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.”