Study Guide

The Fellowship of the Ring Themes

By J.R.R. Tolkien

  • Good vs. Evil

    (Click the infographic to download.)

    Good and evil are pretty well-defined in The Fellowship of the Ring. Here's the gist: Ring = evil; no Ring = good. The crazy thing about evil in this novel is that is has the power to turn everything else evil, too. Even the most well-intentioned characters can be turned to the dark side by the power of the Ring. Something worth fighting against, we'd say. And except for Tom Bombadil, it seems like every character is in fact involved in the battle between good and evil: this conflict is the driving force in Middle-earth, and in Tolkien's story.

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. How do Hobbits define good and evil? How about the Elves, or the Dwarves? What sense do we get of different moral world views among the good peoples of Middle-earth?
    2. What are some of the behavioral signs that indicate that Saruman and Boromir have gone over to the dark side? How do their speeches of temptation (Saruman to Gandalf and Boromir to Frodo) overlap stylistically?
    3. What makes Tom Bombadil exempt from Middle-earth's wars between good and evil? Why does he not participate in these moral conflicts? Does Tom Bombadil's neutrality in the face of Sauron become, in itself, a moral problem?

    Chew on This

    Boromir's fall to the Ring out of desperation to help Gondor suggests that any kind of strong personal attachment to a cause, even if that cause is a virtuous one like patriotism, may be twisted to evil ends. Ideology of any kind can become a root of evil behavior.

    By conveying Frodo's unique suitability to carry the Ring because he does not want to and has little faith in his strength, Tolkien implies that the ultimate virtue in Middle-earth is not ability or loyalty alone; it is humility.

  • Friendship

    The friendships between the major characters of <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em> are adorably bromantic. And although the more emotion-allergic among us may blush a little at the soulful sentiment between Sam and Frodo or Merry and Pippin, it's this strong feeling of friendship that makes the Ring Quest possible. After all, at the end of <em>Fellowship</em>, Frodo doesn't take Aragorn (strong, brave) or Legolas (fast, also brave) with him. Instead, it's Sam who joins him. Sam insists on coming along because he loves Frodo, and Frodo allows him to come because he can't bear to go into Mordor without his dear friend by his side. It's the emotional bonds between these guys that give them the strength they need to resist Sauron. As in the <em>Harry Potter</em> stories, the only weapon Sauron <em>doesn't</em> have is love, which the Hobbits share in abundance.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. How does <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em> depict friendship as a tool against the power of Sauron? How does friendship help to make the long struggle of the Ring quest better for Frodo?
    2. How is Sam's friendship for Frodo different from Merry and Pippin's? What role does Sam's class status play in the nature of his relationship to Frodo?
    3. Sam and Frodo's friendship is obviously the defining one of this series, but what other pairs of friends appear in <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em>? How do these friendships reveal aspects of the individual characters' personalities to the reader?
    4. How do the friendships in <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em> compare to, or contrast with, romantic love?

    Chew on This

    Sam's single-minded devotion to Frodo is has nothing to do with friendship: as Frodo's servant, it is Sam's job to look after him.

    Gandalf inspires more love than Frodo. The mourning that the Elves of Lothlórien offer for Gandalf after he has died demonstrates the sheer amount of love that he has inspired among diverse peoples.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Compassion abounds in <em>The Fellowship of the Ring.</em> Of course, we are reminded of Bilbo's compassion toward Gollum when Bilbo first came into possession of the Ring in <em>The Hobbit</em>. But Frodo's crew follows in his uncle's footsteps. Gandalf encourages Frodo to continue this compassion for Gollum, who is depicted as a victim of sorts (despite the fact that he, you know, murdered his best friend.) Galadriel, an Elf, even finds it in herself to feel compassion for Gimli because of his people's loss of the Mines of Moria. And Gimli hates Elves! Most importantly, though, Frodo's friends all feel compassion for the position Frodo is in: they know he didn't choose his situation. They, however, do have a choice; and they make the compassionate one: join their friend instead of leaving him out to dry.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. What characters receive the most compassion in <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em>? How do they respond to these shows of compassion?
    2. Which of our main characters <em>shows</em> the most compassion? What does their compassion tell us about their personalities?
    3. What are the limits of compassion in <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em>? Are there deeds that cannot be forgiven in this moral system? Are there characters who cannot be redeemed or shown mercy? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In <em>The Fellowship of the Ring,</em> compassion is a good thing in and of itself, whether the target of that compassion appreciates it or not.

    Galadriel's compassion to Gimli for his people's loss of the Mines of Moria heals Gimli of all of his hatred for Elves as a people.

  • The Home

    The word "home" is supposed to inspire warm and fuzzy feelings in us. But when we're torn from our home, it takes on a whole new meaning. While at Bag End, Frodo is "in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers" (1.1.84). But Frodo loves the Shire even more when he has to leave it behind to go on his great quest. In fact, a lot of <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em> focuses on the painful emotions of various people leaving or losing their homes. Rivendell is home to the Elves, but we know that it's fading even at this early stage of the trilogy. Lothlórien is a beautiful place, but it is also diminishing in power. The Elves are clearly on their way out of Middle-earth, and their realms are dying away. And as for the Dwarves, their great ancestral home of Khazad-dûm is crawling with Orcs; there is no way they can go back. This horrible sense of loss that the traveling Hobbits, Elves, and Dwarves all feel shows us how much they value the places they come from. Middle-earth seems even more precious (and worth defending from Sauron) because it is so loved by its inhabitants.

    Questions About The Home

    1. What contributes to the Shire's overall sense of homeyness? How do the Hobbits remember the Shire once they have left it?
    2. What traits do the homes of the Elves and Hobbits share? How are they different? What do these similarities and differences indicate about Elven and Hobbit cultures more generally?
    3. How do language and song help to create a sense of home in Tolkien's Middle-earth? What role does culture play in defining the idea of "home"?

    Chew on This

    Tolkien uses descriptions of their various dwellings as tools to characterize the different peoples of Middle-earth.

    In Tolkien's works, language becomes as important as architecture in evoking a sense of home: the characteristic songs and legends that join a folk together are just as important as the place they live.

  • Fear

    Fear is one of Sauron's primary weapons in The Fellowship of the Ring (though he also likes to exploit people's pride, arrogance, and anger when he can). As soon as the Black Riders start appearing, the first thing anyone mentions is that they are frightening. When the Black Riders attack Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam at Weathertop, Merry and Pippin both throw themselves to the ground in horror, and Sam can't lift a finger to fight them. Clearly, the agents of Sauron use fear to their advantage: they are, literally, terrorists. Does the Fellowship have tools at their service to combat this fear? What protection is there against the deadly fear of Sauron's servants? (Bonus question: Do you think Tolkien's sensitivity to the inevitability of fear in horrible situations is the result of his own familiarity with fighting in the trenches of World War I?)

    Questions About Fear

    1. As a storyteller, how does Tolkien use fear to increase suspense? What are the most frightening chapters of <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em> to read? Are they also the most suspenseful?
    2. If fear is a weapon of Sauron, can the servants of Sauron feel fear? If so, what does the dark side fear? What signs do we see of the dark side's fear in <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em>?
    3. Everyone is right to be afraid of the Black Riders, certainly: they are both evil and scary. But what examples are there in <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em> of misguided fear? When do the characters fear what they shouldn't? How does this misguided fear lead them to behave in unproductive ways?

    Chew on This

    If Sauron were not around, there would be nothing to fear in <em>The Fellowship of the Ring.</em>

    In this novel, there is no shame associated with fear.

  • Perseverance

    Perseverance basically means continuing on with a task or duty even if the going gets tough. And if there is one virtue Tolkien seems particularly to admire, it's perseverance. He <em>loves</em> characters who work their butts off even when they really don't want to continue. This might describe the entire Fellowship, in fact: the Company keeps going across rough terrain because they know they have to, to continue the Ring quest. But, if you think about it, the bad side also perseveres: in its hunt for Frodo. In the end, the characters' perseverance against the odds makes <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em> a suspenseful read.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Is perseverance always a virtue? How is perseverance thematically important to both the good and bad sides of the Ring quest?
    2. We have talked about the perseverance of individuals like Frodo, but is it possible for less tangible things (for example, ideas or histories) to persevere?
    3. How do Merry and Pippin demonstrate perseverance in accompanying Frodo to Rivendell? What are the rewards for their perseverance? What has inspired them to persevere on this quest?

    Chew on This

    The ages of the characters in <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em> affects their level of perseverance. Younger characters are more likely to want to give up.

    If Frodo decided to give up, the rest of the Fellowship would support his choice.

  • Strength and Skill

    There are many varieties of skill in <em>The Fellowship of the Ring.</em> The most obvious skills come from the different characters' races: Legolas is an Elf, so he can run on top of snow. Gimli is a Dwarf, so he can find his way around underground. And the Hobbits are expert smokers, because all Hobbits love their pipe-weed. But some characters have skills <em>in spite of</em> what they are: for example, Frodo is a good talker, especially for a Hobbit. Sometimes, Tolkien uses these contrasts between a character's abilities and his race to make jokes, like when Sam blushes in self-consciousness as he recites the beginning of the Elven song <em>The Fall of Gil-galad</em>. Frankly, if we were Hobbits (in our dreams!), we would start to feel insulted that the norm everyone assumes for Hobbits is complete, bumbling stupidity. Every time a Hobbit shows any kind of skill with language or storytelling, everyone else stares at him like he's a talking fox. But Tolkien seems to be making a point here: anyone can excel and become better, regardless of their natural strengths and talents. After all, <em>Frodo</em> is our hero. No offense, Frodo.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. What strengths or skills do the Hobbits have that the other characters may not expect? How might it be advantageous for Frodo not to <em>look</em> strong or skilled on the outside?
    2. How does Boromir's strength affect him? What problems are there in relying too much on your own strength to get you through difficult times?
    3. How might Gandalf's strength and skill interfere with the development of the narrative of <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em>? Why does Tolkien remove his character so early in the novel?

    Chew on This

    Gandalf's skills make him a better leader than Aragorn.

    Strength is more important than wisdom when it comes to fighting evil.

  • Race

    In our section on "Characterization," we mention that Tolkien frequently uses "type of being" to indicate essential aspects of a character's personality. So, the Elves are generally good, while Orcs are always bad. Gandalf is a Wizard, which also makes him wise. But this tool of characterization presents a strange ethical problem to us: is it possible for an Orc to become good? What role does choice play in determining the moral value of a character? If you are an Orc created by Sauron, can you be held ethically responsible for the evil that you do, since you are made that way? Can you even imagine an Orc in Tolkien’s Middle-earth intentionally, selflessly doing good? Race plays a central role in the moral nature of each of these characters, since there are good races (Elves), bad races (Orcs), and ambiguous races (humans). Tolkien’s use of race as a tool for characterization implies that the type of being that you are also determines your spiritual value. And that, it seems to us, gets into really dangerous territory. Where is the room for free will in Middle-earth? What examples do we have of characters who work against their own racial natures, either for good or evil?

    (Click the infographic to download.)

    (Click the infographic to download.)

    Questions About Race

    1. Do all of Tolkien's races share the possibility of becoming good or evil? What are some of the ethical problems of attaching moral value to race (even fictional races)?
    2. What examples do we get in <em>The Fellowship of the Ring</em> of multiple types of beings living and working together? How does Tolkien portray such places? Why are there not more examples? What keeps Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, and men from cohabiting more often?
    3. How does Tolkien use language and song to express differences among the races of Middle-earth? Do Hobbit songs sound like Elven songs? What does Tolkien's different invented languages and literatures suggest about Elf, Dwarf, and Hobbit cultures respectively?

    Chew on This

    Even if it is fictional literature (about mostly non-existent races), Tolkien was wrong to make such sweeping generalizations.

    Humans are the morally ambiguous characters in <em>Fellowship of the</em> Ring because Tolkien is human. He couldn't have fairly assigned himself to good or evil.