🧙 The Tolkien Forum 🧝

Welcome to our forum! Register a free account today to become a member! Once signed in, you'll be able to participate on this site by adding your own topics and posts, as well as connect with other members through your own private inbox! Plus you won't see ads ;)

The "Rule of Threes" As a Structural Principle

Squint-eyed Southerner

Pawing through the trash behind the Pony
Joined
Apr 9, 2018
Messages
1,841
Reaction score
1,686
Location
Virginia, USA
I'd noticed the occurrence of groups of threes in a casual way, over the years, but a couple of things caused me to take a closer look.

One was Douglas Anderson's note on Bilbo's "third time pays for all" in The Annotated Hobbit, where he says it is a Medieval proverb, and gives a quote from a letter of Tolkien to Jared Lobdell on the subject:

It is an old alliterative saying using the word throw: time, period (unrelated to the verb throw); sc. this third occasion is the best time -- the time for special effort and/or luck. It is used when a third try is needed to rectify two poor efforts, or when a third occurrence may surpass the others and finally prove a man's worth, or a thing's.

The other was rereading Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, with an eye to applying his ideas to Tolkien. In brief, he says, in discussing romance structure, that when it reaches literary form, the complete romance is the successful quest, and "has three main stages: the perilous journey and the preliminary minor adventures; the crucial struggle, usually some kind of battle in which either the hero or his foe, or both, must die, and the exaltation of the hero". He then suggests that this threefold structure may account for the appearance of many features of romance: "in the frequency, for instance, with which the successful hero is the third son, or the third to undertake the quest, or successful on his third attempt". Let's see if we can apply these ideas to Tolkien.

On page 2 of The Hobbit, we're informed that Bilbo's mother is "one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took" -- though we're never told what was remarkable about them. At the very end of The Lord of the Rings -- after the end, in fact, in the Family Trees appendix -- we learn that one of Bilbo's maternal uncles "was said to have 'gone to sea' in his youth", and another "went off on a journey and never returned".

Bilbo's mother was the eldest daughter; the youngest -- chronologically the third -- produced, in her third generation, Frodo, who became the third hobbit to possess the Ring, and who -- by my count at least -- made three attempts to rid himself of it.

There are other examples; one, in a tragic or ironic counterpart, is Boromir, who sounds his horn on three occasions, all without result. And in fact, the failure of his own quest -- besides his death, of course -- is symbolically emphasized by the cleaving of his horn.

That horn has its "contrasted parallel" in the Horn of Eorl, blown -- successfully -- by Merry in the Shire: "He that blows it at need shall set fear in the hearts of his enemies and joy in the hearts of his friends, and they shall hear him and come to him". Interestingly, Merry sounds this horn four times, the last being after the Battle of Bywater, and in direct answer to that of Ted Sandyman, who is apparently unaware of the defeat of the ruffians. Whether this was intentional on the author's part, I don't know.

Of course, the horn echos the "great horns of the North, wildly blowing" on the Field of Pelennor, as well as the Horn-call of Buckland, heard during the Nazgul attack at Crickhollow, and sounded by Merry in the Shire. That these were intentional, there can be no doubt, as are, I think, the structural principles I've been discussing, however hidden or deeply buried in the story they may be. I'd go so far as to suggest that it is the sub- or semi-conscious absorption of them in the mind of the reader that contributes to the mysterious feeling of resonance experienced by so many -- millions, in fact.

One final word: before anyone comes back with all the "twos", fives" and "nines", note that I called it a, not the, structural principle; there are many.
 
Last edited:

Erestor Arcamen

Archivist
Staff member
Joined
Nov 30, 2004
Messages
1,471
Reaction score
731
Location
Pittsburgh, PA
I was going to say there were 9 nazgul and 9 is a multiple of 3 so that, along with the three Elven rings fits. The seven is an outlier maybe because that's a race not created by Eru like the other two?

p.s. I'm still waiting on the dragon in LOTR thread ;)
 

CirdanLinweilin

The Wandering Wastrel
Joined
May 13, 2016
Messages
1,006
Reaction score
529
Location
Mission Viejo, California
I'd noticed the occurrence of groups of threes in a casual way, over the years, but a couple of things caused me to take a closer look.

One was Douglas Anderson's note on Bilbo's "third time pays for all" in The Annotated Hobbit, where he says it is a Medieval proverb, and gives a quote from a letter of Tolkien to Jared Lobdell on the subject:

It is an old alliterative saying using the word throw: time, period (unrelated to the verb throw); sc. this third occasion is the best time -- the time for special effort and/or luck. It is used when a third try is needed to rectify two poor efforts, or when a third occurrence may surpass the others and finally prove a man's worth, or a thing's.

The other was rereading Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, with an eye to applying his ideas to Tolkien. In brief, he says, in discussing romance structure, that when it reaches literary form, the complete romance is the successful quest, and "has three main stages: the perilous journey and the preliminary minor adventures; the crucial struggle, usually some kind of battle in which either the hero or his foe, or both, must die, and the exaltation of the hero". He then suggests that this threefold structure may account for the appearance of many features of romance: "in the frequency, for instance, with which the successful hero is the third son, or the third to undertake the quest, or successful on his third attempt". Let's see if we can apply these ideas to Tolkien.

On page 2 of The Hobbit, we're informed that Bilbo's mother is "one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took" -- though we're never told what was remarkable about them. At the very end of The Lord of the Rings -- after the end, in fact, in the Family Trees appendix -- we learn that one of Bilbo's maternal uncles "was said to have 'gone to sea' in his youth", and another "went off on a journey and never returned".

Bilbo's mother was the eldest daughter; the youngest -- chronologically the third -- produced, in her third generation, Frodo, who became the third hobbit to possess the Ring, and who -- by my count at least -- made three attempts to rid himself of it.

There are other examples; one, in a tragic or ironic counterpart, is Boromir, who sounds his horn on three occasions, all without result. And in fact, the failure of his own quest -- besides his death, of course -- is symbolically emphasized by the cleaving of his horn.

That horn has its "contrasted parallel" in the Horn of Eorl, blown -- successfully -- by Merry in the Shire: "He that blows it at need shall set fear in the hearts of his enemies and joy in the hearts of his friends, and they shall hear him and come to him". Interestingly, Merry sounds this horn four times, the last being after the Battle of Bywater, and in direct answer to that of Ted Sandyman, who is apparently unaware of the defeat of the ruffians. Whether this was intentional on the author's part, I don't know.

Of course, the horn echos the "great horns of the North, wildly blowing" on the Field of Pelennor, as well as the Horn-call of Buckland, heard during the Nazgul attack at Crickhollow, and sounded by Merry in the Shire. That these were intentional, there can be no doubt, as are, I think, the structural principles I've been discussing, however hidden or deeply buried in the story they may be. I'd go so far as to suggest that it is the sub- or semi-conscious absorption of them in the mind of the reader that contributes to the mysterious feeling of resonance experienced by so many -- millions, in fact.

One final word: before anyone comes back with all the "twos", fives" and "nines", note that I called it a, not the, structural principle; there are many.
Well dang, not that you brought it up. yeah I now notice it.

They say you have to read/experience/see/hear something three times to get it through the head.


CL
 

Squint-eyed Southerner

Pawing through the trash behind the Pony
Joined
Apr 9, 2018
Messages
1,841
Reaction score
1,686
Location
Virginia, USA
I was going to say there were 9 nazgul and 9 is a multiple of 3 so that, along with the three Elven rings fits. The seven is an outlier maybe because that's a race not created by Eru like the other two?

p.s. I'm still waiting on the dragon in LOTR thread ;)
Don't forget:

Tall ships and tall kings,
. Three times three,


As for the "dragon", that will take more research than I have time for right now, sorry. :(
 

Olorgando

not from 'Straya
Joined
Aug 19, 2019
Messages
1,455
Reaction score
776
Location
Franconia
I'd noticed the occurrence of groups of threes in a casual way, over the years, but a couple of things caused me to take a closer look.
Hmyes, which sent you down a slippery slope.
Old, very old, ancient hat.
You start looking for things, you'll find them, especially with single-digit numbers, and several double-digit ones, too. But if anyone starts off with "this can't be a coincidence!" my answer, with steely look and icy voice, is "oh yes it can, very much so, and for any contradicting claims I want to see some very serious evidence!".

Of the three (oh no!) closely related Cs, causality, correlation and coincidence, we humans tend to be like bloodhounds trying to sniff out the first one everywhere, look askance at the second one and (to stay with the pooch analogy) tend to pee on the third one. Bummer. The third one is the 9000 pound gorilla.
 

Squint-eyed Southerner

Pawing through the trash behind the Pony
Joined
Apr 9, 2018
Messages
1,841
Reaction score
1,686
Location
Virginia, USA
True enough -- but given Tolkien's explicit statements, I seriously doubt coincidence.

BTW, although I much prefer a hard copy (mine's covered with notes, and I like to flip back and forth) Frye's essay is available on line.


Well worth reading. Of particular interest for Tolkien are the sections on Apocalyptic and Demonic Imagery, and the one on "The Mythos of Summer: Romance".
 
Last edited:

Olorgando

not from 'Straya
Joined
Aug 19, 2019
Messages
1,455
Reaction score
776
Location
Franconia
BTW, although I much prefer a hard copy (mine's covered with notes, and I like to flip back and forth) Frye's essay is available on line.
I read the whole damn thing. The odd hours last evening (pre-midnight, or just barely past), finishing this morning (aka pre-noon), after an unusually long period of "sleep".
My main problem is that I am unfamiliar with almost all of the examples he cites, never having read them. My current impression is that he postulates a kind of matrix, with comedy and tragedy crossing … erm … it seems to be "only" "romance" and "irony" … ah no, "satire" also popped up ...
 

Squint-eyed Southerner

Pawing through the trash behind the Pony
Joined
Apr 9, 2018
Messages
1,841
Reaction score
1,686
Location
Virginia, USA
Keep in mind that's the third of four essays that make up the book. He refers to points he made in previous ones throughout, so it's really best to read them in order, if possible (the others are also on line). I posted that one as most germane to my argument.

Kudos for sticking it out on line -- I doubt I could! :D

Edit: There's also a "Polemical Introduction" and "Tentative Conclusion".

Second edit: the "Five Modes" that get quoted so extensively appear on page one of the first essay, BTW.
 
Last edited:

Olorgando

not from 'Straya
Joined
Aug 19, 2019
Messages
1,455
Reaction score
776
Location
Franconia
Kudos for sticking it out on line -- I doubt I could! :D
Fifteen-inch diagonal notebook trumps (🤮🤮🤮🤮🤮) any conceivable "smart"-phone by close to an order of magnitude (at the other extreme, I might have gone nuts trying to read it on the 26-inch monitor of my offline tower - sideways whiplash territory!)
 
Last edited:

Squint-eyed Southerner

Pawing through the trash behind the Pony
Joined
Apr 9, 2018
Messages
1,841
Reaction score
1,686
Location
Virginia, USA
Getting back to Olorgando's point about finding connections that aren't really there, I agree that we have to be cautious: in the present case, to give a couple of random examples, the three hobbits who originally walk together from the Shire, or the three boats on the Anduin. But these don't ("numerically" anyway) seem to be significant to the structure of the story; the common element in the ones in my original post appears to be time, which fits with Tolkien's emphasis in the letter: "time, period" and "occasion"; the two I just mentioned don't share that element.

That time would be significant in a fictional structure makes sense, as a story, whether in a joke, folktale, or novel, is a linear experience, like hearing music, and unlike, say, looking at a painting, where you see everything at once. Two elements that appear frequently in both stories and music are a strong sense of recurrence, and a feeling of building up to something; so, for instance, we see Frodo first begging Gandalf to take the Ring, then, as he develops wisdom and experience (as with "development" in music) express a willingness to surrender it to Galadriel, and on to the final and climactic episode on Mount Doom.

However, there are different ways to read (or "hear"). When we first read something, we're reading what's been called "pan-chronically" -- "across time" -- that is, in a linear way, and our main interest while reading a story for the first time is usually focused on the plot. But on rereading, we can now see the story "synoptically", or all at once, and that's when patterns begin to gain our attention.

Somewhere, Frye makes a comparison with painting: when we step back from close examination of a painting, we can see the overall pattern, or structure, emerge. Similarly, when we "step back" from a story, we can start to see its pattern, its structure. That is what I've been attempting to do here.

One further thing: I'd thought about including Galadriel's three hairs as not being structurally significant, but then I stumbled across this:


I'd forgotten that episode. Though it may have been "retrofitted" into the story by the author, it does again show his preoccupation with "time" as a fundamental element in story, as well as two features I mentioned above, recurrence, and buildup (maybe I should have called that last something like "increasing tension"). Of course, reading LOTR in isolation, we see only the climax of that particular story.
 

Squint-eyed Southerner

Pawing through the trash behind the Pony
Joined
Apr 9, 2018
Messages
1,841
Reaction score
1,686
Location
Virginia, USA
They say you have to read/experience/see/hear something three times to get it through the head.
Or more: one I've mentioned before, the (now) obvious parallels between the attack on Crickhollow and the assault on the gates of Minas Tirith didn't get through my head for decades.

'Of course, of course! Absurdly simple, like most riddles when you see the answer.'
 

NicolausVI

New Member
Joined
Feb 3, 2020
Messages
7
Reaction score
10
Location
Rhode Island
I'd noticed the occurrence of groups of threes in a casual way, over the years, but a couple of things caused me to take a closer look.

One was Douglas Anderson's note on Bilbo's "third time pays for all" in The Annotated Hobbit, where he says it is a Medieval proverb, and gives a quote from a letter of Tolkien to Jared Lobdell on the subject:

It is an old alliterative saying using the word throw: time, period (unrelated to the verb throw); sc. this third occasion is the best time -- the time for special effort and/or luck. It is used when a third try is needed to rectify two poor efforts, or when a third occurrence may surpass the others and finally prove a man's worth, or a thing's.

The other was rereading Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, with an eye to applying his ideas to Tolkien. In brief, he says, in discussing romance structure, that when it reaches literary form, the complete romance is the successful quest, and "has three main stages: the perilous journey and the preliminary minor adventures; the crucial struggle, usually some kind of battle in which either the hero or his foe, or both, must die, and the exaltation of the hero". He then suggests that this threefold structure may account for the appearance of many features of romance: "in the frequency, for instance, with which the successful hero is the third son, or the third to undertake the quest, or successful on his third attempt". Let's see if we can apply these ideas to Tolkien.

On page 2 of The Hobbit, we're informed that Bilbo's mother is "one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took" -- though we're never told what was remarkable about them. At the very end of The Lord of the Rings -- after the end, in fact, in the Family Trees appendix -- we learn that one of Bilbo's maternal uncles "was said to have 'gone to sea' in his youth", and another "went off on a journey and never returned".

Bilbo's mother was the eldest daughter; the youngest -- chronologically the third -- produced, in her third generation, Frodo, who became the third hobbit to possess the Ring, and who -- by my count at least -- made three attempts to rid himself of it.

There are other examples; one, in a tragic or ironic counterpart, is Boromir, who sounds his horn on three occasions, all without result. And in fact, the failure of his own quest -- besides his death, of course -- is symbolically emphasized by the cleaving of his horn.

That horn has its "contrasted parallel" in the Horn of Eorl, blown -- successfully -- by Merry in the Shire: "He that blows it at need shall set fear in the hearts of his enemies and joy in the hearts of his friends, and they shall hear him and come to him". Interestingly, Merry sounds this horn four times, the last being after the Battle of Bywater, and in direct answer to that of Ted Sandyman, who is apparently unaware of the defeat of the ruffians. Whether this was intentional on the author's part, I don't know.

Of course, the horn echos the "great horns of the North, wildly blowing" on the Field of Pelennor, as well as the Horn-call of Buckland, heard during the Nazgul attack at Crickhollow, and sounded by Merry in the Shire. That these were intentional, there can be no doubt, as are, I think, the structural principles I've been discussing, however hidden or deeply buried in the story they may be. I'd go so far as to suggest that it is the sub- or semi-conscious absorption of them in the mind of the reader that contributes to the mysterious feeling of resonance experienced by so many -- millions, in fact.

One final word: before anyone comes back with all the "twos", fives" and "nines", note that I called it a, not the, structural principle; there are many.
I love this analysis! I think the missing glue here is Tolkien's own belief and knowledge of the power of the number three; The Holy Trinity. Also I am sure you know already, there are three elven rings, which were not made by Sauron.
 

Squint-eyed Southerner

Pawing through the trash behind the Pony
Joined
Apr 9, 2018
Messages
1,841
Reaction score
1,686
Location
Virginia, USA
Thanks, Nicolaus VI -- and welcome to the forum.

Yes, Biblical typology certainly plays a part in Tolkien's works -- it informs much of Western literature. But Tolkien's letter I quoted in the OP points to a long and widespread tradition in folklore and myth, as indicated by Frye. Tolkien's works are in line with this tradition as well.

Not that the strains are separate, necessarily. As an example, we can, if we like, follow the fictional structure into the structure of imagery. In Book I of The Fairy Queen, the Redcross Knight has a fight with a dragon which lasts "of course"* three days. At the end of the first day, he is revived by the Water of Life; at the end of the second, by the Tree of Life. Frodo's first attempt to rid himself of the Ring involves a man associated with a staff; his second, a woman associated with water. Both Tree and Water appear in the opening and closing books of the Bible, but the same imagery appears in many cultural traditions, some predating Biblical literature. And, as the radical mythical forms (in Frye's sense) of these images are employed metaphorically, or analogically, in the more "historical" parts of the Bible, so they are transfomed into more "plausible" images in Tolkien's romance.

And, of course, there are other ways of looking at it. A Freudian critic, for instance, would no doubt notice, and emphasize, the sexual symbolism of the example just given, and might say that Frodo's courage was "stiffened" by the man's staff, and his wounds "bathed" by the woman's waters.

*Quoting Frye again. :)
 
Last edited:

Thread suggestions

Top