The Lord of the Rings | Study Guide

J.R.R. Tolkien

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The Lord of the Rings | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Fellowship of the Ring

The story takes place in Middle-earth, during the Third Age—a mythical past in which Elves, Dwarves, humans, and other creatures coexist. The Fellowship of the Ring begins in the Shire as Bilbo Baggins prepares to celebrate his 111th birthday with an elaborate celebration. Gandalf, a wizard, provides the fireworks. After the party, Bilbo leaves for further adventuring, gifting his magic ring to his nephew Frodo, who is also celebrating a birthday: he is turning 33.

Around Frodo's 50th birthday, Gandalf unexpectedly returns and reveals the dark history of the ring—which is the One Ring the evil Sauron forged to conquer all of Middle-earth. Frodo sets off to take the Ring to Rivendell, where he can consult Elrond on what should be done. He is accompanied by the faithful Sam, as well as two other young hobbits—Merry and Pippin.

On the way to Rivendell, the small Company of hobbits is pursued by the Black Riders, mysterious black-cloaked figures. In the town of Bree, the hobbits meet a guide—the Ranger Strider, also known as Aragorn. Aragorn leads them to Weathertop, where the Black Riders catch up with them and attack. The group must continue to Rivendell with Frodo gravely ill from a knife wound.

Aragorn and the hobbits reach Rivendell safely. When Frodo recovers, Elrond calls a council to decide what to do with the One Ring, which confers great power to the wearer but also corrupts that person with its evil influence. Men, hobbits, Elves, and Dwarves attend the council, along with the wizard Gandalf. After sharing information and debating, Frodo offers to take the One Ring to Mount Doom in Mordor, where it can be destroyed. Elrond appoints eight others to go along: Gandalf, Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf, Boromir of Gondor, Aragorn, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. They form the Fellowship.

The Company sets off and soon encounters difficulty crossing the mountain Caradhras. They decide to travel underground through the Dwarf city Moria. The Company is pursued through Moria by Orcs, and Gandalf is lost down a great chasm during a battle with a monstrous Balrog. Grieving, the Company exits Moria and travels to Lothlórien, a peaceful land occupied by Elves and ruled by the Lady Galadriel and her husband Celeborn. There, the Company heals from their grief, but eventually they must set off again on their quest.

Led now by Aragorn, the Company travels down the Anduin River in boats. They stop at a point where they must decide which way to go. Members of the Company are not in agreement, and they take time to ponder the situation. Boromir approaches Frodo and tries to get him to give him the One Ring, first through persuasion, then through force. Frodo runs off, deciding to go on alone to Mount Doom. But clever, loyal Sam catches up to him just as he is leaving, and the two make their way together toward Mordor.

The Two Towers

The story picks up where The Fellowship of the Ring leaves off. As Aragorn searches for Frodo, Orcs from Isengard—domain of the now-corrupted wizard Saruman—attack Boromir, Merry, and Pippin. Boromir is killed; Merry and Pippin are captured. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas decide to pursue the Orcs in hopes of recapturing the younger hobbits. They pay their respects to the fallen Boromir and set off at a run.

Along the way, they are confronted by a band of armed horsemen from Rohan, a land ruled by King Théoden. Éomer, the leader of these riders, asks who they are, and Aragorn reveals himself as Isildur's heir. Éomer lends them horses.

Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas continue on. Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin have met up with Treebeard, an Ent, who is concerned over their reports of Saruman's actions. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas go into the forest, where they find Gandalf, miraculously returned from the abyss and dressed in white robes. The four go to see Théoden's adviser, Gríma Wormtongue, who is really Saruman's spy and has been poisoning Théoden's mind against Gandalf and against Gondor. Gandalf releases Théoden from the grip of Saruman's counsel, and the king prepares to fight the forces attacking Rohan. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas accompany the army of Rohan to Helm's Deep, where they fight Saruman's Orcs, while Gandalf goes to get more help. Just when it seems the battle is lost, Gandalf arrives with the promised help and the Orcs are driven into a mysterious forest, disappearing forever.

Arriving at Isengard, they find an army of Ents has responded to Treebeard's call for action against Saruman and has torn the whole place to pieces, imprisoning Saruman in his tower, Orthanc. Aragorn, Gandalf, Gimli, and Legolas reunite with Merry and Pippin, who traveled with Treebeard. Gandalf speaks to Saruman and takes away his power.

Wormtongue, who is with Saruman in the tower, throws a large sphere out of the window, which Pippin picks up. Later, Pippin looks into it, with disastrous results. Pippin is shaken, and Gandalf decides Pippin will accompany him to Minas Tirith, the chief city of Gondor. They race toward the city on Shadowfax, Gandalf's horse.

While this has been going on, Frodo and Sam have continued on their way. They have been tracked and attacked by Sméagol (Gollum), a small, slimy creature whose mind and body have been twisted and corrupted by the Ring, which he found and held on to for centuries before Bilbo Baggins took it from him (in The Hobbit). But now, Frodo and Sam have "tamed" Gollum and made him their guide. After a miserable trip through the Dead Marshes and a harrowing look at the Black Gate of Mordor, Frodo agrees to follow Gollum through a "secret" way. On the road, they are captured by a group of soldiers from Gondor, led by Faramir. Faramir listens to the story of their quest and allows them to go on their way with his blessing.

Led by Gollum, Frodo and Sam climb many stairs to the secret passage called Cirith Ungol, where they are attacked by Shelob, a giant malevolent spider. Gollum abandons the two hobbits, and Shelob captures Frodo. Sam, believing Frodo to be dead, decides to take the one Ring and go on to fulfill the quest alone.

The Return of the King

The story begins with Gandalf and Pippin speeding toward Minas Tirith. Once there, they quickly go to see Denethor, the Steward of the city. Pippin enters Denethor's service, while Gandalf tries to give the Steward advice about the coming war with Mordor. Meanwhile, Théoden's forces regroup and prepare to ride to the aid of Gondor. Merry and Éowyn, Théoden's niece, sneak into the ranks of the soldiers—Éowyn disguised as a man. Aragorn decides to travel by a shorter path—the Paths of the Dead—in hopes of reaching Minas Tirith sooner.

Meanwhile, Minas Tirith has been besieged by the forces of Sauron. A growing darkness has seeped out of Mordor and now covers the whole area in shadow. Denethor sinks into suicidal despair. As the soldiers of Minas Tirith fight Sauron's forces and are nearly vanquished, the Riders of Rohan arrive, as does Aragorn, leading an army of the dead. Sauron's army retreats and scatters.

Aragorn heals the wounded, including Merry, Éowyn, and Faramir. Aragorn and Gandalf decide the best plan is to march on Mordor, pretending Aragorn has claimed the Ring and has come to challenge Sauron. They think this will keep Sauron's attention long enough for Frodo to slip into Mordor and throw the Ring into the Cracks of Doom.

Sam rescues Frodo and gives him back the Ring, and the two continue. Thirsty and exhausted, they arrive at Mount Doom and begin to climb it. Sam has to carry Frodo part of the way. Meanwhile, Sauron realizes Frodo has the Ring, and he orders the Ringwraiths to fly to Mount Doom and seize it—but they will be too late.

At the last moment, Frodo is overcome by the Ring and, instead of throwing it into the fire, claims it as his own. Suddenly, Gollum appears and attacks, biting off Frodo's finger in a desperate attempt to gain the Ring. Gollum loses his balance and falls into the fire, holding the Ring, thereby killing himself and destroying the ring. Frodo and Sam stumble outside and are rescued by the Eagles as Mordor begins to crumble. The Ringwraiths are destroyed in a volcanic eruption at Mount Doom, and Sauron is defeated by the loss of the Ring.

The Company is reunited, and Aragorn is crowned king of Gondor. Afterward, Arwen arrives and marries him, and eventually the hobbits feel they should return to the Shire. When they do, they find corruption has reached their peaceful home, and they must deal with it. After this unpleasant "scouring," Pippin, Merry, and Sam settle down into normal lives. Frodo finds he was too wounded by his experiences to live a normal life. He travels to the Grey Havens and boards an Elven ship along with Bilbo, departing Middle-earth forever.

The Lord of the Rings Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Bilbo goes away, leaving a magic ring for his nephew Frodo.

Rising Action

2 Gandalf reveals the ring is the One Ring.

3 Frodo and friends take the One Ring to Elrond in Rivendell.

4 It is decided there that Frodo will bear the ring to Mordor.

5 Along the way, the Fellowship faces many dangers.

6 The Fellowship parts.

7 Frodo and Sam go on to Mordor alone.

8 Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf help fight Saruman.

9 Gondor and Rohan prepare for the coming war with Sauron.

10 Aragorn leads a force against Sauron as a distraction.


11 Frodo and Sam enter Mordor and travel toward Mount Doom.

Falling Action

12 The One Ring is destroyed and the Fellowship is reunited.

13 Aragorn becomes king of Gondor and marries Arwen.

14 The four hobbits return to the Shire to make it safe again.


15 Frodo and Bilbo depart on a ship; Sam goes home to Rosie.

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