|Bag End, by Alan Lee|
Anyway, this post isn’t going to be about Galadriel or any of the events and characters from the later parts of the story, because I want to concentrate on the first portion of The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, which is one of my favourite parts of The Lord of the Rings (and by extension, I suppose, of any book). It takes up two hundred pages, the length of a short novel, and slightly more half of The Fellowship… What makes it interesting, I think, is that a modern editor, anyone penning an adaptation, or any of those wise souls who write bestselling books about how to write bestselling books would recommend cutting almost all of it.
So why is it there? What is it for?
Certainly, as the opening of a story, its pace is surprisingly slow. It starts with Bilbo’s birthday party: he disappears, heads off to Rivendell, and leaves the Ring with his heir, Frodo. SEVENTEEN YEARS pass. Then Gandalf shows up again and tells Frodo how important and dangerous the Ring is, and how it must be destroyed. Frodo agrees to take it to Rivendell so decisions can be made there about what to do with it. But instead of setting out next morning, he spends a further six months making arrangements to leave. And when he and his companions Sam and Pippin do finally get going, they amble slowly through the fields and woods of the Shire, stopping to chat to some Elves, stopping for mushrooms with Farmer Maggot, pausing at Crickhollow for hot baths and to collect Merry before heading on through the Old Forest. They are shadowed by the sinister Black Riders, but the other adventures they meet with are completely unconnected to the larger story which lies ahead. In the Old Forest they fall foul of an evil old tree, Old Man Willow: on the Barrow Downs they are captured by Barrow Wights, and from both these perils they are rescued by the intervention of Tom Bombadil, who is - what, exactly? A sort of genius loci of the countryside, I think, speaking in poetry and riddles and shacked up with Goldberry, a kind of junior river-goddess. None of these figures returns later in the book.
If that seems strange, it's probably because we’ve become used to thinking of The Lord of the Rings as a fantasy novel, and imagine that it should play by the rules of fantasy novels. (I’ve seen the sort of people who use the word 'tropes' assume that Tolkien just didn’t know what he was doing - they are the same people who think ‘BuT WhY cOuLdN’T tHeY jUsT GeT TeH EagLeS to FLY tHeM tO MoRDor?’ is a killer argument.) But The Lord of the Rings is not a fantasy novel, it's something much stranger and more personal. Tolkien's main influence, clearly, is Norse and Celtic legends, and in the central part of the book he is trying to create something which feels like a myth or legend but is told using the techniques of modern fiction. Perhaps Tom Bombadil and Goldberry are part of that too - elements of some earlier myth-cycle lingering on in Middle-earth the way strange pre-Christian symbols turn up in folk tales and Arthurian legend.
But for the most part the opening section feels much more as if an English comic novel has been blended with a thriller by John Buchan or Eric Ambler. The Black Riders (not yet identified as Ringwraiths) have a very sinister-agents-of-a-foreign-power-menacing-plucky-chaps-in-the-leafy-lanes-of-dear-old-England vibe. In other parts, it’s quite Pickwickian. There are a lot of jokes. Much affectionate fun is had at the expense of the Shire folks’ provincialism, their tendency to gossip, their love of gardening and good food, their suspicion of 'foreigners' (e.g. anybody from further away than the next village). It’s an idealised rural England, frozen at some imaginary point in the Olden Days, and Tolkien delights in creating very plausible English names for it. Whitfurrows, Stock, Pincup, Tuckborough, Michel Delving on the White Downs; there are no names on the map of the Shire which would be remotely out of place here in Devon. (There is an actual Buckland just up the road from me.) The excitement of the impending party, the clearing up afterwards, the giving away of Frodo’s belongings when he sells Bag End, all these details of village life form the soil in which the greater, more mythic story takes root.
|Tolkien's map of The Shire|
'Deep England (is) a counterpart to the French conception of la France profonde — a phrase used to refer to an idealised, authentic France, rural and traditional, in touch with history and unpolluted by the modern world of industry, progress and rationalism. Similarly, the idea of Deep England is focused on the England of the village church and the manor house, the maypole and the inn, the stone circle and the hedgerow. It is a place of stillness and peace. The landscapes of Deep England are beautiful and sometimes wild, but never overwhelming. Except in a few cases, it has never been a conscious ideology. However, it is undoubtedly there, as a powerful background for many of our artists, an unmistakeable vision of the country as something very ancient, with a distinct charm, a specific atmosphere.'
Apart from the village church, he might be describing the Shire (and he goes on to suggest, correctly I think, that Ravilious might have been a great illustrator of Tolkien's work).
There is also a feeling in Book One that the author is guiding us gently into this great work of imagining, as if the picaresque incidents in the Shire are getting us in training for what will come later. Just as the hobbits get to test out their courage in encounters with bad trees and worse wights before the Black Riders finally attack, so we as readers are shown round the smaller and more familiar parts of Tolkien’s world before he invites us into its more dramatic heartlands. The adventures on the way to Rivendell form a kind of overture, introducing us to themes which will return later on a grand scale. So the Old Forest is a budget Fangorn, and the Barrow Wights’ lair is a mini-Moria. (When the Barrow Wight is defeated it dissapates into nothingness - there was a long trailing shriek, fading away into an unguessable distance; and after that silence - the same fate that awaits both Sauron and Saruman in The Return of the King). The attack on Weathertop is the first of many dramatic sieges, which will grow bigger and bigger as the book progresses - from Moria, to Helm’s Deep, to Minas Tirith.
In between these adventures, there are always periods of rest. After the tense dash to Bucklebury Ferry there is supper at Crickhollow; after the Barrow Wights, a picnic. It’s the rhythm of a children’s story and maybe it’s the rhythm of all stories, but it also reminds me that Tolkein fought in the Great War, where each period of terror and discomfort in the forward trenches would presumably be followed by a spell behind the lines - people always point to Mordor and the Dead Marshes as echoes of Tolkein’s wartime experience, but I expect that experience echoes in subtler ways through everything he wrote.
It’s very good at building up just how big a world Middle-earth is. After the fight on Weathertop where Frodo is wounded, most writers would want to get him pretty quickly to the next big moment - the Fords of Bruinen and the final showdown with the Black Riders which forms the climax of Book One. And Tolkien does cover this ground in the space of a few pages, but he’s careful to let us know that the actual journey takes the hobbits nearly two more weeks. Middle-earth is not a fluid world he’s making up as he writes, shrinking distances or throwing up mountains to meet the requirements of plot and pace. It’s a world which existed before the story, and independently of it. Nor is it just described in visual terms, although there are vivid descriptions of the landscape as it changes from the soft hills of the Shire to the wilds beyond Bree. The Hobbits are forever noticing tumbled walls and ancient ruins:
As they went forward the hills about them steadily rose. Here and there upon heights and ridges they caught glimpses of ancient walls of stone, and the ruins of towers: they had an ominous look.
Once Strider joins their party he tells them what they’re seeing:
'Men once dwelt here, ages ago; but none remain now. They became an evil people, as legends tell, for they fell under the shadow of Angmar. But all were destroyed in the war that brought the North Kingdom to its end. But that is now so long ago that the hills have forgotten them, though a shadow still lies on the land.'
This is a not just a world with a lot of geography; it also has a lot of history, of which we are given only hints. I suppose if you've read The Silmarillion and Tolkien's other works on Middle-earth you may know all about Angmar and the North Kingdom, but I haven't, and the original readers of The Lord of the Rings couldn't have, since those books were published years later, after Tolkien's death. To them (and me) these names are just hints at a vast backstory extending deep into the past, as are Beren, Luthien, Gil-galad, Eärendil, and other characters who appear fleetingly in songs and poems which the characters recite.
Importantly, I think, the hobbits are mostly on their own during this section of the story. They may need Tom Bombadil to rescue them from a couple of scrapes, they may have Strider’s guidance for the last leg of the journey, but they are finding their own way, and reliant on their own wits and courage for much of it. Soon they will meet heroes out of legends, but by the end of Book One they have already been established as heroes themselves, ready to play their parts in the great events which are to come.
More on those, perhaps, in a future post.