“I amar prestar sen: The world is changed. Han mathon ne nen… I feel it in the water, han mathon ne chae… I smell it in the air…a han noston ned wilith. I feel it in the earth. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.” –Galadriel (Walsh,Boyens, Jackson 1)
Thus it began, one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, and one that captivated (and
still does) the hearts of millions. It had done so in book form, written almost fifty-five years ago by J.R.R. Tolkien, as the first part in a trilogy called The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is preceded by a story called The Hobbit, a tale of thirteen dwarves, a wizard, and a hobbit who set out to reclaim a massive dwarven hoard that is guarded by a malicious dragon named Smaug. Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit in the story, finds his true place in the world as well as a magical ring; a ring with power to turn oneself invisible. However, we find through The Fellowship of the Ring, that Bilbo’s ring isn’t any old magical ring. As Gandalf the Grey, a wise wizard who is also in The Hobbit, says, “This is the one ring forged by the dark lord, Sauron, in the fires of Mount Doom…taken by Isildur from the hand of Sauron himself” (Walsh, Boyens, Jackson 27). In fact, we learn, as does Frodo Baggins, Bilbo’s cousin and heir that since the Ring was not destroyed, its maker and lord, Sauron has endured the ages and now gathers his strength to launch an assault on all free peoples of Middle Earth. Sauron is yearning for the Ring and Ring yearns for its master, “For the ring yearns, above all else, to return to the hand of its master: they are one, the ring and the dark lord. Frodo, he must never find out” (Walsh, Boyens, Jackson 27). With the knowledge of how evil this Ring truly is, Frodo desires to hide it from the Dark Lord but cannot do so because the evil in Mordor has found out where it lies; with the Baggins in
the Shire. “What must I do?” asks Frodo. Gandalf replies, “You must leave, and leave quickly. Get out of the Shire… Make for the village of Bree. (Walsh, Boyens, Jackson 30)” That is a brief view of the setting for the Lord of the Rings and the Fellowship of the Ring; although The Fellowship of the Ring is only the first part of the trilogy, it has the best character development and is beginning of a quest for Mount Doom, the only place where the Ring can be destroyed.
This movie has had a tremendous success in the box office and with all kinds of
merchandise, as well as winning four Academy Awards. However, it is not above criticism.
Though many have done so already with their own criteria for movie critique, I will do so using a very ancient and unpopular book of critique, namely Aristotle’s Poetics. It was written about 350 B.C. and is primarily concerned with analyzing drama and epic poetry. It is the earliest form of dramatic theory and philosophic criticism of literary theory. Very little of the book is written on anything else besides tragedy. One must realize that Tragedy was the bread and butter of the Greeks; it was their form of entertainment. They had huge competitions for drama, the greatest of which were tragedies. Film is a form of drama and this essay will examine The Fellowship of the Ring through the eyes of Aristotle. Although The Fellowship of the Ring is not per se, a tragedy in our eyes, it is most similar to a Greek tragedy play, especially since The Fellowship of the Ring is the first part of a trilogy where there is a plethora of suffering, hardships, and misfortunes along the way. The trilogy does not end in tragedy and that is one of the reasons why just The Fellowship of the Ring will be analyzed. Aristotle defines a tragedy as:
[Tragedy, then,] is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions (Part VI).
The Fellowship of the Ring is indeed a tale of action not a narrative similar to a history. In
a way, The Fellowship of the Ring is somewhat tragic since Frodo falls from an estate of
peace and prosperity to being on the run for his life in pursuit of a hopeless quest. This is
similar in essence to Oedipus Rex in the way that Oedipus once had peace and prosperity
(he was a king after all) and fell from that estate into misery to be cast into the wilderness
in pain and suffering. There three principles of tragedy that will be discussed in this essay
to analyze the film; plot, character, and thought. Plot is, according to Aristotle and most film critics, “the most important thing in Tragedy” (Part VII). Aristotle also calls it “the soul of tragedy” (Part VI). He defines it as “the arrangement of the incidents” (Part VI). Others might define it as “the series of events that give a story its meaning and effect” (Bedford St. Martins). This is one of the most beautiful things about The Fellowship of the Ring, its beautiful plot. One of Aristotle’s first characteristics of a plot is that it must have “beginning, middle, and an end” (part VII).
Even though it is only the first part of a trilogy it will be worthwhile to examine if it does have a beginning, a middle, and an end; if it holds up to the most ancient critical theory of drama. This may sound very simple and rather meaningless but Aristotle does not treat it so. He defines everything including the “beginning” of a tragedy. “A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be” (Part VII); this means that it has to have nothing happening before it and has to naturally lead to something. If one closely examines the actual beginning of the book, The Fellowship of the Ring, it would seem that it does have a beginning at the party; however, in order for one to understand how Bilbo got the ring and what the means, you must read The Hobbit, the prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Therefore, I do not necessarily think that the book has an Aristotelian beginning, but does the movie? The movie opens with a narration, a chorus if you will, of the events preceding the time of The Fellowship of the Ring. Galadriel, an Elvish queen we meet later in the movie, relates the tale of how the Great Rings were made and of the evil Ring that was made by the Dark Lord Sauron. “It began”, she says, “with the forging of the Great Rings” (Walsh, Boyens, Jackson 1). This would indeed be a beginning point for the events that are seen in the rest of the movie. She tells of how Sauron made the Ring and used to nearly conquer all of Middle Earth. She tells of the War of the Last Alliance where Men and Elves marched against Sauron and defeated him and also of how the Ring, taken by Isildur, falls into the river beside the Gladden Fields and is found and taken by Sméagol, also known as Gollum. Galadriel does not stop there and tells of how the Ring was obtained by Bilbo in Gollum’s cave. She does a remarkable job of setting the stage for the remainder of the film and, in the meantime, displays the character of the Ring, of its evil and its power to seduce and corrupt. Some critics who are more skeptical of the film, who after watching the extended edition, will say that the film is improved since nearly all the scenes are extended including the ring’s origins (Null). This goes to say that the context of the movie is well put together and does offer a substantial beginning, an Aristotelian beginning. The movie may very well have an excellent beginning, as it is the first part in a trilogy, but does the movie have a middle and an end?
As far as completing the series, the story of The Lord of the Rings; it does not. Aristotle defines the remaining terms as a “middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it” and an end “is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it” (part VII). I would say that most people would agree with me in saying that The Two Towers is the middle, the climax of the trilogy, but where is the middle or climax in The Fellowship of the Ring? According to some, the climax is found farther along in the movie when Gandalf falls over the chasm after the Balrog in the Mines of Moria (Sparknotes). Some might also say that in that case, there are many climaxes to The Fellowship. One might say that Frodo being stabbed on Weathertop would be a climax since he carries the scar all his life and it plagues him until the very end of the trilogy when he goes to the Undying Lands. Some might also say that it when he decides to bear the Ring on the quest to Mount Doom at the Council of Elrond since his decision changes the rest of his life and sets the trilogy in motion with the quest for Mount Doom. Others might say it the climax is when Boromir dies at Amon Hen since
his death left the Fellowship of the Ring with only seven companions. I think these are all
plausible yet personally I think that Frodo’s choice at the Council of Elrond is the climax
since his choice changes his life, the life of others, and the fate of Middle earth forever. I
think even Galadriel would agree since she herself said that, “For the time will soon come
when Hobbits will shape the fortunes of all” (Walsh, Boyens, Jackson 1). That is my
reasoning why Frodo’s choice at the Council of Elrond is the climax of the movie. Now
does the film have an end?
Physically it does but it does not in the sense of the plot line. At the end of the movie, we are left with two characters dead (Gandalf and Boromir), two taken by Orcs (Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took), three who pursue those who are taken (Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli), and two who are steadfast to the quest for Mount Doom (Frodo and Sam). That is what we are left with and if we just watch The Fellowship, that’s all we would know. Therefore I would say that The Fellowship of the Ring does not have an Aristotelian end.
The next criterion under the subheading of Plot is the idea of “unity of the plot” (part VIII). According to Barbara McManus this means that “the plot must be structurally
self-contained, with the incidents bound together by internal necessity, each action leading inevitably to the next with no outside intervention, no deus ex machina”. In other words, the plot must not have any kind of coincidence involved in the plot; however, if it does, It must look like there is some kind of divine providence or purposeful intervention involved. This is actually seen in the movie where Gandalf and Frodo are talking about the Ring in the Mines of Moria. Frodo speaks despondently to Gandalf about his task of taking the Ring to Mordor and Gandalf encourages him,
So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the ring. In which case, you also were meant to have it…and that is an encouraging thought… (Walsh, Boyens, Jackson 90)
This would say that there is some guiding force outside of the story, however, it would
not be “episodic”, a horrific mistake according to Aristotle. The rest of the plot in the
movie is very sequential in that the events happen one after another in a very systematic
The next level of criteria for plots is does is it have magnitude both in length and
seriousness? I would say it certainly does, especially in the length part, although some
dislike it for that very reason. The original (theater) version is three hours long, the
extended edition, my own preferred version of the movie, is almost three and a half hours
long and, as Christopher Null said in his film review on The Fellowship of the Ring,
“Well, even skeptical me has to admit that the film is improved by its extra exposition”.
The movie also has a great deal of seriousness involved since the story is a little more
“realistic” in terms of being a true struggle of Good vs. Evil. The battles and hardships in
the movie are closer to heart and whatever is decided there affects the rest of life; this is
very realistic. This movie certainly does have more themes and incidents which make it a
better plot than something shorter, making this very sound according to Aristotelian
The final criterion for plots is that they be complex and have two elements; reversal and recognition. Reversal “is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity” (part XI). The biggest example of this would be when Frodo, who lived in peace and prosperity in the Shire, learns the truth about the evil that Ring possesses and flees from the enemy to destroy the Ring. This is similar to when Oedipus realizes what he has done in regard to marrying his mother and having daughters and sisters by her and gouges his eyes out and revokes his life of prosperity for a life of wandering and exile. Frodo’s life becomes very fragile as encounters things that he would not have encountered in his nice warm hobbit hole in the Shire. “Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune” (part XI). So recognition in The Fellowship of the Ring is the passive action of Frodo becoming cognitive of the evil of the Ring and reversal is the actual action of him leaving the Shire into various dangers where he is stabbed by the Nazgul and nearly dies at the end of the quest in The Return of the King, the third part of The Lord of the Rings.
Now for the second most important thing in tragedy; Character, the character of the players that supports the plot. Here I will briefly examine several of the main characters and how they support the plot. Frodo Baggins, the main character of the story, is the central figure upon which the entire story swings. In fact, the entire fate of the people of Middle Earth rest in his hands for he bears the Ring to Mordor to be destroyed. In Aristotelian terms, Frodo would have all the six characteristics namely he is “good or fine” (morally relative to his class), has “fitness of character” (true to type), is “true to life” (realistic), has “consistency” (true to themselves), is “necessary or probable” (in regard to the plot), and is “true to life and yet more beautiful” (idealized, ennobled) (part XV). So would all the characters especially since they are all “true to type” and morally sound as far as their allegiance lies. Aragorn is very kingly and has a great devotion to being a leader and maintains this throughout the trilogy. Gandalf is wise and never falls even in with his status of power. Sam is faithful to his master throughout the entire trilogy and though he is of a lesser class than Frodo (something which may break the Aristotelian theme the movie is maintaining); he is morally stronger than Frodo and must do so in the plot to keep Frodo on his course. Boromir, given his status as a “prince” and a warrior is true to those qualities though he wavers on the moral side; however, he redemptively is restored to good. Arwen maintains her small role of being a moral woman yet even she breaks the Aristotelian record by being somewhat of a female warrior in the way she confronts the Nazgul. These are just a few of the characters who do show some Aristotelian consistency with character.
The final principle of Aristotelian Tragedy is Thought; “that is, the faculty of saying what is possible and pertinent in given circumstances” (part VI). Aristotle also described Thought as being character expressed in the speeches as well as some moral theme (part VI). There are several lines which render this Aristotelian idea of thought. An excellent example of someone’s character being expressed in the lines would be when Frodo offers the Ring to Gandalf. Gandalf being a stalwart, wise, good wizard; turns the Frodo’s offer rather harshly in order to reinforce his own conscience by saying, “Don’t tempt me, Frodo. I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe. Understand, Frodo…I would use this Ring from a desire to do good…but through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine” (Walsh, Boyens, Jackson 30). His speech and character are synonymous with one another and this is seen throughout the movie. Sam’s steadfast character is expressed in his speech when he says, “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo…a promise. ‘Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee.’ And I don’t mean to…I don’t mean to” (Walsh, Boyens, Jackson 116). Sam’s steadfastness is also spoken of in the beginning of the movie when they are in the cornfield, “He said…’Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee.’ And I don’t mean to” (Walsh, Boyens, Jackson 38). Sam’s character is maintained through the entire trilogy. There are quite a few lines throughout the trilogy which have a hidden moral or redemptive theme. The best example in The Fellowship of the Ring is when Gandalf and Frodo are talking together in the Mines of Moria and Gandalf says,
Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment…even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many. So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the ring. In which case, you also were meant to have it…and that is an encouraging thought… (Walsh, Boyens, Jackson 90).
These statements by Gandalf are very moral in the way that they speak of giving mercy
rather than judgment and about deciding what to do with the time that is given us; a
statement very similar to the Christian idea of doing all things to the glory of God, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians
10:31). Many of the lines within the movie are pertinent to the various events that happen; for instance, when Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin find out that Gandalf is not coming to meet them at Bree; Sam says, “What do we do now?” (Walsh, Boyens, Jackson 45).
(Frodo) “Mordor! I hope the others find a safer road.” (Sam) “Strider’ll look after them.” (Frodo) “I don’t suppose we’ll ever see them again.” (Sam) “We may yet, Mr. Frodo. We may.” (Frodo) Sam? I’m glad you’re with me.”
Thus the Fellowship ended after three hours of intriguing adventure (in my opinion) through various trials similar to Christian in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress or Homer’s Odyssey. I think it is important to realize that not all ancient things are quite useless as many college students sadly believe; as Gandalf wrote in a letter to Frodo, “The old that is strong does not wither” (Tolkien 182). Such it is with Aristotle’s Poetics, an ancient work that can still be used to analyze modern drama, literature, poetry, and even film! It is surprising to see how many Aristotelian tragic qualities there are in this film, all pertaining to plot, character, and thought. Although not all exist, particularly Aristotle’s idea of an end of a plot, in The Fellowship of the Ring, most do which makes this movie so much more majestic. Its character development and steadfastness to the actual book make this movie, in my opinion, the best movie ever produced and I cannot stop watching it.
Butcher, S. H. trans. “Poetics by Aristotle” The Internet Classics Archive. Daniel C.
Stevenson. 1994-2009. Web. 13 November 2009.
“Definition of Plot”. Elements of Fiction. Bedford St. Martins. N.d. Web. 13 November
McManus, Barbara. “Outline of Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy in the Poetics”. Barbara
McManus: Professor of Classics Emerita. College of New Rochelle. November 1999. Web. 13 November 2009.
Null, Christopher. “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” FilmCritic. N.p.
2001. Web. 13 November 2009.
“The Fellowship of the Ring”. Sparknotes. N.p. N.d. Web. 13 November 2009.
Tolkien , J.R.R.. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1965. Print