Tolkien Gestures Book 5: The Fellowship of the Ring

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre, after a couple of decades denying that there was any chance I could enjoy it. This week, we we dive headlong into the what is most peoples definitive Fantasy Novel, and start on the long trek to Mordor.

The whole idea of these reading lists is try and read something new; to fill in gaps my own reading and experience something different. And for all I’m new to fantasy, the one fantasy series I have read, a couple of times actually, is The Lord of the Rings. So in some ways this doesn’t belong on the list. But on the other hand, reading fantasy without reading Tolkien felt so perverse that it had to be included, and there are such changes between the three volumes that it seemed sensible to look at each one independently. So firstly, we begin at the beginning, with The Fellowship of the Ring.

The first  thing that always springs to my mind when reading Fellowship is that i always think of it as hard work compared to the later volumes, and this is certainly true on this reading. The problem, I think, is that Tolkien may have started with a good understanding of myth-cycles, of world building, and so on, certainly of language and history, but isn’t that great an actual writer. Many of the issues with Fellowship would probably have been fixed with a serious edit, or revisit, because if ever I read a book which feels like it doesn’t really know where it’s going, it’s the first half of FotR.

Sounds harsh for a book revered by millions and singlehandedly rewrote a genre? Well it’s not to say that FotR is a bad book, it’s just that it’s crippled with a lack of urgency, or sense of where it is going early on. There is a great desire to present the world to the reader – this deep, ancient, detailed world that Tolkien created – but it means that there are too many detours and not enough focus. Tom Bombadil always comes up when people talk about Fellowships weaknesses, but he’s only the most prominent culprit, worth talking about because he embodies a lot of these issues in a little bouncy easily criticised package. For a start he’s a roving Deus Ex Machina (particularly at the end of the Barrowdowns) but mostly he just doesn’t fit with the story as it develops. The early part of Fellowship suffers across the board from Frodo’s journey really being more about looking at bits of Lore that Tolkien has written for his world, so we get Bombadil, but also a little Elf-erlude, some history of Arnor and the Race of Men, and so on, and these get more weight, usually, than the actual characters and journey being undertaken. Oh and the singing. The terrible, terrible singing.

Things settle down a lot in Rivendell (though there is more singing), where you feel for the first time that the story has direction, and the pace picks up immeasurably, once everyone stops bloody talking and the Fellowship sets out to Moria…

…but not before the other flaw crops up; that despite all the detouring there is also a lot of explaining what things are, not showing. The Nazgul, for instance, are suddenly “bigged up” almost in retrospect, and certainly beyond their initial apparent threat, as is the Ring, of which terrible things are spoken, yet up to that point, not really demonstrated in the text….

…and it is here that things finally kick off. Moria has a lot of the issues of the earlier part of the book – the interludes, explanatory diversions into ancient history, but here it’s to a point, here all that lore drives the story, rather than diverting from it, and it’s a pattern that by and large continues through Lothlorion all the way to the Falls of Rauros and the books impressively dark  ending, which i think it doesn’t quite get enough credit for. It does seemingly end too abruptly with a slightly arbitrary chop, and it feels like maybe The Two Towers first chapter belongs here – as they did in the movie adaption, with good reason.

But to step back a bit I think the crux of Fellowship, the bit that sums up its strengths and weaknesses in a couple of chapters, is the Council of Elrond, for all it’s bloody talking. Moria showcases Tolkien’s ability to kick out some proper “epic”, enough lore for depth but not enough to drown the pace and drama, but Rivendell is where the story properly starts; and where the world properly expands in a relevant way, rather than as a somewhat perilous travelogue. It may be too talky, and a little daft in some places, and heavy in others, but its the place you really find the first stirrings of what makes Lord of the Rings so powerful, caught between a stodgy early slog and its dramatic downhill slide, it’s where the books really starts to show what it can become.

In the end its hard, I think, to assess FotR on it’s own merits. After all, from it’s place in time it is  such a new thing, and such a broadly ambitious thing, something whose influence towers over the genre, and more importantly, the start of a grand cycle that whilst it leaves a lot of the stuff behind, including the weaker structure and writing, in favour of action, adventure, and all that good stuff. Hopefully.

Next Up: More Tolkien, as we head into the realms of Horse Vikings and Giant Spiders, with The Two Towers.

Well I hope everyone is enjoying these columns so far. Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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