Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The King vs. the Steward
At the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth is weak and disunited, with little trust existing among the various races. Dissension plagues the different human kingdoms, and one of the main problems is that the true leaders are not in their rightful positions. In The Return of the King, Théoden of Rohan proves himself to be a good, noble leader when he heeds Gondor’s cry for help, but he was not always so effective. For a while, a spell cast by Sauron incapacitated him, and his kingdom was effectively ruled by the evil wizard Saruman. Even after Théoden’s strength is restored, he is incapable of uniting all humanity. Only the king of Gondor can do that.
Until the conclusion of the trilogy, Gondor is without a king. The throne is instead occupied by the steward Denethor, a weak-willed man who seems to be losing his mind. The perilous state of Denethor’s sanity suggests the weakness of Gondor when it is ruled by a steward rather than a king. Boromir, Denethor’s son and heir to the stewardship, also displays considerable moral weakness when he attempts to steal the ring from Frodo. Aragorn, the true heir to the throne and the future king of Gondor, is able to resist the temptation of the ring. Just as Saruman had to be cast out of Rohan to restore that kingdom to strength, the real king of Gondor must assume his throne for that kingdom to thrive. Throughout the trilogy, this tension between true leader and acting leader means the difference between life and death, success and defeat, and unity and dissent among the people of Middle-earth.
The Limits of Fellowship
Though the fellowship is integral to the success of Frodo’s mission, it cannot make the entire journey with Frodo or help him at the journey’s end. The fellowship serves as a kind of backup for Frodo, keeping enemies at bay and Middle-earth as calm as possible so he can fulfill his mission. Frodo must ultimately make the journey with only the company of Sam. The entire fellowship is committed to Frodo’s success, but their roles are ultimately limited by the nature of the task at hand. The journey is such that only the two small hobbits are capable of making it successfully.
The nature of the ring itself puts its own limits on fellowship. The ring is a heavy burden for whoever carries it, and it forces its bearer into tremendous isolation. Gollum was a victim of the ring, and his peaceful life as a hobbit ended when he gave in to its temptation. He retreated into a cave and became isolated from the world. The ring isolates Frodo, too, even though Sam accompanies him. While the entire fellowship is in great danger, only Frodo is haunted by visions of Mordor and Sauron. He is unable to share this torment with the others, so it becomes the very basis of his isolation. At the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Galadriel tells Frodo that bearing the ring is a solitary task, prompting him to leave the others. Though Sam refuses to leave Frodo alone and gives him much comfort, he remains blind to his friend’s inner torment. Even after the ring is destroyed, Frodo remains isolated. He is unable to readjust to life in the Shire and eventually leaves the other hobbits behind. His experience as ring-bearer has permanently isolated him from his peers.
The Shire As a Fantasy of Home
At the very start of their journey, Sam notes to Frodo that they have just passed the spot that marks the farthest he’s ever before been from home, the first of many thoughts the hobbits will have about home and their distance from it. Nostalgia for home, even to the point of homesickness, plagues Frodo and Sam throughout their journey, and Sam speaks of it most often. When Sam and Frodo travel to Mordor, Frodo’s intense focus on the journey to Mount Doom is balanced by Sam’s focus on the return journey. The Shire is a lush, happy place untouched by the tumult disturbing much of Middle-earth and, compared to the rocky, dangerous terrain Frodo and Sam face on their journey, seems for them a kind of paradise. However, their talk of returning to the Shire is rooted in more than the physical Shire itself. The Shire suggests a childlike innocence, which the hobbits left behind with the very first step of their journey. It also suggests a different kind of life, where hobbits live simply, unworried, and free from war, greed, evil, death, and all the other vices and hardships that complicate life in much of Middle-earth. In Frodo’s and Sam’s memories, the Shire becomes a sort of Eden, where life was perfect and could be perfect again, if they can only get back. The thought of returning animates them and gives them strength in their darkest moments.
The paradise of the Shire, however, is an illusion. Though the Shire remains lush and the hobbits who live there remain happy and joyful, especially when Frodo and Sam return, the innocence and ignorance Frodo and Sam once enjoyed in the Shire are gone forever. They have seen and experienced too much, and they have become adults now, with many painful memories. Though Sam adapts to his new status in the Shire and thrives in the happiness it offers, Frodo cannot regain a sense of equilibrium even being back at home. Returning to the Shire had seemed to promise the end of fear and worry, but Frodo must journey on.