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.
Friendship was a theme of The Lord of the Rings and was something that Tolkien was very influenced by. A Fellowship is created, consisting of all the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, including elves and dwarves, setting aside their differences against the common enemy of Sauron. Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer, makes a huge sacrifice in saving Middle-earth from evil, as the One Ring takes its toll on him.
Aragorn decides to make a suicidal bid for Frodo by taking the armies of Rohan and Gondor to the Black Gate at the final battle of The Return of the King. Samwise Gamgee is always loyal to his master and friend, Frodo, even as they journey through Mordor.
Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn: Priest, Prophet, King
In fact, Frodo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey, and Aragorn each in a remote way embody one of the three aspects of Jesus Christ's ministry as priest, prophet, and king. Each also undergoes a kind of sacrificial "death" and rebirth.
The priestly role belongs to Frodo, and he is the sacrificial lamb of Middle-earth who bears a burden of terrible evil on behalf of the whole world, like Christ carrying his cross. Frodo's Via Dolorosa (or way of sorrows) is at the very heart of Tolkien’s story, just as the crucifixion narratives are at the heart of the gospels accounts. As Christ descended into the grave, Frodo journeys into Mordor, the Land of Death, and there suffers a deathlike state in the lair of the giant spider Shelob before awakening to complete his task. And, as Christ ascended into heaven, Frodo’s life in Middle-earth comes to an end when he departs over the sea into the mythical West with the Elves, which is as much to say, into paradise. Frodo walks his Via Dolorosa or "way of sorrows" to Mount Doom like Jesus making his way to Calvary. As Jesus bore the sins of mankind, Frodo bears a great burden of evil on behalf of the world, and as he approaches the Cracks of Doom the Ring becomes as much a crushing weight as the wood of the cross.
Frodo, the Ring Bearer, is Christ the Sin Bearer. He carries the burden of the Ring as Christ carried the burden of sin. He too is a living sacrifice. Frodo's wound on Weathertop is a figurative of Christ's spear wound on the Cross. Note that the wound on Weathertop is inflicted by the Witch-king, another Satan figure. Frodo's voyage to the west, like Gandalf's, is also symbolic of the Ascension. It doesn't take a biblical scholar to feel some similarity between Frodo's struggle to carry the Ring up Mount Doom and Christ's struggle to carry his cross to Calvary. By the time Frodo reaches Mount Doom, he is so weighed down by the power of the Ring and despair over its destruction that Sam carries him and the Ring up the path to the Crack of Doom — shades of Simon of Cyrene bearing Jesus' cross to Golgotha. Any parallel, intentional or not, between Frodo and Christ ends when Gollum attacks Frodo on the path in their second-to-last encounter. Gollum's effort to wrest the Ring from him re-ignites Frodo's will, showing how stern and powerful he has become under the Ring's influence. In prophetic and commanding words, Frodo fends off Gollum, warning that if he ever touches him again, he will be cast into the Fire of Doom. Unlike Christ, who at the height of his trial on the cross submits his will to God's and commends his spirit into His hands, Frodo, at the climax of his ordeal with the Ring, exerts his own will first by choosing not to complete the quest, saying, "I will not do this deed." With this declaration of will, Frodo claims the One Ring as his own and puts it on to openly reveal himself to the Eye of Sauron. One can only surmise that at that point Frodo is prepared to directly challenge the Dark Lord for the title of Lord of the Ring.
The idea that Frodo could best Sauron in a contest of evil, even wearing the Ring, is hard to believe. More likely than not, the Ring is simply using Frodo to get back to its master by revealing its whereabouts. The great irony of this situation is that the moment Frodo feels as though he's finally mastered the Ring by claiming it and deciding against its destruction is precisely when the Ring takes completely mastery of him and turns his will into its will. Frodo's failure at Mount Doom is the polar opposite of Christ's victory on the cross, wherein Christ masters his suffering and death by submitting his will to this fate. When Jesus died, an earthquake occurred and did destroy things, same as Frodo, when he destroyed the ring; all the lands in Mordor did shake then finally destroyed including Mount Doom and the Eye of Sauron.
Samwise Gamgee is representative of Christ the servant. He is the "friend that sticks closer than a brother". He makes himself a living sacrifice as he aids Frodo. He is the meek one who inherits the earth (in this case, the Shire).
Gandalf is representative of the prophet, revealing hidden knowledge, working wonders, teaching others the way. Evoking the saving death and resurrection of Christ, Gandalf does battle with the powers of hell to save his friends, sacrificing himself and descending into the nether regions before being triumphantly reborn in greater power and glory as Gandalf the White. As with Frodo, Gandalf's sojourn in Middle-earth ends with his final voyage over the sea into the West.
The One Ring is a symbol of sin. It is the Forbidden Fruit that everyone wants; the "Precious" thing that no one who has it wants to give up, yet it enslaves and destroys anyone who has it. It is no coincidence that the Ring was made by Sauron, the main Satan figure. The Bible tells that sin began in Satan. The Hebrew word usually translated "found" in Ezekiel 28:15, "Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee", can mean "began" or "was made". Though Sauron made the Ring, he himself lost control of it, and in the end, it indirectly destroys him, just as sin will indirectly destroy Satan.
Lastly, Aragorn is a crownless man of the wilderness destined to be king. Besides being a messianic king of prophecy, Aragorn also dimly reflects the saving work of Christ by walking the Paths of the Dead and offering peace to the spirits there imprisoned, anticipating in a way the Harrowing of Hell. (The oath-breaking spirits Aragorn encounters on the Paths of the Dead, who cannot rest in peace until they expiate their treason, suggest a kind of purgatorial state.)
Alternate reality and Myths
In Tolkien's legendarium, Middle-earth is depicted as the world before humans. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, "The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." As Tolkien is a Catholic, he believed that he should not create a completely alternate reality. By design The Lord of the Rings is not a Christian allegory but rather an invented myth about Christian and Catholic truths. In this way, he created a world without being disrespectful to his own beliefs as a Catholic and as a person.
To Tolkien, myths are true because they are part of our God-created imagination, and because they bring us "such joy [that] has the very taste of primary truth." To Tolkien the story of Jesus Christ is a "true myth." He intended his stories to be told as myths of the events that took place before human history. When Tolkien shared this concept with C.S. Lewis during an afternoon walk, Lewis felt "a rush of wind that came so suddenly," and within days proclaimed his belief in Christ, becoming one of Christianity's most effective apologists. (See also Tolkien's essay, On Fairy-Stories.)
Frodo spares Gollum, thus fulfilling the Quest in the long run. Gandalf, Théoden and Aragorn also do not wish to kill Gríma, despite betraying Rohan safety, insofar as they allowed him to flee back to Saruman. Even when they encounter him again, after Isengard's defeat, they spare him.
The One Ring is an object of power and desire, tempting all who wield it. Isildur, Gollum, the Nazgûl, Boromir and Saruman are all characters who fall to the temptation of power that Sauron offers. Characters like Isildur and Boromir have good intentions with the power but are nevertheless corrupted by it.
The Ring itself is symbolic of the devil's third temptation of Christ. "If you bow to me, I will give you dominion over all you see." All other Rings, aside from the elf rings, pertain to this idea, and the One Ring, still makes the wearer a near-helpless victim to its corruption.
Death and immortality
Death is prominent, with the Rings of Power promising immortality to Men, yet eventually sucking away their lives.
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)
Fathers and sons
Frodo and Aragorn are orphans, yet raised by figures like Gandalf, Bilbo and Elrond. Théoden is pushed into action following the death of his son, and Denethor is blinded by the death of Boromir whilst Faramir defends Gondor from the coming onslaught.
War was something Tolkien knew well and felt strongly about, considering he lost many friends in the trenches of World War I. War is shown as a necessary defence with huge costs in his story, and many characters look forward to the return of the King of Gondor and Arnor, which will herald the Fourth Age of peace.
Nature versus technology
Tolkien allegedly loved the beauty of nature. The villains in the story are often described as mechanical with Saruman having "a mind like metal and wheels". His destruction of Fangorn Forest shocks Treebeard and other Ents into action. The Elves of Lórien live amongst enormous, ancient trees. Through the continued reference of industry and war as synonymous, especially in relation to Saruman and the production of his Uruk-hai army, Tolkien presents a very negative image of industry and technological advancement "we will drive the industry of war". This is expressed throughout the trilogy. When looking into Galadriel's mirror Frodo witnesses a polluted world of industry and factories, adding to the negative view expressed towards industry and technology.
Tolkien scholar Patrick Curry refers to this technological advancement as "modernity", and Peter Kreeft as "technologism".
The Hobbits are small simple creatures who don't like to go out for adventures. The Shire is an idyllic place of peace that the Hobbits such as Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin journey out of into the dangers of the war.
The story can be seen as a coming of age story: at the start, the hobbits are like 'babes in the wood', and have to be rescued by Tom Bombadil both from Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wights. Through their journeys around Middle-earth they grow up (sometimes literally due to the Ent-draughts ). The culmination of the growing up process is in the Scouring of the Shire, when the hobbits defeat Saruman and his forces without the help of elves or men.
Gandalf in one scene discusses the possibility that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and that Gollum has an important part to play. Much of the story goes the way it does because of events or decisions influencing other events, such as Gollum destroying the Ring, at length due to Bilbo and Frodo sparing him in the first place, and the Witch-king being weakened and ultimately killed due to Merry's barrow-blade, which was enchanted with spells against him long ago.
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. In The Silmarillion, Melkor uses his powers first to destroy the works of his fellow Valar and as this ultimately fails he uses his ally Ungoliant to destroy the Two Trees that gave the blessed land of Aman its light.
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 judgment 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.
Over the course of Middle-earth history, great countries are created but are doomed to fail, before the eyes of the immortal elves who have to learn that nothing good will ever last to them. Gondolin and Nargothrond as well as Khazad-dûm and Númenor ultimately are destroyed or deserted, either through the intervention of evil from the outside or by the growing evil within.
At the end of The Lord of the Rings, most of the Elves have left Middle-earth, taking with them all their wonders and the beauty they have created. Lothlórien withers as the protecting powers of Galadriel and her ring Nenya leave for the Undying Lands. Frodo has returned to the Shire, but because of the injury ,he sustained at Weathertop he cannot ever live there peacefully and free of pain. He finally leaves for the Undying Lands himself.
Finally, in one of the appendices to The Return of the King, after nearly 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.
- The world was fair, the mountains tall,
- In Elder Days before the fall.
- Of mighty kings of Nargothrond
- And Gondolin, who now beyond
- The Western Seas have passed away;
- The world was fair in Durin's Day.
- The world is grey, the mountains old,
- The forge's fire is ashen cold;
- No harp is wrung, no hammer falls,
- The darkness dwells in Durin's halls;
- The shadow lies upon his tomb
- In Moria, in Khazad-dûm.