“Fealty and Fear: Notions of Kingship in The Lord of the Rings” Academic Essay by Deanna Chan

Fealty and Fear: Notions of Kingship in The Lord of the Rings

Academic Essay by Deanna Chan

Anglo-Saxon culture pervades J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and is especially visible in the social structure and practices that bind subjects to their ruler in Middle Earth. In particular, Tolkien seems to have borrowed the Anglo-Saxon notions of fealty and gift-giving from texts such as Beowulf, in which the king figures of Hrothgar and Beowulf reward their men for service done and service promised. Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings is similar to Beowulf in the positive relationship he builds with his people. Sauron, on the other hand, is a corruption of the king-figure, who uses the giving of gifts not to win loyalty, but to enslave. Thus, through examples of the corrupted ruler in the figures of Sauron, Saruman, and to a lesser extent, Denethor, Tolkien illustrates the danger that greed and ambition pose to proper kingship and to the bonds between king and subject that should be forged through fealty and love. Though Aragorn is a good and rightful king, Tolkien shows how his actions, paralleled and disfigured by Sauron and his agents, can so easily be turned to ill purpose.

In a literal sense, Sauron is more of a ring-giver than Aragorn. Not only does he take on the titles of Annatar (“Lord of Gifts”) and “Lord of the Rings”, but like Beowulf, he also gives gifts in exchange for future service[1], whereas we primarily see Aragorn offer material reward for service already sworn[2]. By having Sauron corrupt the act of ring-giving in his desire to wield absolute control over his subjects through the rings themselves, Tolkien suggests that the practice of acquiring fealty through gifts is inherently problematic. In Beowulf’s time of need, the gifts he has bestowed out of “kindness and generosity…and the oaths sworn in the mead hall…do not seem to translate into action” (Kundu 4) for the thanes other than Wiglaf. Kundu also notes that Wiglaf’s unwavering loyalty is due “not only [to] his oath…[but] the virtue called ‘love’ or ‘friendship’…Beowulf is of course a ring-giver, protector and a lord, but above all ‘beloved’[3]” (4). It is not Beowulf’s rings that motivate Wiglaf to fulfill his oath, but the love that he has inspired in him. Similarly, it is Aragorn’s actions and integrity that people regard as his most valuable gifts. Prior to setting out to Mordor, Aragorn is not yet king in name and has given no rewards of gold or land. Yet in Éomer’s declaration that since “Aragorn succoured [him] and [his] people, so [he] will aid [Aragorn] when he calls” (The Lord of the Rings 862) is the sense that loyalty is won not through the bestowing of material wealth, but through acts that prove the worthiness of his character.

Tolkien also uses the antithetical pairing of Aragorn and Sauron to show that a proper king rules with love, while a corrupt leader rules with fear. While Sauron is able to seduce humans and Elves to his cause when wearing the noble and fair guise of Annatar, it is through love of knowledge and glory that they are drawn to him, rather than love for Sauron himself. Because of the superficial nature of the bond created through gifts, when it comes to ruling, he turns directly towards absolute domination and effects a supernatural corruption of the gift-giving practice. Injected with his will, the rings become nooses, for “while he [wears] the One Ring he [can] perceive all the things that [are] done by means of the lesser rings, and he [can] see and govern the very thoughts of those that [wear] them” (The Silmarillion 346). Tolkien notes that Sauron has “[a] mask he still could wear so that if he wished he might deceive the eyes of Men, seeming to them wise and fair” (The Silmarillion 346), but that Sauron prefers to govern by force, as it is easier to coerce than to earn—with their will in his grasp, he has no need for their changeable love.

While Aragorn also exerts his will, the success of his power is dependent on the willingness of his subjects to submit to it. Because he does not enslave his friends and followers, governing by will alone is insufficient. The balance between compulsion and inspiration he strikes in his leadership is exemplified in this exchange between Gimli and Legolas as they recount their journey down the Paths of the Dead:

“‘…upon that road I was put to shame: Gimli Glóin’s son, who had deemed himself more tough than Men, and hardier under earth than any Elf. But neither did I prove; and I was held to the road only by the will of Aragorn.’

‘And by the love of him also,’ said Legolas. ‘For all those who come to know him come to love him after his own fashion.’” (The Lord of the Rings 856) 

Legolas’ interjection is crucial to distinguishing the difference between Aragorn’s rule and Sauron’s: whereas Sauron governs “by force and fear” (The Silmarillion 346) and his subjects “uttered only his will and his malice” (The Lord of the Rings 805), those who follow Aragorn do so of their own volition—rather than being coerced, they are in equal parts impelled and animated.

This is not to say that rightful kings do not rely on exchanges and oaths to procure service. As demonstrated by Isildur and Aragorn with the Men of the Mountains, and Théoden with Ghân-buri-Ghân and the Wild Men, oaths serve as official markers of fidelity and accords between parties. Further, they are a sign of equal exchange: the oath that the Men of the Mountains swear to Isildur is not properly fulfilled even once they have provided the service, for the other half of the pact lies with Aragorn to recognise their duty as completed and release them[4]. As Kundu notes, formal agreements of exchange and “[g]ift-giving, nevertheless, [are] not all the inspiration behind the fulfillment of vow and duty; it goes deeper” (6), and therein lies the love that Aragorn and Théoden inspire in their followers. The oaths that bind subjects to their king, particularly as depicted in the warrior society of Rohan, are based on duty through love. Théoden calls upon these pledges when rousing his warriors to battle, crying, “‘Now is the hour come, Riders of the Mark, sons of Eorl!…Oaths ye have taken: now fulfil them all, to lord and land and league of friendship!’” (The Lord of the Rings 818). In the king-subject relationship of Rohan, these bonds are not just political contracts, but emotional agreements, forged from a love for the kingdom and each other. As evidenced by Merry’s conception of Théoden as a father as well as a king, “thaneship is not only a contract or a loyalty of obligation, but a relation of affect, an adoption” (Kundu 10). However, even these oaths can be broken or go unfulfilled, as they are in Beowulf, when his “comrades, hand-chosen, sons of noblemen,/did not take their stand in a troop around him/with warlike valor—they fled to the woods/and saved their lives” (l. 2596-9).

Essential to the proper king-subject bond, then, is the free will of the subject. Though the nine mortal kings chose to accept Sauron’s rings, once the bond was cast, it could not be broken, and “one by one, sooner or later…they fell under the thraldom of the ring that they bore and under the domination of the One, which was Sauron’s” (The Silmarillion 346). Colleen Donnelly notes in “Feudal Values, Vassalage, and Fealty in The Lord of the Rings” that “[d]isloyalty to a single lord is acceptable, even commendable, when the greater good of society is not being served, for then the lord is not worthy of service” and that “a vassal must recognize whether a lord possesses the qualities that should allow him to command obedience and loyalty” (22). Thus, the disobedience to Théoden and Denethor respectively through which the Witch-King is slain and Faramir is saved is simultaneously in obedience to the good of the kingdom, if not the king’s own wishes.

In Faramir, Denethor “wants a son whose only loyalty is to his father and to his father’s vision of himself and his heirs as rulers rather than to a vision of what is best for society” (Donnelly 23), and he holds his other knights to the same expectation. Beregond’s intervention, he considers treason, and he also accuses Gandalf of “‘steal[ing] the hearts of [his] knights’” (The Lord of the Rings 836). Yet, when Beregond is brought before Aragorn to receive his judgment, his disobedience to Denethor is not one of the crimes that Aragorn lists. Aragorn deems Beregond’s disobedience to be spilling blood “‘in the Hallows, where that is forbidden’” and abandoning his post “‘without leave of Lord or of Captain’” (The Lord of the Rings 947), as these are transgressions against established rules as opposed to the desires of an individual king. As Aragorn recognizes that Beregond transgressed only to impede those selfish plans, he grants pardon and “demonstrates that not only does a leader have the duty to govern wisely, but that the people also have a responsibility to wisely choose who they follow and to whom they give their fealty” (Donnelly 25-6). A king may choose to respond to disobedience with mercy or wrath; equally important is the subject’s freedom to choose[5] between obedience or disobedience. For with their own will replaced by Sauron’s, the Ringwraiths are not so much vassals as slaves.

Donnelly argues further that a lord’s style of rule has a direct correlation to the likeliness of rebellion in his subjects, an equation to which I would add the lord’s perception of any disobedience. The relationships that Saruman forges and the “kind of loyalty that [he] has commanded by creating slaves in Orthanc will, in an act of poetic justice, bring about his death: an evil lord who abuses those in his service must beware their treason” (Donnelly 22). Saruman can manipulate and compel, but he does not have a Ring of Power and therefore cannot completely control Wormtongue. Although Sauron does not necessarily abuse those who are bound to him by the Rings of Power[6] , he rules his other subjects with force and so the impenetrable features of his stronghold prove “useful; for he [has] few servants but many slaves of fear, and still its chief purpose as of old [is] to prevent escape from Mordor” (The Lord of the Rings 880).

While Aragorn also faces disobedience from those he commands, it is not derived from hatred for him, but from fear of the task at hand. Even though people willingly choose to follow Aragorn, they can still falter, as do the young men who are so terrified by Mordor that “they could neither walk nor ride further north” (The Lord of the Rings 868) towards the final battle. Aragorn, who rules with mercy[7] as opposed to the wrath and cruelty of Sauron and Saruman, understands the men’s fear and does not begrudge them for it. Instead of punishing them for their inability to fully commit, his response of “‘Go!…But keep what honour you may, and do not run!’” (The Lord of the Rings 868) presents them with alternate methods through which to serve the kingdom. Théoden also shows mercy by offering those who have been treacherous the opportunity to redeem themselves through other forms of service. The choice he gives Wormtongue to “‘ride with [him] to war, and let [the Rohirrim] see in battle whether [Wormtongue is] true; or to go now, whither [he] will’” (The Lord of the Rings 509) contrasts sharply with the proposal that Sauron’s messenger presents to the dwarves. Whereas Théoden’s proposition is addressed to a subject who has already betrayed him, Sauron’s message is an invitation of “friendship”; yet inherent in “‘Find only news of the thief…and you shall have great reward and lasting friendship from the Lord. Refuse, and things will not seem so well’” (The Lord of the Rings 235) is the threat of punishment to those who are not even under his dominion. Aragorn and Théoden, as just kings, are able to negotiate terms of loyalty; Sauron and Saruman, as tyrants, fear the undermining effects of disobedience and so turn their will and magic towards slavery.

However, with the destruction of Sauron comes the extinction of his will. And since he replaces the wills of his servants with his own, their servitude does not extend beyond his death. As Mordor collapses, “the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, [run] hither and thither mindless; and some [slay] themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or [flee] wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope” (The Lord of the Rings 928). They do not emulate Éowyn and the Rohirrim, who defend their lord and their kingdom until his end and beyond, for there is nothing else that governs them. Théoden, unlike Sauron, is not “utterly forsaken…The knights of his house [lie] slain about him, or else mastered by the madness of their steeds [are] borne far away. Yet one [stands] there still: Dernhelm the young, faithful beyond fear” (The Lord of the Rings 822). The emphasis here on the death or involuntary distance of the knights from their king is key, as Tolkien implies that if they had been capable, they would have joined Éowyn in protecting their leader from the Witch-King. Théoden’s knights do not forsake him because he has not forsaken them—he dies on the battlefield, not in his chambers.

Though vassals provide service to a king, a true king also serves his people. In his paradoxical dichotomy of warrior and healer, Aragorn uses his own talents and lays his own life on the line for the sake of his people and kingdom. Théoden, as mentioned, also rides out to battle with his warriors. Even on the cusp of claiming his kingship, Aragorn leads the “hopeless journey” (The Lord of the Rings 868) into Mordor, for he sees the destruction of the Ring as more important than his own life and ascent to power. Further, following battles from which his subjects are “in peril through hurt or wound, or…lay under the Black Shadow”, Aragorn “labour[s] far into the night” (The Lord of the Rings 853) to save the lives that willingly fought for, and with him. In “Sacral Kingship: Aragorn as the Rightful and Sacrifical King in The Lord of the Rings”, Karen Simpson Nikakis draws a connection between Aragorn and the Celtic notion of ‘sacrificial kingship’, in which the “wholeness and health of the realm and its citizens actually required more than just the presence of the ‘rightful’ king, it required sacrifice from him” (Nikakis 83). To be a good king of a prosperous realm is to use the talents bequeathed to the rightful king to support, rather than to enslave the people. Through his fighting and healing, Aragorn gives part of himself to the kingdom: Nikakis notes that “[i]n healing Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry, Aragorn also touches each in a way that serves no overt healing function, being unrelated to cleaning or stitching a wound, or re-aligning broken bones” (86). Just as Aragorn sacrifices his safety and well-being to lead his followers into battle, he seems, in healing, to transfer his own strength to bolster that of his patient. Although Aragorn is a ‘rightful’ king, it is not his lineage, but his self-sacrifice that makes him one worthy of love and loyalty[8].

In contrast, rulers who put their own desires before the well-being of their realm and people never think to sacrifice themselves—only others. Denethor is more concerned with his pride than with being a good steward; Saruman and Sauron employ agents because death would put an end to their endless ambitions[9]. In the half-form he holds during the Third Age, Sauron cannot, understandably, ride into battle as Aragorn and Théoden do. However, even when he did have a physical form, during the strife of the Second Age, it was only when “the siege was so strait that Sauron himself came forth” (The Silmarillion 352) to confront the forces of Elendil[10]. As Denethor reasons to Pippin, “‘[Sauron] uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise…Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons? For I can still wield a brand’” (The Lord of the Rings 800).

The ambition and subsequent increased fear of usurpation or death that govern and corrupt the decisions of these rulers like Denethor prevent them from seeing the benefits of self-sacrifice, as it appears to go against all they hope to achieve. Aragorn, who does not seek to rule more than is rightfully his, is not afraid of dying, and the description of his death in the appendices “resonates strongly with notions of a return to the source and replenishment of that which fructifies life” (Nikakis 85). A king’s death is his final sacrifice, and Aragorn’s explanation to Arwen that “‘[they] have gathered, and [they] have spent, and now the time of payment draws near’” (1037) suggests that by giving back to the earth a life that is still intact and strong, a good king protects not only his soul, but also the prosperity of his kingdom from falling into decay[11]. Just as he is required to employ his skills for the good of his realm, so the rightful king is given the choice of his own time and manner of dying; among all the gifts he gives to his people, his life is the most precious.

Though Aragorn is shown to be a good and just king, Tolkien makes a point of reminding the reader that neither the kings of old[12] nor Sauron[13] were originally evil either. This does not necessarily portend that Aragorn will fall to such depths, but highlights how easily kingship can be corrupted. It also further accentuates Aragorn’s worthiness in that he resists the temptations of power that were the undoing of his ancestors. Through the contrasting relationships that good rulers and corrupt ones cultivate with their subjects over the course of The Lord of the Rings and its supporting texts, Tolkien explores the importance of king-figures in shaping the prosperity or suffering of their realms and its peoples, but also the vital role the subjects play in determining the success or failure of a king. The bonds of love or fear that join them are inherently and equally open at both ends, even when the accord seems heavily lopsided: as Aragorn forged friendships, so he benefited from willing allegiances; as Sauron created slaves, so he became a slave to his own fear of betrayal.

Works Cited

Beowulf, second edition. Trans. R.M. Liuzza. Ed. L.W. Conolly. Claremont: Broadview Press,

2013. Print.

Donnelly, Colleen. “Feudal Values, Vassalage, and Fealty in The Lord of the Rings”. Mythlore

25.3/4 (2007): 17-27. Web. 12 Apr 2015.

Kundu, Pritha. “The Anglo-Saxon War-Culture and The Lord of the Rings: Legacy and

Reappraisal. War, Literature & the Arts 26 (2014): 1-16. Web. 12 Apr 2015.

Nikakis, Karen Simpson. “Sacral Kingship: Aragorn as the rightful and sacrificial king in The

Lord of the Rings”. Mythlore 26.1/2 (2007): 83-90. Web. 14 Apr 2015.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Random House, 2002.


  1. Wiglaf to the other thanes: “‘he gave us these rings–/that we would pay him back for this battle-gear,/these helmets and hard swords, if such a need/as this ever befell him’” (Beowulf l. 2635-8) []
  2. These gifts do serve the purpose of maintaining the king-subject bond and are given also in the expectation of continued service. However, it is important to note that characters such as Faramir, who receives the Stewardship of Gondor and the Princedom of Ithilien, has already pledged his service to Aragorn prior to receiving these gifts. []
  3. As he makes to support Beowulf against the dragon, Wiglaf addresses him as “Dear Beowulf” (l. 2663) []
  4. In contrast, Saruman is described as a master who is “‘apt to overlook his bargains’” and Gandalf advises Wormtongue to “‘go quickly and remind him, lest he forget your faithful service’” (509). As a leader who does not fulfill his side of agreements, he himself is an oath-breaker and an irresponsible ruler to his subjects. []
  5. The Biblical undertones are very strong here; the good king is a God-figure, who will guide his subjects, but wrest them of their free will—the choice to obey or transgress is their own. []
  6. As he has bent their will to his own, there is no other force with which he has to contend. []
  7. Aragorn’s mercy is also evident as he “pardoned the Easterlings that had given themselves up, and sent them away free, and he made peace with the peoples of Harad; and the slaves of Mordor he released and gave to them all the lands about Lake Núrnen to be their own” (The Lord of the Rings 947). This is also strategic—as he gives them mercy, so they become indebted to him. []
  8. In the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien elaborates on the history of the Númenorean kings from whom Aragorn descends: “the Kings became greedy of wealth and power…their havens became fortresses, holding wide coastlands in subjection” and “their fear of death grew” (1012). Though Ar-Pharazôn was king by right, his pride and ambition rivalled that of Sauron, and wrought the downfall of Númenor. []
  9. “Sauron’s lust and pride increased, until he knew no bounds, and he determined to make himself master of all things in Middle-Earth…He brooked no freedom nor any rivalry, and he named himself Lord of the Earth” (The Silmarillion 346). []
  10. It is also during this battle that he is defeated by Isildur, which likely strengthened his determination to wage war through the bodies of others. []
  11. Nikakis notes that in cultures where nature was linked to the life of the “man-god”, it was considered “extremely dangerous to allow a king to die of disease or old age…It was vital…that the king’s soul not be weakened by disease; or lost—snatched by sorcerers or demons, or by refusing to return to a dying body…In this context, the interrelationship between the ruler and the continuing fruitfulness of the earth goes beyond the metaphorical” (83-4). []
  12. “At first the Númenoreans had come to Middle-earth as teachers and friends of lesser Men afflicted by Sauron” (The Lord of the Rings 1012) []
  13. “‘…as long as [the Ring] is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise. For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so’” (The Lord of the Rings 261). []