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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Fellowship of the Ring!