Note: Strictly speaking, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy. He conceived of and wrote the book as one continuous narrative. Publishing constraints required, against Tolkien's original wishes, that the novel be published in three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954, followed by The Two Towers and The Return of the King in 1955. Each volume contains two "books": divisions of the story into portions of roughly equal length, which were-unlike the three volume publication arrangement-integral into Tolkien's structuring of the story.
For these reasons, then, no single volume of The Lord of the Rings can be considered in complete isolation from the others. While these synopses and notes focus on The Fellowship of the Ring, be aware that the themes and motifs Tolkien introduces in Volume I receive more expansive treatment as the entire story progresses. These notes will, when possible, offer readers initial but necessarily limited guidance in tracing these aspects of the work through the later volumes.
Readers may also wish to make occasional reference to a map of Middle-earth, contained in most editions of The Lord of the Rings.
Although readers have come to regard The Lord of the Rings as J. R. R. Tolkien's masterpiece, he himself thought of it as but one small part of a much larger mythology that he had been developing for decades. Middle-earth-the fantastic world in which the story is set-is Tolkien's attempt to create an indigenous mythology for England. In true mythological fashion, then, Tolkien's stories of Middle-earth reach back to the very beginning of time itself. The Lord of the Rings takes place at the end of the "Third Age" of Middle-earth, meaning that this world has already experienced a great deal of history. The story is in many ways a story about the inevitability of change, as Middle-earth and its variety of peoples-Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, Men-experience and effect a transition from an old order to a new. Indeed, Tolkien himself claimed that the book "is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality," and the tensions between the two (see The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter [1981; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000], p. 284).
Tolkien uses the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings to hint at how both it and its immediate predecessor, The Hobbit (1937), fit into his overarching mythology of Middle-earth. While the Prologue contains a great deal of material on such "mundane" matters as Hobbits' eating customs, political arrangements, and tobacco preferences, its real significance is as the bridge between The Hobbit-which Tolkien had originally written as a children's fairy tale, unconnected to Middle-earth-and The Lord of the Rings, a much more complex, "darker" tale fully embedded in his life-long imaginative creation.
The Hobbit tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit-a small, peaceful, pleasure-loving, furry-footed creature-who was quite respected in the Shire, the bucolic region in which many Hobbits lived, until he accompanied the wizard Gandalf the Grey and a group of Dwarves on a quest to the Lonely Mountain, to recover treasure from the fearsome dragon Smaug. The quest met with success, and Bilbo returned to the Shire a rich man, much to his neighbors' astonishment and envy. The piece of treasure that Bilbo most valued, however, was not taken from the dragon's hoard, but was a magic ring Bilbo had discovered on his own while separated from the rest of his company in an underground cavern. The ring had been owned by a strange creature called Gollum. Gollum accosted Bilbo and threatened to eat him should he lose a riddle competition, but Bilbo used the ring's ability to render its wearer invisible in order to escape that fate. Many years passed, however, before Bilbo confided in Gandalf the full story of how he had come to own the ring-a fact that made Gandalf suspicious. The wizard's suspicions only begin to bear fruit as the story resumes, sixty years later, in Book I of The Lord of the Rings.