great power, has no control over the events depicted in the mirror. At times, the force of fate is indeed great, and no being in Middle-earth has the power to stop it.