Bag End, Beowulf, Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins, fantasy, Gandalf, Gilgamesh, Hobbits, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature, Maiar, Michael D.C. Drout, Middle Earth, mythology, mythos, Nazgul, Novel, Of Sorcerer’s and Men, Peter Jackson, Silmarillion, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Nature of Hobbits, The Shire, Writing
Peregin Took may indeed have been a fool when he twisted the arrow on the dead dwarf, thus alerting the orcs of Moria to the Fellowship’s presence, but honestly sitting down to writing this essay I feel like I am the greater fool. It’s no secret that the fan base of the Lord of the Rings are a power unto themselves, some of whom have brought about changes in society that stirred revolutions and altered the world as we know it. Computer programmers, hardware specialists, table-top game developers, video game designers, and even authors themselves have been inspired by the “Old Professor” and have taken this inspiration and created products and arts that have inspired the next generation of innovators. While Tolkien himself tended to be harsh to this fan base during his lifetime, going so far as to call them the “deplorable cultus,” the generation of stoners and dreamers took a great work and made it something important to the culture and zeitgeist, and thus I return to my foolishness.
I didn’t warm up to The Lord of the Rings at first. In fact to be perfectly honest I actually thought the whole book series were a real bore. With the exception of The Hobbit, reading the The Lord of the Rings as a teenager seemed the equivalent of an attending insurance seminar or else sitting through an “abstinence-only” based rap battle. This is hyperbole, but only so much. The only reason I had actually begun reading the books, specifically my dad’s original paperback copies from the seventies which made Gandalf look like a pimp and Legolas as the protagonist in Logan’s Run, was the fact that Peter Jackson’s films had just been released and those Ring Wraiths looked bad ass.
The films came and went, and while I never completely abandoned Tolkien, I do admit that I moved on to Stephen King and Christopher Hitchens leaving my copies of The Lord of the Rings to the dust that always seems to gravitate to books. It’s not that the Lord of the Rings ever disappeared, it’s just that, much like my early fascination with Playboy magazine and my LEGO blocks, I looked at them as something that I had outgrown or, and maybe this is more fair, something I had left behind. But much like Playboy and LEGOs I did eventually return to it. My regular reader may dimly remember that I began an audio-lecture series sponsored by Barnes & Noble titled Of Sorcerer’s and Men. This series, which was masterfully delivered by the professor Michael D.C. Drout, was incredible and reminded me of everything that I originally loved about The Lord of the Rings.
I dusted off my old copies and hopped back into the series, dedicated this time to actually finish the entire works.
But as for reviewing this series I hit a block, because after all, according to the will (not legal will, just individual sense of self) of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings was one entire book unto itself putting into such magnificent tomes as Ulysses, Moby Dick, Anna Karena, Doom Patrol, Don Quixote, Infinite Jest, and David Copperfield. While it’s possible to write about those book in parts, tackling an entire 1000 page novel with one review is like trying to eat The Old 96er from The Great Outdoors. Those who try will wind up crying like John Candy before wrenching the whole thing back up. Fortunately for me Tolkien broke his series into six “books” letting each larger book contained of two small books themselves. The Fellowship then consists of Books 1 and 2 and it seems far healthier to tackle the series that way than attempting one large reflection.
This also provides me a wonderful opportunity to explore Book 1 as an independent work because, while the remainder of the series pushes into the mythic realm that is Middle Earth, it’s in this first volume that Tolkien is able to play with his own natural world.
Book One starts with a “Long Expected Party” allowing Tolkien to play with his previous work, The Hobbit. Some critics and scholars have noted that while this is Tolkien building the world of Middle Earth, many have observed that the territory of The Shire, as well as the people who live comfortably within it’s borders, resemble greatly the England that Tolkien lived in and loved so well. Just looking at the first paragraphs one gets a sense of this:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End, was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And it that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigor to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. […]. There was some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.
“It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’ (21).
While it isn’t Frodo being chased by Nazgul to the ford that marks the entrance to Rivendel, this opening is still, to my mind, one of the best means of opening the great epic that is The Lord of the Rings. While Listening to Drout’s lectures, what was frequently noted was how the strength of the series was not so much because the hobbits were symbolic of any religious or spiritual significance, but because they were decent common folk.
This is a point that I believe is often missed in public discussions of The Lord of the Rings, because often the person speaking is far more concerned with pushing allegory. I’ve written before as to why I feel that’s a woefully inadequate means of interpreting these books, so I won’t delve too deep into that angle. Looking at the Hobbits of Middle Earth, along with the four hobbits of the Fellowship (Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin), their role in the story is often to be the reader. Hobbits, because they scorn the world of the “Big Folk” and their “queer” habits, give the reader something to identify with. On an average day most people do not worry about raids from Orcs, the ancient evils of creatures like Balrogs, they are concerned with the meddling of wizards, and they have nothing to do with the problems of the Great Kings and their complicated diplomacy. Many “normal” people, tend to be concerned far more with their families, whether their neighbors are a decent sort of people, whether they have enough to eat, and whether or not they are attending parties.
The Great celebration of Bilbo’s birthday is an event of “Special magnificence,” and in the same paragraph that establishes this, Tolkien notes Bilbo’s social standing as if that matters to the reader. It matters a great deal to Hobbits and so reading this book it becomes clear that The Lord of the Rings, from beginning to end, is centered in this idea that hobbits are not only important to this great world and it’s history, they are vital to it.
Hobbits are not great warriors such as Beowulf or Gilgamesh but that’s by design.
Before the book opens Tolkien provides a prologue in which he offers some basic facts and history of Hobbits:
As for the Hobbits of the Shire, with whom these tales are concerned, in the days of their peace and prosperity they were a merry folk. They dressed in bright colours, being notably fond of yellow and green; but they seldom wore shoes, since their feet had tough leathery soles and were clad in a thick curling hair, much like the hair of their heads, which was commonly brown. Thus, the only craft little practiced among them was shoe-making; but they had long and skillful fingers and could make many other useful and comely things. Their faces were as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eye, red-cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking. And laugh they did, and eat, and drink, often and heartily, being fond of simple jests at all times, and of six meals a day (when they could get them). They were hospitable and delighted in parties, and in presents, which they gave away freely and eagerly accepted. (2).
At this point I need address my regular contester who is surely incredibly annoyed with me. What do I care about the sensibilities of Hobbits? It’s The Lord of the Rings, I came here for Aragorn and Gandalf and Sauron and Orcs. Where’s the exciting stuff? Or at least the fantastic elements that make The Lord the Rings so cool?
I understand my readers frustration because I feel the same way approaching this essay. I would love to sit and discuss some of the fantastic elements that make this book so impressive, and I do intend to. The conflict is that fantastic elements by themselves don’t provide much opportunity for reflection. One of the consistent charges against the Triology is that the books have no relevance to average people. Part of this is the unfortunate, lingering elitism that plagues the fantasy genres which is absolute bullshit. But the other charge, that it’s style doesn’t fit the age in which it was written feels a little more fair. Most of the non-hobbit characters speak like they were taken from epics of
the ancient world making it impossible to identify with them.
It’s in Hobbits that the world assumes the power that it does, because when Hobbits are pitted against the antiquity and supernatural elements of Middle Earth the reader is able to find the “realness” of the place. This is best demonstrated after the party.
The first takes place in Bag End, not long after Bilbo has disappeared from the party using the ring. Gandalf has crept back to the manor house on the hill to confront Bilbo about his antics, but also to see the man off as the two have an arrangement. Gandalf is to help Bilbo settle his affairs so that the man can go back onto the road, and while the scene progresses as if nothing is wrong, when the topic of the ring comes up Bilbo at once becomes possessive bordering on violent. There is a confrontation, and all at once Tolkien allows his reader to see past, if I can borrow Shakepeare for a moment without sounding overly-pompous, “this mortal veil.”
‘Well if you want my ring yourself, say so!” Cried Bilbo. ‘But you won’t get it. I won’t give my precious away, I tell you.’ His hand strayed to the hilt of his small sword.
Gandalf’s eyes flashed. ‘It will be my turn to get angry soon,’ he said. ‘If you say that again, I shall. Then you will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.’ He took a step towards the hobbit, and he seemed to grow tall and menacing; his shadow fill the room.
Bilbo backed away to the wall, breathing hard, his hand clutching at his pocket. They stood for a while facing one another, and the air of the room tingled. Gandalf’s eyes remained bent on the hobbit. Slowly his hands relaxed, and he began to tremble.
‘I don’t know what has come over you, Gandalf,” he said. ‘You have never been like this before. What is it all about? It is mine isn’t it? I found it, and Gollum would have killed me, if I hadn’t kept it. I’m not a thief, whatever he said.’
‘I have never called you one,’ Gandalf answered. ‘And I am not one either. I am not trying to rob you, but to help you. I wish you would trust me, as you used.’ He turned away, and the shadow passed. He seemed to dwindle again to an old grey man, bent and untroubled. (33-4).
Now obviously, this scene takes me back to Peter Jackson’s film, when Sir Ian McKellan began to fill the room, the world became dark, and the voice that usually inspires envy turned a teenage boy to panic. Whatever the reader’s opinions about the film, it’s important to recognize that Jackson did this scene right and because he did this passage stood out to me. But looking past the film, this scene in one in a long series of moments that Gandalf offers that hint at his true “nature” or “form.” Gandalf is, if I can move into the neck-beard nerd territory, something called a Maiar, a being who precede most of the “time” of Middle Earth, and actually proceeded the making of the world. I won’t bore the reader with the complex mythos of Tolkien’s world (that’s for when I review the Silmarillion) but this background info provides the context of what makes Gandalf important in the first book.
Gandalf is an old being, one who is existing on a plane of reality that even old Bilbo could not appreciate because his mortality is nothing compared to Gandalf. While this doesn’t at first appear to have much relevance to people in the “real world” there’s actually a real relevance for the reader. The concept of “deep time” was one that began during the Victorian era when geologists began to argue that the world is actually older than we once thought. Where before the world was only a few thousand years old (according to sources like The Bible), by looking at the actual layers of sediment in the earth, and discovering fossils or organisms long exitinct, human beings were able to determine that our time on this earth was only relatively recent and that we were merely one example in a long lifetime of the planet.
The reader may by now though be getting frustrated and wanting to know when I’ll make my case, or else they’re waiting for me to talk about cool stuff like Ring Wraiths. I’m terribly sorry to disappoint my reader, but I won’t be doing that. At least not in this essay.
The Fellowship of the Ring, as far as Book 1 is concerned, is an important read because it begins the Trilogy, but more importantly it establishes the foundation of the world. The world of Hobbiton is one that the reader can certainly recognize because it’s a world that directly mirrors our own. There’s neighborhoods of people who worry about parties and gardens and harvests. There’s sheriffs and mail-men and pubs where people gather to
drink and gossip. Hobbiton is the world as far as most reader’s would recognize it, and as such when “queer” folks like Gandalf appear, and bits and pieces of their true form begin to manifest, the reader is left feeling, much like Bilbo, that the world is actually deeper and far more complex than they’ve been lead to believe.
I was tempted when I started this essay, to explore every facet of the strange and weird and wonderful, but the conflict with that is there’s mountains of books about The Lord of the Rings that do just that. Looking at Book 1, what feels most important, or at least what I initially came away with is how the Hobbits of this book begin to react to the size and depth and complexity of the world. That reaction feels important because often it’s easy to forget how complex the world actually is.
Book 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring isn’t just about getting Frodo of Rivendell, it’s Tolkien’s chance to build his mythos while also reminding his reader even the real world is old and full of people and creatures and landscapes that are an important reminder about mortality and ego. A man may be 111 years old, and he might be a fine and respectable hobbit, but even he too will die, and his existence is not only not significant, it’s just one small part in a narrative that has been going on for centuries.
All quotes taken from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings were taken from the Mariner paperback edition.
On one side note, I have a point earlier about the Nazgul being “badass.” This remains true, however their badassery is somewhat lessened when you try to find a sick-as-hell image of them and you get a behind the scenes picture of the lot of them holding umbrellas before shooting. The only thing missing is a plate of tea and cookies over a discussion of how Asia’s economy is heading. THAT, or else the whole lot of them are going to do an AMAZING rendition of Gene Kelly’s Singing in the rain. I don’t know. Look at those parasols. What do YOU think?