97 pages 3 hours read

J. R. R. Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Ring

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1955

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Summary and Study Guide


In 1954, J. R. R. Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of three volumes in his novel The Lord of the Rings. Considered a founding text of high fantasy, a genre where characters exist in fully developed fictional worlds, The Lord of the Rings is widely regarded as a classic work of English literature. The saga’s rich roots in epic poetry, philology, and mythology have left a lasting impression on both academic circles and popular culture, inspiring scholarship, Tolkien societies, fantasy fiction, and film adaptations. The Fellowship of the Ring is a continuation of the sprawling world Tolkien created in The Hobbit (1937), and volumes two and three, The Two Towers (1954) and The Return of the King (1955), complete the central story of the Bagginses and the One Ring.

Set in Middle-earth during the Third Age, The Fellowship of the Ring follows the unlikely hero, Frodo Baggins, in his quest to destroy the One Ring of ultimate power before the evil Sauron can regain the weapon. Accompanied by a group of fellow hobbits and representatives of Men, Elves, and Dwarves, Frodo is guided by the wizard Gandalf on the dangerous journey to Mordor, Sauron’s domain and the only place where the Ring can be destroyed. The fellowship endeavors to fight the Ring’s temptation of power by building trust amid animosity and by embodying the values of loyalty, empathy, and friendship.

This guide refers to the 2012 Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition.

Plot Summary

Frodo Baggins is an orphan hobbit who was adopted by his older cousin Bilbo and lives an unassuming life in the Shire. The Fellowship of the Ring begins 60 years after the events from The Hobbit where Bilbo stole a magic, invisibility-granting ring from the cave-dwelling creature, Gollum. On Bilbo’s 111th birthday, which also marks Frodo’s 33rd year and coming of age, Bilbo announces his retirement and journeys to the mountains. He bequeaths his entire estate and, with some reluctance, the ring to Frodo. Gandalf is wary of the ring and advises Frodo to keep it secret while the wizard investigates its origins. Seventeen years later, Gandalf discovers that the ring’s power far exceeds its ability to render the wearer invisible. To Frodo’s dismay and fright, Gandalf tells him that the ring, unbeknownst to Bilbo, is the One Ring, an all-powerful instrument of evil that was forged millennia ago in the land of Mordor.

The Ring, which has its own sentience and volition, is intent on returning to its master, Sauron, the Dark Lord who forged the weapon to control other Rings of Power divided among Elves, Dwarves, and Men. The One Ring granted Sauron extraordinary powers of domination, and he was close to absolute victory until Isildur, the son of King Elendil of the kingdom of Men, vanquished him. With his father’s broken sword, Isildur cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand, banishing him to a weakened, spirit form. However, Isildur kept the Ring for himself instead of destroying it as he should have, and he was murdered in the Anduin River, losing the Ring in its waters until it passed into Gollum’s hands and then to Bilbo. Still weakened and spectral but back in his realm of Mordor, Sauron has discovered that the Ring still exists, and he plots to recover the weapon and reign again, sending out forces to pursue the hobbit. Gandalf warns Frodo to never wear the Ring; though it imparts invisibility, the longer one wears it, the stronger Sauron’s hold over the will, causing the wearer to permanently fade into a servant of evil. Such was the fate of the nine kings who bore the Rings of Power and now exist eternally as Ringwraiths in service to Sauron.

Fearful of endangering the lives in the Shire, Frodo takes the Ring and leaves his home with his trustworthy friends—his gardener Samwise Gamgee, Pippin Took, and Merry Brandybuck. They travel through the sinister Old Forest and haunted Barrow-downs to seek counsel in Rivendell. Stopping in the town of Bree, the hobbits join forces with a mysterious man named Strider, an avowed friend of Gandalf who pledges his life to save the hobbits. Pursued by the Ringwraiths on horses, the hobbits and Strider combat their pursuers on a hilltop, and the Witch-king (the Ringwraith leader) wounds Frodo with his blade. The poison splinter from the Ringwraith’s sword nearly turns Frodo into a wraith himself, but he reaches Rivendell in time, and the Elf Lord Elrond heals him.

In Rivendell, Frodo reunites with Bilbo and Gandalf, and at the Council of Elrond, representatives from the major peoples of Middle-earth gather to determine their course of action. Gandalf surmises that their only solution is to destroy the Ring in the volcanic Cracks of Doom in Mordor where it was forged. When Boromir, a valiant yet proud defender of the kingdom of Gondor, proposes to use the Ring against the Enemy, Elrond and Gandalf tell him that the Ring’s power of corruption is too strong; no one can wield it without succumbing to evil. Saruman the White, the leader of the Order of Wizards, has himself become corrupt and can no longer be trusted.

Though his homeland Gondor faces assault from the Enemy, Boromir shares that he’s traveled to Rivendell to seek not military alliance but help interpreting a dream that spoke of a broken sword. To Boromir’s disbelief, Strider reveals himself to be Aragorn, Isildur’s heir, and presents Elendil’s broken sword. Though his lineage bestows him the right to rule Gondor, Aragorn has been living among the Rangers—a wandering people protecting the North, living in secrecy but honoring their responsibility to safeguard the realm. He promises Boromir to reforge the sword of Elendil, last used to vanquish Sauron, and fight in the war with Gondor. To the surprise of the council members, Frodo volunteers to take the Ring to Mordor. Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf, and Gandalf the Grey agree to accompany Frodo and Sam. With much persistence, Merry and Pippin join the group—the fellowship of the Ring.

On the first leg of their journey, a blizzard thwarts their attempt to reach the mountain pass. Reluctantly, they detour through the Mines of Moria, the ancient, now abandoned homeland of the Dwarves, and come under attack by Orcs, goblinlike creatures. More frightening is the demonic Balrog, a winged and fiery creature awoken from the depths of the mines. Gandalf holds off the beast for his friends to escape but plummets down a chasm with the Balrog to his death.

The fellowship teeters without Gandalf’s leadership. Gimli and Legolas retain the prejudices against each other’s kind, and Boromir continues to scoff at the lessons offered from those older and wiser. Upon reaching the Elven city of Lórien, Frodo and Sam meet the Lady Galadriel, the powerful Elf who wears one of the Elven Rings of Power. She invites them to look in the Mirror of Galadriel, which shows portentous images that may or may not come true. Sam envisions the destruction of the Shire while Frodo sees a figure like Gandalf but dressed in white, black sails in the Sea, and the Eye of Sauron. Despite the fearful images in the mirror, Sam and Frodo resolve to continue their journey. Frodo offers the One Ring to Galadriel, and though tempted to wield its power for good, she resists taking it.

Galadriel bestows on each member a parting gift. Gimli’s encounter with Galadriel has warmed him to the Elves, and he and Legolas build a strong friendship. After the fellowship travels some distance southward by boat and stops to rest on shore, Aragorn leaves the decision of their path to Frodo: The fellowship can either fight the war with Boromir in Gondor or accompany Frodo to Mordor. Frodo requests time alone to contemplate, and Boromir secretly follows him. When Boromir lunges for the Ring, Frodo wears it to escape under invisibility. He eludes Boromir, but donning the Ring gives him a terrible vision of the Eye of Sauron searching for him. Knowing that the fellowship is now compromised and that the Ring only further endangers them, Frodo decides to protect his friends and head to Mordor alone. Boromir returns to the group and admits that Frodo disappeared, but he does not elaborate. In haste, they spread out to search for Frodo, and only Sam intuits that Frodo is afraid and means to leave without them. He finds Frodo in a boat departing the shore, and at risk of drowning, he leaps into the waters calling after his master. Frodo rescues Sam, and the two divine that they are meant to accomplish the quest together.