Lord of the Rings horror/comfort cycle

There’s a lot of great analysis of Lord of the Rings. But none of them (that I’ve read) have ever touched on what I call the horror/comfort cycle.

This is something I wish all epic fantasy writers would use. I’d love to encounter it elsewhere than Tolkien’s work, but nobody anywhere has ever touched on it. So I’ll do my best to explain it.

In all fiction, conflict is explained in a try/fail cycle. The heroes try something and blow it and try again. That’s basic plot.

Tolkien’s plot ran on a different structure. Maybe it was typical of the epics, I don’t know. But his stories run on a horror/comfort cycle.

It starts very small, with comfort. Bilbo’s birthday party. The horror arises when Bilbo refuses to give up the ring. Quickly resolved, we enter the next comfort phase of Frodo taking over.

Next horror cycle–the Ring’s backstory. It’s slightly stronger than the previous one. So the comfort is greater–Frodo and the gang moving and going on a walking tour of the Shire.


Next Horror cycle, which is bigger–Black Riders on the Road. Its corresponding comfort is Farmer Maggot. Next Horror is the Old Forest, balanced by Bombadil, trumped by the Barrowdowns, trumped by Bombadil again, one upped by what happens in Bree, trumped by Strider and his leadership.

On we go through Weathertop and Frodo’s wound, which is balances by Rivendell and the Council. Moria is very dark and is balanced by the wonder of Lothlorien.


Back and forth the pendulum goes, getting higher with each swing. Awfulness is always balanced with greater good, which is beset by still greater evil. In the end, good wins, but at a cost.

In modern fantasy, nobody follows this progression or even seems aware of it. Mostly one horrible thing happens after another with no rest in between. Even Christian fantasy, which in particular should be aware of things like this, in my opinion.

The horror/comfort like a really big version of the scene/sequel structure, except Tolkien took us to wonderful places right along with the horrible.

I don’t write epic fantasy, but I’d love to read some that follows this. I wonder if other genres could benefit from the horror/comfort cycle?

2 thoughts on “Lord of the Rings horror/comfort cycle

  1. That is awesome that you noticed that. I loved when Diana Wynn Jones did that whole article on it in her books but I have never noticed this before. You know how she said, ” Watch the water.” Now I will notice this next time I read the series.


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