The Return of the King

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

Symbols

Main ideas Symbols
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.