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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 Decay of Civilization

The world that the members of the Fellowship glimpse on their wanderings through Rohan, Isengard, Entwash, and Mordor is not a happy one. Everywhere the Fellowship goes, it finds evidence of how the civilized world has fallen from a peaceful and noble earlier state into a present degradation threatened by warlords and general bleakness. Isengard and Gondor are both described as formerly beautiful realms, once full of orchards and blossoming gardens, that have deteriorated into desolate and barren places that smell terrible and are littered with poison pits. It is not merely the landscape, however, that has disintegrated. Moral and noble ideals have fallen away as well. Earlier norms of hospitality toward strangers have been abandoned because of the new dangers of the modern age, as Éomer notes when he refers to the “dark times” as an explanation for why he cannot treat the hobbits with customary courtesy. Stopping the onslaught of Sauron is, therefore, much more than merely thwarting an enemy: it is also saving an entire civilization from a slow slide into chaos.

The Value of Fellowship

Fellowship is mentioned often in The Lord of the Rings, not merely because the group of freedom fighters struggling to destroy the Ring calls itself the Fellowship of the Ring. The Fellowship, in a sense, is the collective protagonist of Tolkien’s novel, a group representing all the free races and realms of Middle-earth in the struggle against the evil of Mordor. Fellowship is an important ideal for these characters, standing for a sense of camaraderie that depends on mutual support, cooperation, and solidarity in which no single member is considered more essential than any other. Even Gandalf, though the unofficial leader of the Fellowship, does not order around or act superior to the others. He is clearly far more powerful than any of the others, but still he needs them, and therefore treats them all with respect—referring even to low-rankers like Merry and Pippin by their full honorific names. There is also a mutual kindness that unites the members of the Fellowship, as we see when Pippin gives Gimli his precious pipe simply out of a desire to make the dwarf happy. It is this sensitivity toward others that the villains of the novel—all of them egomaniacs—noticeably lack.


When Aragorn and his group finally reach Isengard and penetrate Saruman’s stronghold of Orthanc, they are surprised to find Merry and Pippin casually lying by the gates, smoking and chatting. From this memorable scene, we get an impression of the hobbits as easygoing and fun-loving creatures who do not thrive on the hardship and struggle that the mission of Ring-bearing entails. They would clearly prefer to be sitting on a hillside, quietly passing the time.

But this does not make the hobbits appear inferior to the task assigned them, nor does it diminish our respect for them in the novel. On the contrary, it heightens our respect, as it reminds us how deeply they have resisted their natural tendencies in taking on the weighty mission entrusted to them. Sometimes Frodo needs to pause in the journey—as on the endless steps of Cirith Ungol—but only because he is exhausted, never because he simply wishes to dawdle. His urgent desire to reach his goal becomes stronger as he nears the destination. When Gollum tells Frodo there is no way into Mordor, Frodo insists bluntly that he must enter the kingdom, and his intensity is impressive. However easygoing the hobbits may be naturally, the quest to return the Ring brings out a self-disciplined and unwavering determination in them, and we never once see them question the necessity of fulfilling their duty.


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

Many songs are sung in The Two Towers, and Tolkien nearly always provides us with the complete lyrics, set off in italics from the rest of the text. Songs are clearly very important in Tolkien’s novel. It is not enough for us simply to be told that a character sings about something; the author must tell us exactly what words are being sung. As a scholar of early cultures, Tolkien was aware that, before the advent of published books and the spread of literacy, culture and religion were largely kept alive through the singing of songs—not merely for entertainment, but to preserve the very memory of a culture. We find songs fulfilling such a function in The Two Towers, as when Fangorn sings about his childhood at the dawn of the world, preserving memories far older than any other living creature. Songs also have an emotional impact that stirs characters to action, as when Aragorn sings about Gondor in Book III, Chapter 2, concluding with the appeal to the others, “Let us go!” For Tolkien, songs represent everything noble and good about ancient cultural traditions.

The Natural World

In a sense, it is unavoidable that a fantasy novel set in ancient times, involving much wandering over meadows and mountains, focuses significant attention on the natural environment. Indeed, The Two Towers is full of forests, fields, pools, mountains, gorges, and caves—a loving attention to natural scenery that made Tolkien a favorite writer of the back-to-nature activists of the 1960s. Yet nature in The Lord of the Rings is more meaningful than merely a scenic backdrop to the plot. The state of nature closely mirrors the state of the world, reflecting the time of crisis leading to the War of the Ring.

In this regard, Tolkien borrows ideas from Romantic poetry, most notably the idea that the external world often reflects the minds of men. Where conditions are bad and conflict imminent, nature itself suffers visible scars. In Saruman’s corrupt realm of Isengard, for instance, the landscape itself has become corrupted: the realm is barren and desolate where it once blossomed with greenery. Similarly, the land of Mordor has become sterile with the presence of Sauron’s evil. Nature is a moral barometer measuring good and evil throughout Middle-earth, and is therefore a moral force itself, as we feel when we witness the trees of Entwash marching off to fight the evil Saruman. Even the very trees in the forest are part of the vast moral struggle taking place in Middle-earth.


One of the bleaker aspects of The Lord of the Rings is the omnipresent aura of suspicion. Such suspicion surfaces frequently enough to give many characters (and us as readers) a gnawing sense of distrust toward others, even those we think we know well. The Two Towers opens with the death of Boromir, an ally-turned-traitor whose example reminds the members of the Fellowship that even vows of solidarity cannot guarantee lasting commitment to their cause; even a trusted colleague is open to suspicion. This ominous atmosphere of suspicion haunts The Two Towers. It is reaffirmed when strangers like Éomer and Théoden bluntly inform the travelers that, in dark times like these, no one is above suspicion, and all guests must be considered potential enemies. The final betrayal by Gollum carries this lesson home with tragic force.

However, it is clear that the current pall of suspicion cast over Middle-earth is due to the malevolent activities of Sauron. Therefore, there is hope that if the Dark Lord is defeated, trust will return to the world. This possibility makes it crucial that the members of the Fellowship continue to trust one another, despite the treachery of Boromir. When we see Gandalf return with Éomer to reinforce the Fellowship’s forces at the storming of the Hornburg, we are pleased not just because the side of good triumphs, but also because we confirm that Gandalf is trustworthy—a far cry from the corrupted Saruman. We are left with the hope that a final victory of the Fellowship will reaffirm that trust is still a reliable presence in the world and will make suspicion no longer necessary.


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

The title The Two Towers refers to Barad-dûr and Orthanc, Sauron’s stronghold in Mordor and Saruman’s citadel in Isengard, respectively. These two towers can be seen as a physical embodiment of the two visions of evil that Tolkien explores throughout The Lord of the Rings. In the novel, we see a number of examples of evil as an external, elemental force that exists independent of and outside the human mind; however, we also see instances of corruption and perversion, in which evil is an internal force that humans create.

Sauron exemplifies the former notion, the vision of evil as an essential force that simply exists as part of the universe. The Dark Lord’s evil physically spreads out over the land of Mordor and, later, over the rest of Middle-earth as well. Tolkien never implies that Sauron was once a good being who merely became perverted to the side of evil—the Dark Lord is evil by his very nature. The wizard Saruman, on the other hand, represents the latter vision of evil. He was once a figure of good, the leader of Gandalf’s order. Saruman was not born evil; rather, he has become corrupt out of arrogance and ambition.

The two towers in which these villains reside mirror the respective natures of their owners’ evils. Barad-dûr has always been evil; Sauron built it himself and has used it for no other purpose than as a refuge from which to use his Great Eye to watch and pervert Middle-earth. Orthanc, on the other hand, existed long before Saruman. We learn that Orthanc was constructed by the ancient lords of Gondor; as the narrator states, with a note of elegy, “long had it been beautiful.” It was only when Saruman “slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes” that Orthanc became a place of corruption, mirroring its new master. Ironically, though Saruman believes he has improved the tower by using it as the citadel of his ambition, the narrator tells us that Orthanc “was naught, only a little copy, a child’s model or a slave’s flattery . . . of Barad-dûr.” Tolkien implies that human evil, though at times powerful, arises merely from illusion and self-deception, and is much more easily defeated than inherent or elemental evil. Indeed, as we see, Saruman’s defeat is an easy one, requiring only a rebuke by Gandalf and a misstep by Wormtongue. The defeat of Sauron, on the other hand, can only be accomplished by destroying the Ring—a monumental task.

The Palantír

The palantíri are seven ancient seeing-stones, crystal globes that show visions and communicate information to Sauron. Gandalf, upon discovering that Saruman owns a palantír, understands for the first time how communication occurs between the various evil parties in Middle-earth. In this sense, the palantír symbolizes a network of wickedness that mirrors the Fellowship, which is in effect a network of good. The palantír is a tangible symbol of the conspiracy of malevolence that Gandalf and the Fellowship are fighting. On a deeper level, the palantír also symbolizes the distinction Tolkien draws between knowledge and wisdom—the palantír offers knowledge and a glimpse of the future to those who look into it, but this knowledge comes at the price of direct communication with Sauron, the embodiment of evil in Middle-earth.

When Gandalf utterly breaks Saruman’s power, Wormtongue, the corrupt wizard’s servant, flies into a fit of madness and rage, throwing the palantír out of the window of Orthanc. Wormtongue does not know how valuable the magic globe is to Saruman, who moans at the loss. In this regard, the palantír symbolizes the dangers of rashness and rage, the loss of one’s self-control to base emotions. Similarly, when Pippin takes the palantír from under Gandalf’s cloak in order to peer into it, the hobbit too succumbs to the pull of curiosity, thereby committing a misdeed and earning a stern reprimand from Gandalf. In this sense, the palantír is not only a physical symbol of evil in The Lord of the Rings, but also a symbol of the moral failings and the potential for corruption in all of the characters.

Pippin’s Pipe

Soon after his reunion with Aragorn, Legolas, and Pippin following the Orc battle, Gimli expresses a yearning for a good smoke. Pippin remembers that he has a spare pipe that he has been carrying with him throughout his travels. It is clearly of great personal value to the hobbit: he calls it a treasure, “as precious as Rings to me.” Yet Pippin offers this pipe to Gimli, who says that he is deep in the hobbit’s debt for such a gift. This little pipe is much more than just a trinket given by one friend to another; it is, rather, a symbol of the mutual caring that binds the Fellowship together. Gimli’s desire for a pipe is no matter of life and death, which makes Pippin’s eagerness to please the dwarf all the more endearing. Pippin simply wants his friends to be as happy and comfortable as possible, especially in light of the burden of the quest. In this regard, Pippin’s pipe symbolizes the very best aspect of the Fellowship, the bond that gives its members strength and may help them prevail in the end.

The Dead Marshes

As Frodo and Sam make their way to Mordor, Gollum leads them through an unpleasant region known as the Dead Marshes. As they pass through the swampland, Sam is deeply disturbed to see flickering lights in the corner of his eye, images of faces that come and go fleetingly. Frodo says that he sees the lights and faces as well. Gollum informs the hobbits that the lights are the “candles of corpses”; he tells them not to look, so as not to be seduced into following the lights. The corpses to which Gollum refers are the bodies of slain warriors—Orc, Man, and Elf—who died in a battle on the site long before.

In this sense, the Dead Marshes are a physical reminder of the way in which the present is bound to the past in the world of The Lord of the Rings. The past constantly haunts the present in the novel, whether in the form of powerful traditions, ancient songs, prophecies, or memories of those who died long ago. Moreover, the union of former enemies in death—Orcs and Men fight each other in life, but join each other in death—suggests the deep unity of creation that often goes forgotten or ignored in the world of the living. The differences and divisions that lead to war are flimsy and meaningless compared to the everlasting togetherness of death.

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Trying to trip up the lazy, or is it a mistake?

by CBCoulter, July 11, 2012

In the Sparknotes guide to The Lord of the Rings, on page 186 in the Character List for The Return of the King, Eomer is mis-identified as Theodan's son and heir. This is incorrect; Eomer is Theodan's nephew. Theodred was Theodan's son, and he was killed by Orcs, making Eomer, next in line for the throne, the new heir.

Is this error put in to trip up folks who aren't going to read the book, or is it a serious editing oversight?


10 out of 11 people found this helpful

correction to summary

by tew1988, December 18, 2013

the plot summary says the hobbits meet an ent named Fangorn. Fangorn is the name of the forest, Treebeard is the name of the ent.


4 out of 13 people found this helpful

Lacks attention to detail

by prancingpony2014, January 11, 2014

I've been reading through the series for the first time and using SparkNotes after each volume to help me process some of the larger literary elements I might otherwise miss. The SparkNote for FotR was very good, but this volume has many factual errors that make it distracting. Among these are: 1) the Orcs who capture Merry and Pippin heard a *rumor* about them possessing *something*, not a prophecy about them having the One Ring; 2) Gimli does not see a vision of Saruman, but all three see the figure in the woods with their own eyes and Ara... Read more


38 out of 39 people found this helpful

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