Jan 23 2021

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

Well this time around — the first in at least eight years — I read the Tom Bombadil chapter, and I’m glad I did. I had gotten in the habit of skipping it, so it had lodged in my mind as both much longer — turns out the chapter is only 15 pages — and far duller than it is. (Though I still skip or at most skim the poetry and songs in LotR.) Tom’s important, though, both narratively and mythically. He’s the first character who’s unambiguously magical. Gandalf, to that point, is just a whiz with lights and fireworks, and unusually adept at blowing smoke rings. Frodo knows that Gandalf knows a lot, but doesn’t yet have the framework to reckon with a world that’s got a lot of magic in it, and precious little well-disposed toward Shirefolk. The Black Riders have been mostly an unseen menace, good with cries that carry across the miles or some odd sniffing. Frodo and friends have sense enough to avoid them from the beginning, but again don’t, can’t appreciate what they are. Tom Bombadil and the Old Forest show the four hobbits a thing or two about magic, almost without thinking, and they begin to know Middle Earth outside the friendly confines of their home fields.

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

Mythically, Tom is the thing that does not fit in Tolkien’s carefully worked out cosmology. He’s got nothing to do with Valar and Maiar and all the rest from the oldest of the Silmarils down to the latest of the Dúnedain. Tolkien worked out three Ages of the history of Middle Earth and knows where everything came from, how everything descended from the songs and the Trees and the breaking of the world this way and that. And then there’s Tom. He just is. Not part of the scheme. Not affected by the entire rest of the mythos. When Frodo puts on the Ring, Tom basically says, “Dude, stop.” And when Tom tries on the Ring himself, his reaction is one big “Meh.” If myths are like languages, then Tom is an irregular verb. There’s no reason that verb shouldn’t behave like other verbs, but it doesn’t. It just is. And that’s the sort of thing that makes an artificial language, an artfully constructed mythos, feel real. A mythology where everything fits together perfectly, where every piece has its place, will feel both incomplete and too perfect. So Tolkien gives his readers Tom Bombadil, who does not fit in, and by not fitting in helps to make Middle Earth whole.

Another thing that has struck me on this reading is the hostility of most of the natural world. From the Old Forest to Caradhras to the various unfriendly bits of wilderness that the Fellowship makes its way through, precious little of Middle Earth is welcoming, and much of it is actively hostile. I would think that the Misty Mountains would be gorgeous and majestic, and their foothills beautiful as those of the Alps or the Rockies, but Tolkien does not describe them in those terms at all. The Shire, Rivendell, and Lothlórien, and that’s about it for pleasant places.

Speaking of Tolkien and beauty, there’s no way around his equation of light colors of skin and hair with virtue. It’s just all over the place, with the main exception of Aragorn who, somewhat famously, “looks foul but feels fair” when the hobbits meet him in Bree. Tolkien’s emphasis on bloodlines, and especially on their decline stood out to me in a way that’s harder for me to gloss over now than in the past.

There’s some nice parallelism between Book One and Book Two, with the chapters “A Long Awaited Party,” “The Shadow of the Past” and “Three Is Company” corresponding to “Many Meetings,” “The Council of Elrond,” and “The Ring Goes South” (because “Nine is Company” would have been too obvious).

I found myself having more sympathy for Boromir this time around, too. At home in Gondor, he’s a big deal, people value what he has to say, he’s one of the chief captains of the realm. Once he gets to Rivendell, though, he’s overruled at every turn. Gandalf and Aragorn don’t show him the courtesy they do other members of the Company, and rebuff seemingly every suggestion he makes. No wonder he is seething! Occasionally Tolkien lays it on too thick, as when he has Boromir gnawing on his fingernails in frustration, but this time through I felt his fate (though it does not come for him in this volume, in contrast to the film version) more as tragedy than as justice for his foolishness.

The friendship between Gimli and Legolas develops more subtly than about any other relationship in the book, and I enjoyed keeping an eye out for it. The Lord of the Rings is far more about plot than character, so it was nice to see Tolkien doing some development that’s off to the side from the main story.

I also seem to consistently underestimate Tolkien’s felicity at writing page-turning adventures. The last time I read the series, I remember being surprised that I read all three within a month (with three small children and work and everything). This time through I tore through Fellowship‘s 535 pages in about three days. The Hobbit may be a bit twee, and much of the posthumous work overly mythical, but here he struck a near-perfect balance. It was good to revisit a personal touchstone and see some things slightly differently.

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