Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Songs and Singing
It is no exaggeration to say that The Lord of the Rings is literally filled with song. Nearly every character seems to burst into at least one song throughout the course of the novel. Moreover, each song is presented to us in its entirety, with every verse and refrain included. The ubiquity of song in the novel serves a number of purposes. First, the songs link the action of the novel to a distant past, a time long before the written word was dominant over the spoken word. The profusion of songs gives us the sense that the story we are reading is closely tied to something ancient, such as myth or folklore, a body of knowledge or tradition that has been memorized and passed along orally. Furthermore, as the events of which the characters sing are real—at least within the world of Middle-earth—we can easily imagine that, ages later, there will be ancient songs celebrating the deeds of Frodo and the Fellowship. The novel’s emphasis on the spoken word also highlights the existence and the sounds of the hundreds, if not thousands, of words—names, place names, terms for emotions, fantastical animals, plants, and other creatures—that Tolkien created in writing the novel. A trained philologist, Tolkien obviously took much care in his invention of the linguistic elements of his universe. One remarkable aspect of The Lord of the Rings is that Tolkien’s names, without resorting to familiar words, clearly convey the nature of what they describe: is there any question that the mellifluous-sounding Galadriel is benevolent, while an Orc or a Balrog is evil?
Early in the journey, Frodo recalls how Bilbo always used to warn, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” This idea of the road as a river, sweeping travelers before it, suggests the means by which Tolkien himself keeps the action of his novel moving—by keeping his characters moving. The Lord of the Rings shares this motif of the road and the quest with many of the great epics that precede it, from the Odyssey to Beowulf; furthermore, the vast majority of all quests depend on a road or journey of some kind or another. The road takes the hobbits out from the familiar confines of the Shire and into the unknown, where, like all epic heroes, they are tested. It exposes them to previously unthinkable dangers, such as the Black Riders and the fury of Caradhras, but also to the unimaginable beauty of places such as Rivendell and Lothlórien. More than a physical means of travel and a narrative means of advancing the plot, the road also emphasizes the fact that nothing stands still in Tolkien’s universe; everything is in constant motion. Significantly, the first Elves the hobbits meet are on the road—Elves heading west to the shore before leaving Middle-earth. Time, like the road, sweeps all before it into the distance. Legolas’s lament upon leaving Lothlórien sums up the link between the two perfectly: “For such is the way of it: to find and to lose, as it seems to those whose boat is on the running stream.”
Very little happens in Middle-earth that someone, somewhere, has not already prophesied. These prophecies, like the songs that often contain them, link the past to the present, and beyond to the near or even distant future. Like the road, these prophecies move the plot forward, setting up targets for which the plot then aims. These targets are crucial to the remarkable sense of suspense and anticipation Tolkien is able to maintain throughout the whole of The Lord of the Rings, which totals more than 1,000 pages in length. In this heavy use of prophecy Tolkien takes a cue from the ancient mythological tradition. Just as Greek heroes such as Theseus and Hercules lived out the predictions of prophecies made long before their births, so do Aragorn and Frodo. The repeated presence of prophecies also shows the great importance of fate in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Things in this universe happen for a reason, though perhaps one that is not immediately clear. Gandalf invokes the hand of fate in his explanation of why Bilbo was the one to stumble across the Ring in the first place. Furthermore, fate is partly why Gandalf spares the wretched Gollum; the wizard has a suspicion that Gollum still has some part to play in the saga of the Ring. The presence of such a logic and will beyond the knowledge of any of even the most powerful of the characters is as close as Tolkien comes to implying an overarching consciousness or higher power that controls all of Middle-earth.