Pluralism in The Lord of the Rings
One of the things I truly love
about The Lord of the Rings is the plurality of meaning and the
dualistic nature of the subject matter. One could literally fill up
pages listing them all whether one wants to compare numbers that
continually crop up or locales that stand diametrically opposed to each
other or the dichotomist structuring of the story.
Of course, a most obvious comparison would be that of good versus evil.
In this light one could look at Sauron: the Dark Lord; the Maiar as
opposed to the Istari, also Maiar, but definitely sent on the side of
good. Sauron stands against Saruman the White who shifts sides in a
manner of speaking and is no longer strictly opposed to the dark side
but also opposed to the side of light as well. Gandalf moves up in
power becoming Gandalf the White while Saruman is seen to wear many
One can contrast the landscape from the bucolic setting of the Shire to
the idyllic setting of the Elven realms to the majesty of the White
city of Minas Tirith as opposed to the dark land of Mordor. We see the
lands on the side of good as pockets amidst some pretty bleak areas
where once green lands and flowing streams have been destroyed or
ravaged by the coming of evil. Even the perpetual darkness and the
heavy air of Mordor which creeps into Gondor can be contrasted with the
rays of sunlight and the fresh air that blows in with the turning of
the tide with the arrival of Aragorn.
Much can be said about the pairings of the various towers in The Two
Towers. Which towers did Tolkien refer to in his title? I believe the
reader is free to choose here. In the same way one could compare and
contrast the various Elven realms. To be fair though, one should
include the Mirkwood realm as well as they do play a part in the tale
of the Ring.
Let us return to the contrast/pairing of the characters. We have
Gandalf paired with Saruman paired with Sauron. Elrond is contrasted
with Galadriel; the half-elf versus the sundered elf yet, both leading
their realm. Théoden contrasted with Denethor in that both were
driven to despair by the coming of evil. The difference is that
Théoden broke free from the power that held him whereas Denethor
gave in to it.
Legolas and Gimli or contrasted in the gracefulness of the firstborn
versus the earthy gruffness of those brought into existence. The
animosity turned to friendship depicts a healing of these groups.
The love between Aragorn and Arwen mirrors that of Beren and
Lúthien. The love story is brought for cycle in LOTR.
Boromir and Aragorn pit the would-be ruler against the rightful king.
Boromir and Faramir show us the preferred son as opposed to the chosen
son in the mold of Esau and Jacob in the Old Testament.
Faramir and Aragorn shared much in common as brave warriors who each
had a gentler side to him. They could also be contrasted in
Bilbo and Gollum’s relationship is perhaps related more to “The
Hobbit”, but they were united by the game of riddles and in their
cunning. They were both Ring bearers.
Merry and Pippin are young heirs to positions of honor in the Shire.
They are both cousins to Frodo who accompany him on the first stage of
the quest. They both do some serious growing up during the War of the
Frodo and Sam are master and servant. Sam risks all to keep Frodo
‘grounded’ in the Shire during the quest enabling him to keep going.
Their roles see a type of reversal as Sam begins to make more of the
decisions to ensure the fulfillment of the quest. They are both ring
Merry and Pippin verses Frodo and Sam are naturally paired with this
contrast in part by where they lived before the quest. Here, too, we
see the aspect of maturing. Frodo had come into his own before the
quest while the younger three and especially Merry and Pippin mature
during the quest and are able to become leaders in the scouring of the
Shire and take their place in society.
Bilbo and Frodo were very much alike in knowledge, yet Frodo did not
share the wanderlust to the same extent of his cousin. Bilbo readily
volunteered to take the Ring to Mordor, whereas Frodo hesitated. They
were both Ring bearers and both granted a special honor of the elves to
travel to Elvenhome.
Gollum and Frodo were on the opposite ends of the spectrum in attitude
when receiving the Ring from someone else; Sméagol by murdering
Déagol and Frodo as an inheritance from Bilbo. Frodo sought to
change Gollum through his kindness. He knew if circumstances were
altered, he could become as Gollum.
One plurality of meaning in particular that fascinates me is the
question: To whom exactly is Gollum referring when he ‘swears to serve
the master of the precious’? Does Gollum swear to serve Frodo as the
current bearer of the Ring? Does he swear to serve Sauron the true Lord
of the Ring? Or does he swear to serve his own ends as a former bearer
of the Ring and hopeful contender for the future possession of the
Ring. It is my belief that he is serving all three of them.
The other item that I find particularly interesting is ‘the return of
the king’. We are all well aware of the story of Aragorn and his role
in the War of the Ring and his reclamation of the throne of Gondor in
the advent of the Fourth Age of Middle-Earth. What of the return of the
There is a lot of foresight and foreshadowing in Tolkien’s writings.
The fact that Thorin Oakenshield would give Bilbo a mithril shirt that
Gimli years later declares to be a ‘kingly gift’ and Gandalf states is
worth more than the value of the whole Shire point to the value of the
wearer of the shirt.
“Frodo said nothing, but he put his hand under his tunic and touched
the rings of his mail-shirt. He felt staggered to think that he had
been walking about with the price of the Shire under his jacket. Had
Bilbo known? He felt no doubt that Bilbo knew quite well. It was indeed
a kingly gift.” Two thoughts are very striking about this passage: 1.
Bilbo knew the value of the gift he had passed on to his heir, and; 2.
Frodo realizes he is carrying the price of the Shire under his jacket.
The rule passes on, as is often done while the predecessor still lives,
when Bilbo leaves the Ring to Frodo. The trio of symbolic gifts is
complete when Bilbo bestows the mithril shirt and his sword, Sting,
upon Frodo before Frodo takes up his quest. The Ring becomes a symbol
of Frodo’s sovereignty; a type of scepter. The sword, Sting, represents
justice, power, protection, authority, strength and courage; all
attributes of a ruling king. (Aragorn possessed these attributes as
well.) The mithril shirt, the ‘kingly gift’ is befitting a king. The
mithril or ‘true silver’, as it is known, relates to purity and the
shirt, itself, protection. While admittedly stretching it a bit, one
could say that Frodo had been given gifts representing scepter, sword
This second king is gradually stripped of all symbols of his kingship
in his endeavors to preserve the kingship of the first king. We find
here the other meanings to what Frodo felt underneath his jacket… “He
felt staggered to think that he had been walking about with the price
of the Shire under his jacket.” Frodo did not realize it at the time
but he was the price. “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been
saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in
danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may
keep them.” In preserving the kingship for Aragorn and all of
Middle-Earth, for that matter, Frodo loses himself unable to live in
this plane of existence any longer, he transcends to a different
kingdom leaving the symbols of his rule as well as everything else,
with the exception of the Ring, of course, to Sam. Though his reign in
the Shire is short-lived, his crown is eternal.