The Fellowship of the Ring

Doom-boom. Doom-boom. Doom, doom, doom. Doom-boom. It’s a quieter kind of evil, but it’s an evil that reaches throughout all Middle-earth. Tolkien proves in the first part to his Lord of the Rings trilogy (actually six books in three parts) that subtlety makes for powerful magic.

Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the Ring · J.R.R. Tolkien · 1954
Mariner, 2012 · 398 pages, paperback

Frodo inherits more than a hobbit hole and an adventuring spirit from Bilbo Baggins when he moves into Bag End. The Ring he’s left holding is cursed with dark magic, and he’s set on the quest to destroy it – far South and East into Mordor, into the heart of Sauron’s territory.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring is a textually rich novel that plays with prose and poetry alike (he even renders Elven speech in English by giving it a pleasant lilt through imperfect rhyme). Tolkien’s ability to write and write well sets his trilogy far above others in the fantasy genre: the premise never turns gimmicky, and his Middle-earth is well-endowed with its own history. He gave his characters enough human qualities that we take to them as to our own friends. He doesn’t fling his fantasy at us; he eases us into it by introducing magic with things we can understand most viscerally.

Shadows and seething streams; high winds that come first from the south, then turn and bite fiercely from the north; the sky in all its gradations of blue; light of every strength and filtration; the cast of moonshine and starlight; mists that conceal and selectively reveal – the geography of Middle-earth and the weather coursing through its regions take the place of spells and man-made enchantment.

It’s fantasy that reads in some places almost as magical realism or as dream state (what really happened on the Barrow Downs?), and sometimes it takes shape through the animation of the land.

Tolkien’s magic is born of such ordinary things: getting lost in the woods, snow that swirls until it storms…are we lost because the trees are moving? Is the blizzard chasing us and piling upon itself solely to block our way?

Tolkien uses our in-born fear of nature’s wrath to kindle magic that we cannot really see, for he often only hints at it through lore and the storied myths of Sauron’s power. We rarely see magic as it’s usually portrayed – through a wand or, in the rare instances in this novel, Gandalf’s staff. Instead we read of legends from long ago, of powerful tribes of Men, Dwarves and Elves; of age-old kingdoms; of the rings and how they were forged, given, lost and destroyed; of the one Ring, “to rule them all.”

Like his magic, Tolkien’s horrors are quiet and usually take the form of suspense. The evil that stalks Middle Earth is a low rumble and is rarely manifested outright. The few times we meet with real terror it has the effect of reminding us of the peril to come; it seems a way of making us tremble and run ourselves to exhaustion before we stop and realize that this is nothing to what lies ahead. We feel terror’s presence through the tension we didn’t know had gripped us close until, at last, it lets us rest.

And rest we do when Frodo and company rest their weary feet. Tom Bombadil’s rustic house with its flagged stone baths; Rivendell’s mountainside aeries and the green and golden tree houses, strung with silver lanterns, built high up in the Elven-land of Lórien – each asylum follows one of Tolkien’s rare crescendos into terror, and the burden of Frodo’s journey, with all its attendant evils, is put aside for a time.

Once more Tolkien employs Mother Nature to draw his enchantments, this time more delicately through its inimitable beauty, and as respite he treats our imaginations to a lighter fantasy that speaks directly to our own fondness for kinship, good food and comfortable beds.

And song.

Throughout The Fellowship of the Ring Tolkien proves himself a lyricist or at least a poet who knows his meter.

Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead,
We’ll back to home and bed.

Mist and twilight, cloud and shade,
Away shall fade! Away shall fade!
Fire and lamp, and meat and bread,
And then to bed! And then to bed!

The Hobbits’ song of adventure, not far into their journey, ends with the promise of hospitality. Bilbo’s wistful song of leave-taking in Rivendell is bittersweet, for we know Bilbo was an adventurer, too.

Humor, too, crops up in unexpected places (the greedy and loathed-by-many Sackville-Bagginses, who at last move into Bag End when Frodo leaves Hobbiton, are in many places referred to as the S-B’s).

The ebb and flow of Tolkien’s novel, coupled with his subtlety in magic, prevents the story from getting burnt out too soon, ever a good thing if two more novels are to follow.

The one point where Fellowship of the Ring loses its footing is at the Council of Elrond. What is supposed to give us the back story of the rings and of Sauron’s rise to power comes out as a convoluted series of people and place names that are neither pronounceable nor memorable. There is too much here at once for anything to last in the imagination. Much of the information comes out in later parts of the novel when Frodo and his party come to those places, and things make more sense (and feel livelier) in these instances.

The Fellowship of the Ring · J.R.R. Tolkien · 1954
Mariner, 2012 · 398 pages, paperback

The Fellowship of the Ring is the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy:

The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers
The Return of the King

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