The Lord of the Rings trilogy obviously covers a lot of time. How many months/years pass from the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring until the end of The Return of the King? A timeline of events would be exceptionally helpful.
The best timeline I have seen which includes dates and times for the Fellowship of the Ring can be found at The Lord of the Rings Fanatics network. There are four parts to their timeline and each lists the paths of the major participants in the fellowship and events related to the characters. The fine graphic created at xkcd, is more of a story-path tracker than an actual timeline.
The Lord of the Rings Timeline was designed by: Philip Kooijman © 2001.
The short answer is roughly 20 years. The passing of the ring from Bilbo to Frodo takes place far in advance of most of the story. Most of the action happens over the course of 3 years.
The long answer is distilled from this extremely thorough chronology, here's a rundown. All events take place during the Third Age. Let me know what events you'd like me to add.
- 3001 - Bilbo Baggins turns 111. He announces his plan to leave The Shire and does so. Left behind, on purpose, is The One Ring. Frodo and Merry find the ring amongst Bilbo's possessions. Sometime late this year Gandalf suspects that Bilbo's ring is The One Ring.
- 3004-3008 - Gandalf visits Frodo periodically, presumably to keep his eye on the new Ringbearer.
- 3017 - Gollum is captured by Sauron's forces. He's tortured for information on The Ring.
- Aragorn captures Gollum and turns him over to King Thranduil of Mirkwood. He's held there, and questioned by Gandalf, who then leaves for the Shire.
- Gandalf visits Frodo, and determines the ring is The One Ring. This begins the quest, Frodo and Sam make plans to depart. A few months later, they depart with Pippin joining them.
- Orcs attack Mirkwood, Gollum escapes.
- Merry joins the group.
- The hobbits arrive in Bree at the Prancing Pony. They meet up with Aragorn.
- Aragorn and the hobbits arrive in Rivendell. At the end of the year, the Fellowship of the Ring is formed and departs Rivendell.
- They fail to cross the mountains via the pass of Caradhras, so they travel through Moria. Gollum starts following the Fellowship. In Moria, they are attacked by Orcs and a Balrog. Gandalf is separated from the rest of the Fellowship while battling a Balrog.
- The Fellowship goes to Lothlórien. There they meet Galadriel, and receive gifts. They depart down the great river Anduin.
- The Breaking of the Fellowship:
- Boromir attempts to steal the ring.
- Sam and Frodo head to Mordor.
- The group is attacked by Uruk-hai.
- Boromir dies in battle defending Merry and Pippin. They are abducted, and taken towards Isengard.
- Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli put Boromir into a funeral boat and follow the Uruk-hai who have Merry and Pippin.
- The Uruk-hai are attacked by the Rohirrim. Merry and Pippin escape and meet Treebeard and the Ents.
- Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli meet Gandalf, who is now 30% whiter. They head to Edoras. Then they head to Helm's Deep, and the Battle of Helm's Deep happens. Gandalf splits off prior to Helm's Deep and heads to Isengard.
- The Ents attack Isengard.
- Gandalf arrives at Isengard, and meets Merry, Pippin, and the Ents. Gandalf heads to Helm's Deep with backup of men and Huorns (ancient and powerful tree-like beings). They arrive at Helm's Deep and contribute to the victory. Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, King Theoden and his company go to Isengard to meet Saruman. Saruman is imprisoned.
- Gollum joins Frodo and Sam. They head to the Black Gate, then instead head to Minas Morgul.
- Pippin uses the palantír, and is revealed to Sauron. Sauron mistakes him for the Ringbearer. Pippin and Gandalf head to Edoras, then onwards to Gondor. Merry swears fealty to Theoden.
- Theoden's men gather at Dunharrow. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli take the Paths of the Dead.
- Sam and Frodo are captured by Faramir's men. They are brought to Faramir, but he releases them, and they head to the path near Minas Morgul. They sneak in to Mordor, and make their way towards Mount Doom.
- Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli emerge from the Paths of the Dead, and start working their way towards Gondor, while defeating some of the backup for Sauron's forces.
- In Minas Tirith, Pippin swears fealty to Denethor.
- The Battle of the Pelennor Fields
- Sauron's forces attack Minas Tirith.
- Gandalf and the forces in Minas Tirith defend the siege.
- Pippin and Gandalf save Faramir from Denethor's madness.
- The Rohirrim, including Merry, attack Sauron's forces.
- Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and the dead join the battle.
- Aragorn heals a ton of people. Then the plan is formed to keep Sauron distracted from Frodo and Sam's progress. He, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, Pippin, and a host of others head to the Black Gate and meet the Mouth of Sauron and reject his terms. They then battle Sauron's forces.
- Frodo and Gollum destroy The One Ring in Mount Doom. Frodo and Sam are rescued by Gandalf and the Great Eagles.
- Everyone returns to Minas Tirith.
- Aragorn is crowned King. There was much rejoicing.
- Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin head home. Saruman gets to the Shire first, and sets up shop in Bag End. He enslaves the hobbits, and waits for Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin to return. They arrive and battle with Saruman, who is in the end betrayed by Wormtongue. Wormtongue in turn is killed by the hobbit forces.
- 3021 - Frodo and Bilbo depart for the Grey Havens. Gandalf and many elves go with them. Sam, Merry, and Pippin see them off.
See also The Lord of the Rings Wikia for more information on the names and places herein.
Tolkien himself made a very detailed fifteen page Synoptic Time-Scheme
This is kept at Marquette University, at shelfmark Mss-4/2/18. The complete time scheme has never been published in full, but several pages have been reproduced, and various transcribed excerpts have been included in The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion. A fuller presentation is being prepared for publication in Tolkien Studies, and will be released in 2022
William M. Fliss, archivist at Marquette university, describes the time-scheme as follows:
As Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings he became preoccupied with time and distance, resulting in some archival gems. Among the manuscripts are synoptic time-schemes where Tolkien tracked the movements of different characters in the story. Resembling a spreadsheet in an age before Microsoft Excel, these schemes contain columns representing characters or groups of characters and rows representing days. Tolkien strove to synchronize the movements of characters on every day for much of the story. Tolkien seems to have created the final version of the time-scheme in the late 1940s as he completed the manuscript. This time-scheme is fifteen pages in length, but only nine of the pages have the spreadsheet format. The first two pages comprise a single listing of important dates, from the birthday party at Bag End on September 22nd until January 15th. Before I saw this time-scheme I never fully appreciated the importance of January 15th to the course of events. On that day Gandalf the Grey fought the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dȗm and fell into the shadow of Moria. It was also the day when, to use an anachronism, the clock started ticking on the Fellowship. We learn from the time-scheme that when night fell on January 15th messages were sent forth from Moria to Isengard and to Mordor, setting evil forces in motion. Suddenly questions confronted Tolkien such as how long would it take for the message to reach Barad-dȗr? How exactly would it get there? When would Grishnákh and company be sent from Mordor? How quickly would they travel? The need for such a day-by-day reckoning intensified on February 26th with the Breaking of the Fellowship. Suddenly this tight group of characters that had moved together through Book II splinters in different directions, and Tolkien must track their every move.
Fliss, William M. (2017) "“Things That Were, and Things That Are, and Things That Yet May Be”: The J.R.R. Tolkien Manuscript Collection at Marquette University," Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature: Vol. 36 : No. 1 , Article 3.
Below I will give pictures of the pages of this outline when available, and collections of known excerpts when not.
Page 1 - Sept 22-Oct 15: (Picture from reddit of an exhibit at the NY Strong Museum of Play):
Page 2 - Oct 16-Jan 15: Published in Voyage en Terre du Milieu pg 271
Page 3 - Jan 15-Jan 18: Published in Voyage en Terre du Milieu pg 272
Page 4 and 5: Jan 19-Feb 25: No pictures published, but the following transcriptions can be found in The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, on pages 345, 348, 360-1, and 396, respectively.
January 24: Gollum captured by Uglúk, but escapes after revealing that Hobbits of Shire were with Gandalf, and enough is said to make Uglúk certain that Ring was with the Company.
February 16: Observes departure of Company and follows them.
February 18: Follows Coy. on log.
February 19: Seen by Sam on log.
February 20: Driven off by vigilance from Company’s camp.
February 23 [Sarn Gebir]: Unable to follow by water, G[ollum] in terror of Orcs makes his way to Eastern Emyn Muil by east bank.
25 February: ‘They [the Company] pass Gate of Argonath and come to Lake Hithoel (1.30 pm)’.
January 24: Isengarders capture Gollum, and torment him for news. Uglúk sends news to Isengard of Hobbits; but not of the Ring.
January 26: Grishnákh, having crossed Anduin near rapids, comes up west side, and intercepts Uglúk’s messengers, and learns their news. (He retreats, makes contact with a Nazgûl near Sarn Gebir and awaits orders.)
January 30: Saruman receiving news decides to act on his own. Sends out strong force to join Uglúk, orders them to bring Hobbits alive to Isengard.
February 2: Grishnákh reinforced. Ordered to cooperate with Ugluk (Sauron does not yet suspect Saruman).
February 6: Uglúk scours northern Rohan.
February 10: Uglúk & Grishnákh make contact above Sarn Gebir. Rohirrim drive off Isengarders, who retreat to Emyn Muil, leaving west bank unguarded. Grishnákh watches east bank near Sarn Gebir.
February 22: Grishnákh’s scouts get wind of approach of Coy. A Nazgûl is summoned, but Sauron will not yet permit the Nazgul to cross west of Anduin.
February 23: Orcs are foiled. Legolas shoots down Nazgûl. The Orcs dismayed, but Grishnákh crosses Anduin and daringly pushes down west shore in pursuit. He believes Coy. is making for Minas Tirith.
February 25: Grishnákh and Uglúk meet in western Emyn Muil. They go in search of the Coy.
January 23: Pursues Balrog to pinnacle of Zirakinbar [Zirakzigil] and there wrestles with him for three days.
January 26: G[andalf] casts down the Balrog, and falls into a long trance.
February 17: Gwaihir finds Gandalf on Zirakinbar and takes him to Lorien.
February 20: Gandalf leaves Lorien and flies south, borne by Gwaihir.
February 25: Gandalf reaches Fangorn; sends Gwaihir to spy out lands for news.
Page 6 - Feb 26-Feb 29: Published in Maker of Middle-earth pg 352-3 and Voyage en Terre du Milieu pg 273
Page 7: Feb 30-Mar 3: No pictures published, but the following transcriptions can be found in The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, on pages 366, 374, 389, 397, 411, 412, 414, 450, 452, 455, and 469. For this page I've had to take some guesswork as to the columns, and a lot of the quotes are only paraphrased instead of given directly.
Others of Company
February 30: At sunrise Aragorn sees cold clear day open. About 9 a.m. the Riders approach. About 10 a.m. Eomer and Aragorn meet at N[orth] end of Downs’
March 1: [According to Scheme, Gandalf and company set out for Edoras at about 3.00 p.m. on 1 March 1419.] They ride for 12 hours, rest four and at sunrise next day see the King’s Hall (Mar. 2)
March 2: A[ragorn] and Gandalf reach Meduseld about 8.30. They interview King Theoden about 10.30 a.m. (Thunder passes over from East at 11 a.m.) [According to Scheme, it was fifty miles from Derndingle to Isengard, and the ents arrived at 10.00 p.m.]
March 3: Gandalf sees shadow of Huorns over Nan Gurunír [earlier form of Curunír]
At sunset Gandalf leaves host and rides on Shadowfax to Isengard. Arrives at nightfall. Stays only 20 minutes to speak to Treebeard & then rides to help of Erkenbrand.
Men & Allies
[According to Scheme, the shards (broken pieces) were found on 28 and 30 February.] February 30: Riders leave battlefield and start out on long ride to Edoras at sunrise (7 a.m.)
March 2: King Théoden is healed by Gandalf. Pardons Eomer. Host of Rohan is mustered; sets out [at] 2 p.m. Camps in plain, 50 miles W[est] of Edoras at night.
February 30: Saruman appears on battlefield and is seen by Aragorn and companions at night.
March 2: Wormtongue flies to Isengard (about 1 p.m.): on an old slow horse. Saruman, informed by spies (birds) of riding of Théoden sends out his whole army about 10.30 that night.
Second Battle of Isen Fords. Erkenbrand of Westfold is defeated & retreats towards Helm’s Deep (night of 2/3 March), sending remaining horsemen away back to Edoras.
Frodo and Sam
February 30: Journey in Gully until daybreak. Sleep all day in Gully and go on at dusk
March 1: Reach end of Gully at daybreak. At once begin passage of Dead Marshes by day (misty). Continue the march on through the night. Episode of the Corpse-candles occurs about 8 p.m. A Nazgûl passes over them at midnight.
March 2: At dawn F[rodo] S[am] and Gollum reach end of Marshes and hide under a stone. At night begin journey in moors of Nomen’s Land.
March 3: Journey in Nomen’s Land continues.
Page 8 - Mar 4-Mar 7: Published in Voyage en Terre du Milieu pg 273
Page 9 - Mar 8-Mar 12: Published in The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, frontispiece (transcript can be found here)
Page 10 - Mar 13-17: Published in The Invented Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: Drawings and Original Manuscripts from the Marquette University Collection pg 37. (a transcript of this page can be found on this question)
Pages 11 through 15: Mar 18-end: No pictures published, but the following transcriptions can be found in The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, on pages 594, 613, 620, 626, 639, 640, 641, 645, 648, 653 and 660. A large portion of the entries seem to not be included.
March 19: [The narrative, The Tale of Years, and Scheme all agree that the fields were burnt on 19 March.] March 20-3: [unusually here Scheme does not agree with the published text, stating instead that the host halted twenty miles north of the Cross-roads on 20 March, forty-five miles north on 21 March, and sixty-five miles north on 22 March after defeating and scattering an ambush above Henneth Annun. For 23 March, however, both Scheme and The Tale of Years note that the host passed on that date out of Ithilien.]
March 25: About noon (or after?) Ring destroyed and Barad-dur crumbles in ruin. Nazgul flying back in last effort are caught in eruption and burned. End of the reign of Sauron; and nothing is left of his power.
April 27: Captains set sail from Cair Andros.
April 28: Victorious host reaches Osgiliath.
April 30: Host camps in the Pelennor. Mid-year’s Day: Aragorn and Arwen wed. That day and the [six > seven >] 14 following are made days of festival.
July [6 > 14 >] 12: End of the festival [in fact, 2 Lithe plus 1-12 July = only 13 days].
July [7 >] 15: Frodo begs leave of the King to depart.
July [10 >] 18: Eomer returns from Rohan with picked body of Riders.
July 22: The cortège of Théoden leaves Minas Tirith with all the chieftains, and the four hobbits. They proceed slowly and take 15 days [to reach Edoras]. August 18: They come to Helm's Deep at eve. August 19: [According to Scheme they visit the caves on 19 August.] August 21: [According to Scheme they leave Helm’s Deep on 21 August]
August 22: They visit Treebeard; and learn of the release of Saruman and Worm-tongue. Legolas and Gimli say farewell and go N[orth] through Fangorn. The rest of the Company proceed to Dolbaran [sic].
At sunset Aragorn says farewell on the west-margin of Gondor. Rest of company go on over the Isen. They then ride northward passing through eastern edge of Dunland.
August 28: [after meeting with Saruman] Saruman changes his course, and when they are gone strikes NW [north-west] towards the Shire. September 22: [Both Scheme and The Tale of Years indicate Saruman’s arrival in the Shire on 22 September.] October 7: [from the Ford the hobbits and Gandalf] ride at leisure, having good weather as far as Weathertop and often linger on way in autumn woods. (It is 285 miles by road from Rivendell to Weathertop.) They pass Weathertop on October] 23. The weather then changes and they ride more quickly. [Scheme notes that the distance from Weathertop to Bree is ninety-five miles.]
Just for completeness' sake, I want to add to the already excellent answers with the LotRProject, a set of interactive charts and infographics based on The Lord of the Rings and other works in Tolkien's legendarium. They have a fantastic interactive timeline of events synchronized with a map of Middle-earth that lets you track events by time, by protagonist or by location:
I found this nice and fairly thorough timeline. I can't vouch entirely for its accuracy, but it seems to tally with my recollection, so it's probably good enough.
Some important milestones:
September 22, 3001 - Bilbo leaves the Shire for Rivendell.
April 13, 3018 - Gandalf tells Frodo about the ring.
Sept 26, 3018 - The Hobbits leave the Shire.
October 20, 3018 - The Hobbits and Aragorn arrive at Rivendell.
December 25, 3018 - The Hobbits leave Rivendell.
March 25, 3019 - The ring is destroyed.
So, a bit under a year after they knew Frodo had to leave, six months from them actually leaving. But nearly 18 years between Frodo inheriting the ring and its destruction.
To supplement the existing answers, not supplant them, I offer this link to an interactive infographic of Time and Distance Traveled in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I can't share an image of the graphic here, since it is interactive, but it is pretty interesting and allows you to zoom in on individual days. The calendar used is apparently the Shire calendar, and each month has 30 days. It is a bit odd to see "February 30".
According to Barbara Strachey's Journeys of Frodo the entire round trip started and ended almost a year and a month to the day from the 23rd Sept to 26th Oct the following year — though it would appear they had 2–3 months respite at Minas Tirith after the Mt Doom moment on 25th March. I presume a year later Frodo & Co depart for Grey Havens on 21st Sept, meet Gandalf the next day and arrive at the Gray Havens 7 days later, 29th Sept.