Note: This is the first installment of a fairly high-level overview of JRR Tolkien’s great trilogy, the best-selling novel of the 20th century. I make no attempt to explain the story, except for the fragments that perked my interest this time around. If you are unfamiliar with Tolkien then shame on you; and what follows will likely be very puzzling. All page notations are from my original paperback published by Ballantine Books in 1975.
I last read The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) in the winter of 2003. Even though I am very familiar with the story (this makes my ninth complete reading, I believe, with frequent referencing of sections of it through the years) each time the adventure is fresh and entertaining on a variety of levels. This time my tour of the great trilogy’s beginning, The Fellowship of the Ring (FOTR), was no different in my enjoyment of the tale, in seeing small details afresh, and in becoming reacquainted with aspects of the meta-narrative. I found or rediscovered several noteworthy items.
First, let me say that although I consider myself a Tolkien purist and I believe LOTR to be the greatest fantasy novel every written, I am by no means unversed in other fantasy. In my time I have read Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, David Niven’s The Integral Trees, Peter Hamilton’s Nights Dawn trilogy (see an unfinished website on this one which I created), George R. R. Martin's Fire and Ice series, Jennifer introduced me to C. S. Lewis' Narnia series, and Clint acquainted me with the writing of Tad Williams. I have read Issac Azimov's later expanded Foundation "trilogy" and Frank Herbert's later expanded Dune "trilogy." But, I prefer Tolkien over any of these for a variety of reasons. Hopefully, some of my rationale will become obvious through this small diary of posts.
After The Hobbit was published in 1937, Tolkien would have preferred to have been done with hobbits and concentrate on the tales of the Years of the Trees, the First Age and the Second Age of Middle-earth that dominate The Silmarillion, his unfinished masterwork (published posthumously after being stitched together by his son, Christopher). Tolkien’s publisher, however, had little concern for the grand complexity of Tolkien’s wider vision. The publisher wanted something to capitalize on the commercial success of The Hobbit. So, Tolkien compromised by using hobbits as a kind of introduction to the world of The Silmarillion while creating an Epic Adventure “sequel” that would sell.
Most readers of LOTR never tackle the rather arcane prose of The Silmarillion. It is tough going and what you have to work with are more a series of plot outlines than a fully fleshed-out story. But, since I am familiar with that work my experience of LOTR is far richer; not least because Tolkien made so much effort to place many critical elements of it into LOTR. If you enjoy LOTR then by all means tackle The Silmarillion. You will be rewarded for the effort.
Hobbits turn out to be the perfect vehicle for Tolkien to establish not only the wider world of Middle-earth but to also touch on the rich storehouse of memories and ruins of its distant past. Hobbits are mentioned only in the last two pages (and referred to as “the Periannath”) of The Silmarillion, and they are largely ignorant of happenings beyond The Shire and its immediate surrounds. So, the reader gets to discover the terrain, cultures and a few legends of previous ages at the same time and pace as Frodo.
One of the most stimulating aspects of rereading FOTR this time was noticing how much of the tales from the Elder Days Tolkien was able to entwine with the adventure story. The Silmarils, namesake of the masterwork, are mentioned five times. The story of Beren and Luthien (which is, in my opinion, Tolkien’s greatest literary creation and serves as the model for Aragorn’s relationship with Arwen) is presented in its most basic form here. Even Morgoth, evil peer of the Valar, those who actually created most (but not all, they were powerful servants of Eru) of Middle-earth, is mentioned. Sauron, the Dark Lord of the Third Age, was a mere lieutenant to Morgoth and possessed less power than his former master.
These particular glimpses of The Silmarillion are one reason FOTR has always been my favorite volume of trilogy. It was well worth the 20 years following the success of The Hobbit that Tolkien toiled on the trilogy to get these choice morsels of the much larger tapestry of Middle-earth woven into volume one.
The Shire is big, natural and beautiful; a place unto itself. Tolkien takes great pains to immerse the reader in the region and its culture. Yet, Sauron doesn’t even know where it is. He has to torture Gollum to even get the name. The Ringwraiths have difficulty finding it. Still, hobbits being what they are, it took Frodo considerable time to leave Bag End, which makes for a scary brush with a Wraith.
Some critics have complained that he takes almost 200 pages to get Frodo out of The Shire region. For me, this is something positive. It allows you to get to know the earthy, quaint nature of hobbits (which is what the publisher was after all along). It also gives the reader a chance to get established in Middle-earth; to become rooted in a simple, agrarian society before the Epic begins. It is a place that feels comfortable, you want to call it home, and for this reason it becomes real.It was not always obvious to me but, the Council of Elrond is not summoned. It occurs spontaneously. Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir are there for different reasons and certainly not at the bidding of Elrond. The Elven master of Rivendell had no idea any of these characters, nor the hobbits and Gandalf for that matter, were going to appear more or less at the same time. Every time I read this chapter I am amazed at how spellbound Tolkien has me even though nothing is happening except a bunch of talk about the history of the One Ring, with a dozen or so characters to keep up with.
Tolkien takes great care with concepts regarding calendars and dates, phases of the moon. Here again, this is part of the basis for suspending disbelief within the fantasy tale. Certain dates have significance. The time it takes to get from one place to another is measured in specific days. Nights are usually punctuated with references to whatever phase the moon is in or how brightly it shines if it is full. The multiple layers of such mundane details make it all seem so genuine.
Lothlorien is my single favorite place in the entire novel. The chapters regarding it have always been my most beloved chapters in the trilogy. Only Fangorn Forest and the Old Forest are perhaps older than Lorien, all of them extending back to the First Age. Nevertheless, Lothlorien is special because it contains unique trees, the Mallorn. Legolas tells his companions: “For in autumn their leaves fall not, but turn to gold. Not till the spring comes and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers; and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey.” (page 434)
But, when the Fellowship arrives at Lothlorien it is not spring. “Alas, it is winter,” Legolas sighs. Why alas? Because, as the reader now knows, our heroic little troop comes before the leaves have fallen. So, they will miss the greatest splendor of Lothlorien, the golden roof and floor that happens only in spring. That Tolkien makes the essence of the seasons so important to Legolas and, in turn, to us as readers, is distinctive in literature and a wonderful reading experience to feel such depth in these characters.
Of course, one huge reason the novel feels so real resides in the natural descriptions of the landscapes of Middle-earth that Tolkien sprinkles throughout the novel. His wonderful prose evokes the experience of being there. Some choice examples:
At the edge of the Old Forest: “The light grew clearer as they went forward. Suddenly they came out of the trees and found themselves in a wide circular space. There was sky above them, blue and clear to their surprise, for down under the Forest-roof they had not been able to see the rising morning and the lifting of the mist. The sun was not, however, high enough yet to shine down into the clearing, though its light was on the tree-tops. The leaves were all thicker and greener about the edges of the glade, enclosing it with an almost solid wall. No tree grew there, only rough grass and many tall plants: stalky and faded hemlocks and wood-parsley, fire-weed seeding into fluffy ashes, and rampant nettles and thistles. A dreary place: but it seemed a charming and cheerful garden after the close Forest. The hobbits felt encouraged, and looked up hopefully at the broadening daylight in the sky.” (pp. 158 – 159)
At Rivendell: “The next day Frodo woke early, feeling refreshed and well. He walked along the terraces above the loud-flowing Bruinen and watched the pale, cool sun rise above the far mountains, and shine down, slanting through the thin silver mist; the dew upon the yellow leaves was glimmering, and the woven nets of gossamer twinkled on every bush. Sam walked beside him, saying nothing, but sniffing the air, and looking every now and again with wonder in his eyes at the great heights in the East. The snow was white upon their peaks. The light of the clear autumn morning was now glowing in the valley. The noise of bubbling waters came up from the foaming river-bed. Birds were singing, and a wholesome peace lay on the land.” (page 314)
At the Argonath: “Nothing happened that night worse than a brief drizzle of rain an hour before dawn. As soon as it was light they started. Already the fog was thinning. Slowly the sky above grew lighter, and suddenly the clouds broke and their draggled fringes trailed away northward up the River. Before the travelers lay a wide ravine, with great rocky sides to which clung, upon shelves and narrow crevices, a few thrawn trees. The channel grew narrower and the River swifter. Over them was alane of pale-blue sky, around them the dark overshadowed the River, before them black, shutting out the sun, the hills of Emyn Muil, in which no opening could be seen.
“Frodo peering forward saw in the distance two great rocks approaching: like great pillars of stone they seemed. Tall and sheer and ominous they stood on either side of the stream. ‘Behold the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings!’ cried Aragorn. As Frodo was borne towards them the great pillars rose like towers to meet him. Giants they seemed to him, vast grey figures silent but threatening. Then he saw that they were indeed shaped and fashioned: the craft and power of old had wrought upon them, and still they preserved through the suns and rains of forgotten years the mighty likenesses in which they were hewn. Upon great pedestals founded in the deep waters stood two great kings of stone. The left hand of each was raised palm outwards in gesture of warning in each right hand there was an axe; upon each head there was a crumbling helm and crown. Great power and majesty they still wore, the silent wardens of a long-vanished kingdom.” (pp. 507-508)
There are several passages of Elvish language, some extending on for several lines of verse (see near the end of the chapter entitled “Farewell to Lorien”), that Tolkien leaves utterly un-translated. This might be one of the boldest and most original aspects of his creations. It must be remembered that Tolkien was a philologist and developed a plethora of languages for his world (a brilliant artistic achievement in itself). Much of the feeling one develops in reading LOTR comes from the fact that these characters have a linguistic depth to them. They exhibit profound cultural connections if one wishes to study this aspect of Tolkien more deeply. Even if you don’t, you can still appreciate it as an intangible quality in the flavor of the adventure.
At this point in the trilogy, the Ring has not worked its possessive nature into Frodo as he has rarely used it. In FOTR Frodo is still trying to give the One Ring away. First to Gandalf who refuses it and finally to Galadriel, last remaining of the High Elves of the First Age, who likewise refuses it. They desire the Ring for different reasons but they know its power corrupts and takes possession of whoever uses it. Interestingly, when Boromir tries to take the Ring, Frodo instinctively resists him; the offer of the Ring as a gift is only made to those Frodo trusts.
The Three Rings of the Elves are predominantly used to sustain a different time, in Lothlorien all the way back to the First Age, many thousands of years ago before Men inhabited Middle-earth. Yet, they were forged due to the deception of Sauron feigning penitence. They were bound to the One Ring Sauron later forged for himself. An example of the One Ring’s power is that the foundations to Sauron’s fortress, Barad-dur, cannot be destroyed because they are literally constructed with the power of the One Ring.
But, the Elves learned of the perils of the One Ring and ultimately kept the Three hidden. They only made use of their power because they thought the One Ring was lost. Then Frodo showed up, of course, and changed everything. Before that, however, Galadriel used Nenya as a force to physically freeze Time in Middle-earth at Lothlorien. Still, Sauron’s Ring would command them if he only possessed the Three along with his lost One Ring. Then their power would have been used differently and to a much greater effect.
But, this is a two-edged sword. The destruction of the One Ring means the end of the power of the Three. The Elves know this and Galadriel, after refusing the Ring, says: “I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.” The destruction of the One Ring means the fading of all Rings of Power. Even the marvelous power of the Three to heal and sustain will be gone. The ability to freeze Time will cease and Lothlorien will be no more. The way Tolkien intertwines “evil” power with “good” power is noteworthy and adds a touch of modernity to the novel.
One of the finest instances of how Tolkien connects LOTR with matters contained in The Silmarillion is when Frodo is given a phial of water from Galadriel’s magical fountain. The water contains the light of Earendil’s star. It will come in handy later in the trilogy but, beyond this, Tolkienites like myself who have read The Silmarillion know the story of Earendil (Elrond’s father) and the star. It is the consensus of Tolkien scholars that Earendil’s star is equated to the planet Venus, another small detail that makes Middle-earth feel like home. For Galadriel to somehow retain a piece of this star to literally pour and share it with another is, at once, magical and a revelation through the depths of Time so characteristic of Tolkien’s style.
Whether it is a trek to Buckland or crossing the Nimrodel or navigating the great Anduin River, the book is filled with moments of just hiking and looking and finding a crossing and aching and bothered with insects and feeling hungry and thinking of home and all these other real, mundane details amidst the Epic backdrop. To me this is what makes LOTR the finest fantasy work ever written.
Ultimately, Tolkien does not rely upon the fantastic but rather the splendor of ordinary moments (accented by moments of action and wonder) set against the grandeur of the natural world, of ancient creations, now in ruins, of Elves and Dwarves and Men who are long-dead or escaped from Middle-earth. But, while Tolkien’s approach and style is unique, to place the ordinary amidst the extraordinary and magical is one of the more imitated forms of literature in print today. Yet Tolkien pioneered this no less than Picasso pioneered a method of painting. Simply brilliant.
On to The Two Towers!