Tuesday, 15 January 2002

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

Edition: Unwin, 1978
Review number: 1040

Barring the lyrics of pop songs, the "one ring to rule them all" poem from this novel, the first part (as everyone surely knows) of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, could well claim to be the best known piece of verse written in the twentieth century. Its atmosphere is more dark and brooding than this particular novel, though it fits the trilogy as a whole very well.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo Baggins, the hero of The Hobbit, retires and leaves the Shire, passing on his home there and his possessions including the magic ring to his nephew Frodo. The wizard Gandalf re-appears some years later, his research having made him realise that this is in fact the "one ring", made by the evil Sauron to bring him dominion over Middle Earth and particularly the elves who had made the original rings of power. As Sauron has sent his sinister servants, the nine Nazgul or Ring-wraiths, into the world to seek his lost ring, Frodo is in grave danger; and so he embarks on the quest to throw the ring into the volcanic fires of Mount Doom where it was forged, the only place hot enough to destroy it and deny its power to Sauron forever.

As this trilogy has become one of the most popular series of all time, and is regarded by many as the origin of the modern fantasy genre (much of which consists, even now, of imitations), there are some obvious questions to be asked. What makes The Lord of the Rings different from its predecessors and successors? Why was this the fantasy work which caught the world's imagination?

Part of Tolkien's originality is shown by the fact that it is hard to decide just who his predecessors are. Novels which would today be considered to lie in the fantasy genre had been produced for several decades at least on both sides of the Atlantic, some of them also by strangely obsessive authors like William Morris and E.R. Eddison. American fantasy tended to be more straightforward action (like Edgar Rice Burroughs), its more whimsical side really having yet to develop; English fantasy, on the other hand, was either very obscure (Eddison) or closely imitative of late medieval romance (Morris). Tolkien wanted to produce a national mythology for the English, and his basic story elements come from more primitive sagas than Morris' sources and from fragments of existing English folklore. He also wrote in much more modern English than either Morris or Eddison, both of whom used a pseudo-medieval style. (This is probably because Tolkien's previous Middle Earth novel had been written for children, and his style is thus rather more like George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin.) Tolkien is not seeking to imitate his sources, but to derive his material from them, and this makes his work (The Silmarillion excepted) a great deal more accessible. His sense of the epic does overcome him some of the time, but this isn't particularly apparent in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Tolkien also brought in a major innovation in the genre with the unexpected hero. Instead of the central character being someone to aspire to be like, his hobbits are to be identified with. Even if not a terribly earth-shattering development, this is one of Tolkien's major legacies to the genre, and can be seen in novels as otherwise diverse as Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series, Alan Dean Foster's Spellsinger, David Eddings' Belgariad and Piers Anthony's Xanth series. (In fact, this, the medieval background and the use of magic are about the only elements that the so-called imitators of Tolkien generally have in common.)

Those who are really imitators of Tolkien rather than writers interested in the creation of an alien culture tend to miss some of the virtues of his storytelling. For example, Tolkien was well aware just how difficult and dangerous long distance travel could be in the medieval period. While in many fantasy works small groups like the fellowship of the Ring set off halfway across the world with hardly a second thought, in this novel, the journey itself is one of the off-putting elements of the quest, and on the way they meet hazards which are not in fact relevant to their quest but which are just part of travelling - the episode of the Old Forest, for example, where a short cut nearly proves fatal. (This and the episode of Tom Bombadil which follows it are among the best moments in the novel.) This kind of detail can be easily written by Tolkien because he is placing his story in a world which was created independently of his story, a process which involves far more thought than imitation.

Because it doesn't fall into the portentousness of the later novels in the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring is the best part of The Lord of the Rings. It now seems old fashioned in places (there are one or two phrases which are on the edge of racist when you consider that Middle Earth is supposed to be a portrayal of a real prehistoric Europe) and suffers from the limitations of the author's imagination (in particular, his complete inability to envisage women as playing any real part in world affairs; only Galadriel has any substance, and she is beautiful and elegant but sexless). It is still better than most of the imitators.

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