It is no secret that Professor Tolkien had a “cordial dislike” for allegory (Tolkien Fact 2). He had no intentions of pushing an agenda on his audience through forced perceptions of characters and events. He favored history, “true or feigned,” and thus wrote out of that preference about characters and places and languages that do not necessarily represent something or are coercively trying to convey a double meaning in the real world. With that being said, he was also a writer, and that meant he was well aware his writing had to be more than simply ink on a page. He wrote primarily for his own enjoyment, but knew that anything worth writing had to be worth reading, and things that are worth reading go deeper than the thickness of the paper the writing is on. In other words, his works did have meaning behind them, and I want to address some of that.
Tolkien is very well-known for fathering many elements of modern fantasy. Although he did not create many of the races and creatures in his work, he might as well have done so. The way he has shaped and fashioned his world with its languages and races and characters is a hallmark of his wisdom and literary intellect. The creatures and places so many readers have come to love over the years are enduring and are etched into our hearts with as much purpose as if Tolkien himself had told us about them in person. In particular, in The Lord of the Rings, those main characters involved in the Fellowship that accompanies the Ring across Middle-earth have remained with us since our first time reading the words on the pages. I want to discuss a little more in-depth their purposes in the narrative: how their races in general relate to the story, and then how each individual character contributes to it. I hope to do this in a few parts so the post isn’t a mile long and so I can collect and direct my thoughts more clearly.
DISCLAIMER: In no way at all will I be claiming that all of my thoughts written out here are facts about how Tolkien saw his characters and people groups. I will make some references to things he did actually say about some matters, but for the most part be aware that the following thoughts are simply how I see these matters playing out. Enjoy it!
The least fantastical, but most important, element in the Fellowship is Men. Many words come to mind when thinking about the race of Men in Middle-earth: valiant, honorable, doughty, strong, courageous, capable. Tolkien knew how to portray the race of his own people in his stories to make it desirable to be one of them…and then realize that you are one of them! Labelled the After-comers, the Second-born, Men were not the first free-thinking creatures in Middle-earth, nor did they even play an important role in its history until late in the First Age. The Silmarillion has chapters and pages of story before the first Man is introduced. However, when they finally do come on the scene, their might and value is soon shown.
Tolkien takes a world that is vastly fantastical and almost supernaturally magical, and tosses Men right into the mix of it. Men are mortal, which may seem like a redundant thing to note, but they are the second of the Children of Ilúvatar (Elves being the first) and they are unlike their older brethren in that they have limited lifespans and are not bound to the earth (this is addressed below in talking about Elves). This means that the lives of Men are characterized by sorrow, by death, and by the grasping at immortality: the thing that is withheld from them. As a result, Tolkien constantly references Men with a tinge of sorrow: battle and war are always threats to their cities and lands, their songs are filled with the pain of loss and wanting, and misery can even be seen in the simple fact their tombs and mounds for their dead are so elaborate. Death is a real issue for the Men of Middle-earth, as Tolkien knew it was for the men of the real world too. The Men in his stories give his readers a handhold to grab onto while the magic and wonder of the tales take them to improbable places and impossible events. They give the reader a sense of hope through adversity and, while the corruption and depravity of Men is a very real thing, redemption is so much sweeter as a result.
Purpose in the Fellowship of the Ring
In the Fellowship, the ideas of immortality and power-lust play important roles. The Ring has been known to prolong life (like Gollum and Bilbo); though not explicitly stated, why wouldn’t the Men who have been hanging around this Ring for weeks and weeks not be tempted to take it and live “forever?” Tolkien places the valiant, yet easily-corrupted Men in positions of leadership in the Nine Walkers and throws in the ultimate source of power and temptation among their group. What could go wrong? The internal conflict (both within the Men and within the group) demonstrates the reality all Men face that even the most-esteemed or courageous can be brought low by the smallest provocation, a fact that is not only true in Middle-earth but in our world as well. This weakness of Men allows any reader to put themselves in the Fellowship and speculate just how well they could resist the Ring’s lure. This mental exercise is prevalent throughout the narrative, even after the Fellowship breaks, but hits home for us as the audience most when Men are involved.
A subset of Men (arguably) and the first race we encounter in The Lord of the Rings, hobbits are a very peculiar people. As described in the prologue to the book, they are short in stature (perhaps their most endearing trait), love to cook, love to garden, love to eat, love to… well, do anything with food and drink, and each have a small “seed of courage” hidden within them. Since the release of The Hobbit, numerous readers have fallen in love with the quirky, plump creatures and their land of the Shire. (Who doesn’t want to eat seven hearty meals every day?) They lead lives of complacency and seem to have no real troubles as a result. But what is really so intriguing about them? Why are they in the Fellowship and why are they the primary characters in the book?
As mentioned above, the fact that hobbits are related to Men is not enough on its own for them to be interesting and relatable to readers. Tolkien knew this too. These weren’t simply midgets or human children he hoped people would like because they’re small. He needed to craft their characteristics and intrinsic values in such a way that both emphasized their stature and made what seemed to be disadvantages actually turn out to be the primary advantages they possess over other races. He accomplished this fantastically. We love hobbits for this reason: the small overcomes the large and that’s not supposed to happen. It is a common theme in The Lord of the Rings that the weak confound the strong and hobbits are the prime example. Beyond this, the lifestyle a typical hobbit seems to lead can be enticing. Their carefree vibes resonate with busy, tired, and fed-up audiences who slave away at jobs and relationships for what seems like an eternity. The temptation to covet the hobbit way of life is not uncommon among fans of The Lord of the Rings, but is it all wine and potatoes to be a Shireling (Shire-ite? Shire-ean? Shire-person?)? I would have to say it is not. I make this claim due to the simple fact that if wine and potatoes are all you do, it will be all you know, and this is the exact problem we see the hobbits having in the book. Xenophobia (the fear of people from other countries; in this case, other regions) is all-too-common in the hobbit world. These small people help to give us a healthy dose of reality check when it comes to the way we see others outside of our known culture. I don’t even necessarily mean people from other countries: people who are from another part of our own country, those who are in other religions, or those who are across the aisle politically might as well be considered “aliens” to some of us. We live this out vicariously through the hobbits in Tolkien’s work as they are thrust into places and among people that are very different from them and are forced to deal with the situations.
Purpose in the Fellowship of the Ring
Building off of this idea of hobbits being out of place for the majority of the story, perhaps there is no other place they are out of their depth than in the Fellowship of the Ring. Why are they even in it? Mythos and hobbit lore aside, Tolkien uses hobbits in the main group of characters simply for this: for audiences to be able to understand the story. Let me explain. Through the Men in the Fellowship, we are able to see the struggles of mortals in dire situations and how we might handle those situations ourselves. With hobbits, there is a similar feeling. We can put ourselves in the (very small…actually…non-existent) shoes of the hobbits as they are mortals as well, but that is not the primary reason for their inclusion. The fundamental literary device the hobbits represent is the concept of the fish-out-of-water. Most authors and directors utilize this important aspect of narrative design when crafting stories that would be difficult for an audience to comprehend if they were just thrown into it without a guide. In other words, Tolkien can use a lot of expository text about the landscapes, languages, and other races the hobbits encounter in the book because, for the most part, they have little-to-no idea about what’s going on around them. If Tolkien had chosen to tell the story only from Gandalf or Aragorn’s perspective there would be no organic reason and no good opportunity to describe the differences in Elf kinds or the importance of Minas Tirith or even the significance of Elrond; these characters already know all about those things and reading a conversation between Aragorn and Butterbur about the layout of Bree would seem moot and redundant. However, throw some hobbits into the room that have never been outside of the Shire and now we have a more natural opportunity to present important information about the Bree-land and allow the reader to glean that information as well. In a story like The Lord of the Rings where having background about locations, people, and languages is so important, the role the hobbits play in being a part of the Fellowship is a necessity.
The nimble, pointy-eared Firstborn of Middle-earth are some of the most well-developed and intriguing peoples Tolkien attempted to portray. With a fictitious history spanning back thousands of years and through legendary stories that are mere memories at the time of The Lord of the Rings, Elves are highly mysterious and equally fascinating. On the surface they appear to be like Men, more or less, but any further inspection reveals cultures and thoughts and magic that is far beyond anything the Men of Middle-earth could comprehend. The primary difference between the Firstborn and the After-comers is the little detail that Elves are immortal. Now, this does not mean they are invincible. The immortality Elves possess means that they will not die of sickness or old age. They can, however, be slain by severe physical trauma and withering grief, though even if they are killed they remain “bound to the world,” while Men die and pass away beyond the confines of the earth (briefly touched on in Tolkien fact 33).
As mentioned above, this immortality is exactly what mortals seek, or so they think. Throughout the story, Tolkien consistently gives the impression that everything is not mallorns and elanor when you are forced to live forever. The main Elven characters often lament the fluidity of the world, while they remain and it changes around them. They see entire forests and even lands disappear as they outlive them. Some Elves befriend mortals and are forced to watch them wither and die, wondering what the fate of their own kind will be when time comes to an end. Tolkien himself remarks that a main theme of his work is Death (also discussed briefly in the previous link) and that Elves help to give a backdrop and reference point for looking at Death from another perspective.
Purpose in the Fellowship of the Ring
The inclusion of the Elf kindred in the main ring of characters is significant. Though Man-like enough, Elves are hard to relate to. They have amazing vision, are impossibly light-footed, and, beyond that, they live forever. The only things we really have in common with Elves is that we have four limbs and other similar extremities. While much is mentioned about Elven culture over the course of the stories Tolkien wrote, the reader is still pretty clueless about exactly what goes on in Elven societies. It is for precisely this reason that Elves are included as main characters. Tolkien absolutely believed in transcendence; that there is something beyond mortal man. This concept made its way into the primary narrative of the book in the form of characters that were beyond comprehension of those characters we as readers would be relating to. The fact that Elves are constantly at the forefront of the story forces the audience to keep addressing the idea that there are things beyond themselves. Tolkien did believe in God, but a much more subtle and tactful use of transcendence rears up in The Lord of the Rings through the pointy-eared creatures who can see really far. The abilities of the Men and hobbits are heavily contrasted against the abilities of the Elves: whether it’s their agility, their combat prowess, or their subtle magical arts. Elves keep the readers connected to the fantasy elements of Tolkien while making them consider their own place in the world.
The history of the dwarves is a little fuzzy in the Tolkien mythology. A great account is given in The Silmarillion but supposedly that is told from the perspective of Elves and may actually have been different from the real account; whatever. The origins aren’t that important for our purposes here, so I’ll move on. Needless to say, dwarves are very interesting. In height somewhere between hobbits and Men, dwarves are stocky, stubborn, and stouthearted. They are notorious for their mining and craftsmanship (or craftsdwarfship…get it?). Their mines are deep and their halls are splendid to behold. The dwarven cities and realms of Middle-earth are some of the wealthiest places one can journey to, but this extravagance comes at a price.
Dwarves are typically greedy. Though not inherently evil by any means, the dwarven folk have minds of metal and gems and rarely give their love to anything beside (even to the opposite sex; some dwarves remain single all their lives so they don’t have to sacrifice precious crafting time). This is not to be racist and assume that all dwarves are mindless penny-pinchers, but it would be a safe assumption that all dwarves have a deep desire to mine and work with their hands over almost anything else (though combat may be high on the list for some as well). Tolkien cleverly and fortunately resists the temptation to simply turn dwarves into caricatures of their weaknesses. In the same way he does not portray every Man as a lustful, tongue-lolling Ring snatcher, he also does not make his dwarves as a symbol for greed or anything like that. Greed is a natural temptation for them, yes, but not anything more. They do not all have an irrational desire to devote their whole lives to gold, but the unfortunate bent is there in some ways. Dwarves are very different from Men in many regards, but perhaps more like to them than Elves. Dwarves are mortal, but tend to be very long-lived, thus sharing the problems of both the mortals and immortals in one way or another.
Purpose in the Fellowship of the Ring
This in-between state of the dwarves makes them perfect candidates for main characters. Their mortality and obvious weaknesses allow readers to connect to them more readily than Elves, but their aberrant love for the earth (as in the actual earth, not necessarily living things like the Elves tend to favor) distances them from the audience in much the same way the Elves are. Dwarves also tend to be more practical, which is a very relatable trait to have in a genre that tends to throw practicality out the window. Most fantasy relies on its fictional reality to accommodate its less-than-logical elements. Tolkien fantasy is a little more mature than that. Having a dwarf as a main character allows the readers to see the common sense responses many of them may be having to the current situation the character are in. Dwarves are slow to lose their bearings in a tight spot and are great narrative anchors for readers to rely on for unwavering determination; it’s just reassuring to have dwarves around.
Lastly, let’s take a look at the final component of the Fellowship: the race of the Wizards. Also known as the Istari, the Tolkien wizards are perhaps the most famous part of his fictional work. Almost all modern ideas of fictitious wizardry are some kind of derivative of that found in his stories. Wizards are tremendous characters. Perhaps best known for their power and magic, there is so much more to them as literary devices than just their combat and puzzle-solving capabilities. As with the Elves, so little is known about their origins and culture. Tolkien’s wizards are actually angel-like beings that have come to Middle-earth in flesh and bone to help fight against the Dark Lord. That’s about all we get as far as background goes, but for the story’s sake this is all we need. The insufficient amount of information we have about them adds to their mystery and intrigue, much in the same fashion the odd cultures of the Elves bring us into a mindset that their is something more to them than meets the eye; they are more than old guys with staves.
The idea of transcendence comes back to mind when we consider the significance of the wizards. They possess knowledge and wisdom and power that is far beyond anything other race presented in the stories. Their tact and subtleties allow them to rally armies and turn the tides of the world with mere words, let alone the magical might they could display if need presses. Wizards are representations of power, both the cloaked and the unrestrained.
Purpose in the Fellowship of the Ring
This inherent power wizards possess make them natural leaders and overseers. Readers clearly and immediately get the sense that wizards are nobody’s fools and are not easily swayed or daunted. The audience is allowed a breath of relief while a wizard is in the mix, knowing that the simple presence of their power is enough to face any challenge their followers will meet. This is not to remove tension and drama entirely, as wizards are not gods, but merely a very reliable champion and standard to rally around. Readers should feel safe and sheltered in the presence of an Istari, but at the same time realize that if any happened to that keystone character, the entire situation may crumble around the remainder of the characters. It’s hard to not put all of your eggs in one wizard basket, but if you do, beware! They are not invincible and not all of their plans are foolproof!
So these are the races of the Fellowship. Readers can rest assured that no race in Tolkien’s work will ever be a definite allegory or objective symbol for any one idea or concept. The applicability of the races and characters and events in his stories is what intrigues me the most. I love thinking about these things and challenging the way I see things both in Middle-earth and also seeing how that applies to my life. Tolkien has a way of bringing you into his world but also changing the world you already are in as well. (Sorry, I’m getting too deep now; I should probably wrap it up.)
Next up, in part 2, we’ll begin looking at each specific character in the Fellowship and see how they contribute to the sum of the narrative, starting with some Hobbits!
Then, in part 3, we continue the trend with the “Three Kindreds.”
Finally, in part 4, we finish with the “Three Keys.”
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