The massive journey that is The Lord of the Rings officially begins. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed my deep explorations into The Hobbit, I’ve been looking forward to this leg of the adventure from the beginning. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this is my favorite novel. And that’s how I look at it, as one novel. Like Professor Tolkien, I don’t see it as the customary three parts or the six books and appendices. These are convenient naming conventions, certainly, but it’s a complete adventure in and of itself. Even building on themes and ideas presented from The Hobbit, up to and especially including the One Ring, I think this story stands on its own. If The Hobbit is the seed that sprouted Middle-Earth, then The Lord of the Rings is the trunk of the tree itself, taking into account that the mythos that Tolkien was weaving into it that would ultimately become The Silmarillion acts as both roots and branches. That’s just how I see it. Mileage may vary reader to reader and probably does. The important thing to note is that the roots and branches begin here. This is where the mythos of Middle-Earth really starts to shape itself and coalesce into something tangible. And that’s probably why I adore this story as I do. I love The Hobbit, but it left me wanting so much more. The Lord of the Rings satisfies me on a level that nothing else does. More can be added to Middle-Earth, and it has, but for me, everything that’s added just feels like bonus material. It’s sort of like with Star Wars how you have the core films, and everything else out there is just Expanded Universe. I know, I know… new canon, old canon… that’s a discussion for somewhere else, but I see through the eyes of the creator where possible. Such a thing ends a lot of turmoil and drama for me that otherwise takes over the world of fandom and just helps me to become one with the concepts as presented. And just as I don’t know everything in George Lucas’ notebooks, I certainly don’t know everything there is to know about Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. That’s what this project has been about, discovering and understanding those deeper layers, even if I’ve seen them 500 times without recognizing them for what they are.
As with The Hobbit, spoilers be damned. We’re here to discover all of it and to put into context rather than to move through this like a simple adventure story. Although you have to admit, it’s a truly wonderful romantic adventure in the classical sense of the idea. But because spoilers be damned, we can discuss the Prologue properly as it does a pretty good job of torpedoing the idea of saving the spoilers for proper reveals. For Tolkien, it’s about the journey, not the destination. The idea of any myth, which is what he’s creating for Middle-Earth, is that perhaps you already know the stories, but perhaps you don’t know how they play out in detail. That’s what he offers you, the details, as presented through the Red Book of Westmarch, which only exists in copies as the original is long since turned to dust. I get geekbumps just thinking about that very idea. Was the Red Book translated exactly as old medieval manuscripts were, or was it translated and mistranslated and re-translated as time and cultures changed hands… just as medieval transcripts were? That idea in and of itself is enough to make most people just throw their hands up in surrender, but this is the very core of what a mythos is all about. It has details that contradict. Stories evolve and become a part of the living history of a world. Middle-Earth is our own world, sometime between the beginning and the end of the book of Genesis. It’s a set of cultures so far in the past as to be an alien world, and yet there are things that stay the same because as Mark Twain once famously wrote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.” It’s that way in myths too. Anyone who has ever studied the works of Joseph Campbell knows of the Hero’s Journey as outlined in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The Hero’s Journey is the oldest, most popular myth we have. We’re still telling it today in the form of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and so many others. Tolkien told it first through Bilbo Baggins. Here he tells it in variation through Frodo, and to a lesser extent through Sam, Merry, and Pippin. If you’ve ever listened to classical music, the idea of theme and variation is a common means of expression. That Middle-Earth is created in song is not a coincidence. Music is important, which is why Tolkien reveals so much of the cultures he builds in song. This is something I paid attention to in The Hobbit, and it’s something that, thanks to the works of The Tolkien Ensemble and other such performance groups, I’ve really latched onto for this tale. For Tolkien, this is part of the spiritual quest that ties it back into his religion. “In the beginning, there was the Word…” For Tolkien, that Word is expressed musically, which is a concept I latch onto quite readily being the audiophile that I am.
The same idea seems to hold true across the world. In Hinduism, Sanskrit is the language of the gods, and the sounds hold demonstrable power measurable by our scientific instruments today, as crazy as that idea is to some. In the middle ages, which is Tolkien’s scholastic backyard, the monophonic and polyphonic compositions of music that were sung in cathedrals utilize musical frequencies that, ironically, were in place until around the time The Hobbit was published. What is The Lord of the Rings if not the story of the corruption of that music through the forging of the One Ring and its restoration? After all, if you think about it, Sauron is, like his master before him, an analog of Lucifer, jealous of the Ultimate power but not in full understanding of it, and certainly not in reverence to it. Sauron is manifest in this story as a Great Eye. He has no ears to hear. He is quite literally deaf to the truest music of Middle-Earth and sees only what he wishes to see. The music he makes is that of the foot stomping of armies and the clanging of hammers as they make the tools of war. For Tolkien, who fought in the Great War (World War I) and saw the greenery pass into black smoke and the toll it took on the average person in all walks of life, this had a lasting effect. If you look at the battlefields of Verdun, that once green forest was blasted into splinters and now resembles the surface of the moon than anything we should rightfully have on earth. That’s the inspiration for Mordor.
The same holds true of the battlefields of the Somme. War isn’t the devil, but it is in Tolkien’s mind the product of his greed… dragon-sickness writ large, if you will, to carry over the big theme of The Hobbit. If Smaug was bad, Sauron is worse on a level beyond imagination.
And this is why hobbits are so important in acting as the POV counterbalance of such forces. Of all the races of Middle-Earth — including the race of men (!) — hobbits are most like us. In writing his tales through the eyes of hobbits, we acclimate into their culture, which is similar to ours (or was when the story was conceived), and this allows us to better discover the corners of that world. We see both the wonders and the horrors through the eyes of the hobbits.
And so the book begins with Concerning Hobbits. We understand that as a rule they’re unintrusive at all levels. They’re smaller. They move silently. They have no real government to speak of so as to not intrude into the lives of even other hobbits. The crime rate is impossibly low because of this need to be unintrusive. They worry more about animals than they do each other, with the biggest crimes being petty theft (which we saw at the end of The Hobbit). It’s said outright that no hobbit has ever killed another hobbit on purpose. It’s a dubious statement at best, but it stresses the harmony of the Shire. It will also cast a larger shadow on the character of Gollum, who of course will play a bigger part in this tale.
Most importantly, hobbits play no real part in the grand scheme of the world around them. This is a big deal. Like Bullroarer Took before him, Bilbo committed the greatest of all sins when he went on his adventure, which he compounded by coming back alive. Now he stands as a reminder and perhaps even an inspiration to others,which flies in the face of hobbit sensibilities. Hobbits are somewhat clannish. They don’t trust outsiders. But it’s interesting to note that they don’t keep them out either. The east road that the dwarves use runs right through the Shire. Gandalf has certainly been known to drop in from time to time. But outsiders are viewed with suspicion, and because they do not involve themselves with them, outsiders do not involve themselves with hobbits. This is why the peace can be maintained, and why hobbits guard it jealously. I like to think of it like an Amish community. You’ll never see them interact on the world stage with the likes of the American president or the British prime minister.
Likewise, they don’t really industrialize. A line I heard from Corey Olsen once that sticks with me is that they don’t like tools that do the work for them, but they do like tools that assist in the work. As such, the most machinery you’ll see in the Shire is a forge bellows for making other tools or the water mill. It’s important to note that the since the mill is a time-saving device that does the work for everyone, the millers are looked at with suspicion. I love that. Everything’s consistent. Speaking of consistency, hobbits love books, but they don’t like books that contradict. It says so much about them, doesn’t it? Theirs is a narrow world view, and they like to be familiar with all of it, just as they don’t like to be familiar with anything outside of it. Hobbits are not naturally curious. They have an appreciation for simple knowledge and simple order.
A side note about industrialization, as that’s the big horror of Isengard and Mordor, it’s important to note that the hobbits don’t really import or export things as a general rule. I mention this because there’s a point down the road where Strider will hear of something like this, which will naturally take him by surprise. Not really a big point now, but it’s on my mind as one of those details that sticks with me.
Because they enjoy the simple things in life, the central ideas of the hobbit world deal in the things they grow and the things they consume as a result. This means food, drink, and the ever-ubiquitous pipe-weed. I can’t tell you how often people blow these things out of proportion when they encounter this story. Merry and Pippin are often considered to be stoners, and the support for this statement is a line down the road from Saruman about how the halflings’ pipe-weed has slowed Gandalf’s mind. Here’s how I interpret that. Tolkien himself loved a pipe, which is why it features heavily as part of hobbit culture. It’s simple tobacco, nothing that could be considered remotely dulling of the senses. The idea is that pipe smoking is designed as something of a meditation. It slows you down to focus only on the singular idea of smoking that pipe, which then becomes second nature. It allows you to turn off your brain, so to speak, which in turn activates your subconscious mind and allows you to process knowledge at higher speeds. For hobbits, there is no knowledge to process. They simply relax. But if you look at Gandalf or characters like Sherlock Holmes, this simple act becomes a focus of great intelligence and wisdom.
Now look at what Merry and Pippin become. They compile libraries of knowledge as the result of what they learn through their respective services to Rohan and Gondor respectively. This, of course, flies in the face of the hobbit tendency to want only books with no contradictions. As a medievalist, Professor Tolkien is very aware of how different sources contradict. The greatest influence on the medieval world, The Bible, is full of contradictions. Knowledge of The Bible contradicts. Perspectives on what it teaches contradicts. The knowledge of the world compiled by the various religious sects of the Church contradict. The sects themselves contradict as they move through individual cultures on the map. And so on. The ever-changing landscape of knowledge is reflected in books, and Tolkien’s love and appreciation for such things is reflected here, but it’s all rooted in the very simple things that life has to offer: food, drink, and pipe-weed. Is it any wonder that Tolkien saw himself as a hobbit?
As discussed way back in Chapter 5 of The Hobbit, Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum wherein he acquires the One Ring, has changed from its original version. This is because of how The Lord of the Rings evolved, as I discussed in that blog post. Since the details of a mythos can change, both versions exist in the mythos as well. There is the account Bilbo claimed first, which is reflected in the first version of The Hobbit wherein Gollum gives him the Ring, and there’s the second version that we know so well, wherein Bilbo stole it. It’s at this point that we begin to see the corruption of the Ring, for Bilbo is not the type to lie, but this pleasant fiction that he tells himself and the readers of his Red Book is how he justifies the actions that he was corrupted to take upon his very first encounter with the Ring. The Ring, keep in mind, is the full power of Sauron made manifest so that he could wring ultimate power from the mortal plane, and with his fall at the end of the Second Age, that power is neatly hidden away in preparation for the Dark Lord’s eventual return. This is Sauron’s escape clause, so to speak. The One Ring has a will of its own, and that will is to find its master. It will twist absolutely anyone or anything as a side effect of simply being near it. To touch it is to be twisted by the hand of Sauron himself. It becomes your will versus his, and it should be reminded that his is the will of a demigod. Now with this second version of Bilbo’s tale, we see that even the innocence of the most well-meaning of hobbits can be corrupted by it. It’s a little something that has to be kept in mind at all times.
With all of this in place as a solid foundation, we can begin the tale in earnest with the first chapter.
I’d like to take a moment as well to say that I’m dedicating my re-read of The Lord of the Rings this time to the late, great Sir Christopher Lee, whose thumping of the great book kept Peter Jackson as close to Tolkien as it was, regardless of how much it deviated here and there. For those not in the know, this was Lee’s favorite work, as it is mine, and he re-read it every year up to the end of his extraordinary life.
Because I can, to set the proper tone, here’s “The Rhyme of the Ring,” as performed by Sir Christopher Lee.