I finished the first part of my Lord of the Rings reread the other day, having completed Part 1 of the book: “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Since it’s been about 30 years since I last read these books, much of what I know of the story comes from the movies and not my original reading of the books, which I didn’t remember well. Indeed, while rereading, so much of the book seemed new that I would almost believe I never read them the first time–except I know that I did. What follows are some thoughts I had while reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” based on notes I jotted down during my reading.
I can imagine, as a ten year-old, that the Prologue of the book might have bored me to death. No so this time around. Perhaps because the movies painted such a vivid picture of Middle-Earth in my mind, I was fascinated by the history of the hobbits. One thing I noticed, in fact, was how meta that prologue was, as if we, the readers, were characters ourselves, living some time in the Fourth Age, learning about our own history. This technique isn’t unique. Isaac Asimov used it, for instance, in his own sprawling Foundation series. But while I noticed it in Asimov’s work, I’d never noticed it in Tolkien’s until this time around.
The first movie in the trilogy gives the impression that Gandalf’s leaving and returning to the Shire is not very long in duration. But, as I learned in “The Shadow of the Past” some 17 years pass between his leaving and returning. Frodo is 33 when Gandalf (and Bilbo) leave the Shire and he is 50 when he returns:
It was just at this time that Gandalf reappeared after his long absence. For three years after the Party he had been away. Then he paid Frodo a brief visit, and after taking a good look at him, went off again. During the next year or two he turned up fairly often, coming unexpectedly after dusk, and going off without warning before sunrise. He would not discuss his own business and journeys, and seemed chiefly interested in small news about Frodo’s health and doings.
Then suddenly his visits had ceased. It was over nine years since Frodo had seen or heard of him, and he began to think the wizard would never return and had given up all interest in hobbits. But that evening, as Sam was walking home and twilight was fading, there came the once-familiar tap on the study window.
There are other things I like about those early parts in the Shire. I like how the rumors spread in the Green Dragon–it’s something that happens today and is thus ageless and true. Also, the history of the Ring itself, as presented early on is fascinating and has much richer detail than what even the extended editions of the movies present. I was amazed, for instance, to learn that Aragorn helped Gandalf seek out Gollum well before Gollum enters the picture in this story.
There is one odd moment in the chapter “Three Is Company” when the point of view of the novel shifts suddenly and inexplicably to that of a fox:
“Hobbits!” he thought. “Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.” He was quite right but he never found out any more about it.
In the book, the hobbits have an early and extended encounter with the elves, which in the extended edition of the movie is about 10 seconds where they watch the elves from afar leaving for the shores. Sam remarks how it is sad, somehow. I was also surprised to learn that Farmer Maggot, who is made out to be a grump in the movie, is a stand-up fellow in the book, looking after the hobbits and guarding the Shire from evil in what ways he can.
In the movie, Sam is caught eavesdropping (“I ain’t been dropping no eaves!”) by Gandalf, when Gandalf and Frodo discuss the Ring. In the book, it turns out, he’s been eavesdropping on purpose and there has been a conspiracy to help protect Frodo. All of his friends know about the Ring, which makes Frodo seem either too consumed by the stress to notice this, or rather naive, I’m not sure which.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the first book is the character of Tom Bombadil. Tom doesn’t show up in the movies, nor is he even mentioned. He is a strange fellow that seems to live, somehow, outside the reality of everyone else. For instance, at one point, he puts on the one Ring, but does not go invisible. Nor does the Ring seem to affect him in any way. He describes himself as follows:
“Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before Kings and the graves of the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless–before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”
I got the sense that Tom is a good, stand-up guy, whatever he is, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Rolling Stone’s song, “Sympathy for the Devil” when I read that description of Tom.
Once Frodo and the other meet Aragorn and make their way to Rivendell (something that takes much longer than what is shown in the movies–and in less dramatic fashion) there is more that surprised me. Boromir is represented from the start in the movies as someone who thinks just for himself and his people. But he was much more heroic in the book, even from his first appearances. Similarly, Saruman is painted as evil from the start, but even as Gandalf describes his trials with the White Wizard, you get the sense that even Saruman is night all evil or good but somewhere in between, as when he tries to justify his position to Gandalf:
“And listen Gandalf, my old friend and helper!” he said, coming near and speaking now in a softer voice. “I said we for we it may be, if you will join with me. A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in the Elves or dying Númenor. This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. It’s victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends.”
It seems to me that Saruman thinks to ally himself with Sauron just long enough to gain his trust–at which point he will defeat him. But you can also see that as a justification for taking an easy way out. In any case, it paints him as less of a black-and-white figure than he appeared to be in the movies.
When debating the fate of the Ring during the Council of Elrond, they really do cover all of the bases. At one point, it is even asked why the Ring simply isn’t taken and cast into the sea, where it would be safe forever from being found. To this, Gandalf responds:
“Not safe for ever,” said Gandalf. “There are many things in the deep waters; and seas and lands may change. And it is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or a few lives of men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.”
I found it interesting, as well, that Aragorn’s sword is remade at this point–before the Fellowship leaves Rivendell on its quest. He has accepted his place already and this is one place where the movies diverge quite a bit from the books.
Much later, when the group is leaving Lórien, Gimli and Legolas had an exchange that put the lament of leaving against the glory of their quest. It was a rather remarkable exchange in my mind and I’m surprised it didn’t make it into the movie:
“Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli son of Glóin!”
“Nay!” said Legolas. “Alas for all of us! And for all that walk the world in these after-days. For such is the way of it: to find and lose, as it seems to those whose boat is on the running stream. But I count you blessed, Gimli son of Glóin: for your loss you suffer of your own free will, and you might have chosen otherwise. But you have not forsaken your companions, and the least reward that you shall have is that the memory of Lothlórien shall remain ever clear and unstained in your heart, and shall neither fade nor grow stale.”
The journey along the river was longer and more drawn out than in the movie. And Frodo’s realization of what he must do–venture forth on his own–doesn’t really take place until after his encounter with Boromir.
Overall, I really enjoyed the first part. They provided an added depth to what I liked about the movies, and the points where they diverge are better understood because of that added depth. I’ve already started on “The Two Towers” but it may be some time before I can finish it. I soon have to turn my attention for reading for my book review column. But I’ll post again when I’ve finished the second part.