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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Ambiguity of Evil

Tolkien offers a conflicted picture of evil in The Lord of the Rings. As the literary scholar T.A. Shippey argues, the images of evil -Tolkien portrays in the novel depict two traditional explanations for the existence of evil. The first, Manichaeism, was a view deemed heretical by the early Christian church. In Manichaeism, good and evil are two opposing forces or powers at war in the world. The second view, embraced by early Christian theologians, is that evil does not exist as a positive force. Evil is, instead, a human creation—that which is produced by humankind’s lack of goodness.

The Shadow, the chief metaphor for the evil of Mordor, exemplifies this ambivalent depiction of evil. On one hand, shadow is nothing but the absence of light; it has no substance, and its qualities are ambiguous even to those who perceive it. At the same time, shadows are real objects, with clearly visible shapes and edges. With the Shadow that blankets Mordor and extends outward later in The Lord of the Rings, Sauron’s evil spreads as various groups of Men and Orcs obey his will. In this sense, Sauron’s evil is not a force or a thing, but a form of human behavior. Even so, Sauron’s Darkness affects the physical world itself. The land of Mordor lies destitute and barren because of Sauron’s residence there, and the flying Nazgûl represent the physical embodiment of a mystical evil force.

While Tolkien does not clarify this ambiguous picture of evil, he suggests that the evil of human behavior precedes the physical force or power of evil in the world. Sauron creates the Ring out of malice and pride; the Ring does not cause Sauron’s evil. Similarly, the evil Saruman never actually loses his mystical powers when ousted from Isengard. Saruman’s hatred and bitterness cause his psychological deterioration, and his physical loss of power follows suit.

The Importance of Redemption

Redemption—the ability to renew another’s life—is a capacity that few of the Fellowship’s members possess. As the rightful King of Gondor, only Aragorn can redeem another by his power, as his words possess the ability to direct, by royal edict, the fate of his subjects. Nevertheless, throughout The Lord of the Rings, the protagonists are faced with opportunities to extend mercy to others, often at the risk of losing sight of the goal of their larger mission. Tolkien suggests that mercy must always be extended to others, regardless of the risks such an offering poses.

Gandalf and Frodo, more than any other characters, repeatedly offer mercy and the possibility of redemption to others. At Minas Tirith, Gandalf turns from pursuing the Lord of the Nazgûl to save Faramir from the burning pyre and to offer aid and a second chance to the desperate Lord Denethor. Gandalf continually offers redemption to the corrupt wizard Saruman up through their last meeting. Time and again, Frodo offers mercy to Gollum, pardoning Gollum’s offenses and entrusting his journey to the creature and his devices. Often, the offer of redemption jeopardizes the success of the quest itself.

By having Gandalf and Frodo extend second chances to others again and again, Tolkien emphasizes the importance of free will. Gandalf’s intervention in The Two Towers transforms Théoden, who suddenly realizes that evil is not his only available choice. Denethor’s evil, in contrast, stems from his belief that Sauron’s evil lies are an inescapable necessity. Furthermore, Tolkien suggests that the act of offering redemption demonstrates a trust in the justice of providence or fate. Gollum ultimately betrays Frodo’s confidence, trying to destroy Frodo to gain the Ring. Frodo’s patience with Gollum, however, prompts the creature to follow Frodo all the way to the Cracks of Doom. In the end, good does come of Gollum, as, in a cruel twist of irony, his mischief destroys the Ring in the Cracks of Doom.

The Priority of Friendship

The common concept of friendship might appear too simple or trite to have such great importance in an epic novel, but Tolkien’s picture of true friendship is at times grave and demanding. Tolkien suggests that even the all-important quest itself should be suspended for the sake of devotion to one’s friends. Sam’s deeds in Mordor display the ultimate courage, for he must constantly decide between fidelity to his friend Frodo or the forward movement of the Ring. In the dead silence of Mordor, Sam risks discovery by singing aloud in order to find his way to Frodo’s hidden cell. For Sam, true friendship means absolute devotion to another person. This absolute devotion involves a denial of the self and the willingness to sacrifice one’s own life for one’s friend.

At the same time, Tolkien’s exploration of friendship remains refreshing in its lightheartedness. The companions of the Fellowship make few vows of deep or serious friendship to each other. Rather, friendship in the novel frequently means being content with the company of another person. As Frodo leisurely tells Sam while Mordor collapses around them, “I am glad you are here with me . . . at the end of all things.” Gandalf closes the novel by quietly bidding Sam, Merry, and Pippin to return home, “for it will be better to ride back three together than one alone.”


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

As the British poet W. H. Auden observes, quest narratives like Tolkien’s use the image of the physical journey as a symbolic description of human experience. Tolkien’s intricate design and mapping of Middle-earth suggest the significance of the realm’s geography. In general, Tolkien draws upon the traditional associations of the distinction between East and West. In the Bible, Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden to the East for their sins. In Tolkien’s epic, Mordor dominates the East—a vast, dark region of mystery. Good lies to the West and grows greater as one passes through the Shire, and finally on to the Grey Havens and the paradise beyond the Great Sea.

Tolkien’s geography, however, has not only a broad significance, but also an importance specific to each area through which the protagonists pass. Like the city of Minas Tirith, which decays because of the spiritual depravity of its ruler, each land the hobbits traverse is analogous to the travelers’ experiences. The Old Forest highlights the hobbits’ fresh bewilderment; the fords of the Anduin River parallel the tough choices Frodo must make regarding the future of the Fellowship. In Book VI, Mordor’s wretched plains mirror the evil of Sauron and the physical and mental destitution of the Ring-bearer. Mount Doom itself symbolizes the spiritual ascent that Frodo and Sam must make to destroy the Ring.

Race and Physical Appearance

In part, Tolkien uses the different races of Middle-earth—Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, Men, Orcs, and Ents—to display the diversity of the realm and variety in characterization. As C.S. Lewis notes, Tolkien’s characters wear their individual distinctiveness in their stature and their outward appearance. Legolas is soft-spoken and ethereal, like his “fair race” of Elves; Gimli is brutish and proud in his behavior, which mirrors his stocky size and the stalwart character of the Dwarves in general. The Ents, like the trees they resemble, are slow yet strong and wise with years. Men remain complex, as they have great physical strength proportionate to their size, yet are confused and ill-defined, as though their history lies mostly ahead of them.

Hobbits are popularly interpreted as Tolkien’s depiction of the common man, modern yet preindustrial. Certainly, Tolkien wishes us to identify more with the Hobbit protagonists than with the Men of his tales. The Men are mythic, like the giants or heroes of old who will later produce humankind as we know it. The four hobbits, on the other hand, venture forth from the sheltered Shire and experience the fantastical quality of Middle-earth. Their size reveals much about their qualities—their humility, love for common things, and jovial, amicable social habits. Their small size also emphasizes our sense that the creatures we encounter in Middle-earth are larger than life.

The Christ Figure

Frodo and Gandalf each fill the sacrificial role of a Christlike character at various points in The Lord of the Rings, but Aragorn’s fulfillment of the prophecies surrounding the return of the King to Gondor casts the Ranger as the most explicit Christ figure of the novel. Aragorn’s journey through the Paths of the Dead parallels Christ’s purported descent into hell after his death on the cross. Aragorn’s healing of the wounded in Minas Tirith—with only the touch of his hand and his kiss—equally recalls Christ’s work with the sick as recorded throughout the Gospels. Aragorn’s Christlike nature does not indicate that the third volume of The Lord of the Rings is intended to be a systematic analogy for the Christian narrative. Rather, the biblical overtones in Aragorn’s rise to the throne are more properly a motif, providing a structure for discerning the images of sacrifice, redemption, and rejuvenation in the Zion-like city of Minas Tirith. These principles and archetypes carry Christian meaning in Tolkien’s text.


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

As a physical object with a mysterious claim over its owner, the Ring acts as a concrete symbol of the ambiguity of evil that Tolkien explores in the novel. The Ring has a tangible presence and it maintains easily observable powers. The Ring causes its wearer to physically disappear, but it also weakens the owner’s personal sense of identity with each use. In Mordor, the Ring appears to be an undeniable symbol of the physical force of evil. It grows progressively heavier with Frodo’s each step toward Orodruin, and it causes the violent eruption and dissolution of Mordor’s power with its deposit in the Cracks of Doom. At the same time, the Ring’s weight is perceivable only to the wearer, for Sam carries Frodo and his Ring with surprising ease. The Ring, in its ambiguity, symbolizes both the power and the horror attributed to it, in the pride of its owner and the physical destruction that the owner’s pride delivers upon himself and others.

Minas Tirith

The great city and fortress of Gondor situated on the border with Mordor, Minas Tirith symbolizes the precarious condition of the West in the conflict against Mordor. As a city, Minas Tirith evokes a sense of human history and the hope of future progress. Its survival determines the survival of humankind. The white walls of Minas Tirith, organized into the beauty and order of seven concentric circles, symbolize the ability for moral choice among the denizens of the West. The white exterior can be marred or preserved. Recalling the Arthurian myth of the Fisher King, in which the physical condition of the ailing king is mirrored in the barrenness of the land, Sauron’s corrupting influence over Denethor has caused the walls of Minas Tirith to deteriorate. The White Tree, the city’s symbol, remains broken. Aragorn’s rise to the throne leaves physical marks of his spiritual and political renewal of Gondor on the city of Minas Tirith. The city walls are restored, and a new sapling of the White Tree is replanted in the Court of the Fountain.

The Great Eye of Sauron

Like the Ring, the Great Eye of Sauron indicates both the physical force of evil and the elusive quality of evil. Perched atop Sauron’s Dark Tower, behind Mount Doom, the Eye scans the borders of Mordor, but its gaze is not exhaustive. Frodo and Sam slip under its searching glance to reach the Cracks of Doom. The Eye is distracted by the forces of Aragorn to the north. Nevertheless, as Frodo and Sam approach the Cracks, the Eye becomes strangely aware of the hobbits’ presence, and the dark land underneath trembles. Through the Eye, Sauron appears capable of directing his will toward the physical world in a stream of power. As with with other forms of evil in the novel, the extent of the Eye’s real power remains elusive. It provides a physical image for Sauron, but, at the same time, Sauron remains only a shapeless idea behind the Eye. The only thing we know definitely is that the Great Eye is constantly open and searching. The final moments of Mordor indicate that, just as Denethor believes everything Sauron shows him through the palantír, so Sauron believes everything the Great Eye sees occurring outside the Dark Tower.

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