The Fellowship of the Ring sets the stage for the Lord of the Rings series as Frodo and his companions begin their perilous and often confusing journey, which stands in contrast to the ordered world in which they live, The Shire, in Middle Earth. This “disordered” journey is a form of entering chaos: Like King Arthur’s knights as they sally forth from Camelot, the members of The Fellowship venture far and wide to conquer evils which surround them. However, unlike the Knights of the Round Table, the members of The Fellowship recognize that as they set out to destroy evil, they also bear the potential for the destruction of the kingdom within themselves. The Ring itself is a constant reminder to them that they must first fight their own internal selfish desires in order to save The Shire.
As a “quest” story, the novel contains elements of both classical and medieval literature. Middle Earth is a highly ordered world in which all creatures have their proper roles which are integral to the natures of the characters: an elf could no more attempt to behave like a hobbit than you or I could attempt to behave like a dog or a cat. This order is hierarchical; some creatures’ duties—and some characters’ duties– are more significant in the larger community than others; some folks are more civilized and wealthier than others. However, in this sort of society, a person with a “lower” occupation or status is not a less important person. For instance, the Innkeeper at The Sign of the Prancing Pony, Mr. Butterbur, is no less valuable than Gandalf. Rather, his role suits him and his class of creature; his job “belongs” in the fabric of the society just as much as Gandalf’s does. But Tolkien breaks free of the traditional medieval roles when he calls Frodo, that modest and insignificant hobbit, to save the kingdom.
As is also true in the King Arthur stories, Middle Earth is a place where the natural world is important and valuable. Being “good stewards” of what we are given to tend, whether it be a garden, a forest, or a river–is key, and there is a balance between the creatures’ using and respecting nature. Thus, the hobbits cut back the trees from the Old Forest at the edge of their lands, but leave the Old Forest alone in every other way. Nature is connected to many of the creatures closely, as we see with Goldberry, who, we are told, is the daughter of the River. Also, the natural world reflects the nature of the creatures who inhabit it; the hobbits’ shire is green and cozy and friendly. In Middle Earth, the physical world embodies the goodness and concreteness of reality, and this is most carried forth into the lives of the hobbits, whose liking for beer, food, gift-giving, home and companionship emphasizes their close and deep connection to the earth and world around them. The interactions which the members of The Fellowship will make with the forest and the river serve to help us understand that nature itself is being corrupted and disfigured; the hobbits are responsible for recovering both the kingdom and its environment.
The hobbits’ desire for comfort extends solidly to their ability to shut the outside world out and imagine that they live in complete safety. When The Fellowship of the Ring opens, that safety is clearly no longer guaranteed. Rumblings of strange doings and mysterious strangers tell us early on to Beware! Middle Earth is not safe and this includes the fates of harmless, peace-loving hobbits. Their love of calm stands in stark contrast to the difficult quest which Frodo and his friends undertake; as the story unfolds, we begin to see that Middle Earth is now not the ordered world which it should be. Trouble is afoot, and Frodo, in spite of his fears, will choose to leave his comfortable home to confront this trouble.
As did the knights of medieval times, Frodo accepts the challenge to go forth in search of danger. Though Gandalf tells him that he should not go out of his way seek danger, the truth is that in order to make sure that the Shire is kept safe, Frodo must plunge headlong into an unknown evil, putting his life in jeopardy. Like martyrs and war heroes, Frodo charges ahead to do the right thing despite his fear, weakness, and sinful desires. Where the quest ends he does not know; the path he must follow is also a mystery. What is clear is that Frodo and his friends choose to respond to the challenge of the quest regardless of their great personal weaknesses and fears.
The hobbits respond with courage to a life-threatening situation in which they must stand up and choose which side they are on. Like the heroes of old, they embrace the challenge; what’s different with Tolkien’s story is that characters’ personal foibles do not just influence the story—they drive the story forward, because the interior lives and ethical choices of the protagonists are a reflection not only of their decisions to accept the quest, but of their personal spiritual and moral development. Middle Earth is a proving ground for the soul, as much as it is a place for the external battles in Middle Earth. Rather like our own world, if you believe in the Christian worldview.
Initially, the established roles of the hobbits are like those in the medieval world, but Tolkien moves past the traditional story as he reveals the hobbits’ “new” role as lowly individuals who make moral sacrifices in the hope re-establishing a place of goodness and happiness; a world free from despots where the inhabitants will live in a peaceful and joyous community of mutual love. The members of The Fellowship are “co-inheritors” in their Kingdom because they offer themselves up sacrificially to save and rejuvenate the world they know and love.
©Cindy Lange, MA