The Return of the King: Metaphor Analysis

The Lord of the Rings is a deeply symbolic and metaphorical work throughout. Readers will no doubt note and develop for themselves the significance of images and motifs-and, as readers will see, even metaphorical characters-in addition to those noted here.
Aragorn is presented with messianic imagery throughout The Return of the King. Since Aragorn is one of the central characters in the book, the messianic imagery associated with him forms one of the books main, recurrent metaphors. The very title of Books V and VI, for example, evokes a messianic expectation. In Book V, Chapter 2, we read that Aragorn is “The King of the Dead” (by implication, as well as of the living). His riding of the Paths of the Dead, in fact, evokes the ancient Christian tradition of Christ “harrowing Hell” on Holy Saturday, and freeing from death the sprits there imprisoned (because, according to Christian theology, they had lived in sin before the time of the Savior; to use Tolkiens language, they were “oath-breakers”). Or consider the fact that, according to the ancient lore of Gondor, the rightful king will be recognized by his ability to heal-a parallel to the healing Christians claim Christ bestows through his own suffering. Note also that Aragorn liberates the slaves of the Corsairs of Umbar-an allusion, perhaps, to the freedom the messiah is expected to bring in both Jewish and Christian faith (e.g., Isaiah 61; Luke 4). Readers will no doubt add additional examples. Aragorn, therefore, functions as a somewhat metaphorical character, representing the power of freedom and justice.
Sauron is also as much a metaphor as he is a character in The Lord of the Rings. For example, Gandalf tells the council of leaders before the march to Mordor that, should the Ring be destroyed, Saurons power will also be destroyed, and “so a [note, not “the”] great evil of this world will be removed. Other evils are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary.” These may be startling words at first glance-after all, is not Sauron the terrible Dark Lord in dread of whom virtually all of Middle-earth has been living? Yes. but Tolkiens philosophy of evil does not allow for the simplistic reduction or confinement of evil to one person. Tolkien seems to subscribe to the view of a cosmic Evil that manifests itself in many forms (note also, for instance, Gandalfs speculation that Wormtongue is not the only “Wormtongue” in Middle-earth). Yet while Sauron is not actually “evil incarnate” (this authors phrase, not Tolkiens), he nonetheless displays the fatal flaws of evil; most significantly, in his grasping for power, he makes himself vulnerable by directing his attention where it least needs to be. Tolkien implies that this dynamic is common to those classified as “evil,” and is not a downfall unique to Sauron alone. To Tolkiens mind, evil “implodes” upon itself precisely because it is evil, and not good; precisely because it is destructive, and not creative; precisely because it is about death, and not life.
The lembas or waybread of the Elves, is seen frequently as Sam and Frodo make their journey into Mordor. It symbolizes the sustaining nature of hope. The narrator describes it at one point as follows: “The lembas had a virtue without which [Frodo and Sam] would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire. [or] the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods.” Christian readers of this devoutly Catholic author will no doubt hear the Eucharistic echoes within this symbol in the text. And, in many ways, the lembas resembles the bread of the Eucharist, especially in Tolkiens own Roman Catholic context, in which the bread is believed to become, literally, the body of Christ, nourishing the believer on the pilgrim journey of faith. Outside of a specifically Christian interpretation, however, readers can appreciate the symbolic image of “feeding on hope.” Hope sustains and nourishes. Literally, neither the hobbits nor we can live without it. Therefore we must seek and cling to hope, and “digest” it as we are able.
The White Tree of Minas Tirith, withered and decaying at the citys center as the book begins, symbolizes the decay of the line of kings. When Aragorn returns as king, however, it is replaced with the small sapling tree Aragorn finds after his coronation: a “scion of the Eldest of Trees” (a symbol not unlike the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” in Isaiah 11, a symbol Tolkien would have known well). The young saplings replacement of the withered tree symbolizes rebirth and renewal (as, for that matter, does the mallorn tree with which Sam replaces the felled Party Tree).