At the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien deliberately links the trilogy to its predecessor, The Hobbit. He describes the return of Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Ring and, in the prologue, he expands the nature of hobbits and summarizes the story of Bilbo and Gollum. The narrative at first continues the light spoken tone of the earlier novel, but as it develops, this tone recedes, only occasionally bursting forth in the words and actions of the irrepressible hobbits.
The author creates two major challenges for himself in structuring the three volumes: deepening the story’s historical dimensions and uniting the many narrative strands. To make Frodo’s quest part of a more cosmic struggle, Tolkien continues evolving the history of Middle-earth, using Gandalf and Elrond to relate the ancient history of Sauron, the Lord of the Rings, and supplying many glimpses of the mythological and legendary past through songs, allusions, and tales told by elves, dwarves, ents, and mortals. Tolkien allows information to seep through gradually. The Black Riders, for example, appear several times, each time causing deeper dread in the hobbits, before they are identified as the Ringwraiths. Aragorn’s nobility also impresses itself on the reader in stages, not only through his historical deeds but also through revelations about his descent from legendary heroes. The destruction of the Ring and the crowning of Aragorn complete a chain of events stretching back from the end of the third age to the creation of elves and men in the first age. The compact history of Middle-earth in the appendix provides a broader explanation for many of the allusions within the trilogy itself; several sections of the appendix also extend into the future.
While Tolkien is deepening the overall dimensions of the War of the Ring, he also interlaces separate narrative threads to tell of the great deeds of the Fellowship. In the first volume the action moves forward smoothly and quickly, adventures following one another chronologically, and flashbacks deepening his story without blurring the time sequence. After the breakup of the fellowship, however, Tolkien links the activities of the separated fellows by a more intricate system of flashbacks, foreshadowings, retellings, and allusions to what is happening simultaneously at other places.
After the death of Boromir Tolkien traces two groups of six fellows; later (in book five) the narrative becomes even more complex because the fellows have re-formed into three groups. Isengard and Minas Tirith provide not only meeting places where the six fellows can explain recent events to one another (and to the reader), but also dramatic events to which the story of Frodo and Sam can be linked.
At the end of the final volume, The Return of the King, Tolkien completes the cycle with the hobbits’ return to the Shire after Aragorn’s coronation and wedding. In the account of the journey home, the reader learns what has happened to several characters from the earlier stages of the quest. Tolkien leaves no loose ends in his narrative. Saruman, for example, is removed from Middle-earth; Sam’s friend Bill, the pony, reappears to bring revenge on his old master and joy to Sam; Lobelia Sackville-Baggins proves that goodness can assume many guises. When the narrator finally reveals who has the Ring of Fire, the source of Gandalf’s pervasive fire-creating power becomes clear.
Throughout the trilogy Tolkien exemplifies his views of true fantasy. He produces an inner consistency within the secondary world so that what happens there follows consistent principles. Although some of the inhabitants of Middle-earth remain foreign to the “real” world, they fit convincingly within the Tolkien cosmos. Those who appear repeatedly act according to their natures each time. Orcs, for example, are cruel, crude, ugly, and quarrelsome; they love darkness and hate sunlight. When the orcs do not shrink from the sun, Aragorn sees their actions as a sign of Saruman’s greater control over them. Ents are consistent in their hatred of orcs and in their longing to see the lost entwives again. Their legends, their treelike distinctions in personality, and the fitting traits of their leader Fangorn add a touch of humor and a sense of the role of nature in the history of the world. The strangeness of talking trees is explained by their relationship with elves, who befriended ents in the past and taught them to speak. Whenever elves appear, they are beautiful and good; they love starlight and water and trees. The mythic significance of their “Star Queen,” Elbereth, permeates the trilogy, as does the concept of the movement of the elves over the sea to the west. The final sailing of the elves with Gandalf and the two ring-bearers provides an ending in accord with elven traditions and with the cyclic narrative.