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.