(there will be spoilers)
Good evening. I will now be attempting to say something new and original enough to be worthwhile about arguably the single most famous book of fiction in the world.
*tumbleweed goes by*
The best way to describe The Fellowship of the Ring is that’s it an invitation to visit the world invented by Tolkien, based on the world as he thought it should be, how he feared it might be, and the world as he knew it. It is, of course, not a direct allegory, but it is stamped with his mindset and life about as thoroughly as a piece of fiction can be. Not that understanding of all that Tolkien knew and thought is needed to appreciate this story – far from it – but if we’re looking for why to read a book that has been riffed on by countless writers, then we are looking for its idiosyncracies and quirks.
One of them is that it is really like visiting a world. Frodo’s quest takes us to many exotic places filled with interesting people, and Tolkien is determined we should know a great deal about them. Sometimes he spends too much time describing the places and history, and not enough describing the people, which I can imagine is kind the bug to some first time readers. To someone who’s already read them, skipping large chunks of text here and there is no great chore. That said, I didn’t skip all of them; sometimes, there is a real sense of place to be had out of reading his words. He doesn’t do that all the time though; the professor is famous for his detailed, dense descriptions, but they are not his only weapon. Other times, he uses briefer, more emotional descriptions (see Frodo near the mountains) that rely on us to fill in the details. I have to admit its my preferred style of his.
The depth of the lore displayed is frankly astonishing. I had it in my head that there was less of it than sometimes said in Fellowship of the Ring, with people conflating what they know from the wider lore with the book. It’s somewhat true, but only somewhat. We don’t reach back to the fall of the House of Feanor, but so much is covered through word and song.
These choices – the heavy exposition, the frequent song, the stylised prose – can be offputting. I suspect they could be offputting when he published. Tolkien is trying to create a sense of world through how he tells the story itself, one that changes halfway through. The Hobbits and the people of the surrounding lands have a folksy, fairytale-ish, homely way of seeing and expressing the world. It is only as they cross the Loudwater and reach Rivendell that they start to step out of this tale of wild adventure in the the countryside and step into the terrifying sagas of the wild. I cannot say this distinction is going to make those who don’t vibe with Tolkien’s prose any happier; all I can say is try to buy in, and look what it is rather than what it is not.
The major appeal of Tolkien’s world though is how his characters weigh people. It is not just about the triumph of good over evil. It is a place where the humble are valued, where the rejection of power that cannot be safely wielded is applauded, and love and friendship are as worthy as might and valour. This quality can go underappreciated with all the kings and wizards and what not running around with their swords, but it shouldn’t. Appreciated, embraced, it gives a warmth and comfort to proceedings. Even with the genre growing ever larger, that quality is still not particularly commonplace, particularly in books this epic and adventure focused.
Perhaps the defining moment of Fellowship of the Ring for me is when having given Pippin one of many well deserved dressing downs for being a fool of a Took, Gandalf puts him on first watch as punishment. But only an hour passes before Gandalf gets up and tells Pippin to go get some sleep. It is a moment of humanity in the darkness, the showing of the caring behind the armour we all sometimes wear.
There are numerous reasons to find flaw with this book, a few of which I have mentioned. I think there will always be with any book, doubly so for a book of that age. But for me, revisiting Tolkien’s world remains a very happy affair indeed.