A Case Study on Friendship as a Literary Theme

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

Few people are as special to us as friends. Whether they’re reading pals, travel buddies, or classmates from elementary school, they’re as dear to us as family and treasured for more reasons than good laughs and shared interests. Strong friendships aren’t limited to real life, either. Literature has shown us the ups and downs of friendship time and time again – and in most cases, those relationships have changed characters’ lives.

Today on Theme: A Story’s Soul, we’ll use two classic novels to explore friendship as a literary theme. Pay close attention to the dynamics and similarities in each example, then consider how you could explore friendship in your own work.

Examples of Friendship as a Theme in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Epic Fantasy)

fellowship-coverThe first installment in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring follows Frodo Baggins and his fellow Hobbits as they set out to destroy the One Ring. Their interactions with one another, as well as with the wizard Gandalf and other characters, offer some of literature’s most memorable friendships.

Frodo’s most dedicated friend by far is Samwise Gamgee. One might argue that, as the Baggins family’s gardener, Sam feels obligated to follow his employer. Yet whenever Frodo tries to dissuade him from coming along, Sam insists that he must (“‘I’m coming too, or neither of us is going.’”). (457) His watchfulness of their supplies and Frodo’s changing behavior, as well as his initial distrust of the ranger Strider (188), also prove that Sam isn’t just a servant, but a companion who wants to protect Frodo in any way he can.

Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took also demonstrate their loyalty to Frodo when it’s needed most. In an early Fellowship scene, Merry tells Frodo, “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word.… [W]e are coming with you; or following you like hounds.” (118) It’s one thing to say you’ll stand by someone you care about. But to promise you’ll follow that person so they won’t face the unknown on their own? That’s true friendship, indeed.

Most importantly, Frodo acknowledges and reciprocates his friendships. At first he warns Sam, Merry, and Pippin that the quest will be dangerous, and admits he fears for their safety (117). Yet he soon realizes the value of their persistent loyalty. In fact, Frodo experiences a “sudden warmth and gladness” at Sam’s final refusal to leave his side and says, “It is plain that we were meant to go [to Mordor] together” (457). So, not only is Frodo deeply moved by Sam’s friendship, but he willingly allows that bond to become his greatest weapon against the One Ring’s dark influence.

Examples of Friendship as a Theme in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (YA Historical Fiction)

book-thief-coverMarkus Zusak’s The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young foster girl growing up in Germany during World War II. While learning to read and grasping the power of literature changes her life, so do the many friendships she forges.

Liesel’s first friend in The Book Thief is neighbor and classmate Rudy Steiner. Though things get off to a “painful” start (“A snowball in the face is surely the perfect beginning to a lasting friendship” [48]), they quickly bond over street soccer and stealing food. Soon their friendship evolves from fun and games to devotion. At school, Rudy stands by Liesel while other students taunt her over her illiteracy and “stupidity” (51). They also support each other when their fathers are drafted into the war, despite – and because of – their shared grief. (“She didn’t care where he was going or what he was planning, but he would not be going without her.” [425]) They may be children, but Rudy and Leisel demonstrate the essence of friendship by sticking together through life’s challenges.

Another character who changes Liesel’s life is Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man whom Liesel’s family hides in their basement for two years. Their friendship blossoms over, among many things, their mutual love of storytelling. When Max battles a debilitating illness, Liesel reads to him twice a day and brings “presents” from the outside world, promising that “‘when you wake up, I’ll tell you all about [them].’” (320) In return, Max writes two books for Liesel that allude to the impact she’s had on him. For example, he says in The Word Shaker, “They became good friends, and when the man was sick, the word shaker allowed a single teardrop to fall on his face. The tear was made of friendship…” (446) Thus, Max and Liesel’s passion for the written word becomes an outlet for expressing their mutual appreciation.

Liesel also grows close with the mayor’s wife Frau Hermann, who frequently invites Liesel into the family library. Tension grows between them after the Hermanns fire Liesel’s mother; but after Liesel begins stealing books from them, Frau Hermann’s apology “gifts” and letters encourage her to come back (369). Eventually Liesel writes her own note to Frau Hermann: “I’m sorry… You have been a friend to me, even though I hurt you, even though I have been insufferable…” (522). These and other examples in The Book Thief remind us that people can be friends regardless of age and other differences.

Keys to Exploring Friendship as a Literary Theme

Like with our case study on family, character relationships are the key to cultivating friendship as a literary theme. Here’s how The Fellowship of the Ring and The Book Thief accomplish this:

Multiple Examples:

Including several friendships can further strengthen this theme. In addition to Frodo and his fellow Hobbits, Fellowship features long-time pals Bilbo Baggins and the wizard Gandalf and a new friendship between the dwarf Gimli and the elf Legolas. The Book Thief also looks beyond Liesel’s friendships, from the debt that Hans Hubermann owes Max’s father Erik Vandenburg, to the once-rivalry between Max and former fist-fighter Walter.

Fairness & Tolerance:

Both books feature friends of different ages, genders, religions, or ethnic backgrounds. This diverse range proves that friendship knows no boundaries and has the power to overcome societal ills (e.g., Gimli and Legolas’ initial prejudice toward each other’s races in Fellowship).

Bonding & Shared Experiences:

While Fellowship introduces previously established relationships between characters, it also uses the quest’s events as bonding opportunities for the Fellowship’s members. The Book Thief takes a similar route by showing Liesel “clicking” with others through shared activities and interests.

Loyalty & Trust:

What do Sam, Merry, Rudy, and Liesel have in common? They demonstrate immense loyalty to other characters in their respective stories. Displays of faithfulness, dependability, or responsibility toward one another can prove how deeply literary friends value one another.

Conflict & Forgiveness:

Characters don’t always get along, just as real-life people don’t. Both Fellowship and The Book Thief try their friendships through anger, misunderstandings, and other forms of conflict, then demonstrate what happens when characters forgive (or choose not to forgive) each other.

Exploring friendship as a literary theme means looking at its highs as well as its lows. In fact, we’ve experienced all of the above keys at some point in our real-life friendships. Remember this as you craft scenes or relationship arcs for your characters. By showing how harmony and “head-butting” can strengthen or complicate friendship, you can add a healthy dose of realism to your story – and you can underscore the impact of this special bond in our lives.

It’s Your Turn!

Who are some of your favorite literary friends? What makes their friendship so memorable or moving?
Have you written about characters who are close friends? How do those friendships grow or endure during the course of the story?

Think about your friends. How did you bond with them over time? How have they proven their trust or loyalty to you, and vice versa? Why do you value those friendships so much?

What topics would you like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #DIYMFA.

Sara 2015Sara Letourneau is a fantasy writer in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks too much tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blogTwitter, and Goodreads.

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