LOTR: The Shadow of the Past

Salvete, readers!

I continue on my epic quest to blog my reactions to re-reading TLOTR for the first time since high school. This week we enter the Exposition Zone with Bk. 1, Ch. 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Look, I’m not going to lie. Tolkien’s world-building is amazing, but sometimes his methods of exposition aren’t. And when exposition is done badly, it slows the story down to the approximate pace of running tar.

To give an example, let’s consider the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights, aka The Golden Compass. There are lots of reasons that film didn’t work, but I would argue the biggest is that the story pauses every ten minutes or so to tell the viewer what’s going on. And it adds an unnecessary prologue which consists, more or less, of briefing notes on how the world of Northern Lights works. It’s a light, inoffensive and dull film which utterly lets down its dark, controversial and very exciting source material. In fact, exposition is one of the things which Pullman does really well. He throws the characters into the scenario and builds the pace and tension from the very first scene in which Lyra spies on her uncle. Every little bit of information we gain about the world of Northern Lights feels like a moment of growth for the characters. Know why the novel works so well? Because Pullman is not trying to be Tolkien.

Make no mistake, there’s a large number of oddities in Tolkien’s method of getting important information to the reader. There’s no drama in Chapter 2, no tension. Given that the fate of the world is at stake, everyone’s oddly calm about it. Tolkien actually opens Chapter 2 by assuring us that the story is going to have a happy ending.

‘The second disappearance of Mr. Bilbo Baggins was discussed in Hobbiton, and indeed all over the Shire, for a year and a day, and was remembered much longer than that. It became a fireside-story for young hobbits; and eventually Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold, became a favourite character of legend and lived on long after all the true events were forgotten.’

From there we get a paragraph which summarises rumours of goings-on in the wider world. The dark lord’s back, the dwarves are fleeing from war and the elves are getting the hell out of Dodge. Tolkien follows up with yet another scene of Hobbits sitting around the pub discussing these very rumours, followed by a quiet scene in which Gandalf monologues about current affairs, relays the history of the Ring, and gives Frodo his mission. In other words, we get the same information conveyed thrice, using different techniques. I get what’s happening here—set the scene, then plonk the characters into it. But honestly, the opening chapters are not the place to test the reader’s patience with a lecture. If I didn’t know how amazing the story becomes later, I’d probably have given up by this point.

There’s a lesson here for any budding author. Tolkien wasn’t writing Tolkienesque fantasy—he was just doing his own idiosyncratic thing, and it works for him because of the authenticity of his voice. Many writers striving to produce the next epic fantasy try to mimic Tolkien in their early chapters. The exposition is usually about the point when the reader struggles to maintain the will to live. Copying Tolkien’s style of exposition, in which everything is told before it’s shown, is a rookie mistake. It’s always better to find your own voice than imitate another author. You’ve got to get to the heart of your story from the very first page.

Moving on, then. Here are a few stray observations from Chapter 2.

  • This is the first introduction of Sam. I find it interesting that Merry and Pippin are Frodo’s closest friends, while Sam is most definitely his servant at this point. This dynamic is largely absent from the films.
  • Sam’s ‘accidental’ discovery of Frodo’s quest seems a little less coincidental in light of A Conspiracy Unmasked, where we learn that Merry and Pippin have been onto Frodo and the Ring for ages and have recruited Sam as their spy. Again, this is a nice little bit of implicit detail which didn’t make it into the movies.
  • Entwives! Sam, sitting in the pub (sigh) mentions a strange story that one of his cousins saw a tree walking. This is brilliant foreshadowing for the Ents, and I think it’s very likely that Sam saw one the Entwives—if so, it’s a real tragedy he never meets Treebeard. But then, maybe the Entwives are better off on their own. Treebeard’s poetry and the responsibility for a forest of half-tamed trees would be enough to drive anybody away.

I know I’ve been a bit critical of Tolkien in this post, but this bit still never fails to move me:

‘I should like to save the Shire, if I could—though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons would be good for them. But I don’t feel like that now. I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.’

For every idiosyncrasy in Tolkien’s story-telling, at its heart the story is beautiful. Reading the books again is like spending time with an old friend, knowing their flaws, but enjoying the familiar presence nonetheless.

Until next time,

Valete

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