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

Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 1

Salvete, readers!

Welcome to the first of my series of blog posts in which I analyse The Lord of the Rings novels chapter by chapter. We begin with the first chapter, A Long-Expected Party.

 

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Bilbo’s birthday always struck me as an odd place to start the story—it has caused more than one reader to give up on the novel. They were promised adventure and epic tales of good vs evil, not detailed descriptions of Hobbits sitting around hobnobbing at the pub. It’s worth bearing in mind that TLOTR received no structural editing from a third party at all—though his publishers were very much of the opinion that it needed to be cut down, Tolkien resisted what he saw as interference. You can do that when you’re an established author, though I personally am not sure it’s ever a good idea. It takes a village to raise a novelist. I suspect that if Tolkien submitted his novel to an editor today, they would advise him to open with a more gripping prologue, preferably something violent.  Perhaps Isildur slicing the ring from Sauron’s hand? If I were writing the story, I’d probably start with Smeagol taking the Ring from Deagol. But, you know, I’m not the one telling the story, and that’s absolutely okay. I’ve decided on quite a conscious level to let Tolkien take me on a journey with his characters. Readers, on the whole, were more patient in the post-war period. I can be patient too.

So why start with the birthday party? At first glance, the party seems somewhat extraneous to the larger story. The closest thing we get to a narrative hook is that Bilbo has lived an unnaturally long life and seems not to be ageing: ‘”It will have to be paid for,” they said. “It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’” Here Tolkien seems to be very much reliant upon the audience’s investment in the character of Bilbo. Fair enough: it’s a fair bet that anybody who picks up TLOTR will have read The Hobbit first. And yet the narrative purpose behind the birthday party doesn’t become obvious without close reading.

For me, it didn’t become clear why Tolkien would start with lengthy descriptions of the birthday party until I got into Chapter 2, where we hear the sad story of how Gollum stole the Ring and murdered his best friend—on his birthday. He felt he was entitled to possess the Ring for no reason other than the fact it was his birthday. The Hobbits of the Shire, on the other hand, celebrate their existence by giving, not taking. Tolkien speaks at great length of Bilbo’s generosity and the lavish and helpful gifts he bestows upon his poorer friends and relatives. Throughout the novel, Gollum will refer to the Ring as his ‘birthday present.’ Frodo too receives the Ring upon his birthday. After all, he and Bilbo share their special day. Even at this very early point in the story, Frodo and Gollum share a connection. The difference is that Frodo received the Ring in the spirit of kinship. He didn’t take the ring, it was given to him freely and willingly—more or less. And I think it’s easy to overlook the fact that Bilbo explicitly tells us the purpose of the party:

‘“After all that’s what this party business was about, really: to give away lots of birthday-presents, and somehow make it easier to give it away at the same time.’”

Gollum, on the other hand, would never have dreamed of giving away the Ring; certainly not on his birthday. Embedding this sort of parallel between Gollum and the Hobbits is brilliant, especially given how intensely the story will revolve around Gollum’s capacity for redemption under Frodo’s guidance.

The long-expected party, then, is absolutely integral to the characterisation of the protagonists and to the resolution of the central conflict.

Here’s a few stray observations from Chapter 1:

  • Tolkien shows a surprising amount of meta-humour. One of the first things Bilbo tells us is that nobody is going to read his book, of which TLOTR and The Hobbit are supposedly translations. You’re reading that you’re not going to read what you’re reading.
  • It’s interesting that Merry is introduced as one of Frodo’s close friends, while Sam is all but absent from the opening chapter.
  • Did Tolkien invent the word ‘tween?’
  • Tolkien the stickler uses the British ‘connexion’ rather than the Americanism ‘connection.’ I’m really glad the editors haven’t seen fit to ‘correct’ this archaism.
  • One of the highlights of the chapter is the quarrel between Bilbo and Gandalf—I really got the sense that these were old friends who hadn’t seen each other in a long time, and one has gone down a bad path. There is a sense that each speaker is working under the influence of a higher power yet to reveal itself. Gandalf hints at his true ability as a supernatural creature and ring-bearer, while Bilbo shows signs that the Ring’s influence is starting to bend his mind.

The reasons will be revealed next week, as we move into the Exposition Zone with The Shadow of the Past.

Until next time,

Valete

An Unexpected Blog Post

Salvete, readers!

I’ve been feeling the urge to re-read The Lord of the Rings books for a while, now. Real life has been giving me a rough time lately, and I find that picking up an old favourite is a wonderful consolation. Sort of like nestling under a blanket with a hot cup of tea. Not coincidentally, I often do this very thing while reading.

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Picking up the book again is exciting!

The last time I read TLOTR was in junior high school, and I desperately tried to convince my friends it was cool, and nobody believed me until the movie came out. After that, folks couldn’t get enough of my Gollum impression.

Who knows what I’ll find on my journey back to Middle Earth? Odds are that Thirty-Year-Old Julian will react to the story a bit differently to Teenage Julian. I’d like to think I know a bit more about story-telling and criticism than I did back in those days. Present Julian loves the Aeneid and Beowulf and Norse myths a lot more than Teenage Julian did. And certainly my values have shifted a bit since I was a kid. If they hadn’t, then I would be worried. Will I be at all sympathetic to Tolkien’s portrayal of women, or of race? I wonder. Acknowledging Tolkien’s limits doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t appreciate his achievement, does it?

Does it?

Starting next week I’m going to blog my nerdy reactions, chapter by chapter. I’m not stopping my writerly posts, but once a week or so I’ll share new insights, favourite quotations, and reflections on how Tolkien engages with story-telling traditions from medieval and classical literature. As a story-teller and writer of fantasy, it will be interesting to think about Tolkien’s impact on the genre. I may just take a crack at trying to understand some of the languages of Tolkien’s world. I never really tried that before, as I thought that was too nerdy. Sorry, Past Julian, but I’m pretty sure that ship has sailed.

What am I saying? I’m not sorry at all.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey, folks.

Until next time,

Valete