Warning: this post may contain spoilers for JRR Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, being Part One of The Lord of the Rings, as well as the prequel, The Hobbit
As I said in my review of The Hobbit, during this reread I was surprised by how light that novel is; I suspect that my memory of its tone from my last reading was affected by my intermediate viewing of the movies. Or, perhaps I was merely linking it with the core Lord of the Rings books, which very quickly take on a markedly different tone from their prequel (and yes, I know that technically there is just one “book,” which was split into three parts for the convenience of readers and publishers). The implications of a darker turn are heavy throughout even the early chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, but are pivotally confirmed with the events of the chapter A Knife in the Dark.
This change in tone, and how Tolkien builds up the history of the Ring, and the slow rising return of Sauron, is perhaps one of the finest demonstrations of his true mastery over not just language and world-building, but also over storytelling. Yes, it takes about half of the book for the hobbits to even reach Rivendell, and some have called this book slow, but I disagree; I think that every word is well-placed, the descriptions are beautifully evocative, and the pacing perfect to build up the tension, which is arguably the main purpose of most of this book – to transition from the happy sanctuary of the Shire and the relative innocence of the events of Bilbo’s first adventure to the adventures of Frodo the Ring-Bearer and the dangers he faces.
I’ve heard it often said in recent years amongst authors of genre fiction that third person limited is a superior method of storytelling, especially when it comes to detailed and in-depth characterization. To this, I suggest that these persons immediately reread The Lord of the Rings, and then apologize to Tolkien, because Elrond’s Council manages to convey an enormous amount of characterization, as much as might occur in entire chapters in a limited POV, in just a paragraph or two, maybe one or two lines of dialogue for each character. Yet we are left with already a good idea of how the dynamics of the Fellowship will work.
Interestingly, I found as I was reading that my reread was actually leading me to appreciate the decisions and executions that movies make more than usual; they really are masterfully adapted pieces that stand in their own right, and where they stray from the books or omit from the books I think they stand on their own as a distinct piece of art, but that’s probably a conversation for a different post.
Despite my intimate familiarity with the plot, the events in Moria between Gandalf and the Balrog still manage to be meaningful and even surprising. After so many re-reads, it still possible to read this book and get caught up in the perspectives of the characters and Gandalf’s mystery, and even knowing how things eventually turn out, that moment continues to serve to convince that no character is safe on this adventure. Whether Tolkien intended it for this purpose or not, that scene, even more than A Knife in the Dark, is what convinces the reader just how much darker things have become in Middle Earth since the events of The Hobbit.
Yet for all the reminders of the greater challenges and dangers faced by the Fellowship, Tolkien never lets the story really become a grim tale. It is still full of sense of wonder, and for every tense moment there is another moment of relative sanctuary and safety in which both the companions and the reader can take a breath before plunging back into danger – in other words, Tolkien is also a master of pacing. Perhaps I ought to just confess yet again that I think these books are nearly a perfect expression of the storyteller’s art, even more so than Stormlight Archives, though they really should not be compared, as they are very different in almost every way.
I could go on. We could talk about the beautiful poems and songs that are a large part of what makes Tolkien’s stories so unique, and at some point we probably should. We could talk about why a soft magic system works so well for Middle Earth, though everything else is so tightly defined and explained. Still, I have at least three more posts to talk about The Lord of the Rings, so I should probably leave off waxing rhapsodically for another week, until we talk about The Two Towers. Please, read this book.