The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
The Lord of the Rings is one of those novels that isn't easy to review. Its iconic status makes a mere book-report summation of the plot and characters superfluous, for the simple reason that almost everyone knows the basics, especially in the wake of two cinematic adaptations, particularly the wildly successful live-action movie by New Line Cinema. Does anybody really want to read a dry summation of how the first volume begins with Bilbo's birthday party and disappearance, or Frodo's horror to learn from the mysterious Gandalf the true story of the ring that had been Uncle Bilbo's chiefmost legacy, or the subsequent flight and the creation of the Fellowship dedicated to delivering that vile artifact to Mt. Doom where it was forged, that it might be destroyed and its evil power removed forever from the reach of temptation? We know all that already, thank you very much.
Instead, it might be better to look at what elements give it that iconic status, and how it has endured even in the wake of innumerable imitators, and even in the wake of its detractors who would point at its flaws as though they were so definitive as to wipe away any possibility of virtue. Most notably, it came about almost by chance, and even then was not recognized at once, but came very close to vanishing into obscurity.
Tolkien's life's work, the labor of his heart and soul, was the collection of mythopoeic works that would ultimately be consolidated into The Silmarillion, then explicated in Christopher Tolkien's scholarly twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth. However, in the early days JRR Tolkien found publication an insurmountable obstacle. No one seemed to know what to do with a collection of myths of an imaginary people.
That situation changed when he presented them with The Hobbit. Here was something they knew what to do with -- and when it proved a success, they wanted more of the same. So Tolkien sat down to write another hobbit adventure, only to discover that he had no idea how to proceed. He turned one after another idea around in his head, and after a time began to fasten on Bilbo's ring of invisibility. Maybe it was more than it seemed, more than the typical magical ring of folklore that may have been made by tricksy sprites or brooding dwarves, but generally was the sort of magic that might be helpful or harmful to the protagonist depending on the needs of the plot. Seldom were such rings of any great moral import.
Even as Tolkien began to write, the story continued to change, to develop deeper and darker strains. This process resulting in a noticeable shift in the tone of the earliest chapters. Bilbo's birthday party is written in a light tone more like that of The Hobbit, and even as Frodo first flees the Shire, he and his companions still haven't entirely shaken their view of it as a lark, an Adventure rather than a life and death struggle to save the Free Peoples from the Darkness.
On the surface it would seem to be a major mistake to shift the tone of the narrative so dramatically in the course of the story. Beginning writers are enjoined to establish the tone of their narrative within the first chapter in such a way that the reader knows what sort of story to expect all the way to the ending. Violation of this rule often produces an awkward swerve in the middle -- but Tolkien makes it work, which raises the question of why.
To understand, we really need to appreciate the literary landscape of the time when The Fellowship of the Ring first came out. It may be hard to really appreciate in a day and age when fat fantasy novels of a Secondary World are a major part of the speculative literature landscape, but when Tolkien delivered The Lord of the Rings to his publisher, they had grave concerns about its marketability. So much so that they decided to divide it into three volumes, allowing them to cut their losses if the first failed to sell (and thus began the pattern of the fantasy trilogy that is in fact a single novel in three volumes). Given that there was no established literary tradition of sustained literary exploration of an imagined world on its terms through the adventures of characters native to it (as opposed to Conan-style stories of derring-do, or stories of magic thinly disguised as science fiction, such as the Witch World novels of André Norton or Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels), readers might not be so accustomed to suspending their disbelief just by picking up the novel and beginning reading.
Thus having it begin in a cultural setting that is essentially the rural English gentry of the late Nineteenth Century (and that is what the Shire is, with its tobacco and potatoes and tea kettles and other items of modernity) would start the reader in a place that's reasonably mentally familiar, then steadily move the reader into the more epic world of imperiled realms and heroic deeds both in the Secondary World's past and its present. When Strider warns Frodo that the Lord of the Rings is not a title to claim in jest, it is also a message to the reader that this novel is moving away from the light tone of The Hobbit and into more serious matters.
But it is only with Frodo's disastrous encounter with the Ringwraiths on Weathertop that he truly comes to understand the peril he is facing. And the first-time reader feels it right along with him. I was fortunate to encounter The Lord of the Rings as my first epic fantasy, and read his various imitators only afterward. As a result, I was almost overwhelmed with apprehension during these difficult passages, and thus fairly swept away with relief when he awakened in the safety of Rivendell.
Here Frodo learns still more of the history of the Rings of Power, now that he's been emotionally prepared to listen and truly believe. When Gandalf first told him that his heirloom was in fact the infamous Ruling Ring, the comfortable presence of the Shire all around him made it hard to really believe that Evil could intrude into his comfortable life -- but now he knows.
However, we can question whether he truly appreciates the gravity of the mission he's undertaking when he volunteers to carry the Ring all the way to Mount Doom and destroy it. It's only in the course of the events that follow, as the Fellowship treks across the wilderness that was once a thriving kingdom and is battered by one peril after another, that his youthful notions are washed away and he begins to face his responsibility squarely.
It's interesting to note that while the quest has long been a staple of heroic tales, it has almost always been to retrieve something lost, or to liberate something stolen. Tolkien stands it on its head, sending Frodo to destroy this object of great value, that would give enormous power to one able to wield it, and thus is greatly desired by many who would seek rule over others. This is something that doesn't seem to have been appreciated by many of Tolkien's imitators, who almost never make the rejection of power a central part of the narrative, but always focus on getting something or learning something, or otherwise gaining and obtaining.
The Fellowship of the Ring ends with apparent disaster, as the titular group is torn asunder when gallant Boromir fails his Test and succumbs to the temptation of the Ring. Only hiss last-minute repentance and self-sacrifice permits Frodo to escape, but without the protection of the larger and stronger warriors proficient at arms. If the road to Mount Doom had seemed difficult before, now it seems well-nigh impossible. And the publisher's division of the novel into three physical volumes gives the cliffhanger an aspect resembling the movie serials of old, in which each episode would end with a seemingly unescapable jam for Our Hero, and we the readers know that everything is at stake.
Review posted December 14, 2012.
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