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Old 02-12-2018, 01:08 PM   #1
Pile O'Bones
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The Role of Stealth in the Lord of the Rings

I don't know if anyone else has noticed this, but there is a lot of stealth, sneaking, and hiding in the Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and even some in the Simarillion.

The hobbits, Tolkien's primary heroes in many ways, are naturally gifted in stealth. So much so, that to Men it often seems like a magical ability. They can hide well, move silently, and they are small (which no doubt helps the hiding and moving silently).

The elves - basically, if they don't want you to see them, you don't see them. Apparently, they are more silent than even hobbits when they want to be. Rivendell and Lothlorien are two entire realms that are hidden from outsiders.

The rangers are essentially a para-military intelligence gathering strike force. They rely on stealth to watch out for the return of the enemy and to protect the people and communities they choose to guard. The rangers of Ithilien do much the same thing hundreds of miles away.

Quite a few plot points also revolve around stealth. The hobbits successfully hide from Ringwraiths a couple of times. Aragorn guides the hobbits from Bree to Rivendell via the sneakiest way he knows. The fellowship departs Rivendell under the cover of night, hoping to escape the notice of the spies of Sauron/Saruman. The elves of Lothlorien give the fellowship cloaks that do a lot to hide them even when they are sitting in plain sight.

And that's just the good guys sneaking around!

The agents of Sauron and Saruman use stealth as well. Even the Ring itself turns you invisible to mortal eyes (though it makes you more visible to the Nazgul).

Point being, even though there is plenty of open combat and war in the stories eventually, there is a huge reliance on stealth in Tolkien's works. Actual battles are comparatively rare.

Why do you suppose that is the case?

Last edited by Marlowe221; 02-12-2018 at 01:12 PM.
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Old 02-12-2018, 02:30 PM   #2
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An ongoing theme in Tolkien's works seems to be that although there is a time and place for open conflict and confrontation, the really important acts happen on the quiet. Elrond put it well to his eponymous Council:

'Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.'
I would posit also that since Tolkien himself was not a very imposing sort of guy from a physical standpoint, and was not possessed of an aggressive temperament, accomplishing things by discretion might have been simply more in line with his view of how things should work in Middle-earth.
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Old 02-13-2018, 05:33 AM   #3
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Originally Posted by Marlowe221 View Post
The agents of Sauron and Saruman use stealth as well. Even the Ring itself turns you invisible to mortal eyes (though it makes you more visible to the Nazgul).
No kidding! In fact, Sauron himself achieves his greatest successes when engaged in stealth and sneakiness, but tends to fail catastrophically when using open war. I may be wrong, but I think the only army-based combat in which Sauron achieved his goals while operating openly was the capture of Tol Sirion back in the First Age! He did defeat Eregion in the War of the Elves and Sauron, but he failed to capture the Three Rings, and was driven back by Lindon and Numenor. He spent the entire Third Age sneaking around pretending not to be there, and when forced out into the open by the fall of Dol Guldur, lasted less than a hundred years before his final defeat.

And what were his greatest servants, the 'apple of the Great Eye', if not professional sneaks? When Sauron wanted to create Nine followers to stand above all the others, he didn't gift them with enchanted weapons, or cursed armour to grant them magical strength - he gave them Rings which turned them invisible (among other things). The Nazgul are, and always were, stealthy spies, and if it weren't for the Witch-King forgetting that in his grandstanding (in Angmar and on the Pelennor), things would have gone very differently.


So where does all that come from? Well, if there's one lesson Tolkien must have learnt from the Great War, it's that charging the enemy with guns blazing rarely achieves anything. I don't think anyone could come out of the battlefields of the Somme and think 'the way to achieve victory is to keep throwing armies at it!'. Yes, there's room in Middle-earth for things like the Rides of the Mark (under Eorl and Theoden) to bring total military victory - but even those were a matter of misdirection, of help coming from somewhere the enemy didn't expect, rather than sheer weight of numbers.

The only comprehensive military victories that spring to mind form the end of the First and Second Ages - the first destroyed an entire subcontinent, and the second led to the death of practically every king of the Free Peoples. Tolkien was clearly under no impression that hitting things with swords was the way to defeat evil.
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Old 06-12-2018, 10:36 AM   #4
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Thank you Huinesoron! I had not considered the author's combat experience in WWI as a particular influence on his decision to make pitched battles relatively rare and have both his protagonists and antagonists rely quite a bit on stealth, but it makes a lot of sense.

I was thinking about this topic again and it occurred to me that Tolkien often uses concepts like stealth in (I assume) purposely ambiguous ways.

In some fantasy worlds/books anyone or anything that sneaks around might well be considered bad or evil. Slinking around in the shadow is hardly the way the honorable and virtous would approach things, right?

But Tolkien doesn't do that. Hobbits and Elves are naturally stealthy and are almost universally on the side of "Good." Meanwhile the Nazgul, Gollum, and even Sauron himself make extensive use of hiding and sneaking around and they are certainly "Evil" with a capital E.

Instead he opts for nuance. Stealth or sneaking itself is imbued with no inherent moral character of its own. Rather, it's the creatures and their motivations that give the act any moral/ethical flavor the reader perceives.

The same thing happens with fire in the books. Fire is associated with Sauron and Mt. Doom. But it is also associated with Gandalf whose "magical" powers are primarily to do with lights and fires.

Last edited by Marlowe221; 06-12-2018 at 12:13 PM.
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