Study Guide

The Fellowship of the Ring Good vs. Evil

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Good vs. Evil

At the time when this story begins the Bounders, as they were called, had been greatly increased. There were many reports and complaints of strange persons and creatures prowling about the borders, or over them: the first sign that all was not quite as it should be, and always had been except in tales and legends long ago. Few heeded the sign, and not even Bilbo had yet any notion of what it portended. (prologue.3.7)

At the start of <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em>, we already know that the good people of Shire are under threat. The threat is so subtle that even <em>they</em> don't see it: "strange persons and creatures" have been trying to get into this peaceful and sheltered place. By portraying the threat to the Shire as a subtle one that we can see but the Shire's residents can't, Tolkien is increasing our suspense: what is heading towards the Shire? Why would the Shire be of particular interest to "strange persons and creatures"?

<em>The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.</em> (1.1.121)

Bilbo sings this song as he sets out toward Rivendell in the first chapter of the novel. This song is notable because it foreshadows one of the major themes of the book. Bilbo's actions (picking up a magic ring in the goblin tunnels, sparing Gollum's life, leaving Bag End at eleventy-one) are all part of his individual experience – his Road, if you will. But these actions also have a huge effect on everything that goes on around him: the "larger way/Where many paths and errands meet." We have no way of judging what the ultimate effects of our deeds might be, good or bad. All we can do is "follow" the Road as best we can. This is why the cut-and-dried approach that the Hobbits take to morality is wrong: the world's events are so huge and complicated that we can't know for sure how our choices will effect the world around us. We have to do the best we can in the middle of uncertainty.

That name [Mordor] the Hobbits only knew in legends of the dark past, like a shadow in the background of their memories, but it was ominous and disquieting. It seemed that the evil power in Mirkwood had been driven out by the White Council only to reappear in greater strength in the old strongholds of Mordor. (1.2.10)

Even in the Shire, Frodo starts to get news that all is not well with the world. The Shire is sheltered, but not <em>that</em> sheltered. We like the way that Tolkien keeps establishing continuity with the events of <em>The Hobbit</em>: the reason that Gandalf is drawn away from Bilbo and his Dwarf friends at a key moment in their anti-dragon quest is that he is off with the White Council fighting the Necromancer in the South. Now, that dark force is re-establishing itself once more in "the old strongholds of Mordor." Tolkien's obsession with the timelines of his own stories gives us another reason to respect the whole universe of the <em>Lord of the Rings</em>: Tolkien always wants to get it right, not only morally but also in terms of continuity.

As they listened [to Tom Bombadil], they began to understand the lives of the Forest, apart from themselves, indeed to feel themselves as the strangers where all other things were at home. [...] It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it they lived yet, aging no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords. (1.7.41)

We've argued that the Tom Bombadil chapters are a good set-up to the adventures to come: they give the Hobbits a chance to experience the world outside the Shire without the safety net of the rest of the Fellowship. At the same time, this sudden digression into the ancient history of the Old Forest does seem a little tangential. Why do you think Tolkien includes Tom Bombadil and Old Man Willow? How does Tom Bombadil provide a larger context to Sauron and the events of Middle-earth? How does Tom Bombadil's sense of time differ from that of all the other characters? What purpose does he seem to play in starting out the series as a whole?

"Hey there!" cried Tom, glancing towards him with a most seeing look in his shining eyes. "Hey! Come Frodo, there! Where be you a-going? Old Tom Bombadil's not as blind as that yet. Take off your golden ring! Your hand's more fair without it. Come back! Leave your game and sit down beside me! We must talk a while more, and think about the morning." (1.7.60-1)

What do <em>you</em> think Tom Bombadil is? Why does the Ring have no power over him? What keeps him free of its influence? Why does Tom Bombadil get a free pass as far as Sauron's evil is concerned? Can you imagine anything that would threaten Tom, or is he invincible?

At last Frodo spoke with hesitation. "I believed that you were a friend before the letter came," he said, "or at least I wished to. You have frightened me several times, tonight, but never in the way that servants of the Enemy would, or so I imagine. I think one of his spies would – well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand." (1.10.85)

Frodo's weird logic here is that, <em>because</em> Aragorn is frightening, he must be a good guy. Bad guys would seem nicer but be crueler, he feels. What do you think of the idea that evil likes to appear good? Are there examples in the <em>Lord of the Rings</em> of enemies who seem fair and are foul? After all, many of the agents of Sauron whom they meet on the road to Rivendell actively look evil: consider arrogant-looking Bill Ferny and his goblin-faced southern friend. And of course, the Ringwraiths don't exactly seem friendly.

For the black horses can see, and the Riders can use men and other creatures as spies, as we found at Bree. They themselves do not see the world of light as we do, but our shapes cast shadows in their minds, which only the noon sun destroys; and in the dark they perceive many signs and forms that are hidden from us: then they are most to be feared. And at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it. Senses, too, there are other than sight or smell. We can feel their presence – It troubled our hearts, as soon as we came here, and before we saw them; they feel ours more keenly. (1.11.116)

At last, we find out something useful about how the Ringwraiths see the world; though, how Aragorn knows these things, we can't imagine. We doubt the Ringwraiths are volunteering information about desiring and hating the blood of living things. In the moral system of <em>Lord of the Rings</em>, it seems as though the worlds of dark and light are actually separate: the Ring draws Frodo briefly into the world of the dark, which makes him invisible in the world of the light. Are there other characters that seem to occupy both the light and dark worlds? How do you think the two are different?

"As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow, and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means. (2.2.156)

In Saruman's speech to Gandalf attempting to tempt him to the dark side, there are several classic signs that he's gone evil. First of all, the whole idea of progress for the sake of Rule and especially <em>Order</em> sounds distinctly authoritarian. Second, buried in all of his fine talk, Saruman is claiming that the end justifies the means: "there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means." But what possible goal could justify joining Sauron and turning on all of his friends? Third, Saruman is already planning to "come at last to [...] control" the Power he plans to join; in other words, he wants to betray Sauron before he's even finished joining him. Saruman's evil is spectacularly easy to see through. Do we see any more successful deceptions over the course of the novels?

"And now we must enter the Golden Wood, you say. But of that perilous land we have heard in Gondor, and it is said that few come out who once go in; and of that few none have escaped unscathed."

"Say not <em>unscathed</em>, but if you say <em>unchanged,</em> then maybe you will speak the truth," said Aragorn. "But lore wanes in Gondor, Boromir, if in the city of those who once were wise they now speak evil of Lothlórien [...] Perilous indeed [...] fair and perilous; but only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them." (2.6.53-54)

We're getting some serious foreshadowing at this point that something is wrong with Boromir: his reluctance to enter Lothlórien is certainly a bad sign. But we are also intrigued by Aragorn's claim that the only evil on Lothlórien comes from the outsiders who visit there. Is it possible for an Elf to turn evil? Are there examples in <em>The Hobbit</em> or the <em>Lord of the Rings</em> trilogy of such a thing? Or is evil just absolutely genetically incompatible with Elfhood? If you are evil, do you just <em>stop</em> being an Elf? What do you become, then?

Suddenly Boromir came and sat beside him. "Are you sure that you do not suffer needlessly?" he said. "I wish to help you. You need counsel in your hard choice. Will you not take mine?"

"I think I know already what counsel you would give, Boromir," said Frodo. "And it would seem like wisdom but for the warning of my heart." (2.10.24-5)

Boromir tempts Frodo to take the easy way out of his troubles, to bring the Ring to Gondor and let it be used as Boromir wishes. But Frodo is (a) not that stupid, and (b) starting to learn to make his own decisions. Frodo began this quest needing counsel at every turn. When he travels through the Old Forest with Merry, Pippin, and Sam, he needs Tom Bombadil to save him from his bad decisions not just once, but <em>twice</em>. Frodo leans on Gandalf while he can. But then, Galadriel refuses to act as a counselor for Frodo. And now, Boromir offers Frodo counsel that he rejects. Frodo is developing the self-reliance he needs to go into Mordor with Sam, just the two of them. This confrontation with willful Boromir, who wants to take Frodo's difficult decisions away from him, is a key milestone in Frodo's development into a determined and decisive character in his own right.

"We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of Wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And behold! in our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory. What could not Aragorn do? Or if he refuses, why not Boromir? The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!" (2.10.36)

In one dense paragraph, we see an excellent example of someone starting with good intentions and going straight to an evil place. Boromir is right to long for something to help Gondor. As the country bordering Mordor, the Gondorians pay a heavier price than everyone else to keep Middle-earth safe from Sauron. But Boromir quickly goes from "defend[ing] ourselves" to victory, and then to "the power of Command" for Boromir himself. We wonder what he imagines will happen after he drives "the hosts of Mordor" out: will all of those men who "flock to [his] banner" conquer the rest of Middle-earth? Does he want to be King of the world? Like Saruman, Boromir justifies seizing the Ring using an abstract ideal. For Saruman, that ideal is knowledge; for Boromir, it is strength. Clearly, Tolkien has taken to heart the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Horsemen were galloping on the grass of Rohan; wolves poured from Isengard. From the havens of Harad ships of war put out to sea; and out of the East Men were moving endlessly: swordsmen, spearmen, bowmen upon horses, chariots of chieftains and laden wains. All the power of the Dark Lord was in motion. Then turning south again he beheld Minas Tirith. Far away it seemed, and beautiful: white-walled, many towered, proud and fair upon its mountain-seat; its battlements glittered with steel, and its turrets were bright with many banners. Hope leaped in [Frodo's] heart. But against Minas Tirith was set another fortress, greater and more strong. Thither, eastward, unwilling his eye was drawn. It passed the ruined bridges of Osgiliath, the grinning gates of Minas Morgul, and the haunted Mountains, and it looked upon Gorgoroth, the valley of terror in the Land of Mordor. (2.10.54)

After his confrontation with Boromir, Frodo climbs Amon Hen and looks over what appears to be the whole of Middle-earth; Galadriel wasn't joking when she said that the One Ring has made his sight keener. This moment just before the breaking of the Fellowship reminds the reader of what is at stake. Because <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em> is character-focused, and because the Company has been trying to keep their business secret and private, we haven't gotten very much perspective on what is currently happening in the world beyond what they experience for themselves. This panoramic view of southern Middle-earth shows all of the doings and activities of Sauron. Middle-earth is caught up in a world war, and Frodo's decision to take the Ring straight to Mordor is a central part of it. His individual actions will have an effect on everything he sees before him in this scene. By stopping the action to give us a snapshot of the current state of affairs in Middle-earth, Tolkien is ramping up the suspense by reminding us what is at stake in Frodo's decision to ditch the Company and take the Ring quest right to Sauron's door.