Structuralism is a mode of literary criticism that seeks to investigate patterns and structures if you will within texts of a specific genre of literature, not to deduce meaning from literature. Since it deals with concrete ideas such as plots, characters, imagery, etc, structuralism deals with a work of literature in a broad manner, not as an individual work. It treats the study of one of those items in one work of literature as a model for that specific genre. Structuralism also deals with language in regards to signs, signifiers, etc. There are many genres of literature but none is more fascinating to me than the genre of fantasy novel; a genre which has become more and more popular since the advent of the 20th century. There is one particular series (though the author never intended it to be a series or trilogy) that I consider as surpassing all other books within that genre (though this is my opinion)—The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s novel is quite large and its plot is quite unique but is the plot structure unique to that novel or is it fairly standard for fantasy novels? The Lord of the Rings has a unique plot structure that can be applied to the whole of fantasy literature as a model. Within the idea of plot in fantasy literature there are often significant signs or images that will also be investigated to see how fantasy literature plot structure works as whole. Critical treatises by Tzvetan Todorov and Ferdinand Saussure shall be consulted as guides for exploring plot structure and imagery in this series of novels.
First, let us look at plot structures in The Lord of Rings as it is laid out in Tzvetan Todorov article “Structural Analysis of Narrative” from Leitch’s anthology of Literary Criticism. Plot is that underlying structure of a narrative which gives a story a beginning, middle, and end. Plots also give a narrative purpose and meaning. However, our task is not to find meaning in the text; our goal is to find the underlying structure of plot so as to understand plot in fantasy literature (Todorov 2029). As Todorov did in his article, I shall describe the plot of The Lord of the Rings in its three parts: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. These plot summaries (or at least the first two books) are actually taken from a summary done by Tolkien at the beginning of The Return of the King, the third installment of the trilogy.
The Fellowship of the Ring tells how Gandalf the Grey, a wizard, finds out that a ring possessed by Frodo Baggins is actually the One Ring, created by the Dark Lord Sauron in the fires of Orodruin (Mount Doom); this Ring rules all other Rings of Power—“One Ring to rule them all” (Tolkien vii, v). After learning the true evil of the Ring, Frodo and his hobbit companions fled from their beloved home in the Shire to Rivendell, the house of Elrond with the help of Aragorn, a Ranger, whilst being pursued by Ringwraiths of Mordor (Tolkien vii). While there in Rivendell, a great council was convened to decide how they, the free peoples of Middle Earth, should destroy the Ring (Tolkien vii). Frodo was appointed Ringbearer to bear the Ring to Mount Doom to destroy it; that is the only way they can destroy it (Tolkien vii). Nine companions volunteered to assist Frodo in his quest: Gandalf the Grey, Aragorn, Boromir, Legolas, Gimli, Samwise Gamgee, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and Peregrin Took (Tolkien vii). All these were of differing races, men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits (Tolkien vii). The nine companions set out from Rivendell ever east and north until they came to the mountain of Caradhas where they could not pass (Tolkien vii). Unable to cross over the mountain, they went under going through the Mines of Moria, an ancient and former colony of dwarves (Tolkien vii). While traveling in the Mines, the Fellowship becomes aware that they are followed by the creature Gollum who desires to take back the Ring for himself (Tolkien vii). Just before exiting the mines, Gandalf engages a deadly spirit of the underworld in combat and falls down a mighty abyss with the monster (Tolkien vii). Aragorn, the exiled heir of the throne of Gondor, leads the Fellowship to Lothlorien where they are refreshed in body and spirit under the care of the Lady Galadriel (Tolkien vii). After departing Lothlorien, the Fellowship goes by boat on the river Anduin to the Falls of Rauros, desiring to cross the river at nightfall and go east to Mordor (Tolkien viii). Boromir, desiring to take the Ring to aid his city, tries to take the Ring by force from Frodo but Frodo evades (Tolkien viii). The Fellowship of the Ring ends with the fall of Boromir to the Ring, the disappearance of Frodo and Sam, and the scattering of the Fellowship due to an attack by Orcs (Tolkien viii).
Next, The Two Towers recounts the deeds of the Fellowship after their breaking at the Falls of Rauros (Tolkien viii). Since Meriadoc (Merry) and Peregrin (Pippin) are taken by the Orcs, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli decide to pursue the Orcs who took them (Tolkien viii). But before they do this they bury Boromir who died valiantly to save the hobbits from the Orcs (Tolkien viii). While pursuing the Orcs over the Plains of Rohan, the threesome is overtaken by Riders of Rohan, led by Éomer the Marshal who had just returned from destroying the Orcs that had captured Merry and Pippin (Tolkien viii). They give the threesome horses to go search for the hobbits at the forest of Fangorn (Tolkien viii). In vain they search for the Hobbits since Merry and Pippin had escaped from the Orcs during their battle with Éomer’s horsemen and fled into Fangorn forest where they met Treebeard, an Ent. “In his company they witnessed the rousing of the wrath of the Tree-folk and their march on Isengard” (Tolkien viii). As the three hunters enter Fangorn, they meet up with Gandalf, returned from the dead, now Gandalf the White but still veiled in Grey (Tolkien viii). The four then ride to Edoras where Gandalf heals King Théoden from the spells of Wormtongue, agent of the traitor Saruman (Tolkien viii). Gandalf and the others ride with the King to Helm’s Deep, the great fortress of Rohan to battle against the armies of Saruman (Tolkien). They defeated the armies of Saruman and then rode with Gandalf to Isengard where they saw the whole place after it had been ruined by the Ents under Treebeard (Tolkien viii). After Gandalf dismisses Saruman from the Order of Wizards and they take a palantir (Wormtongue threw it at Gandalf but missed) back to Edoras (Tolkien viii). Overcome by curiosity, Pippin looked into it and was therefore revealed to Sauron (Tolkien viii). A ringwraith flew over Edoras and Gandalf, giving the palantir to Aragorn, took Pippin with him to Minas Tirith in Gondor (Tolkien viii-ix). The book then turns to the travels of Frodo and Sam as they leave the fellowship (Tolkien ix). They get lost in the Emyn Muil but soon meet up with Gollum who leads them out and into the Dead Marshes (Tolkien ix). After crossing the Dead Marshes they end up at the Black Gate of Mordor but are unable to enter safely (Tolkien ix). Hearing of another passageway into Mordor that Gollum knows, the three go to the Forest of Ithilien where Frodo and Sam meet with Faramir, the brother of Boromir (Tolkien ix). Faramir soon learns of their quest but does not succumb to the same temptation that his brother did and lets them go on their way into the Mountains of Shadow with fresh supplies (Tolkien ix). As they travel into Mordor, they pass Minas Morgul, the fortress of the Ringwraiths but pass by and scale a treacherous path into the mountains near Cirith Ungol or Shelob’s Lair (Tolkien ix). Once they enter the spider’s lair, Gollum turns evil again and leads them straight into Shelob (Tolkien ix). Sam wounds Shelob but not before she stings Frodo and leaves him paralyzed (Tolkien ix). Thinking that Frodo is dead, Sam takes his sword and the Ring and assays to go on the quest for Mount Doom himself (Tolkien ix). But before he can do so, he hides from some Orcs and learns that Frodo is not dead but paralyzed (Tolkien ix). The Two Towers ends with Frodo being captured by Orcs and Sam unable to get to him in the tower (Tolkien ix).
The third part, The Return of the King, tells of the opposing strategies of Gandalf and Sauron until the final moment and the end of the reign of darkness (Tolkien ix). The first part of the final installment recounts the battles of men against Sauron at Minas Tirith under the command of Gandalf. Upon meeting the Steward of the City Lord Denethor (the father of Faramir and Boromir), Pippin becomes a citadel guard and enters the Steward’s service (Tolkien 766). Minas Tirith begins making preparations for war and lights the beacons to get Rohan to aid them 756). Back in Rohan, Théoden makes preparations to go to war to aid Gondor and rides with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli to Dunharrow to assemble the men of Rohan. Aragorn is met with Halbarad who tells him of the prophecy that he should go to the Paths of Dead to get help to defeat Sauron (Tolkien 784). Gimli and Legolas agree to go with him and so they part ways with Merry and the King of Rohan to enter the paths of the Dead (Tolkien 790). Aragorn and his company pass through the Paths of the Dead whereupon they summon a great dead army to help them defeat the Corsairs of Umbar (Tolkien 799). Meanwhile in Rohan, Théoden and his army ride forth to Gondor where Minas Tirith is under siege by Mordor. Back in Minas Tirith, Gandalf takes over the defense of the city but the armies of Mordor assail the first and second levels before help from Rohan arrives on the Fields of Pelennor. Théoden leads his men in a valiant charge and almost routs the enemy but the Witch King of Angmar, the chief of the Ringwraiths, slays Théoden on the battle field (Tolkien 850). Then out of nowhere comes Dernhelm, actually Eowyn, Éomer’s sister, and she and Merry slay the Witch King (Tolkien 851). After this victory, the captains of the West, Aragorn, now heir apparent, decide what to do next (Tolkien 892). They march on the Black Gate and there await a final battle with the Dark Lord’s forces. While all this is going on, Sam rescues Frodo from the clutches of the Orcs and they cross the plains of Gorgoroth to Mount Doom. There they met up with Gollum again (who had previously disappeared after Sam’s wounding of Shelob) who tried once again to take the Ring from Frodo. Sam holds Gollum off while Frodo goes inside the Mountain to destroy the Ring (Tolkien 955). Frodo, overcome with a desire for the Ring at the last moment, tries to claim it but is tackled by Gollum (Tolkien 957). Gollum bites Frodo’s finger off and takes the Ring for himself but with a cry of “Precious!” he falls into the fiery mountain and perishes with the Ring (Tolkien 957). Sauron is then destroyed and Frodo and Sam rescued by Gandalf on very large Eagles. They are given a heroes’ welcome and see Aragorn become King. After this they journey back to the Shire to see it in shambles under the tyranny of Saruman. They raise the people of the Shire to beat out the enemy and rebuild the Shire to its former state. Even with the Ring gone and peace at hand, Frodo feels unable to enjoy the peace of the Shire and goes with Gandalf and the elves to the Undying Lands (Tolkien 1042). Thus The Lord of the Rings ends.
So how does this plot look structurally? Although I have summarized the book in its three parts, the book is meant to be taken as a whole as therefore so should our examination of the plot. First we see a state of supposed happiness and tranquility which is evidenced by Bilbo’s party and the lack of knowledge about the outside world in the Shire. But in the middle of the happiness a problem, which we can define as “a”, becomes aroused in our main characters’ ken and is realized as the source or thing that will destroy the happiness and freedom of the people before having a knowledge of “a”. “a” is what Todorov would call a “causal” agent (Leitch 2028). The protagonist of the story, in this case Frodo (or Sam according to some), is generally alerted to “a” by another character, generally some kind of older, much wiser man. This is Gandalf in our story. Our protagonist, “X”, becomes alerted to the existence and danger of “a” by “W” (this could signify older wiser man) and before going on his quest, is accompanied by “Y”, generally a person with a lower social status or even physical/mental capacity than “X”. X and Y then set out on a quest initially in secret but nothing is ever secret in this civilization or such plots so others are aware (we’ll call them Thing 1 and Thing 2) and therefore join in on the quest. Of course the antagonist has some cronies which he sends out to apprehend the ones who possess this knowledge to destroy them. X, Y, Thing 1, and Thing 2 escape the clutches of said cronies to find themselves at the next pitstop. Within such fantasy stories, there is always some character, suspicious and evil-looking at first, who joins and assists their journey. This character is “R”. Although varying stories differ in their telling of the adventures of X, Y, Thing 1, Thing 2, R, and W, they all pretty much have the same ending with some sort of love interest and exiled heir details. In this regard, it is either X or R who gets the girl “G” and they end up living happily ever after, after the climatic struggle to destroy “a”. In the end, there is inevitably a redemption story whereupon some character, usually X but occasionally R, has to sacrifice something to obtain the destruction of “a”. “a” cannot be destroyed it seems without some great loss to the good side. This is what I call the “redemptive” or “love principle”. Evil cannot be defeated by mere destruction, which is a semblance of evil itself. Evil, as evidenced in literature and other things as well, must be destroyed by something completely opposite and even elemental in nature i.e. love or redemption. Love or redemption is sacrificial and that is how it accomplishes victory over evil in these stories. So in the end, X destroys “a” by doing some sacrificial loving act and the entirety of the power and essence of evil is destroyed in an epic fashion (Tolkien 957-8). In these stories, after “a” is destroyed, X and all other characters not already dead are celebrate joyously and the previous peaceful state, though stained by knowledge and the lingering effects of evil, is restored with liberty and justice for all. Such is the schema of the fantasy plot. This story then is what Todorov calls a sequence: “Sequence is perceived by the reader as finished story; it is the minimal narrative in a completed form” (Leitch 2028). The study of narrative I have just done is one that is more like what Todorov calls a “thematic study” (Leitch 2029). But plot, as explored structurally gives way to lists and sequences of “signs” which have been studied by Saussure. Therefore a brief look at the signs of the plot is necessary.
Saussure’s methods of structural criticism are plainly focused on the minute details of language itself in a work or works of literature. His method and purpose is similar to Todorov in performing a structural look at literature, albeit Saussure’s methods are more precise and minute. Saussure focused on semiology—the study of signs in literature. Here’s a brief definition of Saussure’s terms before discussing them with regard to the structural signs we have constructed in our structural reading of the plot of The Lord of the Rings. The signifier is the “sound image” and the signified is the concept of the signified (Leitch 853). Together these things make the sign (853). But how do these relate to our previous look at the plot structure of The Lord of the Rings? Each concept of the various elements of the plot structure is, by definition, a signified. That would mean the concepts of “protagonist”, “wise old man”, etc. are the signified. Each word used to represent those concepts would then be the signifier. That would mean that the sound images of “Gandalf”, “Aragorn”, “Frodo” and even “X”, “Y”, or “W” would be signifiers. But these terms are actually ambiguous and one can see that if you think about it hard enough. These terms are rather interchangeable. However the whole, the concept and sound image combined, is the sign and that is not ambiguous. The sign would essentially be the plot or in the words of Todorov, “the sequence” (Leitch 2028). That is how Saussure’s ideas of structuralist criticism apply to plot structures.
Finally, The Lord of the Rings, if looked at as a plot structure from the understanding of a layperson not acquainted with structural criticism, is very complex and lengthy. A few paragraphs cannot summarize this work justly. However, by using structural concepts and methods of analysis, one can summarize the plot very neatly and compactly and apply it to other works of literature in the same genre. Had time and space allowed, I would have applied this structural summation of this work of literature and applied it to J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter series, Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series, or even Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain series. Such works are all very similar since they involve adventure, a love interest, fantastical creatures and cultures, less conventional (according to modern standards) styles of fighting, heroes, damsels in distress, etc. But their plots, without a structural perspective, are very complex and different. Look at them through the lenses of a structuralist and their plot structures are very much the same. And this is all found out through looking at one fantasy book series, namely The Lord of the Rings.