Themes of The Lord of the Rings
Since the publication of The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, a wealth of secondary literature has been published discussing the literary themes and archetypes present in the story. Tolkien also wrote about the themes of his book in letters to friends, family and fans, and also in the book itself. In his Foreword to the Second Edition, Tolkien said that he "disliked allegory in all its forms" (using the word applicability instead), and told those claiming the story was a metaphor for World War II to remember that he had lost "all but one" of his close friends in World War I.
"No careful reader of Tolkien's fiction can fail to be aware of the polarities that give it form and fiction," writes Verlyn Flieger. Tolkien's extensive use of duality and parallelism, contrast and opposition is found throughout the novel, in hope and despair, knowledge and enlightenment, death and immortality, fate and free will. One famous example is the often criticized polarity between Evil and Good in Tolkien. Orcs, the most maligned of races, are a corruption of the mystically exalted race of the Elves. Minas Morgul, the Tower of Sorcery, home of the Lord of the Nazgûl, the most corrupted Kings of Men, directly opposes Minas Tirith, the Tower of Guard and the capital of Gondor, the last visible remnant of the ancient kingdom of Men in the Third Age.
The antitheses, though pronounced and prolific, are sometimes seen to be too polarizing, but they have also been argued to be at the heart of the structure of the entire story. Tolkien's technique has been seen to "confer literality on what would in the primary world be called metaphor and then to illustrate [in his secondary world] the process by which the literal becomes metaphoric."
Death and immortality
Tolkien wrote about The Lord of the Rings and death in his Letters:
- "But I should say, if asked, the tale is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness. Which is hardly more than to say it is a tale written by a Man!" (Letter 203, 1957)
- "It is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality; and the 'escapes': serial longevity, and hoarding memory." (Letter 211, 1958)
Throughout the story, death is referred to as the "gift (and doom) of Man," given by Ilúvatar (God), while immortality is the gift given to the Elves. The Elves never die of old age and are resistant to disease and such, though they can be slain in battle or die by similar means; however, even when they die they only go to the Halls of Mandos in Aman, and eventually can be "reincarnated" into life. As such they are bound to the world, and as a result they wane in prominence, and can grow weary of the world and wish to escape it. In contrast, Tolkien leaves the fate of Men uncertain. This leads to some form of fear for Men, who do not understand what truly happens at death and thus fear it as a result.
Throughout The Lord of the Rings (and related Middle-earth works), humanity dealing with death is prominent. The desire to escape death is shown to lead to evil—the Rings of Power promising immortality to Men, yet in the process turned them into Ringwraiths, undying but not truly living either. The people of Númenor, though blessed with life longer than that of most humans, envy the immortals and try to conquer Aman from the Valar, leading to the destruction of the land. The Elves, too, struggle with their lot, and their immortality shows them watching the decline of their lands and world.
Loss and farewell
From the beginning of Tolkien's mythos, there has been a consistent theme of great beauty and joy failing and disappearing before the passage of time and the onslaught of the powers of evil. Fëanor, prince of the Noldor, first loses his father and then his greatest creations, the Silmarils, through the machinations of the evil Morgoth. By his fault Elven blood is for the first time spilled on the ground of Eldamar and the Noldor give away both their home and their innocence. Mandos, the Doomsayer himself, proclaims judgement over the Noldor and reveals to them that none of them shall find peace or rest until their oath has been fulfilled or their souls come to the House of Spirits.
Finally, in one of the appendices to The Return of the King, after more than two hundred years of life Aragorn dies in his deathbed, leaving behind a lonely and now-mortal Arwen, who travels to what is left of Lothlórien to herself die on a flat stone next to the river Nimrodel, having returned to one of the few places of true happiness she knew in her life.
Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was not to be seen as a parallel to World War II and that the key chapter had been written long before 1939. He wrote however in the preface to The Fellowship of the Ring that witnessing the onset of World War I in 1914 was "no less hideous an experience" than being involved in the second great war of 1939, and mentions that he had lost all but one of his close friends by 1918.
Power and temptation
The theme of power in The Lord of the Rings centres around the corrupting influence of the One Ring. This theme is discussed at length by Tom Shippey in chapter III of J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. In this chapter, titled, "The Lord of the Rings (2): Concepts of Evil" (pp 112–160), Shippey notes that what lies at the heart of the story is the assertions made by Gandalf about the power and influence of the One Ring, and the corrupting influence it has on its bearers. Gandalf rejects the Ring after Frodo offers it to him, and this view of the nature of the Ring is reinforced as Elrond, Galadriel, Aragorn and Faramir in their turn, also reject the Ring. This is, according to Shippey, a very modern, 20th-century theme, since in earlier, medieval times, power was considered to "reveal character", not alter it. Shippey mentions Lord Acton's famous statement in 1887, that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men..." He then goes on to point out authors that were dealing in the same themes of power and corruption at around the same time as Tolkien wrote his work. These authors include George Orwell with Animal Farm (1945), William Golding with Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Inheritors (1955), and T. H. White with The Once and Future King (1958).
Shippey's critics have argued that the theme of power's ability to alter one's character is not limited to the 20th century, pointing to the use of the "ring" as a symbol of power in much older works such as those of Plato in the 4th century BCE. In The Republic, Glaucon argues that doing justice to others is never to one's benefit; he cites the mythical Ring of Gyges, a ring which could make any man who wore it invisible and thus able to get away with any theft or other crime. Glaucon claims that such power would corrupt any man, and that therefore no man truly believes that acting justly toward others is good for him.
Critics of Tolkien's use of this theme include Colin Manlove, who addresses the theme in his book Modern Fantasy (1975). Manlove points out that Tolkien is not consistent in his attitude towards power, for there are exceptions to the supposedly overwhelming influence of the Ring. The Ring can be handed over relatively easily (Sam and Bilbo), and removing the Ring by force (Gollum to Frodo) does not, despite Gandalf's assertion at the beginning of the story, break Frodo's mind. The Ring also appears to have little effect on characters such as Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli.
Shippey counters Manlove's assessment by characterising the use of the Ring as addictive, with successive uses increasing the hold the Ring had over its bearers. Those who are not susceptible to the addiction would not be affected. It has also observed, that while the ringbearers may become "obsessed and possessive of it to the point of insanity", not all characters are equally subject to this addiction. E.g. Bilbo, while holding and using the Ring for a long time, is able to give it away while Boromir becomes obsessed of the Ring although he never possessed it.
The influence of the One Ring has also been compared to drug addiction. An "inner addiction" to the Ring has been attributed to Gollum, and he shows many traits of an addict like withdrawing himself and becoming suspicious and angry at anyone. But also Bilbo and Frodo have been found to exhibit signs of an essential addiction to the One Ring.
Tolkien's criticism of technology has been observed by several authors. Pienciak notes that technology is only employed by the forces of evil in Tolkien's works and that he found it to be one of "the evils of the modern world: ugliness, depersonalization, and the separation of man from nature." Examples of this technophobia have been indemnified in the palantíri, the seeing stones, and in the last chapter "The Scouring of the Shire". Initially built by the elves as a good-natured means of communication, the Palantíri have been turned into instruments of evil by Sauron, and whatever industrial technology was imported by Saruman's minions to replace the traditional crafts of the Shire hobbits was seen as an evil threat and eventually removed after his downfall.
Courage in the face of certain defeat is a recurring theme in Tolkien's literature. As he wrote in The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien was inspired by the apocalyptical Norse legend of Ragnarök where the gods are doomed in their final battle for the world but they and their allies do not mind their death. This "northern courage" as he called it is seen in the fate of Frodo and Samwise who have little prospect of returning home from their mission to Mount Doom and in Aragorn's decision to march to the Black Gate to divert Sauron's forces from the two Hobbits.
Another kind of courage was defined by Tolkien in the difference between humility and the arrogant desire for glory. While Sam follows Frodo out of loyalty and would die for him, a trait that Tolkien has praised in an essay on The Battle of Maldon, characters like Boromir are driven by pride and would risk the lives of others for their personal glory. Likewise the rejecting of the ring by Sam, Faramir, and Galadriel can be seen as a courageous rejection of power and glory and of the personal renown that defeating Sauron would have brought about.
Fate and Free Will
Gandalf in one scene discusses the possibility that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and that Gollum has an important part to play, the clearest testament to the role of fate in The Lord of the Rings. Beyond Gandalf's words, the story is structured in such a way that past decisions have a critical influence on current events. For instance, because Bilbo and Frodo spared Gollum, Gollum was able to destroy the Ring by falling into the Crack of Doom while Frodo failed to destroy it. Thus Frodo, who is overpowered by the evil Ring, is saved by coincidence.
The role of fate in The Lord of the Rings is contrasted sharply with the prominent role also given to choice and free will. Frodo's voluntary choice to bear the Ring to Mordor is seen to be an act central to the plot of the whole story. Also important is Frodo's willing offer of the Ring to Gandalf, Aragorn, and Galadriel, and their willing refusal of it, not to mention Frodo's final inability to summon the will to destroy it. Thus, free will as well as fate is seen to be a constant theme throughout the story: from Sam's vision of old Gaffer Gamgee's wheelbarrow and the Scouring of the Shire in the Mirror of Galadriel, to Arwen Evenstar's choice of mortality.
Professor Peter J. Kreeft identifies a theme of divine providence. This is hinted at when Gandalf says that a hidden power was at work when Bilbo found the ring, attempting to return to its master.
While Prof. Kreeft observes that there is no one complete, concrete, visible Christ figure in The Lord of the Rings, like Aslan he and author Jean Chausse have identified reflections of the figure of Jesus Christ in three main characters of The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf, Frodo and Aragorn. While Chausse found "facets of the personality of Jesus" in them, Kreeft wrote that "they exemplify the Old Testament threefold Messianic symbolism of prophet (Gandalf), priest (Frodo), and king (Aragorn)." The interpretation of Gandalf as a prophet is shared by Mark Stucky, who also sees this character as a symbol of the resurrection of Christ.
One of the most obvious Christian themes in Tolkien's writings is, of course, the resurrection of Gandalf, who had to sacrifice everything-even his years of plans, efforts, and his very hopes that the Dark Lord might be defeated-in order to secure the safety of the Fellowship.
Also the motif of hope can be found in Aragorn's successful handling of Saruman's palantír. Only Aragorn as the heir of Isildur can rightfully use the seeing stone while Saruman and Denethor, who have both also made extensive use of a palantír, have become despaired or presumptive. These latter traits have been identified as one of the traditional sins "against the virtue of Hope."
Other Christian themes found throughout Tolkien's works of fantasy include the doctrines of monotheism and divine providence, and the redemptive and penitential nature of suffering (cf. Boromir's atoning for his assault on Frodo by singlehandedly but vainly defending Merry and Pippin from orcs, or the dreadful ordeal of Sam and Frodo in Mordor).
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