Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. (Tolkien 114)
Like most people who read J.R.R. Tolkien’s 527 page book The Fellowship of the Ring, I went in anything but blind. I had previously seen the big-screen adaptation of Fellowship’, and I had listened to an unfortunately abridged audio reading of the entire series. I have also attempted to read the Fellowship‘ in the past, but have never gotten past the council of Elrond. Finally, I have read Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which takes place some 60 years before Fellowship‘, several times, and enjoyed it very much. But it has been many years since I last picked up Fellowship’, so I thought I would try again.
One of the most immediately striking things about the book is it’s writing; both the quality of the moment-to-moment writing, and structure of the book. The book opens with a prologue, which is not itself unusual. Usually, prologues are used to set the stage for the rest of the book, and to drum up the interest of someone who is casually browsing the book. For this reason, they tend to be self-contained, and written so as to give an exciting taste of the rest of the book. And example of this is Christopher Paolini’s fantasy bestseller Eragon. Putting aside the controversial nature of the book as a whole, its prologue, “Shadow of Fear”, is a perfect example of these traits. At 4 pages, it is short enough that you can comfortably read it while standing in a bookstore. It reveals many of the important aspects of the world of Eragon, such as elves, magic, and other fantasy creatures, and it introduces a potential villain. It is action-packed, and it sets up the single plot point necessary for the rest of the book to progress.
In contrast, the prologue to Fellowship‘ is nearly 20 pages long. It begins by discussing the most important events of The Hobbit, but then diverges into such diverse topics as hobbit genealogy and ethnicities, the history of hobbits and their home-lands, the nature of hobbits, their system of dates, and their preferred type of pipe-weed. From the outset, Fellowship‘ makes itself clear that it is not so much the start of a story as it is a moment of time in a vast world, which has existed and will continue to exist. This style of writing, which prioritizes the world as a whole over the plot, continues throughout the book. It’s a very hit-or-miss style, but for me personally, it’s a big hit.
Putting aside the writing, Fellowship‘ is a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in the high-fantasy genre, or even fantasy as a whole. Tolkien’s interpretations of fantasy tropes where frequently new at the time, but have since become the norm. For example, different mythologies have involved elves for centuries, with radically different interpretation of personality and physical characteristics. However, Tolkien’s interpretation of the elf has now become the elf, and with the possible exception of Christmas elves, no other type maintains popular recognition. Indeed, Tolkien style elves have now become one of the most common fantasy tropes of all times.
Even excluding issues of influence, I simply enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring. It was an enjoyable read which went surprisingly fast, and I appreciate the depth that Tolkien put into every detail of his world. I would definitely recommend it.