Next up on my March 2020 reads was The Fellowship of the Ring (FotR), the first novel in Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy (LotR). It has been years since I read these books and I vividly recall finding them quite a tough read as a teenager (the second half of The Two Towers (TTT), in particular, seemed interminable.) However, returning to it as an adult was a completely different experience and I enjoyed every minute. I was annoyed at myself for only bringing the first book to Dublin, particularly when the country went into lockdown and I was no longer able to nip to Chapters and pick up the other two. Fortunately, books two and three are now enroute.
Sauron, the Dark Lord, has gathered to him all the Rings of Power – the means by which he intends to rule Middle-earth. All he lacks in his plans for dominion is the One Ring – the ring that rules them all – which has fallen into the hands of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.
In a sleepy village in the Shire, young Frodo Baggins finds himself faced with an immense task, as his elderly cousin Bilbo entrusts the Ring to his care. Frodo must leave his home and make a perilous journey across Middle-earth to the Cracks of Doom, there to destroy the Ring and foil the Dark Lord in his evil purpose.
I was ten when the first of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films came out at the cinema. While I don’t have particularly strong memories of seeing them on the big screen, I do remember the years of LotR obsession that followed! I was mad for Middle Earth, watched the films on repeat, learnt the Elvish passages by heart, and bought myself an Evenstar. I was also a member of an online forum where I ‘hung out’ with other fans, spent a lot of time engaged with role plays (essentially collaborative storytelling, for those who haven’t partaken in this particular pastime), and learnt to make digital LotR-themed fan art. I was (am!) quite the geek and, on reflection, a lot of my researcher tendencies can probably be traced back to this point. All of this to say, my love of LotR (similar to that of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series) goes deep.
The intricacies of the world that Tolkien created is something I struggle to get my head around (in a good way). I just can’t quite believe that someone could have the imagination, determination, and patience to create a whole new world and its history. If you’ve never really taken the lid off the LotR box and had a peek, I’d urge you to do so. Spend half an hour looking at all of the books, appendices, maps and so on, and just marvel at the sheer depth of the detail. At a book-level, this detail can make the novels a little dense. But, I found that when I read FotR this time around, a lot of the beauty was in the detail. Here, for example:
To the South, over the line of the Withywindle, there was a distant glint like pale glass where the Brandywine River made a great loop in the lowlands and flowed away out of the knowledge of the hobbits. Northward beyond the dwindling downs the land ran away in flats and swellings of grey and green and pale-earth colours, until it faded into a featureless and shadowy distance. Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains. (Pg. 179)
Isn’t that just delicious? Sure, Tolkien could have used far fewer words to describe the hobbits looking out over the landscape. But in describing it this way he gives both a sense of geography and landscape. I feel like I’m there with Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, taking in those shifting sights. I particularly love the Eastward description; vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue sky. It makes me think of times I’ve stood on a mountainside and taken in the landscape, looking out to the farthest reaches of the horizon where everything becomes a little smudged.
The pleasure of not reading the books before watching the films (opposite to my Harry Potter experience – don’t recommend that) was that I wasn’t spotting errors in narrative or dialogue. There are some passages in the book that are taken and transplanted to different parts of the films, or given to different characters. These things annoyed me less than they would have if I’d already fixed these things in my mind via the books. This particularly famous quote from the films, for example, takes place early in the FotR:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (Pg. 67)
The syntax is different from the films as I imagine Jackson wanted to make it less archaic. Indeed, the dialogue in the novel as a whole has an older feel to that of the films, but I think both work in their different media. Similarly, small details like the role of Arwen in the FotR film – which is substantially greater than in the book – works to modernise the tale somewhat and allows a bit of female empowerment, which is severely lacking in the trilogy as a whole. Women in general, in fact, seem not to have been on Tolkien’s radar at all, but that particular can of worms could easily take up a whole other blog post!
If, like me, you tried the LotR books in your youth and found them a bit treacly, I’d urge you to go back and have another go. And if you’ve yet to enter Middle Earth, you’re in for a treat (but read The Hobbit first!)