A Brief Synopsis of The Lord of the Rings

One of the often-recurring requests on the newsgroup rec.arts.books.tolkien is from students requesting a synopsis of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic work The Lord of the Rings. The work is extremely long, and because of this many students simply can't find the time to give the work a thorough reading before giving a written report on it. In the interests of cutting down the number of requests for this material, I have written a short synopsis of the three volumes which make up the Lord of the Rings as well as an accompanying synopsis for Tolkien's posthumous book The Silmarillion.

As an added supplement, I have also listed some possible topics for term-papers and book reports for those who don't feel a desire to come up with their own.

Of course, I feel compelled to point out that a much better understanding of Tolkien's work can be achieved by reading the actual books; it's well worth the effort. If you simply don't like to read, however, I'm sure the following synopsis and suggestions will help you make the grades you obviously deserve.


Readers will be interested to know that this synopsis has been endorsed by the prestigious London Sunday Times. At least, they thought it was accurate enough for them.

The Lord of the Rings:
Vol. I: The Fellowship of the Ring
Vol. II: The Two Towers
Vol. III: The Return of the Kings

The Silmarillion


Suggestions for Possible Term Paper Topics


Vol. I - THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING:

The story starts with the twentieth birthday-party for Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit who lives with his brother Sam in a mythical land called the Shire. Frodo owns a magic Ring which makes him invisible when he wears it, a gift from his cousin Bilbo who stole it from the hoard of a Dragon years ago.
One day the old wizard Gandalf comes to the Shire, and he tells Frodo of an evil being named Sauron who wants to capture the Ring for himself. In ages long past Sauron stole the Ring from the Elves, to protect him from the Powers of Good; but the Ring was stolen from him by a creature named Gollum,and then stolen from Gollum by the Dragons, and then from the Dragons by Bilbo, who finally gives it freely to Frodo. "Sauron has been searching for the Ring for years," Gandalf tells Frodo, "and now he has sent his ally, the evil Witch-king, to the Shire to look for it." Frodo and Sam consult with their loyal friends Merry and Pipsqueak, and when the evil Witch-king appears with his nine servants the clever hobbits trick them into going into a mushroom-patch, disorienting the witches just long enough to escape the Shire.
But the tone of the book rapidly becomes more serious as the Witch-king and his evil servants pursue the hobbits through the forest. Frodo discovers that the witches have destroyed the village of Bree, and the Witch-king uses a magic spell to burn down the home of their old friend Tom Bombadil. Frodo, horrified, wants to go back and fight the evil witches, but at a hill called Weathertop he meets a noble man named Aragorn who convinces him to go to the city of Rivendell. "In Rivendell you will be safe from their magic," Aragorn tells him, "for Elrond is a sensible man, and does not believe in it." With that Aragorn leads them rapidly to Rivendell, with the witches in hot pursuit. As they ford the last river between them and Rivendell the Witch-king casts a spell on the river-water, causing it to rise up and try to drown them; only Frodo's quick thinking can save them, and he uses the power of the Ring to make all the water evaporate into fog. The fog is so thick that the Witch-king and his servants become hopelessly lost, and our heroes make it to the safety of Rivendell.
At Rivendell, Elrond holds a Council where the fate of the Ring is discussed. The only way to keep Sauron from recovering the Ring, they decide, is to throw it into the volcano of Mount Doom where it will be destroyed. During the Council Gandalf arrives late, saying that he had been held prisoner in the tower of Orthanc, the Wizards' Tower. Curiously, he refuses to describe how he escaped. "But it is more important than ever that we destroy the Ring," Gandalf says, "for now the other Wizards know of it, and seek it as well." He tells of how the dark wizard Saruman, once an ally of the forces of Good, has turned to evil and now controls Orthanc with an iron hand, and how the other Wizards are roaming the countryside seeking the Ring for themselves. They all agree to set out to destroy the Ring at once.
Gandalf and Aragorn agree to go with the four Hobbits, as does Glorfindel, a descendant of the ancient ruler Ar-Pharazon, and Boromir, from the Royal House of Gondor; also joining them are an Elf and a Dwarf who don't really do much in the story but are there for comic relief. Together Gandalf and his nine companions - the "Fellowship of the Ring", as they call themselves - set out for the dark land of Mordor.
On the way, their path is repeatedly beset by evil forces. First they are attacked by evil Orcs in the woods; next they are driven into the dark forest of Lothlorien, where they are imprisoned by the beautiful but evil Queen Beruthiel. They make their escape when Beruthiel's good sister, Galadriel, frees them from their prison-cell and floats them down the river in barrels. After that they think it best to leave the woods and head to Moria, the secret city under the mountains; here, however, they face a terrifying setback when they are found by the evil wizard Radagast. Gandalf sacrifices his life to destroy Radagast the Balrog, and the others escape the mountains while the battle rages. At the end of the book, however, the Fellowship is destroyed from within; Glorfindel, lusting for power, tries to kill Frodo for the Ring. Aragorn stops Glorfindel by shooting him through the throat with a black arrow; Glorfindel dies, but not until he maliciously sets fire to the grasslands. In the resulting smoke and confusion the Fellowship of the Ring is hopelessly scattered.


Vol. II - THE TWO TOWERS:

Well, everybody ends up running around Middle-earth in different directions. Aragorn and that Dwarf and Elf whose names I can't remember go to this place with lots of horses, but inexplicably they have no racetrack. Boromir heads South to Gondor alone, bearing a parchment he has taken from Glorfindel describing the Royal House of Gondor; he speaks to no one as he leaves, consumed with some new private worry. Merry and Pipsqueak get kidnapped by forty-foot-high walking trees, but as the story goes on they convince the trees that it's best to be kind to strangers; the lesson is well-learned, and when Aragorn and the others arrive the trees welcome them with open limbs. Just as this reunion is taking place Gandalf reappears, having ultimately defeated the evil Radagast; he reveals that there were actually two of him all along, and the other one is still trapped at Orthanc, now under the control of the wizard Saruman, Gandalf's half-brother. Everybody goes to Orthanc and frees Gandalf's twin, but the first Gandalf dies fighting Saruman at the top of Zirak-Ziogi, the great mountain of Japan. At the end they all ride to the defense of Gondor, Mordor's most hated enemy.
Meanwhile Frodo and Sam are captured by the evil Gollum, but they are rescued by Faramir, Boromir's cousin, who has escaped the people of Gondor. Faramir reveals that he had to leave Gondor because Boromir and his brother Denethor have ordered that he be killed; Faramir is the true heir to the kingdom, but Boromir and Denethor wish to go on ruling Gondor themselves. Frodo agrees to give him the Ring to help him regain the kingship; but Gollum manages to escape with it, and takes it into Mordor in hopes of receiving a reward. Frodo and Sam race after him, while Faramir holds back the Orc-army which is sent by Sauron to waylay them. Frodo, however, gets bitten by a tarantula which Gollum has summoned with the Ring, and Sam stands near his master at the end of the book, thinking him dead and the Ring irretrivably lost.


Vol. III - THE RETURN OF THE KINGS:

Everyone except Frodo and Sam arrives at the kingdom of Gondor, and though the people of Gondor are amazed and frightened at first by the huge army of walking trees that accompany them, everyone smiles and accepts them when Gandalf and Aragorn reveal themselves. The brothers Denethor and Boromir, however, see that Aragorn brings knowledge from the North which will give their kingship over to Faramir, the true King, and so they secretly conspire against him. And so later on, when the forces of Mordor arrive to attack Gondor, they successfully plot to have Aragorn positioned so he must face the Witch-King in single combat. The battle is too much for Aragorn, and just as he is about to die he is saved by Eowyn, a woman of Rohan who loves him, and Merry, who slays the Witch-king in single combat by using ancient hobbit-magic and so reveals himself to be the lost Thain of the Shire. Even as the forces of Mordor retreat, they are swept into the Sea by great ships brought by Faramir, the true Prince of Dol Amroth, from the hidden city of Osgiliath further up the Great River.
Meanwhile Sam chases the tarantula back to the lair of Ungoliant, the Queen of Spiders, and after a tense argument about the nature of good and evil she finally reveals to Sam the cure for the spider's-venom which holds Frodo in thrall. Sam thanks Ungoliant for her mercy and wisdom and revives Frodo, and they set off into Mordor to find Gollum. "Oft help will come from the weak when the Wise are foolish," Gandalf once said, and sure enough all the spiders of Mordor are willing to help Frodo and Sam in their quest. Their course leads them to Mount Doom, where just as they arrive they find Gollum claiming the Ring for himself. The Dark Lord Sauron then becomes aware of them, and leaves the Dark Tower to come forth and destroy them; but just them Frodo and Sam rush Gollum and force him backwards into the Cracks of Doom. The Ring is destroyed, and without it Sauron is destroyed by the sunlight. Frodo and Sam leave the Mountain just in time to see the great armies of Aragorn and Faramir coming across the plains of Mordor to greet them.
Boromir and Denethor are driven away from Gondor forever, but mercifully spared by King Faramir, and Aragorn is revealed to be the long-lost King of Arnor, the North-Kingdom of old. "Yet you may still rule the Shire," he says to Merry the Thain, "for with Mordor fallen, there may be kingships enough for all." The heroism of Frodo and Sam is sung in Gondor and Arnor for long ages, and even Pipsqueak finds honor in his new role as Faramir's bootblack. "There's room for advancement in this job," he tells the other hobbits knowingly, his eyes on Faramir's crown. Faramir smiles at Pipsqueak's jest and tells him he will always be welcome wherever he goes. (Indeed, the Appendices note that Pipsqueak's journeys take him far and wide in later years, and he becomes the best-known hobbit of them all.)
The other hobbits eventually return to the Shire, only to find it corrupted and in chaos because of an onslaught of evil Men; they eventually find the evil brothers, Denethor and Boromir, trying to set themselves up as dictators of the Shire. Frodo and Merry fight the evil brothers hand-to-hand and slay them at the very door of Bag-end. Merry takes up the Thainship, and at the end they all go West to the shores of the Sea, there to bid Gandalf farewell as he sails back across the Sea and into Heaven, for he was an Elven-king all along who was trying to improve the relations between Elves and Men long-sundered, and now he had found his reward.


THE SILMARILLION:

Well, this book is really complicated, but I'll try to hit the high points real quickly. Maybe someday, when I have more time, I can improve on this.
God created the angels, and the angels created the world. But the Elves created the Silmarils, the Great Jewels, and fought over them for generations until Melkor, one of the greatest angels, took them away for safekeeping. But Melkor's brother Morgoth stole the Silmarils, and the Elves swore they would fight the angels forever until they got the Silmarils back. The story is an allegory for greed, and also a tale JRRT told to demonstrate that you can never hope to fight God. In the end a brave Man named Beren steals the Silmarils from Morgoth, and when the Elves try to kill him to get them back (this is where the estrangement of Elves and Men occurs, which is to haunt JRRT's other works), he gives them to his son Earendil to take across the Sea and back to Heaven. And that's how peace is restored to Middle-earth.


Possible Subjects for Lord of the Rings Term Papers

1. Brothers in the Lord of the Rings. Many of the characters in Tolkien's work have brothers, or sometimes sisters, who demonstrate different aspects of their families' beliefs. You could write a paper contrasting the many family relationships, such as the way Frodo is helped by his brother Sam, the way Denethor and his brother Boromir conspire, and the way Feanor is assisted by his brother Feenamint. Contrast this to the sharp differences seen in other Tolkien families, such as Beruthiel and her sister Galadriel, Melkor and his brother Morgoth, and Gandalf and his half-brother Saruman.

2. True Royalty. One recurring theme of Lord of the Rings is the theme of good royalty defeating tainted royalty. Just as Faramir defeats his evil cousins to reclaim the Throne of Gondor, Aragorn restores the Kingdom of Arnor with his marriage to Eowyn. Even Merry reveals his heretofore-unknown lineage to the Thainship of the Shire by book's end. Remembering that Tolkien wrote this book even as Queen Elizabeth was taking the throne of England when King Edward VIII abdicated and married a commoner, write a paper showing the influence of Tolkien's aristocracy beliefs on his work.

3. Use of Fire in Lord of the Rings. Whenever the forces of evil try to strike a blow in Tolkien's work, they almost always use fire. Denethor tries to set fire to Faramir; Glorfindel sets fire to the grasslands; Radagast tries to set fire to Gandalf. Even the dragon in The Hobbit tries to set fire to LakeTown; and Queen Beruthiel, while she never actually sets fire to anybody, is portrayed as an incessant chain-smoker, "waving the fire about in her hand like a hot poker" (Fellowship of the Ring, towards chapter seven). You could write a pretty fair paper on the use of fire in Tolkien's works. Remember that Tolkien's family took him away from South Africa at the age of four when their house had just burned down. Maybe it left a lasting impression.


Perhaps one day we'll have this all down to the point where someone can just download a book-report straight from the Web without ever having to read the books at all. Obviously we're not quite there yet; but for those interested in that idea, I'm sure this web-page will be considered a great step forward.


This Synopsis Endorsed By The London Sunday Times
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