How the Past Reveals the Present

The structure of the Lord of the Rings is chronological with flashbacks;  this adds suspense, understanding and provides a purpose to an imaginative yet dark tale. The reader moves from event to event but we do not know the outcome. The chronology, nevertheless, increases understanding; the reader can return to earlier chapters to make an educated guess about what might happen.  While the book is not entirely chronological, such as when  Sméagol kills his friend, the structure helps the reader foresee the dangers of power. The flashbacks let the reader know how events occurred and how characters developed.

We all have flashbacks, joyful ones and even nightmares. They remind of what was and may inform us about where we are today. In the Lord of The Rings, flashbacks are used for background on characters and to develop the ongoing story. Flashbacks are included in many events ultimately shaped the outcome of the book. The flashbacks show us there where and why of the present; they bring depth to a story. Tolkien used flashbacks as a reminder of what occurred and to provide insight into why it occurred. Tolkien used his flashbacks early on because “If the flashback occurs later in the story, it can bog down the story and quickly become something that an editor or someone who is critiquing the text to abhor.” Tolkien decided to use flashbacks early on because otherwise we’d ask  “why does this ring even matter and why is it here if Sauron supposedly died?” Flashbacks started the story, but the adventure of Frodo ended it.

You know the saying “Don’t even kill a fly because it could alter the past.” You could say that about flashbacks;  they happened a certain way. Flashbacks also add suspense.  For example, when Isildur chose not to throw the ring, as Elrond said “For Isildur would not surrender it to Elrond or Cirdan who stood by. They Counselled him to cast it into the fire…” This choice in the past made by Isildur saved the rings life and led to the road Frodo takes now.  At this point, the reader did not know who would rise in power.  To “kill a fly” would have been to cast it into the fire which would have ended Sauron’s reign. When Tolkien portrayed this flashback, he provided the “why”  for a fuller journalistic summary of the events.  Tolkien helped us  understand why the fellowship aimed to reach Mordor.

Flashbacks also provide the reader with the characters’ attitudes toward life in general and insights into their life experiences that lead to the present day.   For example, the reader gains insights into Gandalf, a major character,  and Gollum, a minor character, through flashbacks. Gollum’s first flashback occurs while he and his friend fight over the ring.  To obtain the ring of power, Gollum kills his friend.  Gollum then lived half a millenia loving the “precious” ring. What Gollum lost was himself the moment he and his friend found a ring below the lake.   Another example of a flashback is when Gandalf talks about Gollum.  Gandalf said: “ Pity? It was pity that stayed in hand. Pity and mercy, not to strike without need.”  Tolkien used to compare Gollum’s era with the ring and Bilbo’s. The difference is nobody died when Bilbo obtained and left the ring. This flashback tells me how and why Gollum’s life had been miserable. The ring is dangerous;  it is what ultimately led to Gollum’s demise.

In addition, Tolkien used personification in this book series.  For example, Tolkien described a tree that could move and talk as any man. Tolkien’s use of personification was also disguised.  The ring had a “desire” and a “mind” of its own. The ring was capable of seducing and swindling a man for itself rather than riches or power. The feeling of holding it was too much for someone to refuse. The ring I could compare to a disease where the only goal is to survive. Gandalf also mentions what may be interpreted as personification when he says “The Ring has awoken, it’s heard its masters call.” The ring has “awoken” is an act of a living thing. A golden ring can’t be awoken. Personification is essential to the elevation of the ring.

The ring is relevant to  flashbacks for a few reasons. One, it was involved in all other major flashbacks that molded Frodo’s quest. Two, the ring of power is a character in itself.  In all major flashbacks in the book, there were not false memories; the ring was the real culprit.  Everything occurs because of the ring. Isildur’s mind was swindled by a ring that his people swore to destroy. As with Gollum, the ring only took life. While Gollum teetered between loving and hating the ring, he could never let the ring go. In the flashbacks with Gollum, he is smitten when he sees this ring. Gollum’s eyes glowed with a  passion for the ring;  the ring convinced Gollum that he was meant to carry the ring. This shows the choice Gollum made; this choice impacted present day Middle Earth. The ring of power was proven to be its own being;  it entirely controlled people. It deceives the minds of all, and carries part of the dark lord Sauron beneath its golden inside. The ring isn’t just the flashback;  it’s the synopsis and summary of the story. All the answers to the chronological pattern in this book lie within a ring!

Tolkien took an typical non-fiction pattern, chronological, and combined it with flashbacks to add understanding, suspense and a purpose to a piece of fictional, fantasy literature.  Personification illuminates the fantasy while providing more insights into the human and humanoid characters. While the reader experiences a retelling of a story, we do not know the outcome. The flashbacks add suspense even though they are often expected or logical within the context of the story.  At the same time, the chronology, provides understanding. The earlier chapters provides a road map for the reader while the content encourages the reader to conjecture about what will happen.   For example, the chronological pattern assist the reader in understanding the power - and danger - of the ring. The combination of a chronological pattern with flashbacks and personification enable the reader to stay with a complicated, fanciful, dark story.


"A Word About Flashbacks." Writing Is Hard Work. Writing Is Hard Work, 06 Feb. 2013. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings. Vol. 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Print.

Comments (2)

Otter Jung-Allen (Student 2017)
Otter Jung-Allen
  1. I did not know that the use of chronological flashbacks could have such a large effect on a story and the way a reader interprets it.

  2. I loved the way you used a nice, clean, loop around method to make sure that every point connected back to your thesis. Very neat and orderly.

Stephen Buchanico (Student 2017)
Stephen Buchanico

1.) I learned that in the lord of the rings, they use flash backs. I also learned about lord of the rings because I don't know much about it. 2.) One technique that I liked was the way he related the flashbacks in the story to flashbacks that people have all the time, so relating back to the reader.