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The Mystery of the Fellowship
Imagine a bas-relief like this from the Arch of Marcus Aurelius for the Fellowship of the Ring.  Would it use a religious motif or simply a martial one?
Imagine a bas-relief like this from the Arch of Marcus Aurelius for the Fellowship of the Ring. Would it use a religious motif or simply a martial one?

It is such a little thing, the word “fellowship”, that one might not expect it to elicit so much commentary from so many learned and wise (or to draw administrative admonishment to be polite).  A while, Jeffrey Ryan was walking down the yellow brick road and he stopped to ask on the Tolkien Society Facebook page about … well, here are his words: “So one thing I’ve been wondering, and I don’t think I’ve asked the group about this, why the books use the term ‘Company’ while the films use ‘fellowship’ to describe the Ring-bearer and his companions.”  No one seems to have thought to ask Peter Jackson and his fellow writers to answer the question.

But the discourse about “company” versus “fellowship” drew my attention and got me to thinking about the uniqueness of the word “fellowship” in Tolkien’s Middle-earth fiction.  You have various companies in The Silmarillion and you have Thorin and Company in The Hobbit and you even have the Venturers Guild in “The Mariner’s Wife” but nowhere do you find Tolkien using “fellowship” to refer to a group of companions except in The Lord of the Rings, and there he only uses it of the Company of the Ring.

What hoary old myths and etymological arguments might one resurrect to explain that?  Well, I don’t want to get into all the whowroteitfirst memes but I did quickly check the etymology for “fellowship” and could not help but note with amusement that “-ship” is traced back to *skap- meaning “to create, ordain, or appoint.”  Okay, so the Fellowship are the (fellows) appointed (or ordained) to the Company of the Ring.

Dare I ask if anyone feels there may be a spiritual aspect to this very special company?   Its ending is proclaimed three times: once by Aragorn when he bids farewell to Gandalf and company at Isengard, once by Gandalf when he bids farewell to Sam, Merry, and Pippin, and once by the narrative in the “Tale of Years” where it is noted that Legolas took Gimli with him over Sea after Aragorn’s death.

Ignoring volume and chapter titles, most of the time that Tolkien uses the word “fellowship” he does not capitalize it until it is formally disbanded by Aragorn, almost as an afterthought.  Tolkien had a tendency to be inconsistent with his capitalizations but sometimes he provided sufficient context to explain why a word was (not) capitalized.  I think where “fellowship” is concerned it is (almost) obvious that uncapitalized uses referred to the special companionship of the Nine Walkers, rather than to the company of the Nine Walkers.

I won’t be surprised if this question erupts into one of the Great Debates of Tolkien interpretation but as I think about it, the fellowship of the Nine Walkers is special because they are indeed appointed to their task by Elrond, who for lack of any better representative seems to hold what remains of Gil-galad’s authority in Middle-earth.  As I have speculated in the past in my essay “Shhh! It’s a Secret Ring” I believe Tolkien implied a great Elvish conspiracy to keep the Rings of Power secret for as long as possible because they were not a good idea to begin with.  Tolkien described the making of the Rings as a second fall.

So it’s interesting that it is Elrond who appoints the members of the company rather than Gandalf, who as an emissary of the Valar wields greater authority (perhaps), who assembles the company.  Gandalf never exercises any authority over anyone until after his resurrection and subsequent removal of Saruman from the order of the Istari.  His subsequent acts of authority are the result of Aragorn and others deferring to his leadership after Theoden’s death.

Elrond is for all intents and purposes the Pope of Middle-earth.  It is his wisdom and counsel that others seek out, and his enclave in Rivendell is sacrosanct.  He also wields great power against the servants of Sauron.  Gandalf even told Frodo that if Sauron prevailed that Rivendell would be the last refuge of the Free Folk in Middle-earth, although perhaps that was merely a figurative guess (Gandalf offers several deductions in the story that should not be treated as incontrovertible facts).

Elrond’s special position in the story is underscored by the fact that of all the great people who come into close proximity to the Ring he is the only one whom the reader does not follow through a “test”.  Even Bombadil cannot refuse the Ring its chance to tempt him.  You see his eye glint as he looks through it, and that tell-tale glint appears in other characters’ eyes as they are tempted.  Because Bombadil so easily rejects the Ring (he does not seem to struggle like Aragorn, Gandalf, and Galadriel) most people assume the Ring has no effect on him, but it most certainly tries to sway him.  We never experience such a moment with Elrond.  He is untouchable by evil.  Elrond is under a special grace.

Of course, Elrond was complicit in the Elvish conspiracy (if it existed) to conceal the Rings of Power, and yet it was he who urged Isildur to destroy the One Ring when they had the chance.  Elrond seems to be the most squeaky clean of all Tolkien’s most powerful characters, and so it is appropriate that he alone appoints the members of the Company of the Ring, creating their special fellowship.

The question then becomes, is there is a special significance (in Tolkien’s intent) to the Fellowship?  Is it a spiritual order somehow consecrated by Elrond’s blessing and appointments, and by the task they were given?  Or are they just another “band of brothers”, a fantasy enthusiast’s Special Forces team sent out to accomplish an impossible mission?

Look at the picture of the bas-relief I included at the top of the article.  It depicts a Roman sacrificial ceremony (although the bull in the background strikes me as being a little creepy).  Many Roman bas-reliefs depict great battles, not religious events.  If Middle-earth were to commemorate the Fellowship of the Ring, would they do so in a spiritual theme or a martial theme?

What do you think?  Does the word “fellowship” deserve this kind of scrutiny?  What would you see as the inspiration for this special grouping?

About the Author: Michael Martinez

Michael Martinez is a graduate of Kennesaw State University and author of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, Visualizing Middle-earth, Understanding Middle-earth: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and Mindfaring through Middle-earth.


  • Darrell

    As usual you have found a nugget worth investigating! Knowing Tolkien’s thinking as he wrote the story and its part in the larger tapestry, I chose to believe the (spiritual) fellowship was special beyond their individual backgrounds and skills. As you mentioned the three points where its end was pronounced, I remembered the grief I felt as something else in the story began to fade away. And I remember when seeing Jackson’s first film that it was the “introduction” of the Fellowship — as they each topped that rise along the path — that melted my heart and brought tears of joy at seeing my old friends after such a long long time apart. Thanks for a well-reasoned articulation of this subject, Michael. Merry Christmas, from Louisiana!

  • i believe that you have a very insighful point 🙂

  • TroelsForchhammer

    It is indeed an interesting topic 🙂

    Tolkien does not use the word “fellowship” in the main narrative until the last chapter of book 2, ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’.

    Here the word is introduced by Aragorn, who proceeds to use the word twice in as many sentences:
    “What shall now become of our Company that has travelled so far in fellowship? Shall we turn west with Boromir and go to the wars of Gondor; or turn east to the Fear and Shadow; or shall we break our fellowship and go this way and that as each may choose?”
    Tolkien’s use of capitalisation in these sentences is quite interesting … ‘Company’, ‘Fear’, ‘Shadow’, but ‘fellowship’ and ‘west’ and ‘wars’ …

    This, at least to me, strongly suggests that the word fellowship is meant to imply something not about the creation of the group, but about the relations in the group (“travelled … in fellowship”).

    Unlike ‘company’, ‘fellowship’ implies something about shared goals and shared values. The breaking that Aragorn speaks of is of goals in the more concrete form – the specific destinations that each of the Company will set for their travels, but the ‘breaking of the fellowship’ is achieved more by Boromir’s treachery in which he betrays both the goals and the values of the Company.

    After this, the word is used once more in book 3 by Gimli who, in chapter 9, ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’, would “like a tale in the right order, starting with that strange day when our fellowship was broken.” This seems to refer more to the group, the Company, than to their fellowship as such, but when Frodo invokes the word in his conversation with Faramir, his usage once more suggests more than just travelling companions:
    “And the more need of haste, if we two halflings are all that remain of our fellowship.”
    I.e. if Frodo himself and Samwise are the only two left to share the goal of destroying the Master Ring.

    Thus I think that Tolkien’s use of ‘fellowship’ is intended to invoke the sense of -skap (modern Danish -skab and German -schaft) that is does not rely strictly on the meaning of ‘make’ / ‘create’ sense of ON -skapr / OE -scip(e), but rather denotes the texture or characteristics of the element it is combined with – fellowship thus means that special sense of being fellows (working together towards shared goals).

    Your invoking of the sense of ‘appointment’ is nonetheless still interesting, though I would propose that we might wish to look further than Elrond, the greatest lore master of Middle-earth, and suggest providence in the same way that Elrond himself does when first appointing the mission to Frodo. These nine were meant to accompany the Ring (though the dream that were sent to Faramir and Boromir might suggest that Faramir rather than Boromir was originally meant to take that place …?).

    In the end I think we do need to consider the timing of the text. I will have to check my History of Middle-earth volumes to check when Tolkien introduces the phrase (when, for instance, does he start using the chapter title?), but I do believe that it is possible that the change of word reflects a shift in Tolkien’s own understanding / conception of the group.

  • Marc McKenzie

    Great posts. As it relates to the relative concecration of Elrond versus Gandalf, I offer an alternative observation. Dynamics are different when one is the ultimate leader of a people (Elrond), versus being even the highest status emissary, advisor or change agent to the ultimate power (Valinor, Gandalf). Elrond has resources, power, reputation and status. To me it shows character and wisdom in Gandalf that he seldom orders others, instead listening, and quietly planting ideas in deeply thought and powerful ways. I mention this because I thought on first reading of the books that Tolkien was unusually insightful about this in the development of his characters.

    That said, the argument is compelling that Elrond appears never to have been tempted. Then again he is quite ancient – perhaps this is an unknowable?