The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. It was spring break and my family was on vacation. Like every family vacation from the time I was ten, I was sick. So while my family visited tourist traps and went swimming and whatever else people do on vacation, I was curled up on the couch by the gas fireplace with a book, a blanket, and a box of tissues.  My options were to read or sleep. I chose reading. My reading options were…The Lord of the Rings, because those were the only books I had brought.

A couple of years later I tried to reread them and found that, under more normal circumstances, they were difficult to finish. I managed to reread The Fellowship of the Ring and the first couple chapters of The Two Towers before I lost patience and moved on to something else.

Was my lack of patience warranted? Was I just a too-busy teenager whose already taxed CP/AP brain couldn’t deal with another serious work of literature in her off time? Was the digital age destroying my ability to appreciate long books?

Today I discuss my third read-through of The Fellowship of the Ring, this time as an adult and a writer. Where appropriate, I make generalizations about LOTR or J.R.R. Tolkien overall, but some things are specific to Volume I.


Description

Bilbo Baggins has lived in the Shire quite comfortably since his adventure with the thirteen dwarves. But on the day Bilbo turns 111, he leaves.

He bequeaths nearly everything to his young cousin Frodo, including a mysterious ring that makes the wearer disappear. Bilbo’s old friend Gandalf the wizard cautions Frodo not to use it.

In the years that follow, Gandalf uncovers the ring’s dark secret and urges Frodo to take it from the Shire. They arrange a date and plan Frodo’s transition.

But they may be too late. Already dark figures ask about Baggins, and their horses move swifter than hairy hobbit feet.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien Paperback | Lydia Sanders #TwistyMustacheReviews

I read a paperback edition from Ballantine with a special cover featuring images from the film. As far as I know, everything else about the book is standard.

While reading along, I also listened to a basically unabridged audiobook version (I think the omissions were accidental) that included sound effects and music from the films. The audio version had some serious issues, so I really can’t recommend it in isolation, but it definitely enhanced my reading experience.

The Lord of the Rings was originally intended to be one massive book, but for business reasons, it was first published in three volumes. Volume I, The Fellowship of the Ring, was published in 1954.


Things I liked about the book


The Narrative Style

The Lord of the Rings has a closer narrative style than The Hobbit, which gives it more of a grown-up story feel. Tolkien conveys more of the thoughts, feelings, and fears of the characters. It’s also less telly. There’s more direct dramatization of events, which is part of why the books are so long. These two factors make LOTR a much more immersive reading experience than The Hobbit.

It’s also pretty easy to tell that Tolkien was a poet. Not only are several poems woven into the story, but a lot of the prose sections have a musical quality to them, especially when characters like Tom Bombadil speak. If you can read this book aloud or listen to an audio version, definitely do it. His descriptions, especially of landscapes, are gorgeous. As one note in my journal reads: “Like hiking…for imaginative lazy people.”


The World

And there’s a lot of hiking to be done. Tolkien’s world is ridiculously well-developed. Never at any point did I think “No way. That can’t exist.” He lays the groundwork for the world and even manages to tie a lot of his lore into the story in a way that makes sense.

Whereas before reading The Silmarillion, I kind of skimmed over the sections where characters told stories, now that I’ve read it, I find the lore fascinating. The way Tolkien expresses his lore and develops his world in The Fellowship of the Ring is much more engaging than The Silmarillion and much more approachable. All of the blue tags sticking out of my copy are major lore references that I want to look at more closely.

A major thing I appreciated about the world was all of the remains of past civilizations, ruins, graves, and so on.  As an American, I’m not used to being surrounded by many hundreds or thousand years of physical human history, so I tend to forget to weave that sort of thing into my writing, even when those things would make sense. When people have lived in an area for thousands of years, a lot of stuff gets built, and it doesn’t last forever in pristine condition. Tolkien does a great job of weaving in these remains, sometimes with lore and sometimes without, creating both history and mystery.


The Foreshadowing

Tolkien was a foreshadowing ninja. If you ever want a foreshadowing masterclass, definitely read this book with a pen and notebook nearby. Pay special attention to Book I, Chapter Nine: At the Sign of the Prancing Pony. He makes the right promises, and then he keeps them.


Samwise Gamgee

I freaking love Sam. He’s a stout-hearted, loyal servant and a great friend. I’d argue that there’s even a little bit of bromance in this story. His simple delight at getting to see the elves always makes me smile. If I am allowed only one fictional character crush, it’s going to be him.


Tom Bombadil

This character is weird and wacky and I love him. I also love virtually every scene he appears in—they are some of my favorites. He’s ancient and mysterious, yet whimsical and playful. He’s an enigma. He’s also completely unnecessary to the central plot, but he’s there, so you might as well enjoy him. And that brings us to the weaknesses of this book.


Weaknesses in the book

Length

The major weakness of this book is that it’s excessively long. It’s 177,227 words, and that’s just The Fellowship of the Ring! LOTR overall is about 455K. Take a moment and imagine that as a single novel.

Even that would be fine if it were necessary, but Tolkien often falls into over-description and purple prose.

The realism of the map and the sprawl of the world also mean that there are a lot more traveling adventures than would otherwise be necessary for the main plot. Rather than having the geography serve the plot, it seems like Tolkien created his geography and then filled the plot with adventures all along the way. He even adds random boring side-stories, like a section I’m dubbing “the pony epilogue” on page 203. 

Tolkien also does a lot of info-dumping. Book II, Chapter Two: The Council of Elrond is basically a giant info-dumping chapter. There’s a lot of lore and it establishes the relationships between the characters of the fellowship, but this is one instance where Tolkien got carried away with dramatization when a selective summary would have been more engaging. In other words, sometimes “Show, don’t tell” is bad advice, and there are plenty of things readers don’t need to know at all.

Slow Start

The opening of The Fellowship of the Ring is really slow. It takes years for Gandalf to discover the secret of the ring, and then months before Frodo begins to leave the Shire.  I’ve heard that this was a decision Tolkien made for thematic reasons, but as a reader, that didn’t keep me from thinking “Oh, come on! Get on with it already!”


Pacing & Volume Division Issues (*Spoilers*)

With the length of LOTR, dividing it into smaller segments makes sense. However, I think it could have been done better. With the standard division, The Fellowship of the Ring seems to drag on forever, especially after “Book II” within the volume begins.

The hobbits’ quest to take the ring to Rivendell would have been a great book plot all on its own. Add some resolution to that part of the story by allowing Frodo to appreciate his success, and you’ve already got a basic novel structure in place.

The next volume could have started with Frodo again receiving the call to adventure and realizing that his role in the drama isn’t over yet.

I’m less sure of how I would parcel up the rest of LOTR since I haven’t yet reread The Two Towers or The Return of the King, but there must be smaller arcs in there that, with some revision, could have been divided into satisfying books, right?


Bottom line

I recommend this book for fantasy lovers who are willing to take their time and get comfortable in Middle-Earth. The Fellowship of the Ring is best for adults and older children (maybe middle school and high school). For those who really want to read the book but are struggling with it, I definitely recommend an audio version.

I give The Fellowship of the Ring 5/7 twisty mustaches and look forward to reviewing the radio broadcast.


After that, I’m taking a break from Tolkien for a while.  Right now I’m the 18th person in line at my library for the BBC Radio Dramatization of The Two Towers, and I want to listen to it before I reread the book. After reading The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and this book, my tired brain needs a rest anyway. Here’s to hoping this LOTR reread doesn’t end like my last attempt. Cheers!

Have you read The Fellowship of the Ring? What did you think of it? Leave a comment below or my hairless ghost lemur will haunt your dreams.

Review of The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien | Lydia Sanders #TwistyMustacheReviews

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