The enduring conflict between good and evil is the underlying theme of the trilogy, but Tolkien develops others in connection with it. He explores the positive and negative sides of power, the nature of heroism, and the role of friendship. To Frodo Baggins, favorite nephew of the ring-finder Bilbo Baggins, is entrusted the task of saving Middle-earth from the control of the master of evil, Sauron. Frodo’s task reverses the basic quest pattern: instead of finding a treasure, Frodo is sent to destroy what Sauron values above all-the One Ring. Sauron had poured much of his power into the One Ring to strengthen his control over the nineteen Rings of Power. Of these nineteen rings, only the Three made by the elves for themselves have never been touched by Sauron and his evil. The Seven, originally distributed to dwarf leaders, have been destroyed and do not affect events in the trilogy. The major concentration of evil confronted by Frodo comes from the Ringwraiths, or Nazgul, who are men enslaved by Sauron through the Nine Rings.
Sauron, having learned from Gollum the whereabouts of the One Ring, sends the Nazgul to recover it. Since the defeat in which the Ring was cut from his hand, Sauron himself can no longer assume a physical form. He can, however, act through those who have submitted their minds and wills to his service. The nature of the Rings of Power and of the Ringwraiths is made clear to Frodo before he accepts the responsibility for destroying the Ring. The wizard Gandalf and Elrond, great leader of the elves of Middle-earth, determine who will accompany Frodo on his quest. Since there are nine enslaved Nazgul, they include nine individuals in the Fellowship of the Ring, representing the people of Middle-earth: four hobbits (Frodo, his servant Sam, and two young friends, Pippin and Merry); the elf Legolas; the dwarf Gimli; two men, Aragorn and Boromir; and Gandalf himself.
The fellows all demonstrate some aspect of heroism. Gandalf has about him an aura of supernatural power. He risks his life and his power when he is pitted against other supernatural forces: his fellow wizard Saruman, turned evil by desire for the Ring; the Balrog of Moria, who leads him to at least a symbolic death; and the Lord of the Nazgul, who is reinforced by the great strength of Sauron. Although Gandalf is clearly a hero, his heroism is beyond human imitation.
Human heroes abound in the trilogy: Aragorn, Boromir, his brother Faramir, the aged Theoden, Eowyn and Eomer (Theoden’s niece and nephew), and the many warriors of Rohan and Gondor. Boromir at one point yields to the power of the Ring, trying to take it from Frodo, but, he recognizes his weakness almost immediately and dies defending the younger hobbits, Pippin and Merry. Aragorn, descended from two great marriages of elves and mortals, has a grace and power beyond that of mere human leaders. With this heritage he seems like one of the great epic heroes of the past, just as Tolkien’s trilogy itself at time echoes the heroic epic world. Aragorn plans, leads, encourages, and heals; he is always ready to risk his life for the salvation of others. When the royal line of the great kings of the West is “returned” to power by him, the free peoples of Middle-earth can again find justice and the age of men can begin.
The most “human” heroes are the four hobbits. Although at first they do not fully understand the dangers of the quest, their commitment grows in proportion to their knowledge of the nature of their enemies. Frodo undergoes the greatest testing because the forces of Sauron concentrate their attacks on him. He is also tested by the Ring, by Gollum whom a lesser hero might have killed for his own safety, and by physical strain. Although Frodo at the last moment yields to the evil pull of the ring, he is saved by his own virtue: the pity which had spared Gollum. Frodo carries a sword, but, except when he futilely strikes at the Lord of Nazgul, he rarely uses it; his heroism lies more in endurance than in battle.
Sam, like his master, endures, but he is called to fight against Gollum, Shelob, and the orcs. He delights in hearing the orcs misidentify him as a great elven warrior. Sam’s major role in the trilogy is that of loyal friend. But he is also the voice of normalcy, longing for the beauties of home, his family and friends in the Shire, his garden, and his pots and pans. Like Sam, Pippin and Merry exemplify friendship and heroism on a more attainable level. They are too small to fight the orcs who capture them, but they outwit them, and travel with Fangorn and the ents to overcome Saruman. Back in the Shire after the destruction of the ring, Sam, Pippin, and Merry all share in the battle against more “normal” enemies: mere men.
Neither Elrond nor Galadriel participates in the quest, but they do contribute to its outcome. Elrond’s power rescues Frodo from the Nazgul attack and his wound; and it is at Elrond’s home that the fellowship is formed. Galadriel’s gifts, especially Frodo’s phial of light and the seeds of new life in Sam’s box, symbolize the life-giving nature of the elves. When Galadriel later tells Frodo that the destruction of the One Ring will probably destroy the power of the Three Rings, it becomes clear how much the elves are sacrificing for the success of the quest. The nineteen Rings of Power made by elves of old had originally been formed as objects of goodness and beauty; it was Sauron who turned the rings he touched into sources of evil. Tolkien demonstrates how goodness can be perverted into something evil, but even more clearly he shows that evil in turn can be overcome.