Wednesday 17 March 2021

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

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Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

The book opens with preparations for Bilbo’s birthday festivities. All are invited but few know that the party will double as a farewell. He leaves Frodo his home, and with it the ring that he found on his own great adventure. Little does he know the burden he is passing on. Before long, his old friend Gandalf discovers the truth and sends Frodo on a quest that he may never return from. Armed with the Ring, a name, and a loyal group of friends, he leaves the comfort of the Shire, stepping out into the unknown, the haunting Black Riders tracking them at every turn.

The landscapes they travel through are vividly described and can be at times a source of beauty and sustenance and at others a barren wasteland with nowhere to hide from the evil that follows them. Tolkien’s world-building is second to none, imagining worlds of comfort and grandeur that you feel you could happily step into. The forces of nature are never far away however, dramatic weather impeding their journeys while other natural barriers provide protection. The contrast between the landscapes are vast and set the tone subtly but powerfully.

Tolkien created a varied host of characters with complex desires and histories. Sam’s unwavering loyalty to Frodo is touching, and although a lot of the humour comes from the hobbits’ naivety (and obsession with food), each plays a valuable role and all put aside comfort and a quiet life to help each other and ultimately attempt to save Middle Earth from the dark power of Sauron. Interactions between members of the Fellowship feel believable as they debate the best course of action and struggle to balance their own priorities with the aims of the group.

The book is littered with small details that make the journey feel very real. Frequently there is discussion of where they will sleep, when and what they’ll eat, and how they need to eke out the sparse supplies they have. These everyday details resist the temptation to focus solely on dramatic events and the story is more fully rounded for it while avoiding being bogged down in too many unnecessary intricacies. You feel the agonising decisions and sacrifices and never forget what a gruelling journey they are on.

The Ring itself provides a point of conflict. Frodo, the Ringbearer, shoulders the burden of it yet remains pure. He innocently offers it to those he believes to be better potential carriers yet proves himself just as capable, if not more so. Those of great power fear the corrupting influence of the Ring which only goes to highlight Frodo’s great strength of will. The Fellowship vow to help him on his journey but battle against their own desire for the power it wields. Boromir particularly finds it difficult to see beyond the struggles of his own people and doubts about the possible success of Frodo’s mission. We see in him more explicitly the conflict that is more subtly hinted at in others.

The setting and characters are richly evoked, creating a realistic and complex world. Tolkien writes in the foreword of my edition that many drew parallels between Middle Earth and the war torn world he was living in. He denies the War directly impacted the trajectory of his tale, but its subject is one that can be drawn into relevance across many ages of human history. Despite its size and serious content, this is not a heavy read. It had me chuckling to myself on many occasions. There is great fun and light to be found in contrast to the darker, genuinely unsettling passages. An absorbing read that will make you want to start The Two Towers immediately.

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