ESSAY
The Chiastic Structure of Lord of the Rings
POSTED
February 19, 2019

The chiastic structure of The Hobbit we considered in the previous essay is highly suggestive of what might lie in store for The Lord of the Rings saga. It is undoubtedly the case that J. R. R. Tolkien was a literary craftsman. It may even be the case he is more of a craftsman than he is given credit for. The author’s character Sauron may have been the lord of the rings, but it would seem that the true lord of the ring was Tolkien himself, and here by ring I mean the literary device known as the ring (sometimes referred to as a chiasm), i.e., a structural trope where the first half of a literary piece mirrors the second half in sometimes simpler, sometimes more complex ways. I believe that The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) saga exhibits such a structure, but the proof is in the pudding!

Quincey Upshaw, in her unpublished Master’s Thesis “Structural Polarities In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings” (p. 1-2), declares that LOTR exhibits an “inverted reflection and parallelism.” She continues, “These inverted reflections are evident in nearly every aspect of the trilogy: themes, style, places, species or beings, events, and characters. At other times, elements of the books parallel one another, and these reflective and parallel qualities unite the books structurally, creating a sense of unity for Tolkien’s sub-creation.” Upshaw’s thesis does not examine the structural unity of LOTR along the lines of a ring structure, but her study in parallel themes, style, etc. certainly suggests of something deeper and more basic when we begin to think about the possible underlying architecture of LOTR.

We will proceed by considering one more piece of evidence from sources Tolkien would have been familiar with, that of his good friend C. S. Lewis. Lewis was a good friend of Tolkien and a fellow Inkling. One of the many activities this group of friends and auteurs engaged in was reading and critiquing each other’s works. One such literary creation that Tolkien heartily endorsed was C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, the first novel in his Space Trilogy. In a letter dated 18 Feb. 1938 to a Mr. Stanley Unwin, Tolkien comments, “I read it [Out of the Silent Planet], of course; and I have since heard it pass a rather a different test: that of being read aloud to our local club. … It proved an exciting serial, and was highly approved.” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien by Carpenter, p. 29). Sanford Schwartz in his book C. S. Lewis on the Final Frontier (p. 28) proposes a ring structure for Out of the Silent Planet:

  a. “Abduction on Earth” (ch. 1-2)

    b. “Voyager to Mars (hero captive)” (ch. 3-6)

        c. “Flight from sorns” (ch. 7-9)

          d. “Boat to hrossa” (ch. 10)

             e. “Residence with hrossa” (ch. 11-12)

          d’. “Boat from hrossa” (ch. 13)

        c’. “Journey to sorns” (ch. 14-16)

    b’. “Meeting Oyarsa (villains captive)” (ch. 17-20)

  a’. “Voyage Home” (ch. 21-22)

Schwartz’s overall analysis appears to be sound and is another instance of a ring structure that could have been readily apparent to Tolkien give his background, training, and deep literary acumen. 

The above analyses of sources close to Tolkien are all heavy clues and indicators of a possible ring structure to LOTR. We have seen how such literary devices are utilized within biblical narrative, medieval literature, and other works among the Inklings. Tolkien, it would seem, also makes use of such a device within smaller poetic portions of his books and even the titles of the three books of the trilogy are suggestive of a unified literary structure. All we are left with now is to propose the underlying structure to LOTR:

From this we can readily observe that The Fellowship of the Ring (A-O) and The Return of the King (A’-O’) are mirrors of each other exhibiting an inverted parallelism for structure. The Two Towers, however has a slightly more complicated structure. The two halves of the book run parallel to each other (P-R and P’-R’), but then there is a switch back to an inverted structure in S and S’. We will spend the remainder of this study briefly going over each of the sections.

Sections

Both ‘A’ sections in the ring composition take place in the Shire. There is mention of Bilbo’s birthday in both instances. In both A and A’, Bilbo’s birthday is mentioned and marks a significant event within the story. At the beginning, Frodo inherits Bag End from Bilbo, whereas at the end Frodo gets Bag End back from Lobelia, to whom he had sold the estate before departing on his quest to destroy the ring. Also, the opening and closing chapters see Frodo and Bilbo leave the Shire: in the opening they leave separately; in the closing they leave together.

B Sections

In the ‘B’ sections, Gandalf takes his leave from Frodo in the first instance to do research on the ring and in the second instance to seek council. Frodo sells Bag End and begins his journey, and at the end of the story, Frodo liberates the Shire and Bag End from Saruman.

C Sections

The ‘C’ sections focus on the small group of Hobbits at their journey’s outset and its near conclusion. As they begin their adventure, Frodo, Sam, and Pippin cross paths with the Black Riders, though fortunately they are able to avoid them and also come across a group of elves, whom they spend a small amount of time with for protection. Likewise, at the end of their journey, Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry meet another nasty group of characters: Saruman and Wormtongue. With these two, they do not try to avoid them, but instead take them on directly and cast them out of the Shire. The reason for this transition to confrontation as opposed to initial avoidance is made clear by Gandalf, “And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now” (p. 307). The journey has changed them all for the better and in the process they have moved from immaturity to maturity.

D Sections

In the D and D’ sections the small company both going from and coming to the Shire have significant conversations. In the first section, the Hobbits have a conversation with Farmer Maggot, and he informs the group of the strange encounter he has had unknowingly with one of the Black Riders and the strange happenings all around. In the second section, the Hobbits and Gandalf have another conversation, this time with Mr. Butterbur, and he brings them all up to speed on the strange things that had been happening in the Shire as of late. In both instances of these conversations with the small group of Hobbits and an individual there is regular chit-chat as well as talk of the strange happenings in the area, especially the Shire.

E Sections

The E and E’ portions of the structure tell us of two corresponding episodes of hospitality. The Hobbits in the E section spend some time with Fatty Bolger and enjoy his company. During this time as well, Merry reveals his knowledge of the ring and relates the story of seeing Bilbo use the ring on an occasion near his birthday. In the E’ section, the Hobbits spend some time in Rivendell among the hospitality of the elves. Bilbo is there, and during one conversation with him on his birthday he inquires about the ring. Thus, the themes of hospitality, conversation, and Bilbo’s birthday with reference to the ring serve to connect these two portions of the story together.

F Sections

In the corresponding F sections, trees and captivity play the connecting roles within each. In F, the Hobbits decide to traverse the path through the Old Forest. While on their way through the forest, a deep drowsiness comes over the small crew and they rest. Merry and Pippin rest against a tree that turns out to be alive and begins to engulf the Hobbits. Along comes Tom Bombadil, and he frees the Hobbits from their captivity to the tree. Likewise in F’, Treebeard and the Ents have taken control over Isengard. They had Saruman held captive or “caged” for a time, but Treebeard decided to let Saruman go and grant him his freedom because he hates “the caging of living things.”

Sections

The parallel G sections concern three significant marriages: Bombadil and Goldberry, Aragorn and Arwen, and Faramir and Eowyn. The company of Hobbits are present in both passages being in the presence of seemingly obscure individuals, which is a mask for their true status. Bombadil is a man (being) who lives away and out of sight, but has been in existence from the beginning and has some form of power that he only hints at. Aragorn is a Ranger, a man of the wilderness, but who is also the heir to the throne and rightful king. Faramir lived in his brother’s shadow, but in the new world post-Sauron, he will also be elevated to a king. And all three of these men marry strong and elegant women.

Sections

The H sections of the trilogy see our Hobbit adventurers in peril from dismembered foes. In the first H, the company of Hobbits run afoul of the Barrow-wights and after being captured, Frodo sees “a long arm… walking on its fingers,” (179) which a moment later, Frodo “hewed at the crawling arm near the wrist, and the hand broke off”. In H’, the now reduced company of Hobbits (Frodo and Sam) are in peril at Mt. Doom and have just destroyed the ring of the dismembered Sauron. In his death throes Sauron appears as “a huge shape of shadow… and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand,” which was blown away by the wind (252). Evil as dismembered body parts is integral to both scenes, especially given their narrative juxtaposition to the married couples from the G and G’ sections. Good can unite without losing identity. Evil cannot unite at all and only results in division and death and the loss of identity. The former has generative power; the latter cannot abide even the unity of the self.

Sections

These sections relate the events of continuing journeys: to the Prancing Pony and to Mt. Doom. Along the two journeys the ring tricks Frodo. At the Prancing Pony, the ring seemed to work its own will to get on its carrier’s finger, and finally at the end of the story, the ring tricks Frodo again and seduces him in the end to remain on his finger. While at the inn, it is Aragorn who comes to the rescue and saves Frodo from himself as well as the rest of the small company. This is matched by the end of the journey where Sam comes to Frodo’s rescue end carries him up the mountain to reach the fires of Mordor. The faithfulness of true companions is contrasted with the treachery of the ring.

Sections

Traveling in disguise is the common theme of the J sections. If the first section, it is Aragorn, Isildur’s heir, and thus heir to the throne, who is disguised as the Ranger Strider, a man of the harsh wilderness, not a man of the comfort of a palace. This is reinforced by the poem that is used to describe him: “All that is gold does not glitter.” Parallel to this is Frodo and Sam as they make their trek through Mordor, disguise themselves as orcs in order to reach their destination and destroy the ring.

Sections

The K and K’ sections both involve significant incidents involving Frodo. In K, Frodo is recovering in the castle of Elrond, while in K’ Frodo is captive in a tower getting worse. Both instances occur after Frodo is stabbed by incredible entities. Frodo’s flight to Rivendell is done while the Nine pursue him. In K’, Frodo’s captors journey to the Tower of Cirith Ungol being pursued by Sam. Thus, we have an inversion: Frodo, after being wounded, is taken on two very different kinds of journeys all the while being pursued by very different kinds of people.

Sections

In the L sections we are presented with two healings and two councils. In the first, it is Frodo who is healed by Elrond and Aragorn from an injury sustained on Weathertop. Also, in the first, the council of Elrond takes place to discuss the plans for the ring and its destruction. In the second, we have another instance of healing, this time with Aragorn healing many people after the battle at Minas Tirith. In addition, there is the council of Gandalf to discuss how to proceed against Sauron hoping that Frodo is still alive and will ultimately destroy the ring and fulfill the original quest.

Sections

In these two sections, we have the contrast of the depths and darkness of Moria with the heights of the White City. In both locations, there is a battle with a formidable supernatural foe. Gandalf has a confrontation with a Balrog, which he is able to slay with great difficulty. Corresponding to this is Eowyn’s solo battle with the Witch King, whom she too is able to defeat also with great difficulty. After Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog, he is either dead or almost dead, but is brought back to full restoration to become Gandalf the White. There is a parallel with the battle at Minas Tirith where Faramir is seemingly dead and almost killed by his father, but is rescued and is likewise restored to full health.

Sections

Brief accounts of the travel to Lothlorien and Minas Tirith are set forth in these parallel accounts. We also see the contrast between Aragorn’s lack of certainty about what to do now that Gandalf is gone, and his confidence about taking the Paths of the Dead later in the story. Thus, we see his growth as a leader. Furthermore, Tolkien presents us with the contrast between Galadriel and Denethor. Galadriel is able to overcome her pride and the temptation to wield the ring. Denethor becomes victim to his pride and almost kills Faramir as a result.

O Sections

The Fellowship plans to proceed carefully to Minas Tirith because Aragorn does not trust the men there, as Boromir’s desire for the ring confirms Aragorn’s fears. Boromir does succumb to the temptation to take the ring for himself and has his fall; however, he realizes his terrible mistake and in great humility stays. Shortly after these events, the orcs attack. In the beginning of The Return of the King, we see Rohan setting out for Minas Tirith to aid them in their time of threat. We are also told of Faramir, who falls in battle like his brother before him but is not killed. In addition, there is another attack scene with the forces of Mordor arrayed against Minas Tirith.

Sections

The opening of each book in The Two Towers presents us with a trio subdivided and altered from the original fellowship. In the P section we read about Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli as they hurriedly pursue Merry and Pippin across a vast swath of land at an almost superhuman pace in order to free them from their captivity to the Uruk-hai. Boromir is no longer with the now smaller group as he has died as the tragic, but redeemed hero defending the Hobbits. So, this group of three companions is formed by the loss of Boromir. In P’, it is Frodo and Sam, who have gained a traveling companion—Gollum—to form their group of three. In each section there is a group of two hobbits as well. In book III, it Merry and Pippin who are being pursued, while in book IV, it is Frodo and Sam who are doing the pursuing, i.e., pursuing the goal of their quest.

Sections

The parallels in the Q sections are fairly straightforward. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli push at a hard pace to catchup to the horde carrying Merry and Pippin. They do not stop to rest for any length of time, but they do eat lembas bread along the way to keep their energy up. Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, on the other hand, do take periods of rest and they eat lembas bread because food becomes scarcer and scarcer. 

R Sections

The travel of both groups is narrated in the R sections. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli travel to Rohan and along the way meet Eomer, the ostracized brother of Eowyn. Frodo, Sam, and Gollum continue their travel to the Black Gate. While on their journey, they meet upon another ostracized brother, Faramir, the brother of Boromir.

S Sections

At last we reach the structural center of LOTR, and it is here we see that the architecture of the trilogy reverts back to the inverted parallelism. Merry and Pippin’s capture by the orcs and subsequent flight to Treebeard is parallel to Frodo’s capture by orcs in his fight/flight from Shelob. Merry and Pippin are pursued by their friends: Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. Frodo is pursued by Sam. The Ents take council together how they might battle and defeat Saruman because of his destruction. This is parallel to Gollum and Shelob plotting together how they might destroy Frodo. Next, we have Merry and Pippin ascending a stair and seeing Saruman’s tower, which corresponds to Frodo and Sam ascending a stair and passing by another evil tower—the Witch King’s tower. Furthermore, we have a replacement for the evil Saruman come along in the character of the White Rider, a resurrected Gandalf. This is antithetically parallel to Minas Ithil, the White City, being replaced by the evil Sauron. The people of Rohan leave and make their way to Helm’s Deep, which has a cave with beautiful pools. This is mirrored by the cave and beautiful waterfall and pool Sam and Frodo see while with Faramir. And lastly, there is the journey to Isengard (now flooded) and not listening to the voice of Saruman. This matches the journey to the Dead Marshes and the warning not to heed the dead of the marshes.

In conclusion, Tolkien would certainly have been familiar with ring structures, especially given his profession! And there is evidence that he identifies literary balance as a characteristic of good literature. Ring structures abound in the works that he would have had direct contact with. There is every reason, then, to conclude that Tolkien would have utilized such a trope in the sub-creating of his own literary works. The question simply becomes, then, what is the structure? I believe I have demonstrated that there is a plausible ring composition underlying The Lord of the Rings. This device adds to the overall beauty of his work and helps us see the comparisons and contrasts that he is trying to make throughout his story.

Kelly Kerr works as an OR nurse and devotes most of his free time to Biblical Studies.

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