The Fellowship of the Ring
August 7, 2016 7:20 AM - by J.R.R. TOLKIEN - Subscribe

Continuing the story begun in The Hobbit, this is the first part of Tolkien’s epic masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, featuring a striking black cover based on Tolkien’s own design, the definitive text, and a detailed map of Middle-earth. 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.
posted by Fizz (33 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
As I've grown older, I have come to see all the valid criticisms of LOTR - Tolkien's lack of female characters, the hints of racism, Sam's forelock tugging. But I still love it. I still find it powerful and, not infrequently, moving. I'm reading it with my kids again, and every time I read it, I find something new.

Middle-earth was Tolkien's life's work, and it shows.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:51 AM on August 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yup. It's problematic in several ways, and certainly high fantasy isn't everyone's cup of tea, but there's no denying it's a masterpiece. I love Fellowship so, so much. I love that the tone shifts so beautifully over the first half of the book. I gather JRRT actually began writing it as a straightforward sequel to Hobbit (as he said, "the tale grew in the telling") and as such the first couple chapters are sweet and light. As the psychic burden grows on the characters, the text becomes less fun and less playful. It's so perfectly executed, all the more so because it happened somewhat by accident.

I read the trilogy out loud to my little sister and am looking forward to reading it to my kids. I read my dad's beat-up copies from college. It's awesome to feel like I have almost a birthright to this extremely special, powerful book. I haven't read it in a few years but to say that it had been Extremely Important to me would be an understatement. I think Fellowship is my favorite of the books, just because in general I don't enjoy reading about combat and find it hard to follow, and this is the only volume in the trilogy that really doesn't get bogged down in big battle set-pieces.

Are we going to talk about Tom Bombadil?
posted by town of cats at 1:39 PM on August 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

The one part of this series, and this book in particular that has always held my attention is the sequence with Tom Bombadil. The few chapters where Tom and the hobbits encounter one another hold a special place in my heart. There's so much to enjoy with that sequence: the songs/poetry, his careless power over the Ring.

I understand why Peter Jackson made the choice to not include that particular sequence in his adaptation, but it would be lovely if someday someone found a way of adapting that sequence, a short video or an animation. I think it'd be lovely. Assuming one could gain the rights to do such a thing.

Ha. I was typing about Tom Bombadil as you posted your comment town of cats.
posted by Fizz at 1:42 PM on August 7, 2016

So to answer your question. Yes. We're going to talk about Tom Bombadil. He's my favourite character in this series. And maybe one of my favourite in all of literature.
posted by Fizz at 1:45 PM on August 7, 2016

Lol, great timing! I totally understood the rationale for PJ not including Bombadil in the film (he said pretty much that everyone spends the whole book talking about how irresistible the ring is and how bad everyone wants to wield it but somehow character after character manage to resist its awesome pull which makes Boromir look like the outlier - totally fair point! - and that they therefore wanted to remove any ring-immune characters from the plot that they could). Not only that, the narrative definitely does come to a screeching halt in Bombadil's realm and remains in weird stasis until they leave. But that's kind of why it's so great - it's so magical and so idiosyncratic and would so immediately be axed wholesale by any modern editor.

I would not count on ever seeing Tom on screen. But I don't really want to. Who could play him??
posted by town of cats at 1:52 PM on August 7, 2016

Going along with your comment that it brings the narrative to a halt, the entire sequence with Tom Bombadil is basically a pastoral novella set inside of a book of high fantasy. It does feel very out of place and it is jarring. But, I think one reason I love it, is that it lets us slow down a little bit.

If I recall correctly, the sequence just before they meet Tom Bombadil is filled with quite a bit of worry and fear, getting lost in the woods. So it's a bit of a respite for our heroes. It is also one of the last quiet moments for our adventurers for the remainder of this book, the Barrow-wights and the Nazgul are just a chapter away and once that begins, it sets in motion a mad rush of plot and story.
posted by Fizz at 2:00 PM on August 7, 2016

I just see it as such a triumph of world building. A big reason the rest of Middle Earth works is that these hobbits randomly stumble upon the isolated hidey-hole of some sort of inexplicable god-creature minutes from their front door. It establishes a sense of possibility, magic, and unpredictable parameters of existence that holds the narrative together throughout. Without Bombadil everything that follows feels a bit more earthbound. Which absolutely shows in the films.
posted by town of cats at 2:08 PM on August 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

A lot of people go on about how awful Bombadil is, but even if you don't like him, he's only in there for about a chapter.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:34 PM on August 7, 2016

who does that. who says bombadil is bad. no. that is too wrong.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:30 PM on August 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

I understand why Peter Jackson made the choice to not include that particular sequence in his adaptation, but it would be lovely if someday someone found a way of adapting that sequence, a short video or an animation.

Well, I suppose they could always bring back Pee Wee Herman for the role.

Old Man Willow: ....hello Tom.
OMW: ...nothing Tom.
OMW: ....
posted by happyroach at 9:20 PM on August 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

Weirdly after asking who could play Bombadil earlier I've been thinking Daniel Day-Lewis might be the only living actor I can imagine making a credible stab.

That one reader is leaning Day-Lewis and another is leaning Paul Reubens speaks to the impossibility of casting this role, methinks.
posted by town of cats at 11:19 PM on August 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Except you know that Hollywood, given its incredible lack of originality, would cast Johnny Depp and call it a day. Search your feelings, you know it to be true.
posted by Justinian at 2:52 AM on August 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

You'd have to dirty him up a bit, but John Hamm was born to play Tom Bombadil.
posted by whuppy at 5:24 AM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I mean who else combines gravitas and whimsy?
posted by whuppy at 5:25 AM on August 8, 2016

If people are re-reading this, one thing that might be interesting is to imagine Meriadoc as wearing little glasses. The movies make him and Pippin derpy twins, but IIRC the derp is all Pippin, and Merry is actually a pretty clever hobbit who usually has an insight or an answer to things.
posted by nom de poop at 6:23 AM on August 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

When my parents read me this book for the first time (I got a good parts version in the bathtub between kindergarten and first grade), I assumed Merry and Pippin were lady hobbits (since, of course, Merry is a girl's name). It really doesn't change anything in the book except give 5-year-old girls heroines in an otherwise girl-free AMAZING book. If you're ever reading this out loud to your kids, I recommend making that change.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:06 AM on August 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

Honestly, a younger Johnny Depp would have killed in the role. Makes me sad to think of it.

Yeah, nom de poop, I actually realized watching the movies that Pippin is always the one who screws things up. When I was reading it, it was easier to lump them together as Merryandpippin and blame them equally for hobbit shenanigans, but once they were played by two different actors it was easier to see that Merry is sensible and prudent.

Merry IS a girl's name! It took me many chapters the first time I read it to believe he was a dude. And Pippin actually sounds like a super on-trend little girl name right now too. I'll have to remember this for when i read to my kids.
posted by town of cats at 8:28 AM on August 8, 2016

These books were such a touchstone of my youth. Then when I got married, I started reading them aloud to my wife (as her father had done with her mother). We found them to be so stodgy, the prose so clumsy, the plot so stop-and-stop-and-start, that we gave up before Return of the King. Tolkein is revered for his worldbuilding, but his storytelling is all cribbed from ancient sagas and poorly executed. I know, I know, YMMV. I found Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series to be the same. It's a common trap for sci fi and fantasy, to write about ideas and have the ideas be interesting, but the actual writing be sub-par. I'm too old for that, now, y'all.
posted by rikschell at 8:46 AM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

You might also be too young for it.
posted by nom de poop at 10:03 AM on August 8, 2016

We found them to be so stodgy, the prose so clumsy, the plot so stop-and-stop-and-start...It's a common trap for sci fi and fantasy, to write about ideas and have the ideas be interesting, but the actual writing be sub-par.

What I never remember, except in the abstract, and what I am most reminded of every time I re-read The Lord of the Rings is how Tolkien grounds his prose not in broad ideas but in the quotidian physical reality his characters inhabit. Flipping to a passage early in the narrative:
Before long the wood came to a sudden end. Wide grasslands stretched before them. They now saw that they had, in fact, turned too much to the south. Away over the flats they could glimpse the low hill of Bucklebury across the River, but it was now to their left. Creeping cautiously out from the edge of the trees, they set off across the open as quickly as they could.

At first they felt afraid, away from the shelter of the wood. Far back behind them stood the high place where they had breakfasted. Frodo half expected to see the small distant figure of a horseman on the ridge dark against the sky; but there was no sign of one. The sun escaping from the breaking clouds, as it sank towards the hills they had left, was now shining brightly again. Their fear left them, though they still felt uneasy. But the land became steadily more tame and well-ordered. Soon they came into well-tended fields and meadows: there were hedges and gates and dikes for drainage. Everything seemed quiet and peaceful, just an ordinary corner of the Shire. Their spirits rose with every step. The line of the River grew nearer; and the Black Riders began to seem like phantoms of the woods now left far behind.

They passed along the edge of a huge turnip-field, and came to a stout gate. Beyond it a rutted lane ran between low well-laid hedges towards a distant clump of trees. Pippin stopped.
People can like whatever they want, and I won't say anyone is wrong to dislike the books. But in explaining why I do like them, I like to point to paragraphs like these -- not the big-idea Bombadil or the dramatic plot-moments, but the quiet lulls that, by slowing the narrative and giving it breathing room, giving those ideas and that drama a place to live in and a standard to reference.

The Fellowship isn't a few generic heroes traveling across some generic landscape; they're people traveling across a well-realized world -- not in the world-building sense that people tend to mean, of history and politics and magic and internal logic, but in the narrower sense that Tolkien's prose captures the sense of being present in the moment in a particular place. I think his prose is incredibly well crafted, and purposefully so, to the aim of creating a feeling of being alive in the world; that gives heft the story as a travelogue, and makes it work as a narrative of an actual journey and not merely a metaphorical one.

There are certainly other things to like about his writing, but that's one of the things I enjoy most.
posted by cjelli at 10:41 AM on August 8, 2016 [19 favorites]

> Merry is actually a pretty clever hobbit

nom de poop; definitely! I remember Pippin being some silly spoiled nob whereas Merry - while also kinda nobby - was much more sensible. Meriadoc also finessed some politics later on in Rohan (although Peregrin did something similar in Gondor) and, iirc, led the scouring of the Shire (?).

Pippin was also the youngest which might excuse some of his buffoonery.
posted by porpoise at 10:54 AM on August 8, 2016

I don't know about *spoiled* - Pippin does some jokey ordering around of Sam very early on, but I think that's about it. But he is definitely the one who thinks things through the least.

I think what we REALLY need is the story on what Folco Boffin and Fatty Bolger were up to during the War of the Ring.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:29 AM on August 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

No, you're right. It's mostly me being snooty. Tolkein liked to give long descriptions of the landscape, the hedges, the sky, the emptied-out countryside. And there's nothing wrong with that, and it's okay to like that kind of writing. I ate it up as a kid and find it stultifying now. I suppose I could like it again in thirty years' time. I think you hit the nail on the head that his writing style is very purposeful, and of a piece with his nostalgia for idealized agrarian society ruled by a strong hierarchy, under a divine right. As a kid, I totally bought into that vision. Today it rings very false to me.

I don't want to be a wet blanket in a thread celebrating the work, but I think there's something to re-examining our sacred texts and finding them wanting.
posted by rikschell at 1:03 PM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I too went through a period of actively disliking Tolkien. For me, it was that crush on Martin and his unfinished series. I still think Martin did a better job of worldbuilding, if more realistic politics and humans being human is considered. But I eventually decided there's a place for unabashed myth too, and there's no reason to not enjoy both.

Re-reading Fellowship at this age brings out some interesting aspects. I'm old enough that I've seen some things I love start to fall apart, and some people I love are no longer here. The travelogue portions of the book feel like an extended grieving for all that. Ruins everywhere. Places still remembered but so old that even the ruins have vanished. The world as a whole is in decay, and even if the Ring is destroyed, the decay can only be arrested but never be stopped.

I'm seeing it this way now. When I was 12 and first reading the book, the sense of history and the remnants of castles and dwarven cities was all great excuses for another glorious adventure. Interesting how time changes adventure into melancholy and regret.
posted by honestcoyote at 3:27 PM on August 8, 2016 [9 favorites]

rikschell: "I think you hit the nail on the head that his writing style is very purposeful, and of a piece with his nostalgia for idealized agrarian society ruled by a strong hierarchy, under a divine right. As a kid, I totally bought into that vision. Today it rings very false to me."

I think you need to keep in mind Tolkien's personal background in regards to his agrarian views. He grew up in an English countryside that was thereafter despoiled by industrialization and sprawl, and of course he saw nearly all of his friends killed in World War I, the war of the machine gun and poison gas. The Industrial Revolution has not been an unmitigated boon, after all, and Tolkien's longing for an (admittedly idealized) past is hardly surprising.

I also think "strong hierarchy" should be qualified a bit. Certainly, it's a semi-feudalistic world overall. But the mostly clearly ideal society to Tolkien is the Shire, which is all but ungoverned. There's a Mayor, who does little, and a police force which does less. Outside of a postal service, the Shire is near anarchic. Now, they are unknowingly being protected by outside parties, and perhaps there's a touch of fool's paradise about the Shire. But still.

Outside of the Shire, there's a more standard monarchical model. But even there, the light touch is clearly favored, and the more dictatorial and imperialistic rulers (Ar-Pharazôn being the ultimate example) are the bad guys. Now, the monarchies are still basically hereditary, and that gets into the whole unpleasantness of bloodlines and purity and such. But I think it's worth mentioning that conquering for it's own sake is not glamorized, and there's a very strong sense of noblesse oblige.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:55 AM on August 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

I would not count on ever seeing Tom on screen. But I don't really want to. Who could play him??

Conan O'Brien
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:17 PM on August 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think you hit the nail on the head that his writing style is very purposeful, and of a piece with his nostalgia for idealized agrarian society ruled by a strong hierarchy, under a divine right. As a kid, I totally bought into that vision. Today it rings very false to me.

I've read the Lord of the Rings numerous times over the years since my father first read it to me as a child, but it's been well over a decade since the last time I picked it up. I wonder how my modern distaste for the notion of royalty, income inequality or hereditary anything would affect a reread. I guess there's one way to find out!

Also, I have a feeling that Ghân-buri-Ghân may not hold up as well as my inner 8 year old would hope.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 10:44 PM on August 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I used to reread these more than once a year, but it's been a while. My recollection of Ghân-buri-Ghân is one of mystery as much as anything. Those hints of a much bigger story.
posted by idb at 9:20 AM on August 10, 2016

That was one of the many shattering parts of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
"He read The Lord of the Rings for what I’m estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and comforts since he’d first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favourite librarian had said, Here try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line “and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” and he had to stop, his head and his heart hurting too much."
posted by ChuraChura at 10:24 AM on August 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

ChuraChura, LOTR does not hold up very well when you examine the ways in which it portrays POC and women. It's unfortunately a product of its time and Tolkien's generation's way of thinking. That being said, nostalgia is a very powerful emotion. And while nostalgia and fuzzy feelings do not excuse the types of faults at the heart of these books, it does sometimes soften the blow and make it easier to read.
posted by Fizz at 1:41 PM on August 11, 2016

Middle Earth Google Maps
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:58 PM on August 18, 2016

The trilogy is showing this week in some theaters, presumably in conjunction with the upcoming Amazon series.

I haven't seen this movie in many years. It was the extended edition, so I have to say that I was expecting to have had enough at some point and wander out (I live near a theater and I have one of those passes, so it's not unheard-of for me to rewatch a movie but bail before, e.g., a boring CGI-overwhelm of a Marvel ending). But I did not. At some point around the race to the Ford of Bruinen, it gets its hooks into you and doesn't really let go. The pacing of the novels is a monumental challenge for any adaptation, and Jackson handles it much better than might be expected. I've never been fully comfortable with Elijah Wood's Frodo, but many of the other performances are strong. (In my old age I have gotten to appreciate Christopher Lee's 100% commitment to Saruman's scenery-chewing. What a prince.) And Howard Shore's score does have its cliched moments, but it's still very evocative, from that "History of the Ring" motif onwards.

The political critiques are trivially easy to generate and they have a point, but, barring some sustained vileness, I don't find political disagreement with an author, especially an older author, an impossible barrier to enjoying a work. It's probably a blessing that we didn't see more of the men of the East, though.
posted by praemunire at 8:39 AM on August 30, 2022

Also, I was read Fellowship as a kid and I too assumed Merry was a girl!!!
posted by praemunire at 8:43 AM on August 30, 2022

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