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Themes in The Lord of the Rings

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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, settling 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.

Christ FiguresEdit

Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn: Priest, Prophet, KingEdit

In fact, Frodo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey, and Aragorn each in a remote way embody one of the three aspects of 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 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 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 us 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.

Finally, there is Aragorn, the crownless 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.)

Alternative Perspective: Selfishness (Vice) vs. Self-Sacrifice (Virtue)Edit

The overlay of religious allegory on a mythic story which itself expresses a fundamental "truth" through the use of allegory is interesting, but hardly clarifying; for one must then struggle with dogmatic words such as "sin," "satan," and "evil," to name but a few. Yet if we remove the dogma, what must remain is a clearer, more "perfect" light to see with. Let's examine the main theme presented in Lord of the Rings through an alternative "spiritual/psychological-based" perspective, without the biased colouration of religious dogma.

The most notable and striking theme presented in Lord of the Rings is that of Frodo as Cross Bearer or Burden Bearer. A clue to the nature of this burden is given to us by Lady Galadriel, when she comes to Frodo in his most difficult hour, as he approached Mt. Doom, alone, without Sam for support, and without remaining strength to continue. She says to him: If you cannot accomplish this task, then no one can (to paraphrase). The result is that Frodo's willingness to give in to Selfishness (i.e. to die in order to end the suffering and to fail in his mission thereby dooming Middle Earth) is overcome, as he once again adopts the heroic mantle of Self-Sacrifice (to save Middle Earth at great cost to himself). His own fears had forced him to reject Sam, and in so doing almost lead to his own destruction. Lesson: selfishness is self-destructive. Why? The answer lies in understanding human (and hobbit) nature.

The separate or selfish-self (as opposed to the self-sacrificing, loving-self, is one-half of the dual nature of man and hobbits), and is motivated primarily by the pleasure/pain principle; seek out pleasure, avoid pain. Paradoxically, the need for pleasure arises out of the suffering caused by being in that very state. When your motivations are strictly self-serving, you alienate yourself from others and the world which in truth, you are a real part of (physically and spiritually). So by adopting a false sense of reality, the tension to hold that non-sustainable state creates suffering. The pursuit of pleasure is the only strategy the separate mind can conceive of, and so it becomes the ruling agenda. The quest for pleasure is never ending, and ultimately never satisfying. The Ring is a personification, not of evil (for what is evil?), but of this illusion of Separation, and the promise of an end to suffering (through the Power to overcome it—somehow). It is the root of all psychological disorders, and what drove Gollum mad. This is why Sauron fails in the end to rule Middle-earth—because his "power" is based on falsehood and illusion. The real power is love, compassion, and self-sacrifice chosen out of free will. This is the deep and profound message that ultimately comes out of this epic tale.

What defines a character as a hero in this story is their willingness to serve the greater good, not themselves, and certainly not that ignorant, ever-present part of us that thinks it is separate. This is the ageless theme found in all mythic stories of struggle: good vs evil; heart vs head; light vs dark. What we are really talking about is one's ability to rise above the path of least resistance, to be a role-model, a teacher, to set an example for the rest of us who are trapped in the unconscious routine of "burden-bearing" without really understanding it. Are we willing to pay the price it costs to show the way? Do we have what it takes? This is why Galadriel says to Frodo, that if he cannot find a way (hobbits being stronger and more capable of bearing this burden), what hope is there for the rest of the world? In the end, the outcome rests on Frodo's choice. This is the pivotal role of free will. However, in keeping with the epic proportions of all good mythic tales, the outcome of that choice will either redeem the world, or doom it to a dark fate. If he chooses the nobler path of Self-Sacrifice, he aligns himself with the role of Hero; if he chooses the path of Selfishness, and forsakes the fate of others to alleviate his own suffering, he aligns himself with the role of Villain.

We need not confuse the scale of what was at stake with the symbology of Frodo's mission. The outcome would effect all of Middle Earth, but the nature of his journey, to destroy the Ring (deny the temptation to succumb to the illusion of separation), is to show all of us it can be done. From this writer's perspective, there was no sense that the burden was anything other than Frodo's. He said so many times to Sam and others. It did not represent the world's or other people's sin, it was his own inner demon he was struggling with. The Ring was not made by man, but by Sauron, representing the polarity of Separation incarnate—the polar opposite of Compassion and Open-heartedness. The Ring was therefore symbolic of this choice that exists in the world of polarity, the real world we know, for without opposites, there is nothing to exercise free choice upon. How can one choose to be a hero if there is no possibility to choose villainy? Frodo did not bear the cross akin to Jesus, he carried the burden of the inner struggle we all do—to succumb to selfishness or not. This was not the plight of Jesus as told in his story.

Unlike Frodo, Jesus mastered the human struggle within, or is at least depicted to have done so. In this sense he is an Avatar, a true Teacher, not a traveller on the Journey, but rather one of the Way Showers, one of the Light Bearers. The cross he bore was not his own burden, but rather symbolic of the people's ignorance (typically called "sin") for he was trying to reveal the truth of the world, founded in unity, compassion and brotherly love, not selfishness. This offended the selfish-hearted masses, and so they rejected his teachings. So really, they are nothing alike, and to suggest otherwise is too simplistic a point of view. Frodo is the symbol of the everyman, albeit the best of us. He is capable of failing and in the end he does so. Yet his weaknesses make him a more inspiring character because he is more like you or me. Fallible, not godlike. In the end, he did all that any of us can do—our best.

Peter Kreeft's The Philosophy of Tolkien goes greatly in depth into the topic of this dilemma (the dilemma as concerning Tolkien's stories), as well as the more basic dilemma of Good forces vs. Evil forces.


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.

Peace after wars applies to all men. Théoden pardons the Dunlendings and Aragorn pardons the Haradrim and Easterlings following their defeats.


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 goodness of men, such as Aragorn and Faramir is illustrated by their refusal to take the Ring.

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 immortalityEdit

Death is prominent, with the Rings of Power promising immortality to Men, yet eventually sucking away their lives.

The Elves have the gift and the curse of immortality. Their Rings are created for a desire to prevent the waning of their world. Arwen must choose between immortality and the love of Aragorn.

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)

Indeed, the fall of Númenor is caused by an attempt from the King Ar-Pharazôn to seize immortality from the Valar.

Fathers and sonsEdit

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 technologyEdit

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 Peter Jackson 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.

Growing upEdit

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 farewellEdit

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 theme of loss is reinforced by some of the songs given throughout Tolkien's book, one of the more prominent being the poem recited by the Dwarf Gimli near the exit of Moria (reproduced in part):

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.
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