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"Lord of the Rings": An Analysis of Symbolism and Archetypes in the Trilogy

Justin Aptaker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee, earning a B.A. in psychology and a minor in religious studies.


"LOTR" Meaning and Symbolism

The Lord of the Rings, a film trilogy based on the books by J. R. R. Tolkien, embodies the literary "quest" theme. Thomas Foster, in his book How to Read Literature Like a Professor, says, "The real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason [. . .] The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge" (p 3). The Lord of the Rings is also about self-knowledge. In this story, however, I propose that so many things within the physical realm represent things of the soul or mind, that the "real reason" for the quest is actually intimately involved with the "stated reason".


Part 1: Of Heroes and Vampires

The Ring is a Vampire

The central antagonist in these movies is a vampire. That character is the One Ring. I think there can be no doubt that the Ring is rightly called a "character". From the very beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, the ring is overtly and continuously described as sentient. The Ring "betrayed" Isildur. It then "came" to Gollum, "waited", and later "abandoned" him. It "perceived" that its time had come. Something happened that it did not "intend". It is "trying" to return to Sauron. So we see the Ring has intentions, perceptions, a will, and motives in dealing with other sentient beings.

So in what respect is the Ring a vampire? According to Foster, vampirism is about "a refusal to respect the autonomy of others . . . Placing our desires, particularly our uglier ones, above the needs of another" (pp. 16-21). The Ring’s ultimate desire is to be rejoined to its creator, Sauron. This is an ugly desire indeed, because Sauron is an ugly character, and their reunion will only mean ugly things. To achieve its desire, the Ring will trample or control whomever it must. It certainly doesn’t respect anyone’s "autonomy", as its very essence is about control over the wills of others.

The Ring’s vampirism is never more clear than in its relationship to Gollum. According to the film, it "ensnared" Gollum, gave him "unnatural long life", and "consumed him". The Ring ate Gollum. That is, it ate his essence, his life force. But Gollum didn’t die, because the Ring infused its own "unnatural" and unholy life force into Gollum. So can there now be any question that the Ring was both the main character and a vampire?

The "Ring" and "Sauron" are the Same Character

The Ring actually has two individual personalities, sort of like Gollum. But while Gollum has a nice personality and an evil one, the Ring has two evil personalities. It has the "Ring" personality and the "Sauron" personality. Speaking of them, Gandalf says, "They are one, the Ring and the Dark Lord." When Sauron created the Ring, he poured so much of his own essence into it that the Ring is, more or less, an embodiment of Sauron himself. The only other enduring embodiment of Sauron is "the Eye", which also (not coincidentally) looks a lot like a ring.

So the Ring and Sauron "are one", yet they have been separated. Because they are separated, they are both incomplete and must come together again to be whole. This wholeness, however, is a false wholeness, because no evil can ever be truly whole. Sauron/The Ring is a personification of evil itself. They are of the same archetype as "Satan", in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Notably, Sauroman once refers to Sauron as "Lord of the Earth". In the Bible, Jesus refers to Satan as "Prince of this World." To defeat Sauron/The Ring is to defeat evil, in oneself and at large. To be defeated by Sauron/The Ring is to succumb to evil itself.

Battle scene from Hindu mythology.

Battle scene from Hindu mythology.

The Battle Without is the Battle Within

That brings us to what the movie is essentially about. It is about the struggle against evil. It will be important to keep in mind, while reading this article, that Tolkien (who was the original author of the Lord of the Rings series) was a devout Catholic. Thus, it should come as no surprise that he is concerned with matters of good and evil, and even employs symbolism that is very likely Christian in nature.

While the evil shown in this movie is evil on a grand, universal scale, I think this is intended to symbolize an individual struggle that takes place in the microcosm of a single soul. I tend to view The Lord of the Ring as a dream of sorts. In dreams, it is often said, nearly everything is about the individual. We might imagine that Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, and even Gollum are various aspects of a single person, although they also play out their own individual dramas within the larger-scale quest. But by viewing the entire story as like a dream, and everything within it as a graphic portrayal of an individual struggle, we can best understand why the "stated quest" is so closely connected with the "real quest". So from this point forward, I will analyze all the elements of the story within the context of how they might symbolize aspects of a personal (that is, internal) struggle.

I think this parallel between the physical quest and the spiritual/psychological quest can best be explored by viewing many of the characters and events through the lens of Jungian psychology. Foster says that "whatever Jung can tell us about our heads, he can tell us a great deal more about our books" (p. 190). I would say that if we ponder the archetypes in The Lord of the Rings, they may tell us a great deal about the story, our "heads", and perhaps most importantly, our hearts.

The Triumph of the Monk by Johann Michael Rottmayr

The Triumph of the Monk by Johann Michael Rottmayr

The Hero

Jung's "Hero" archetype is embodied by Frodo, Aragorn, and Sam. Frodo and Sam are both childlike–vulnerable. That is one characteristic that is typical of the Hero. The Hero is also commonly divine or semi-divine. Aragorn is a distant descendant of Melian, who was of the Ainur race. Ainur (meaning "The Holy Ones") are similar to what we think of when we think of angels. Therefore, divinity was in Aragorn’s blood.

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Heroes usually start out far from heroic. At the beginning of the movie, Sam is too timid to even ask Rosie for a dance. Frodo has to literally push him into her. And when he stands at the outskirts of the Shire, Sam stops and says, "If I take one more step, it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been." He takes that next step only with Frodo’s encouragement. Aragorn has royal blood in his veins, but he has spent his life thus far running from who he was meant to be. He is afraid he is no better than his ancestor, Isildur, and that fear prevents him from seeing himself as a king. Frodo, on the other hand, seems to think he is ready to play the role of a hero. While still in the Shire, he finds out that Gandalf can not take the ring, nor is it safe for the ring to stay in the Shire. With a look of heroic resolve, he closes his hand around the ring and asks Gandalf, "What must I do?" Also, at the Council of Elrond, when squabbling breaks out, Frodo interrupts by boldly stepping forward and saying, "I will take it!" But the very fact that Frodo is at first so ready to become a hero shows that he is not ready at all. He doesn’t realize how weak he really is, or the vastness of the task ahead of him.

In analyzing the movie, I decided to think of Sam, Frodo, and Aragorn as a "composite hero". None of them, alone, is the hero. Only together, as a trio, do they form a complete hero, just as Sauron, The Ring, and The Eye all form the story's main villain. Nevertheless, I came to view Sam Gamgee as the greatest of the three. I later discovered that Tolkien himself agreed with me.

Himalayas near Tibet

Himalayas near Tibet

Part 2: The Mountains

So going on the idea that the movie actually means to symbolize the fight against evil in an individual soul, we go to the beginning of the movie. We are shown a map of Middle Earth, which quickly zooms in on Mordor. We might notice immediately that Mordor is surrounded by mountains. Mountains are, perhaps, the most prevalent aspect of the geography of this quest. They represent difficulty, as well as peril. Let’s say that the ring represents the evil within a person. In this quest, the Hero must journey to the source of the evil within (as Mordor is the source of the ring), that he may there destroy it. This inward journey is wrought with difficulty and danger, and the mountains highlight this fact.

The mountains represent the difficulties and perils that the external world may present to the inner journey. While the movie does not portray the physical world as inherently evil, it does show that evil can easily use the physical world in its efforts to destroy the soul. There is a scene in which the nine (The Fellowship of the Ring) attempt to cross over the Misty Mountains at the Redhorn Pass, which is located on Mt. Caradhras. According to Wikipedia, "The Misty Mountains were created by Melkor, who wanted to make it difficult for Orome . . . to pass" (emphasis added). Melkor was, in Tolkien’s mythology, almost the exact equivalent of Satan (more so than Sauron). Orome was an Ainu–a "Holy One"–as was Melkor. But Melkor had become evil, whereas Orome had not. So the mountains which stood in Frodo’s way as he tried to carry the ring to its source were created by the very personification of evil to make it difficult for a holy being to pass that way. I doubt this is coincidental.

Here is how I interpret the Misty Mountains, as they pertain to the heroes’ quest. The mountains represent all physical things–gold (wealth), sexual pleasures, or any other enticements the physical world may offer–used by Evil personified to ensnare the soul. The soul that would seek to find the source of the evil within him/her, in order to destroy that evil, must either rise above these things or go "through" them (experience them) without being trapped by them. So it comes down to a choice: the hero must either become an ascetic, or face the challenge of experiencing physical pleasures without letting them destroy him/her. As the Nine trek over the Redhorn Pass, white snow, bright sunlight, and high peaks give the scene a sense of beauty and wonder. The snow makes the landscape look very bare–naked. This reminds me of asceticism, with its emphasis on bare necessities. Going over the mountain, remember, represents taking the "high road" above physical entrapments. The majestic height of these peaks make me think of the lofty ideals and challenges represented by complete asceticism. An true ascetic seeks to scale high peaks indeed.

Although this scenery is beautiful, it also presents difficulty and danger. At times, the group is fighting against snow and wind for every foot of ground. Then Saruman realizes they are on the pass, and turns nature itself against them. This is a good example of a technique the movie employs often: showing weather as an extension of good or evil. When Saruman’s spies (a flock of birds) are approaching the mountain, the Nine see them from a great distance and think they are a "cloud". A short time later, Saruman’s incantations cause lightning to strike the mountain peak above them, sending a cascade of ice and snow down on the Nine. So the apparent "cloud", as well as the lightning, ice, and snow are here portrayed as an extension of an actively malevolent will that nearly kills the heroes.

Almost directly below the Redhorn Pass, beneath the mountain itself, was the site of Khazad-dûm, a glorious dwarf palace. The Nine pass through here, having decided to go under the mountain instead of over it. The construction of this fantastic palace had been financed by the Dwarves’ very lucrative mine at that location. But, as Sarumansays in the movie, "The dwarves delved too greedily and too deep" (emphasis added). They awoke a powerful demon deep within the earth, and ended up having to desert Khazad-dûm. The dwarves were ensnared by their love for wealth (physical things), and that greed was personified by the demon which they unleashed. So if we take the demon to represent greed, then Frodo and his group confronted greed under the mountain, but escaped unharmed. Recall that to go "through" the mountains was said to represent experiencing certain physical things, rather than avoiding them altogether (as an ascetic does). So it would be only natural that, in confronting these physical entrapments directly, one battle that might be fought is against greed.

Part 3: Violence

And that brings us to the use of violence in the movies. When the Fellowship confronts the Balrog (the demon) under the mountain, it is really a confrontation between good and evil. When he confronts the Balrog, Gandalf says, "I am a servant of the Secret Fire. . . . Dark fire will not avail you." So at the outset of this violent conflict, Gandalf contrasts two kinds of fire. According to Tolkien, this Secret Fire was similar to the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. It is not hard to deduce that the "dark fire" therefore represented a false, unholy counterpart. So the violence in this scene was actually a spiritual conflict between Holiness and unholiness, and Holiness had the clear advantage. When the Balrog swings a flaming sword at Gandalf, it shatters, unable to harm Gandalf. The bridge then collapses under the Balrog, fulfilling Gandalf’s prophecy, "You shall not pass!" Gandalf, or rather the Secret Fire which he serves, has won the battle almost effortlessly.

That’s right, the battle was a victory for Gandalf. The Balrog had been defeated, and that should have been the end of the matter. So why did Gandalf end up plunging into the abyss? The movie seems to answer this question very clearly. Gandalf is ensnared by the demon’s whip only at the very moment he completely turns his back on it. He let his guard down too quickly. "Evil", this scene is telling us, "does not stand a chance against anyone who is empowered by the Holy, unless that person let’s down his/her guard. The moment a person ceases to give due vigilance to the fight against evil, the moment they ‘turn their back’, they may be in for a long fall."

We later learn that Gandalf killed the Balrog, but died in the process (the book makes this a bit more clear than the movie). But then, according to Gandalf, "I felt life in me again." In other words, he rose from the dead. This resurrection makes Gandalf an obvious Christ figure. He died sacrificially, in the process of saving his friends. Having been resurrected, he becomes Gandalf "the White". White commonly symbolizes holiness.

Another instance of violence earlier in the movie also seemed to particularly highlight the conflict between good and evil, as well as Gandalf’s status as a Christ figure. This is when Gandalf is confronted by the treacherous Saruman. Upon learning about the One Ring, Gandalf gallops away to seek advice from his old friend and mentor. Upon speaking with Saruman, it quickly becomes apparent that his "friend" has sold his soul to Sauron in a sort of Faustian pact. There then proceeds a violent sequence which distinctly reminds me of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness.

First, before Gandalf yet realizes that Saruman has joined the enemy, he is seen with a glass of wine in his hand as he speaks with Saruman. Saruman must have offered Gandalf the wine, as Gandalf is his guest. Although Gandalf is seen holding the glass, he is never seen drinking from it. So the movie seems to be suggesting, ever so subtly, that Gandalf has been offered a form of "communion" with Saruman, but does not partake. This is a bit reminiscent of Satan’s suggestion to Christ to partake of bread (by transforming stones), and Christ’s subsequent refusal.

During the temptation of Christ, after Christ refused to eat bread, the devil had him stand on top of the highest pinnacle of the temple. He urged him to jump off, as God would surely send angels to "bear him up". When Christ refused, the devil took him to a high mountain, where he urged Christ to "fall down and worship" him in exchange for "all the kingdoms of the world". Of course, Christ did not capitulate. At the end of the ordeal, "the devil left him, and angels came and attended him" (Matthew 4:11).

After Gandalf’s first refusal to join Saruman in his service of Sauron, the two are later shown on top of the black tower called Orthanc. They struggle violently, and Gandalf is thrown down in front of Saruman, forced to lie prostrate before him. This reminded me of the devil’s request that Christ "fall down and worship" him. "Embrace the power of the ring," commands Saruman, "or embrace your own destruction." What, exactly, is this "power of the ring" that Gandalf is to embrace? The power of the ring, of course, is the power to rule over all kingdoms of Middle-earth. That is the very reason that Sauron created the ring. And what did the Devil offer Christ, on the condition that Christ would fall down and worship him? "All the kingdoms of the world." That Gandalf is being offered power by Saruman is evident when Gandalf replies that "[Sauron] does not share power."

Gandalf neither embraces the power of the ring, nor consents to lie prostrate before Saruman. With a few words of defiance, he get up and jumps off the tower. As he does so, a giant eagle "bears him up", as Christ was assured he would be born up by angels if he were to jump off the pinnacle of the temple. This eagle can be thought of as an angel of sorts, and it comes to Gandalf’s aid, much as angels finally came to Christ’s aid at the end of his temptation. "So, you have chosen death," says Saruman, but the scenery at that moment suggests that Gandalf has actually chosen life. He is flying. True, he is being carried by the eagle, but symbolically he is flying none the less. Below him are lofty mountain peaks, covered in pure white snow. Sunlight pours into the scene uninhibited. The brightness of both the snow and the sunlight, along with the fact that Gandalf is flying, combine to give an impression of purity, holiness, and triumph.


Part 4: The Shadow

Now to begin bringing this discussion to a conclusion, let’s return to the matter of the quest. The quest is always about self-knowledge, so the question that must be asked is this: what did the heroes learn about themselves by the end of the quest? The answer to that question lies in a further analysis of symbolism and archetypes.

The archetypes discussed thus far are Hero and Devil. One more archetype that should be discussed is "The Shadow". The shadow represents an irrational, instinctive aspect of the unconscious mind. It can be though of as embodying some of our more animalistic tendencies, our weaknesses, and our shortcomings. It is best represented by Gollum.

Gollum was ambiguous. He was neither good, nor completely evil. This fits well with how Jung described the shadow. In addition, I think the name Gollum has strong links to the figure of the "Golem" in Jewish folklore. The Golem is an ambiguous character, according to Jewish tradition. Although always imperfect (like the shadow), a Golem can be best thought of as "raw material" (which the etymology of its name suggests). It is doesn’t have its own essence, and is therefore very easy to control. This may be why Gollum so easily shifted his loyalty back and forth between the Ring and Frodo.

In any case, I think Gollum represented Frodo’s shadow. Gollum was once a hobbit, like Frodo. This makes sense, since the shadow is usually symbolized by a figure similar to oneself. As the movie progresses, Frodo becomes more and more like Gollum, indicating that his shadow is starting to take over. Since the shadow is instinctive, and not rational, it would easily fall under the sway of the ring. And as Frodo falls under the influence of his shadow, he also becomes more susceptible to the power of the Ring.

The turning point involves food. This is fitting. Since the shadow is closely involved with our animal instincts, a lack of food would cause a powerful and instinctive response from anyone controlled by the shadow. So when Frodo is lead to believe that Sam has been eating up their food supply, he turns against his friend and sides completely with Gollum. This is symbolic on another level as well. The food has been a form of communion between Frodo and Sam. It is their only source of sustenance, and every time they are seen eating it, they are eating it together (except once, when Sam let’s Frodo have his ration). It is a symbol of the closeness they share, the fact that they are in this struggle together, and the fact that Sam would give up his own life for Frodo (shown when Sam let’s Frodo eat his ration, and when Sam gives Frodo the last of his own water).

For Gollum, food doesn’t represent any of those things. When he eats, he tears into his bloody, raw meat like a famished wolf. The message is clear: for Gollum, food represents nothing more than his own survival. So when Frodo has become enough like Gollum, a lack of food is enough to make him turn against his friend. He imagines that Sam has been selfishly more concerned about his own survival, and has thus been eating up their bread. In fact, Frodo is projecting his own mind-set–now animalistic–on Sam. It is Frodo who has become more concerned about himself than his friend. It is Frodo who has broken their fellowship, which was symbolized by the food they once shared together.

By the end of the quest, the heroes have learned a lot about themselves, and this new self-knowledge has changed them in numerous ways. In The Return of the King, we see that the king (Aragorn) is indeed ready to return. That is, he is ready to claim his rightful position as king, having conquered his internal demons that have long plagued him with self-doubt. This is evident when Elrond presents him with the Sword of Elendil, saying, "Become who you were born to be." Aragorn is ready to do so. He takes the Sword of Elendil and goes to confront the King of the Dead, who demands of him, "Who enters my domain?" "One who will have your allegiance," replies Aragorn. By claiming a right to the King of the Dead’s allegiance, Aragorn is proclaiming himself to be the rightful king of Gondor. Frodo has learned much about himself as well. Towards the very end, he is writing, "How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep…that have taken hold." Here, we can be sure that the hurts that have "taken hold" are the hurts of painful self-knowledge. Frodo learned that he was not quite the hero he’d dreamed he could be. He learned that he was not impervious to the sway of evil–to the power of the ring. He learned that within him was the ability to betray a friend, to abandon the person who’d loved him the most. He’d discovered the depths of his weakness and his pride. Just before he had finally succumbed to the ring’s power, he’d been telling Sam, "You must understand, the Ring is my burden. It will destroy you, Sam." It was as if he was telling Sam not to imagine for a moment that his willpower was great enough to overcome the ring; that was something only he, Frodo, had the strength to do.

Looking back at everything, Frodo could only have grimaced, as if in pain, to think of just how wrong he had been. In fact, he did grimace, and in such a way as to make Sam ask, "Mr. Frodo? What is it?"

"...Weathertop," says Frodo, referring to the time he’d been stabbed by the Ringwraith. "It’s never really healed." But the old stab-wound was not the source of Frodo’s worst pain. Frodo’s pain was caused by the memory of his failings, his weaknesses, and the way he had treated his friend. His pain was caused by knowing just how close he had come to completely losing his soul. He had almost lost who he was. Like the Nazgûl, he would have become faceless–hollow inside. Always living, he would have been dead inside.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Justin Aptaker


Frodo Lives! on February 29, 2020:

This is a brilliant post - thank you!!

A few observations:

Tolkien in a Rotterdam speech once referred to Wizards who break things to get to know them. You can say this quest was designed to break Frodo (remember Frodo and Gandalf are the first two characters who start off the movie) to truly understand him and like you say that Frodo could truly understand himself (Know Thyself) including his shadow. You could recall Gandalf's advice to Frodo inside the mines - its not up to you, the only thing you can control is what you do with the TIME GIVEN TO YOU (the ring was given to Frodo). The ring as vampire is true and what is the one vampire that will suck away your life? Its TIME. As long as you have TIME you will not age (Bilbo doesn't age while he had the ring).

Another example of Wizards breaking things - you may recall how Gandalf tempts Pippin by taking away the Palanthir; which only perks the curiosity of Pippin (remember Pippin and Merry are shown as Thieves robbing vegetables at the beginning) and then Sauron enters Pippin's mind through the Palanthir and breaks him. This reminds me of the saying - if you stare long enough into the Abyss the Abyss stares back at you.

You're also right that the other characters in the movie are aspects of Frodo's persona (remember when Frodo stares into the water mirror with Galadriel - the first thing he sees after his own reflection are the other characters and then he sees enslavement). In the mirror Frodo sees that he is not free - there is an internal war going on.

Lastly the quest - to destroy the ring means that Frodo has to be willing to give up what time he has left. He has to be willing to die - to sacrifice himself which reminds me of Matthew 10:30 ("Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.")

Here's an article and poem (reading by Tolkien in Rotterdam) that if you read in the light of what we've discussed will completely make sense.


Daria on June 28, 2019:

Thank you so much! That's an incredible analysis of the story - many things have become much clearer.

Guilherme Chaban on February 10, 2019:

Amazing. Thank you.

Justin Aptaker (author) from United States on March 11, 2017:

Belated thank you!

Simon on April 19, 2014:

Many thanks for writing this, i've really enjoyed the read.

Justin Aptaker (author) from United States on March 02, 2012:

Thank you, Silver Poet and Silva Hayes :)

Silver Poet from the computer of a midwestern American writer on February 27, 2012:

I'm glad I stumbled across this hub. Your writing is really good, and your analysis is excellent. Voted up!

Silva Hayes from Spicewood, Texas on November 28, 2010:

Amazing analysis; the ring as a vampire! Incredible, and so well spoken. Thank you.

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