I don’t mean to be a Tolkein fanboy here, but I am tired of Twitter dorks with shallow intellects and electronic-addled minds pretending that they have anything useful to say.
To be fair, Tolkein’s influence on the genre can be a touch overrated, and can lead to people ignoring other seminal writers. I myself only discovered Robert Howard (in the sense that I actually read his work) recently. The line of “IF IT’S NOT TOLKEIN, IT’S CRAP” is satisfying but wrong. Always has been.
But if Kevin Smith deserves punishment for anything besides his half-assed film career, he deserves it for that scene in Clerks 2 where Randall trolls a nerd by saying that LOTR was just a bunch of guys walking to a volcano. That’s a funny bit, and fine for trolling nerds. But too many half-wits have decided it’s a legitimate criticism. It’s not. Reductio ad absurdum isn’t an argument, and you’re a moron if you need that explained to you.
Tolkein’s novel is a moral novel, a spiritual novel. He intended it as such. That’s not to say it’s a pure allegory, so you should slow your roll on that hermeneutic layer instead of trying to find 1-1 connections to Christian faith. But everything that happens has a moral weight, and the adventure serves that weight, and the weight elevates the adventure.
So yes, the first 100 pages of Fellowship of the Ring proceed slowly, to the point of pressing the reader’s patience. This cuts against stories like say Wheel of Time, where the Mystic Stranger arrives and immediately whisks the Protagonist(s) of Destiny off to adventure (world-building in place of plot is a sin of Robert Jordan, not Tolkein). But it makes the story better.
Frodo Baggins is the main protagonist of LOTR. The story, especially that of Fellowship, takes place largely within his point-of-view. He is, as the story tells us, the essential character. The story is about his struggle to comprehend and act against the actual Lord of the Rings, Sauron. He bears Sauron’s evil, that he may destroy it. Everything else that happens is secondary.
And when you’re working your way through The Two Towers or even Return of the King for the first time, Frodo chapters seem to terribly slow the story down. Who wouldn’t rather watch Gimli and Legolas compete for orc-deaths, watch Aragorn’s star rise in the world of Men, etc.? But when it’s all done, the fullness of Frodo’s story is the one that stays with you. You feel the tragedy of it.
So what happens during the first few chapters of Fellowship?
- Bilbo throws a big party and disappears in the middle of it by putting on his Ring.
- Bilbo sneaks away from the Shire, planning to leave forever. He struggles to leave the Ring behind.
- Gandalf warns Frodo to leave the Ring alone, but keep it safe. He then leaves and does not return for a long while.
- When Gandalf returns, he tells Frodo what the Ring is, how it must be destroyed, and how Frodo must bring the Ring to Rivendell. Gandalf cannot do it, because he fears to have it.
- Frodo sells Bag-End and aims to leave the Shire in secrecy. Setting off, he and Sam encounter a Black Rider, and Elves.
- Merry and Pippin join the journey, Frodo reveals to them the truth of his quest.
- They try to leave through the Old Forest, which is scary and strange, and are unable to get through. Tom Bombadil rescues them.
- They spend a sojourn at Tom Bombadil’s house.
After this, the plot picks up steam, with barrow-wights and Strider/Aragorn and being chased by Nazgul. I don’t think many people have many complaints about the plot from this point forward. But I argue that all of that is essential from a character point of view.
Frodo Baggins is a Hobbit, and understands very little of the world beyond Hobbiton. These early chapters demonstrate how ill-suited he is for the quest he has taken upon himself. Through and throughout Fellowship, Frodo must be rescued and protected by more powerful figures. At the end of that first volume, however, Frodo makes a significant and heroic decision to go on without them. The weight of this would be far less -insignificant, even – without what Frodo has suffered and observed in his early journeys away from Bag-End.
Plotwise, these chapters drive home to the reader the vastness of the world, the length of the journey to come, above and beyond what was experienced in The Hobbit. Each chapter is a kind of adventure, small but increasingly tense, stakes rising slowly but irrevocably, and mysteries continue to spring from behind each tree. This allows the story to build naturally, organically, rather than jumping from plot-point to plot-point.
Tom Bombadil, the oddest duck in the Tolkein universe, is the apotheosis of this. Who is he? How long has he been there? No one exactly knows. Even Gandalf is somewhat in the dark. Whining that he’s not necessary, that Aragorn could replace him in the plot, misses the point entirely. Aragorn is the Strength of Men. Tom Bombadil is the Joy of the World. Bombadil is more powerful than Aragorn, but he is also useless in the story’s struggle. There is a meaning and a lesson there. Joy cannot be made to suffer.
If you find this boring, it’s because you want the book to proceed like a Dragonlance novel, with video-game efficiency. I’m not attacking Dragonlance novels when I say that, but that isn’t what LOTR is. It’s a book with more ambition, a meditation on good and evil, and it has things to say to us. And the things it has to say make its story better as an entertainment. We feel it when we read it.
The man didn’t invent high-fantasy, and it doesn’t belong to him. But he built a high bar to jump over. You not being willing to make the jump is not his fault.