Tolkien always saw The Lord of the Rings as a single, cohesive story. It was only published in three volumes due to wartime paper shortages. But, then again, it was never feasible as a single volume. At 500k+ words, The Lord of the Rings is longer than any individual book from The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, or The Stormlight Archive. So it was going to be split, one way or another. On reread, though, it occurs to me that a better split might have been into two books, not three. And I’m not about to keep my discussion of The Lord of the Rings to just one post. Today’s post will cover The Fellowship of the Ring and book I of The Two Towers. Next week’s post will cover book II of The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Lord of the Rings. A long time. Since I last reread it, Peter Jackson has turned the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings into three good movies and the one volume of The Hobbit into three awful movies. But now I have this nice shiny one volume edition and I really, really need to wash the taste of the last Hobbit movie out of my mouth, so the time has come for a reread. But, at this point, Jackson’s movies loom large in my mental construction of The Lord of the Rings, so I hope you will excuse me if I refer to them overmuch.
The Lord of the Rings start slow. Like, really slow. I can see why Jackson would want to move things along, and he did well with it. But that isn’t to say that the opening isn’t effective. Say what you will about Tom Bombadil, but it was a travesty losing the Old Forest and the Barrow-wights from the movies. They particularly work for longer format storytelling—the Old Forest sets up Fangorn, and the Barrow-wights set up the Nazgûl (and the death of the Witch-king). Tolkien serves us a healthy appetizer of heroism. Merry and Pippin, in particular, were ill-served by the movies. Heck, even Fatty Bolger gets the chance to show his mettle! Tolkien also uses the slow opening to make things feel normal. The Shire has a distinctly English pastoral feel to it.
He also uses it so that he can amp things up later. Tolkien doesn’t make heavy use of the normal tricks of the trade when it comes to pacing. He will cruise along for chapters in a time in the Shire but blow by Boromir’s death and the battle at Helm’s Deep. What Tolkien does brilliantly is to change the mood and create suspense just through subtle changes in his language. I mentioned this in my post on The Hobbit, but Tolkien really takes it up to 11 in The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien’s characters are much more heroic in the books, but they are also so much more human. Go back and read the sequence in Bree. Aragorn talks trash to Butterbur and Gandalf is his usual vain self in his letter. (Butterbur, though, is ready to go toe-to-toe with Mordor. Because that’s how people roll in Tolkien’s world.)
Aragorn, by the way, has been unfairly maligned as lacking an arc in the books. If you want to find Aragorn’s arc, look to the chapters immediately after Moria. Aragorn dithers and dickers hard after Gandalf falls. He is only able to make a choice—and then just barely—after one is forced upon him. But it is after that choice that he comes into his own. Choosing to follow Pippin and Merry—who filled the two free agent spots on the Fellowship almost by accident—instead of following Frodo and Sam because Pippin and Merry were in immediate peril is a very, very Tolkien choice. Taking the moral over the realpolitik pays when the hand of Providence is in play.
What does making the moral choice mean to Aragorn? Consider his dithering over the course of several chapters, then consider these quotes from the first time he interacts with someone outside of the Fellowship post-choice:
- “The Orcs whom we pursued took captive two of my friends. In such need a man that has no horse will go on foot, and he will not ask for leave to follow the trail. Nor will he count the heads of the enemy save with a sword.”
- “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” “As he ever has judged,” said Aragorn. “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men.”
- “Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?” “A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who will come after will make the legends of our time.”
- “The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or others,” said Aragorn. “There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.”
His choice—the right choice—made, Aragorn never looks back.
It’s hard to imagine a writer today doing what Tolkien did by devoting the entirety of the first half of The Two Towers to what’s left of the Fellowship and the second half to Frodo and Sam. But it works, especially if you split The Lord of the Ring in two. It turns Frodo and Sam’s departure into an extended cliffhanger. The end of book I from The Two Towers makes a more effective climax, and Frodo and Sam’s story a better place to pick up a new book.
You can find all of my Tolkien 101 posts here.