Creative Lists in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – Part I

by Rahel Orgis

Lists of various types are at the centre of J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings and, tightly bound up with the narrative, they serve as creative tools that both sustain and generate the fictional universe of Middle-earth. While readers might not immediately notice their importance, lists pervade the text, both framing the narrative—in the guise of a motto and in the appendices following the third part of the novel—and occurring within the narrative proper. Tolkien presents readers with a fiction of the novel’s composition that motivates the lists in the appendices and uses them to give substance, historical depth and an impression of authenticity to his fictional universe. Moreover, the function of lists as a means to record, categorise, transmit and preserve knowledge is thematised at crucial moments within the narrative. In what follows and in two subsequent posts I will discuss prominent lists in The Lord of the Rings, focusing on their above-mentioned functions and also on the interplay between lists and narrative. To begin with I will further consider the centrality of lists to Tolkien’s narrative by concentrating on what is presumably the best-known and least-recognised list in the novel: the opening poem.

“One Ring to rule them all”
The first list readers encounter in The Lord of the Rings takes the form of a poem and is, like a motto, placed on a separate page following the title:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie. (I, 4)

The poem introduces the core concern of the narrative: the power of the “One Ring” of the evil spirit Sauron, the “Dark Lord,” to dominate all the other rings of power that increase their owners’ capacity to exercise their will over others or their surroundings. The poetic list not only presents crucial information in a succinct form by categorising the rings of power by their owners and recording their number, it also implies a narrative with a large time frame. The repetition of the formula “x rings for the leaders of a specific people” withholds information about the creator and distributor of the rings and leaves readers to infer that a story might be told about the creation of the rings preceding their distribution. The purpose of the “One Ring to find them, / … and in the darkness bind them” suggests but does not confirm a possible future scenario, which raises the question of whether Sauron will succeed in bringing all the other rings and peoples under his domination thanks to the power of his ring. The promise of a tale attached to the creation of the rings is fulfilled in the first part of the The Lord of the Rings, especially in the chapters “The Shadow of the Past” and “The Council of Elrond,” which cite the opening poem and detail how Sauron helped forge the rings of power for the different peoples with the ultimate goal to enslave them. The chapters also inform readers about what happened subsequently to the rings and how Sauron’s “One Ring” ended up in possession of his adversaries, making it possible for them, as the rest of the novel relates, to attempt to cross his plans. The two chapters then chronologically embed the poetic list, now revealed as “a verse long known in Elven-lore” (I, 59), and explicate its meaning, thus satisfying the narrative expectations and speculation provoked by the succinct initial enumeration of the rings of power.

In addition to the opening list’s effect of creating narrative suspense and evoking a time frame linked to the history of the rings, its poetic disguise, as one might call it, makes the list memorable and endows it with almost magical power. It resembles an incantation, and its ending embodies Sauron’s evil will for power and domination that the novel’s protagonists set out to thwart. Indeed, as readers learn in the above-mentioned chapters, the two lines, “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, / One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them,” are engraved in the outside and inside of Sauron’s ring and were pronounced by Sauron when he first put on the ring (I, 266), to which he transferred part of his power (I, 61). The mini-list contained in the two-line incantation formulates Sauron’s programme: to rule, to find, to bring and to bind all peoples under his dominion. This programmatic list, in turn, provokes action in the fictional universe of Middle-earth: it initiates the age-long resistance against Sauron, starting with the elves in the distant past who overheard him and culminating with the quest of the protagonists in The Lord of the Rings to destroy Sauron’s ring and hence his power. Sauron’s programme listed in his incantation is thus materially as well as thematically at the heart of the narrative: symbolised by and engraved in Sauron’s ring, it is the problem that needs to be solved, the core of the novel’s narrative interest.

Readers are thus from the very beginning of the novel confronted with lists and their intimate relation to the narrative. In the poetic list discussed here, the list as a text form is not foregrounded but rather camouflaged. Tolkien exploits the similarities between the conventional representations of verse and list items on separate lines, with the result that the list within the poem and its function to provide vital information in an organised condensed form go all but unnoticed. By contrast, when we turn to the appendices that follow the end of the narrative proper, Tolkien’s reliance on lists in the creation of his fictional universe becomes more obvious, and lists are clearly presented as lists although they continue to be tightly connected with the narrative, as will be discussed in the next blog post.

Work Cited:
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. 2nd ed. 3 Vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.

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