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The cast of
characters of The Lord of the Rings includes a
number of pairs of characters who act as foils, or doubles, for
each other. How is each character similar to, and different from,
his or her foil? How do these foils relate to the broader themes
Tolkien explores in his novel?
As the two human political rulers in The
Return of the King, King Théoden and Lord Denethor represent
obvious character doubles. Tolkien emphasizes their doubled nature
by alternating chapters devoted to Théoden and Denethor in Book
V. When we meet them, both rulers are destitute, brought down by
the influence of evil in their respective realms. Subsequently,
each leader is the cause of further deterioration in his respective
kingdom. Théoden, however, allows himself to be redeemed by Gandalf’s
counsel, whereas Denethor resists Gandalf’s offer of redemption
out of fear that the wizard wishes to infringe upon Denethor’s political
sovereignty in Minas Tirith. Both rulers leave their courts in order
to die. Théoden rides to Gondor to die fighting for the cause of
the West; Denethor commits suicide in the crypt of Gondor’s ancient
kings. Tolkien synchronizes their deaths, setting in relief the
different outcomes of their demises. Théoden and his Riders ensure
the survival of Gondor, and the king’s body is carried in a somber
procession from the battlefield. Denethor dies in self-pity, and
his body is consumed in flames.
In a more profound way, Frodo and Gollum function as doubles as
well, embodying the two opposite consequences of bearing the Ring.
Both are small, but Gollum is smaller—a shriveled, black, and dirty
version of a Hobbit. In one sense, they are opponents, united only
by Frodo’s mercy and forbearance. In another sense, Frodo and Gollum
are one and the same. Gollum represents Frodo’s id or inner self—the
portion of Frodo that yearns for the Ring. Frodo, when he rebukes
Gollum while ascending Mount Doom, appears to Sam as though dressed
in white, as if he has mastered his darker, blacker self. When Frodo
hesitates at the edge of the Cracks, he dons the Ring and disappears.
In the ensuing struggle, Gollum is the only visi-ble assailant,
symbolizing the brief victory of Frodo’s evil side. It is unclear
who is responsible for Gollum’s mistaken fall. What is apparent,
though, is that the inner spiritual and external physical threats
to Frodo’s goodness are difficult to distinguish, rendering the portrayal
of evil in The Lord of the Rings still more ambiguous.
What are some
of the physical symbols of evil in The Lord of the Rings?
What do these symbols suggest about the nature or reality of evil?
What is Tolkien’s view of evil?
In one sense, the physical symbols of evil
in The Lord of the Rings depict evil as an overwhelming
external physical force. At the opening of Book V, a thick blanket
of gloom spreads out over the land of Gondor. The Darkness, or Shadow
as it is often called, dulls the senses and makes the air stifling.
The effects are similar to those of the Ring as Frodo nears Mordor
and Mount Doom. Like a heavy magnet repelling its source, the Ring
drags Frodo down, exhausting him until he can no longer walk. Furthermore,
as Frodo and Sam approach the heart of Mordor, they increasingly
feel the presence of the Great Eye of Sauron, fixed atop the Dark
Tower where Sauron resides. The Eye conveys Sauron’s will. The strength
of Mordor’s forces and the damage that is wrought upon the physical
world all flow from the power source of the Eye.
In another sense, the physical symbols of evil seem to
derive their evil quality from those who perceive them. A “physical
symbol” cannot be entirely physical, as a symbol must possess a
lingering quality that suggests there is more to the object than
expected. The Darkness does not abate while Sauron rules; yet, as
a shadow, the Darkness is immaterial, without power, and only a
means of frightening onlookers such as Pippin. The Ring also manifests
a certain ambivalence in its nature. Frodo feels the Ring is a giant
weight, but Sam carries Frodo up Mount Doom with surprising ease,
indicating that the Ring itself does not actually exert a real force.
Evil is, in a way, a human creation, for while frightening or overwhelming events
occur in the physical world, individuals must interpret these events
and label them as evil. Tolkien, however, does not clarify this picture
of evil. The physical world and the mental life of Middle-earth’s
inhabitants play reciprocal roles in defining evil.
a realistic character? Why or why not?
In the third volume of The Lord of
the Rings, Aragorn’s character is inseparable from his
actions and their significance. His words are few, and his calculated
responses and decisions are rarely spontaneous. Aragorn’s character
is not realistic but idealistic—he embodies the moral principles,
motifs, and plot conventions of Tolkien’s text. The fact that Aragorn
fulfills ancient legends about the long-awaited kingdom of Gondor
does little to distinguish him as an individual, for Tolkien’s legends
are artificial, and we as readers have not been waiting long for
the King of Gondor to return. Even the title of the third volume
quashes Aragorn’s realism. The title, The Return of the
King, suggests that Aragorn’s fate is fixed from the beginning
of Book V.
Ironically, Tolkien’s more fantastic characters are the
ones who appear most convincingly real. Each character’s race determines
his or her personality and attitudes. Gimli is short and stout,
and, as a Dwarf, a cave-dweller. Caves and stone, indeed, are major
topics in Gimli’s conversations. Gimli suffers embarrassment because
he is the only member of Aragorn’s group who is crippled with fear
in the Paths of the Dead, despite the fact that dark trails and
passages are Gimli’s purported realm of comfort and expertise. Gimli’s
cowardice is rich and telling because it deviates so widely from
his typical characteristics. His inconsistencies and exposed weaknesses
deepen his character and make him more sympathetic. Aragorn, in
his neutral appearance and impeccable prudence, lacks the ability
to betray himself. Aragorn never exposes inner fears or a true self,
for his true self is the role he plays as a Christ figure and eventually
as King of Gondor.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Return of the King!