Pluralism in The Lord of the Rings

by elenna

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 colors.

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 Éowyn’s love.

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 Ring.

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 bearers.

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 other king?

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 and crown.

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.