FRIENDSHIP AND FREEDOM in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

JRR Tolkien’s great work, "The Lord of the Rings," continues to be prescient and relevant to our present situation. Through the vehicle of a secondary world, Tolkien explores universal questions of the human person’s place in a world of contesting forces. Tolkien examines the control of external, hostile forces over the human person and to what extent the person has freedom to respond. Tolkien masterfully responds both to the modernist elevation and exultation of human autonomy and the postmodernist devaluation of the same by presenting a strongly Christian understanding of free will and the human person’s inherent dignity and worth.

Because of the length and richness of the text, we will closely read Tolkien’s central work, The Lord of the Rings in three courses. The Fall 2021 course will focus exclusively on The Fellowship of the Ring and the subsequent courses will continue the journey through The Two Towers and The Return of the King. We will examine how Tolkien’s work directly addresses modernity’s rejection of fundamental truths and its paradoxical elevation and diminishment of the human person. Particularly, Tolkien’s work keenly addresses the nature of evil and presents the extent of human autonomy before superhuman, evil forces. He returns his reader to an understanding of the centrality of community, the existence of providential powers that prevail over demonic ones, and the fundamental dignity of the human person. Questions the course will consider: What is the role of the person before overpowering evil? Does human freedom exist and to what extent? How does Tolkien’s presentation of friendship and community counter our present postmodern view of the isolated individual? Why is the Christian God not made explicit in Middle-earth? How is God both nowhere and everywhere to be found in Middle-earth? Why does Tolkien’s work continue to resonate with contemporary readers? How does Tolkien’s story offer hope amidst the cultural and religious despair both for his own generation and also our own?


Required Texts:

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999, 2002, 2005.

Suggested Texts:

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 

Reading Requirements Per Week:

Given the difference in pagination of editions, I list below the reading requirements based on the universal divisions of The Lord of the Rings.

October 5: Book I, Chapters 1-3.  “General Introduction: Tolkien’s radical re-presentation of friendship in Middle-earth.”

October 12: Book I, Chapters 4-7. “The Ring and the power of evil over the self; Powers beyond both.”

October 19: Book I, Chapters 8-11. “Shadows in the Shire, and the Pattern of Providence”

October 26: Book I, Chapter 12 – Book II, Chapter 1. “Aragorn, the Hobbits, and Rivendell: Community as the response to the extent and limit of human free will before evil power.”

November 2: Book II, Chapters 2-3. “The Council of Elrond: Fate, providence, and the human person’s response.”

November 9: Book II, Chapters 4-6. “No Greater Love: Gandalf’s sacrifice of self and Tolkien’s continued clash with modernity over the understanding of freedom.”

November 16: Book II, Chapters 7-10 (end). “Lothlorien: the temptation to have permanence and control.”

November 23: SKIP WEEK

November 30: Seminar Conclusion: “The breaking of the fellowship but the continuance of community

About Instructor

Helen Freeh

Helen Freeh received her B.A. in Politics and Masters in American Studies from the University of Dallas. After working in the business world, she entered Baylor University’s graduate program and earned her Ph.D. in English, writing her dissertation on fate, providence and free will in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. She has worked at Baylor University Press, taught at Baylor University, McClennan County Community College, Hillsdale Academy and Hillsdale College where she met her husband, Dr. John Freeh. She is a contributor to Tolkien Among the Moderns, edited by Ralph Wood, an occasional contributor to The Catholic Thing, and a Senior Fellow at Albertus Magnus Institute. She and John are co-founders of Kateri College of the Liberal and Practical Arts in Gallup, NM, and are traveling around the country in their missionary motor home, “Tekakwitha,” promoting and fundraising for the College while fulfilling their primary vocation of raising and educating their three children, Theresa, Joseph and John Paul.

3 Courses

Not Enrolled

Course Includes

  • 8 Lessons
  • Course Certificate