Since the publications of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, a wealth of secondary literature has been published discussing the literary themes and archetypes present in the stories. Tolkien also wrote about the themes of his books in letters to friends, family and fans, and often within the books themselves. In his Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, 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 Good and Evil 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 King 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. These 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."
Still, while certainly revelling in antithetic themes and symbols, other readings point to Tolkien's tendency to aggrandise characters that fall outside of the more obvious, dualistic archetypes – particularly those commonly found in fantasy works. Writing in The Christian World of the Hobbit, for example, author Davin Brown cites Tolkien's belief in "the ennoblement of the ignoble", and goes on to link the importance of Tolkien's more unseeming characters with Jesus's words on "the meek" in the Sermon on the Mount. This is particularly clear in Tolkien's treatment of the rural Shire and its race of simple, complacent hobbits, who ultimately go on to defeat an evil whose more obvious counterparts were great wizards, kings, and the aforementioned kingdoms of good.
Likewise, though Tolkien's magic, immortal elves seem to act as an idealized version of a comparatively lowly humankind, their inability to accept change causes a "deep nostalgia for [an] edenic past", which in turn becomes their "great folly".
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 Silmarillion, 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, though they can be slain in battle or die by similar means; however, even when their bodies perish, their spirits travel to the Halls of Mandos in Aman, and eventually can be "reincarnated" into life. They are thus bound to the world, and can grow weary of it as they wane in prominence, watching the decline of their lands. 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 fear it as a result.
Across all of Tolkien's works, the desire to escape death is shown to lead to evil. The people of Númenor, though blessed with life longer than that of most humans, envy the immortals, and are persuaded in The Silmarillion to engage in Sauron's cult of human sacrifice. They later attempt to conquer the hallowed, "Undying Lands" of Aman from the Valar, leading to their destruction. Sauron's Rings of Power also promise immortality to Men, yet in the process turns them into Ringwraiths, undying but not truly living either.
The corruption of power and addiction
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, supposedly fearing the fact that it will ultimately create wicked desires within them. Inversely, the hobbits' complacency and lack of ambition appears to make them less susceptible to the Ring's promises of power, as is seen in Frodo and Sam, both of whom are able to handle the Ring for extended periods of time. It is of note that hobbits are not totally immune to the Ring's effects, however, as is seen most clearly in Frodo, Bilbo and, arguably, Gollum.
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 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 Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. Analyses have also characterised the Ring as addictive, with each use progressively increasing the hold the Ring has over its bearer. Bilbo, while possessing the Ring for some time, is able to give it away willingly, though with considerable difficulty. Later, when he encounters the Ring in Rivendell, he experiences longing to hold it again and nearly attacks his nephew. Frodo also shows features of addiction, ultimately being unable to relinquish the Ring of his own accord.
The possessiveness of the two hobbits is relatively mild compared to others in the epic. Boromir, for example, becomes murderously obsessed with the Ring, though he never possesses it. In the same vein, Sméagol kills his kin Déagol, the first Ring bearer after Isildur. Sméagol's addictive features become more pronounced as, over five centuries, he devolves into Gollum, showing traits ranging from withdrawal and isolation to suspicion and anger towards others, with his obsession eventually leading to his own demise.
Tolkien's criticism of technology has been observed by several authors. Anne 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 identified, for instance, in many aspects of the Saruman character. The chapter "The Scouring of the Shire" sees the industrial technology imported by Saruman's minions as an evil threat to replace the traditional crafts of the Shire hobbits, and was removed after his death. It is also of note that the Ents - "Shepherds of the Trees" - are instrumental in Saruman's downfall.
Courage in the face of overwhelming odds 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 know that they are doomed in their final battle for the world, but they and their allies go to fight anyway. This "northern courage" as he called it is seen in the fate of Frodo and Samwise, for example, who have little prospect of returning home from their mission to Mount Doom.
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, 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. Tolkien has commented on this theme in an essay on The Battle of Maldon.
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 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.
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.
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, that divine influence can determine fate. Gandalf says, for example, that a hidden power was at work when Bilbo found the One Ring as it was 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 (such as Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia series), 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)."
Mark Stucky sees this character as a symbol of the resurrection of Christ. "Moria", where Gandalf fell, is reminiscent of "Moriah", and Christian tradition holds that Mount Moriah, where Isaac was to be sacrificed to God, was the same hill as Mount Calvary, where Christ was crucified – and that the sacrifice of Isaac foreshadowed that of Christ. The fall of Gandalf, who fell to save his companions, thus parallels the crucifixion of Christ to save the human race. One of the most obvious Christian themes in Tolkien's writings is 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.
Like Jesus who carried his cross for the sins of mankind, Frodo carried a burden of evil on behalf of the whole world. Frodo walks his "Via Dolorosa" to Mount Doom just like Jesus who made his way to Golgotha. As Frodo approaches the Cracks of Doom the Ring becomes a crushing weight as the cross was for Jesus. Samwise Gamgee, Frodo's friend, parallels Simon of Cyrene, who carries Frodo up to Mount Doom - The same way Simon aids Jesus by picking up his cross to Golgotha. When Frodo accomplishes his mission, like Christ, he says "it is done". As Christ ascends to heaven, Frodo’s life in Middle-earth comes to an end when he departs to the Undying Lands.
The motif of hope is illustrated 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 fallen into despair or presumption. These latter traits have been identified as the two distinct sins "against the virtue of Hope". Aragorn is given the very name of "Hope" (Sindarin "Estel"), by which he is still affectionately called by his queen, who at the hour of his death cries out "Estel, Estel!".
Another Christian theme found in Tolkien's works of fantasy is the redemptive and penitential nature of suffering, apparent in the dreadful ordeal of Sam and Frodo in Mordor. As another example, Boromir atones for his assault on Frodo by single-handedly but vainly defending Merry and Pippin from orcs, which illustrates also another significant Christian theme: immortality of the soul and the importance of good intention, especially at the point of death. This is clear from Gandalf's statement: "But he [Boromir] escaped in the end.... It was not in vain that the young hobbits came with us, if only for Boromir's sake." The young hobbits thus prove useful (and their ordeal at the Orcs' hands worth enduring) since thereby one man who had given in to temptation can return to the good path and give his life, however ineffectively, for a good cause.
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